By Leibel Gniwisch, Brooklyn, NY
First Place Winner of MyLife: Chassidus Applied 2018
Upon perusing the current psychological and self-help landscape, one will recurrently encounter mentions of authenticity and vulnerability. One can say they’ve become buzzwords of late. This essay will attempt to define the oft-misunderstood term, examine its objective value through the lens of Chassidus and psychology, understand its scarcity in our culture and discuss possible solutions for its implementation. This is by no means an exhaustive essay, as so much can be discussed on the topic.
The main Chassidic sources consulted will be the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s interpretation on Avos 1:6, “Make for yourself a mentor; acquire for yourself a friend,” and the Ba’al Shem Tov’s opinion on the intrinsic value of the Jew.
What is Vulnerability?
Often, upon hearing the term vulnerability, people mistakenly assume it refers is to “letting it all out” and oppose it on the grounds of privacy. It seems a fair argument. It would appear to be irrational to reveal one’s intimate affairs to a Facebook group for example, or a stranger.
Dr. Brené Brown Ph.d. has researched vulnerability for 15 years and has written 5 books on the subject. In her book “Daring Greatly,” she looks at some of the myths one might believe about the topic, explains vulnerability’s true definition and devises methods for its application. First, this essay will summarize her findings with great succinctness, then, it will attempt to provide an entirely new depth with a discussion on the contributions of Chassidus.
To properly define vulnerability, Dr. Brown first introduces her readers to the emotion it is meant to combat—shame. Shame, she posits is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”(1) Shame is fear of disconnection. A man with a storied past might say, “If my wife only knew I was a recovering addict, she wouldn’t look at me the same anymore.”
Vulnerability means the courage to be oneself completely. This leaves one exposed to risk and uncertainty, because there is a chance that “he may not like the real me!” Hence the term vulnerable which in its origin is defined “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.”(2)
If one elects to live vulnerably, he or she cannot allow shame to exert its control. Knowing this one’s task, two consequences emerge: First, after enduring a shameful experience, one must speak with herself with kindness and affirmation just as she speaks with someone she loves. It is imperative that one confirm his or her unconditional value by saying, “I’m enough. My value doesn’t depend on my actions or lack thereof.”
Second, when self-talk is insufficient, it becomes necessary to reach out for empathy. This refers to the sharing of one’s shameful experience with an individual who has earned their trust. Instead of judging, this close friend, family member or mentor will eliminate the negative self-perception by empathizing with the person. They may say, “we all mess up sometimes,” or the like, allowing him or her to recognize that they are not less lovable as a result.
(This is not to be confused with guilt, the feeling of remorse for a wrongdoing which is necessary to promote positive change. While guilt says, “I have failed,” shame conveys, “I am a failure.”)
Why Should I Be Vulnerable?
Now that Dr. Brené Brown’s definition of vulnerability has been outlined, one may inquire as to the benefits of living a life where this trait is present. In addition, and this is especially important, the perspective of Torah in general and Chassidus in particular needs to be examined to determine if vulnerability has a place in its weltanschauung.
(Furthermore, despite its crucial message and useful strategies, the book is missing something. Dr. Brown enjoins us to see ourselves as “enough,” but declines to provide a reason why a person ought to believe so. Can’t a person simply conclude, “Hey, maybe I’m just a natural failure”? Chassidus offers a compelling argument conferring value on all G–d’s creatures. This will be discussed below under the heading Education.)
In her research, Dr. Brown discovered a causal relationship between shame (and the lack of vulnerability) and substance abuse. After interviewing a considerable sum of people and consulting with mental health professionals, she concluded “[T]he primary driver of numbing would be our struggles with worthiness and shame: We numb the pain that comes from feeling inadequate and ‘less than.’”(3)
Vulnerability and the correspondent courage has also been seen to lead to greater creativity,(4) fuller experiences, contentment, joy and emotional equilibrium.(5)
Chassidus offers a deeper rationale for living authentically. These can be split into the two well-known relationships: the human–G–d and the interpersonal.(6)
Hashem fashioned the world with the desire to “Dwell within the lower realms.”(7) The Lubavitcher Rebbe describes the indwelling as occurring mainly “in Jewish souls. The Jewish soul-collective (kneses yisroel) must be an abode for Hashem.”(8)
In order for the residence to be complete, the Jew must be present wholly and completely before his creator. She must allow the Almighty into all the crevices of her being, even those she sees as lowly.(9)
This is further supported by the verse, “You shall be wholehearted with the Lord your G–d.”(10) The purpose of creation demands that one appear undividedly before Him, recognizing that one’s imperfections are part of the totality of his being where G–d chooses to lodge.
