A close friend of mine shared with me how he
was badgered this Simchat Torah. He was thoroughly immersed
in the grand celebration of Simchat Torah – an annual
event at the conclusion of the holiday season, which is
marked by unfettered dancing and singing with wrapped Torah
But each time this friend of mine took a respite
and was seen standing on the sidelines while thousands around
him were passionately dancing, he was criticized by friends
and strangers. “Today we dance with our feet not with
our minds;” “Stop analyzing, and join the celebration;”
“Don’t be so rational;” “Enough
talking. Start dancing” – were among the critical
comments hurled at him.
Clearly, this man has an image problem. His
peers consider him an intellectual – a maskil
– a term used in Chassidic lingo to depict a powerful mind.
But it can also be used derogatively, to describe a cold
and even arrogant intellectual, who lives in his head and
doesn’t allow himself to let go and experience emotional
sensitivity. At its worst, Maskil or the plural
maskilim is also the name for the “enlightened”
ones, referring to the Haskalah, an intellectual movement
which sprung up in Europe during the 18th and
19th centuries, that tried, and in many cases
succeeded, to assimilate Jews into the secular culture of
the Western world.
Chassidic thought distinguishes between a
maskil and an oved, an intellectual
and a “server,” one who puts greater emphasis
on serving G-d, laboring to refine his/her character and
perfect his/her behavior. It is insufficient to just intellectualize,
conceptualize and philosophize; one needs to always apply
every concept into personal and practical change. A maskil
without avodah is frowned upon. Intellect
is even considered to be a force that conceals the pure,
unadulterated nature of the Divine.
My friend bemoaned the fact that he was being
accused of being a maskil. He felt misunderstood.
One person, he tells me, ironically spent 20 minutes philosophizing
why philosophy is inadequate…
So the question is: Can a maskil
dance? Can an intellectual release?
On a broader scale the issue is the role of
intellect in the search for truth. On one hand, a discerning
mind is necessary to transcend ignorant or emotional subjectivity
and find objective truth. On the other hand, intellect can
indeed be a force that distorts the search for truth. Intellectuals
are not necessarily free of ego and self interest. And when
the intellect is employed as a tool as the subjective ego
it becomes a formidable enemy, one masked by “intellectual”
arguments. Is there any arrogance greater than intellectual
This only amplifies the question whether a
maskil can get beyond the limits of intellect
and experience the innocence of free abandon? How can intellect
avoid worshiping itself?
The surprising answer, which I shared with
my friend, lies in understanding the true nature of intellect.
The nature of existence can be perceived
in two ways. The most common perspective is a dichotomous
one. According to this viewpoint, the universe and the tools
with which we experience the universe, is comprised of different,
fragmented, elements. We use our minds to analyze, process
and comprehend, while our hearts feel, emote and experience.
We have emotional impulses and instincts, balanced (hopefully)
by our reflective minds. This of course includes many conflicts
within our psyches – the quintessential battle between
mind and heart or between faith and reason, among others.
The second perspective is a unified or integrated
one. All of existence, and all our faculties, are different
expressions of one deeper reality. This point of view is
fundamentally and qualitatively different than the fragmented
Needless to say, the Torah perspective –
as elaborated upon in Chasidic teachings – is at its
core unified by “Hashem Echod:” All aspects
of existence are manifestations of one Divine Reality.
One of the radical implications of this unified
perspective is that true intellect – haskalah
– is at its core not really intellect. Rather it is just
another form of Divine energy.
Unified G-dliness can manifest itself in many
different ways – in feelings, in character refinement,
in song and dance, and yes – in the mind.
The ultimate purpose, according to Chassidic
teachings, is not to be smart and profound, but to be G-dly.
Just as the point of being sensitive, refined and action
oriented is not an end in itself but to be G-dly.
It’s about taking all your faculties – mind,
heart, arms, legs, and everything in between – and recognizing
that they are, each in their own way, but mere manifestations
of one Higher Reality.
In other words, when one conceptualizes and
arrives at various conclusions, including an understanding
of the Divine, its not that the mind is knowing G-d. But
the other way around: G-dliness is manifesting in intelligence.
And this is ultimately what the unbridled
dance of Simchat Torah is meant to release. The mind, as
all our faculties, but especially the mind with its own
self-worshiping paradox, can become trapped by its own parameters.
Uninhibited dancing with the Divine Torah – not studying
it, but wrapped up – allows us all to transcend our
But the purpose is not to become illiterate
or anti-intellectual. Rather, to recognize that intellect
itself is non-intellectual, better – supra-intellectual,
a force that expresses the Divine way of thinking.
The mind on its own, left to our fragmented
human resources can be a great trap that blocks us from
experiencing the ultimate reality. Mind games masking the
need for control, intellectual arrogance hiding insecurity,
philosophy justifying unaccountable self indulgence, are
just some of the forms that intellectual self worship takes
But the mind is not off limits to G-d. Indeed,
the mind and all its complexity is very much part of existence
reflecting the Divine “mind” and design.
Through the bittul (the selfless
suspension of ego) of the Simchat Torah dance one can reach
the second ultimate perspective, in which the mind does
not worship itself, but recognizes how it reflects the Highest
So, as I told my friend, there’s a maskil
and there’s a maskil. The former one can indeed
be arrogant and unable to let go in dance. The latter sees
his intellect as just another form of the Divine dance.
Its up to you to choose which maskil you will
Now, there’s a bit of haskalah
to chew upon…