This is achieved by a heightened sense of self-acceptance and vulnerability. “I’m here, Hashem,” he says. “Imperfect, flawed and full of mistakes, but present in full.”
Commenting on the phenomena of the burning bush, one of the Chassidic masters(11) observe that one can sometimes pray with fervor, but fail to eliminate his thorns. It remains possible that the passion of her prayers does not succeed in consuming her deficiencies. Even then G–d says “You are standing on holy ground.” People tend to see their flaws as unacceptable, but in truth they too have a place before G–d.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe(12) maintains as well, that it is specifically the difficult moments that brings one closer to G–d. He said, “When Hashem wants someone to reach His Essence (atzmus)…He gives him or her a circumstance that seems to have nothing advantageous. One’s situation can appear to further remove him or her from divine service and prayer…It takes but one mitzvah, however, to experience G–d’s essence.”
(That is not to say that one should forever refrain from self-refinement. True growth, however, needs to come from a place of wholesomeness)
Vulnerability is also valued by Torah in the relationships one has with others.
Yehoshua Ben Perachya(13) summons the student to “Make for [himself] a mentor and acquire for [himself] a friend.” This can be seen as the sages’ demand for open communication with people we trust. Although “mentor” in the Mishnah can be understood as a mere halachic advisor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe stressed on many occasions(14) that this enjoins us to find spiritual counsel as well.
According to the Rebbe,(15) the role of the mentor is not to offer magical solutions as much as it is guiding a person towards self-discovery. When one opens oneself up to a mashpia (mentor), the mashpia can offer a fresh and wise perspective, opening up new vistas for the mekabel (recipient). This can function only where vulnerability is present.(16)
The friend’s task is slightly different. More than offering guidance, the chaver (friend) acts as a source of empathy allowing one to see himself with unconditional value. As mentioned above, when one is vulnerable with her confidant and reveals a flaw, her friend will reassure her that she is still loved.
The colleague will benefit from this exchange too. Recognizing the absolute worth with which he considers his companion, the friend then becomes trained on how to see himself—with love and acceptance.(17)
In summation, while modern psychology only provides us with the technical benefits of vulnerability (with which Torah concurs, as seen under the title “interpersonal”), Chassidus notifies us that its value is tied to the very purpose of existence!
But It’s Hard to be Vulnerable!
It does often seem that revealing one’s failings to others makes them accord you with less admiration. In addition, bucking the trend is always a challenge. How can one be vulnerable if his or her friends will consider it strange?
I want to emphasise this phenomenon particularly as it pertains to Chabad bochurim (a demographic I am a proud part of). In my experience, the need to maintain a certain image, to fit into a specific persona, is common. This leads to frequent incidences of low self-image and the possibility of relinquishing chassidishkeit altogether.(18)
I strongly believe that reclaiming vulnerability and giving our youth the tools to serve Hashem from a place of courage and self-acceptance, is essential to our continued success.
In the following paragraphs, possible causes will be outlined, and achievable solutions, inspired by Chassidus, conveyed.
Dr. Brown understands that it is cultural norms and expectations that lead to the dearth of vulnerability in society. She cites for example(19) the reality that “[M]en live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not be perceived as weak,” or women “Are expected to be perfect, yet [they’re] not allowed to look as if [they’re] working for it.”
Besides the standards equal to all societies as enumerated by Dr. Brown, there are some prevalent uniquely in our orthodox communities. Fortunately, Chassidus offers some fascinating remedies to all of the above by showing that a number of those expectations stem from misconceptions.
A veteran mashpia recently disclosed that he spends a large part of the academic year “addressing some wrong impressions students might have about Judaism in general and Chassidus in particular.”
Often, our culture will communicate explicitly or otherwise that one’s value is conferred upon them based on their observance. This leads one to be ashamed (not just “guilty”) upon failing to observe a mitzvah or transgressing a sin. One will frequently refrain from disclosing this information to anyone out of fear that their value will be decreased in the eyes of the listener.
This is not to say that one ought to ignore those instances or move on with an air of casualness upon committing such an infraction. Guilt and remorse are part and parcel of our faith, and Jewish literature is replete with mentions of confession, repentance and even guilt-offerings (korban asham). The misconception is borne, however, when one ties their intrinsic value and ability to be accepted and loved, to observance.
Chassidus holds a contrary position.
Rabbi Yisroel Ba’al Shem Tov revolutionized the Jewish world during the 17th century with his innovative teachings and unique perspective on Jews and the creator. One of his most fundamental ideas is based on a conversation recorded in Tana Devei Eliyahu.(20) Elijah the prophet met a man who conceded, “I love both Jews and the Torah but I don’t know which came first!” And while the prophet admitted that “the world holds Torah precedes the Jew,” he was of the opinion, however, that “Jews came before Torah.”
The precedence in question is not that of time (for how can the Torah, which holds instructions for the Jew, come after him?(21)) but of priority. The Ba’al Shem Tov understood that a Jew’s value is not dependant on his or her fulfillment of the Torah! The Jew is essentially valuable, he or she precedes Torah; the Torah is there for them.
(That’s not to say that mitzvos aren’t important, G–d forbid. While this remains the topic of another discussion, the answer in short order is that we need mitzvos in order for our relationship to be experienced. See Sefer Hama’amarim Rana”t page 13)
The consequences are huge. I am lovable because the creator of all things loves me; I am needed because He would not have created me if I wasn’t; I am enough because my value transcends all labels and criteria.
Trust is another impediment to vulnerability. How does one know whether he or she can expose their friend to a particular topic? The foundation of being open is trust that the recipient will keep the information absolutely confidential.
Addressing this question, Dr. Brown uses the analogy of a marble jar.(22) Each time a friend shows us they care, a proverbial marble goes into the jar. Trust is a process. Only once one has determined that a colleague is trustworthy should he be vulnerable with them.
Ok, Let’s Talk About What I Can Do
Because this begins the instructional, “applied” piece of the essay, a change from the third-person academic pronouns to the first-person “you,” seems appropriate.
As a Parent or Educator
Harbor high expectations for your charges but let them be imperfect. If your child or student stumbles, lift them up, hug them and assure them of their continued belovedness. Only emphasize that their behavior was unacceptable. If a child tells a lie, she can change that behavior. If she is a liar—where’s the potential for change in that?(23)
In instances where it is necessary, focus on cultivating guilt instead of shame. This way, the child learns clear direction and morals without compromising his essential value.
Teach of G–d’s acceptance more than His rejection. Speak of disappointment more often than anger, of purity and beauty more frequently than contamination.
(While these descriptions do exist, choosing what to emphasize can make all the difference in a child’s perception of Hashem and herself.)
As an Individual
Practice vulnerability in both attitude and action. Remind yourself of your essential value and speak with yourself as you would a loved one.
When a friend approaches you and relates that she “messed up” and feels horrible, how do you respond? Hopefully you reassure her of her essential value and remind her that everyone messes up sometimes. This becomes the barometer of how we ought to treat ourselves.
The other day as I suffered through a flu, my mind wandered of its own accord to thoughts of recognition. “Hey, maybe this flu will get so bad and I’ll be brought to the hospital. Then people will be sending WhatsApps letting them know that Tehillim should be said for me.” The next moment was a barrage of disparaging comments. “What are you thinking? You egocentric crazy person!” Then I remembered vulnerability. “Yes. I have an animal soul that loves recognition. These thoughts are no different than other foreign thoughts that may creep up into my psyche which I have to push away.”
Open up to a mashpia today. Find someone you trust will keep your correspondence confidential and can offer a deeper perspective that you may not have had yourself.
The personal feeling of the author is that one of the functions of the Farbrengen in its pristine state was as a space for vulnerability.(24) Today, when young men or women get together, the procedure is often that two or three individuals share a thought they learned on that week’s parasha, a chassidic melody or two is sung and the conversation quickly turns to mundane matters.
It would be wonderful if this changed. I believe that the real function of imbibing vodka and saying “Lechaim” was to make it easier to be open and discuss a struggle one may have been going through. So sit down with friends whose marble jars are full (i.e. you know they care and are trustworthy), say “Lechaim” and allow the layers to be stripped away; remove that mask and let the authentic you breathe.
Chaim Yonah: Privacy vs. Secrecy
I’d like to conclude with a story.(25)
A delicate hush descended over the assembled Chassidim. The compact crowd breathed in unison and a single floorboard creaked under one man’s shifted weight. Displaying confidence amidst his timidity, Chaim Yonah elbowed his way through the people and gingerly approached the long wooden table. A soft and powerful voice rang out and a collective sigh ran through the tight space; the Chassidim stood at ease. The voice assumed the cadence associated with the Maamer; a deep and demanding tone, that pierces complacency and insists on holy urgency. When the Maamer was finished, the disciples sat down to digest the transcendent words with the help of some herring and vodka.
“Gershon! Nu? We saw something quite different tonight!” said one Chossid. They called him der roiter; his hair was a flaming red.
Gershon’s voice dropped to a whisper. “To be expected. The Rebbe’s son wasn’t in attendance this week. For a moment I was afraid there would be no Maamer!”
Der roiter tugged at his beard; a strand drifted peacefully into the herring. “That would have been a travesty! I remain just a little uncertain as to the connection between the two. Remember, this is only my second trip to Lubavitch. Can you explain?”
“The Rebbe Rashab chooses one Chossid who the Rebbe will stare at throughout the course of the discourse. Usually, the candidate is Reb Yosef Yitzchok, his son.”
“Ah. Everyone was waiting for someone to sit in front of the Rebbe!” Der roiter scanned the shul. “Ah! There he goes! The brave one, Chaim Yonah! How did he manage to do what no one else was willing to?”
A nigun began at the table disrupting their quiet correspondence. The slow medley reached its crescendo, repeated its second stanza again and ceased to exist. Audibly, that is, for a nigun lasts forever in the hearts of those she inspired. The evening turned to night and the discussion sauntered on. As the sun peeked over the city of brotherly love, the Chassidim came to a conclusion. Chaim Yonah was different than them all. Chaim Yonah could sit in front of the Rebbe while his holy gaze looked through him. Chaim Yonah had no secrets.
Secrets. One should not have secrets which he keeps from his mashpia. There ought to be someone in one’s life that knows them all.
This is different from privacy. What sets them apart? A secret is something that upon its divulgence, one’s image becomes marred by it. A sin he committed, a debilitating character flaw. Those, one should discuss with his or her mashpia. Private things are those that won’t detract from one’s conception in the eyes of others. Does the fact that one visits the washroom or converses with his wife about a personal matter mean he’s less than? Those are matters better left private.
G–d be with you.
Leibel Gniwisch grew up in Montreal and studied in the local Tomchei Temimim. As a bochur he learnt in various Chabad institutions in Canada, the US and Argentina. Leibel is passionate about education and has spent many summers as a learning teacher in Camp Gan Yisroel hoping to impart his talmidim with a love of Torah and Yiddishkeit. He spent a year as a bochur shliach in Tzeirei Hashluchim in Tzfas and was a Maggid Shiur Chassidus in the Lubavitch Mesivta in Pittsburgh. Leibel is now a proud middle school rebbi in Lamplighters Yeshivah in Crown Heights where he teaches Mishna and Halacha and hopes to continue spreading the warmth of Chassidus and the light of Torah wherever he goes.
“The richness and glow of Chassidus is so wonderful. The challenge is to discover a method of teaching that provides a really practical message which inspires one’s students to live invigorated. Our task as the next generation of educators and leaders is to truly bring Chassidus to chatzi kador hatachton that our children be informed by its message and influenced by its beauty.
“As a shliach and Magid Shiur in yeshivos, I noticed a pattern where bochurim struggled with self-image and self-acceptance. This attitude built big steel barriers between them and their peers, their mashpiim and, ultimately, themselves. Boruch Hashem there are so many exceptional teachers in our community who truly “get” Chassidus and have the ability to impart its complexities in an authentic yet pragmatic fashion. (These great scholars don’t receive adequate exposure! Among my inspirations are Rabbis Shais Taub, Yossi and Simon Jacobson, Osher Farkash, Manis Friedman, Yossi Paltiel, Zalman Kaplan and Meir Chaim Posner.) It was in conversation with them that the seeds of these ideas were developed and what inspired me to write. I hope to continue translating Chassidus into the language of today and be meifitz its wellsprings chutza.”
Footnotes and Sources
1 Daring Greatly p.69
2 Merriam-Webster Dictionary
3 Daring Greatly pg.138
4 An artist might say, “Maybe they won’t like my painting!” Being vulnerable, however, will lead her to exclaim, “I’ll be courageously me, nonetheless and reveal my art to the world!”
5 In her groundbreaking 2006 research paper, Dr. Brown refers to more than 10 studies on the matter: (Balcom, Lee, & Tager, 1995; Dearing, Stuewig, & Tangney, 2005; Hartling, Rosen, Walker, & Jordan, 2000; Jordan, 1989; Kalafat & Lester, 2000; Lester, 1997; Mason, 1991; Nathanson, 1997; Sabatino, 1999; Talbot, 1995; Tangney & Dearing, 2002).
6 See Talmud Yoma 86b . בין אדם לחבירו and בין אדם למקום
7 Midrash Tanchuma, Bamidbar 16. See Tanya 36.
8 Lekutei Sichos 16 pg. 477 quoting Hemshech 5666 pg. 468 דער )פנימיות ה(ענין פון דער דירה לו ית’ איז ״דוקא לדור ולשכון בנש״י שיהיו כנס״י מכון לשבתו ית’ כו׳״ See Basi Legani 5730, 7 and Basi Legani 5737 note ט”ו
9 See Lekutei Sichos 15 pg. 140 . די עבודה דארף זיין )בעיקר( אין ענינים תחתונים…בנוגע אידן –” “בתחתונים
10ָ יך ֶ הֹ לֱ ה א ָ הו ְ ם י ִ ה ע ֶ יְ הִ ים תּ ִ מָ .תּ Although the literal interpretation is simply to avoid divination and wizardry, the Chassidic masters were wont to translate “tomim” as simplicity and wholeness. See Sichos Kodesh 5737 pg. 666. See also Mei Hashiloach 1, Shoftim 12; Kedushas Levi Vayikra, Drush Lepesach 1.
11 Degel Machane Ephraim, Shemos 9
12 In an emotional talk delivered on Purim 5715, Toras Menachem Hisvaaduyos 5715:1, pg. 321
13 2nd cent. BCE Mishnaic scholar. Pirkei Avot 1:6
14 See e.g. Sichos Kodesh 5746, Parshas Devarim; Sefer Hasichos 5747 pg. 48
15 See Hayom Yom 17 Iyar; 2 Elul. See Rebbe (Telushkin, 2014, pg. 209) [T]he Rebbe…responded, “…[M]y Rebbe was the geologist of the soul…if you don’t know where to dig, you’ll only find dirt and rocks and mud. The Rebbe can tell you where to dig, and what to dig for, but the digging you must do for yourself.”
16 The Rebbe Rashab once dictated that Chassidim share “all that weighs on their hearts ( )נגעי לבבו ” with their mentors. Toras Sholom, Simchas Torah 5666.
17 This is, of course, in addition to the benefit of having two G–dly souls scheme against just one animal soul. See Hayom Yom 20 Teves.
18 Rabbi Yossi Paltiel, a well-respected mentor with hundreds of conversations with said bochurim under his belt, once shared with me that he’s found with high frequency amongst younger bochurim “a drive to become perfect (a chassidisher bochur).” Often, they will fail (“Who’s perfect, after all?”) and proceed to lead religious lives devoid of that youthful fervor. “They’ve forgotten that that image isn’t the real thing! They’ve forgotten about avodah!”
19 Daring Greatly pg. 92
20 Chapter 14 (in some versions, chapter 15). Recorded across Chabad Chassidus. See Lekutei Sichos 34, pg. 222, and note 48 for references.
22 Daring Greatly pg. 47
23 Daring Greatly pg. 224
24 I refer specifically to the צווישן זיך style of farbrengen as opposed to the Rebbe’s farbrengens and at least the beginning of the elder Chossid/mashpia version.
25 Heard from Rabbi Meir Chaim Posner