Chassidis vs. Eros


Rated PG-13

Graphic by Margarita Korol

Written by Yoseph Needelman. Yoseph, a first-time Jewrotica writer, is the publisher of all Atzmos Press works, notably “Cannabis Chassidis: The Ancient and Emerging Torah of Drugs”, which may or may not have been written by him using a pseudonym, along with the upcoming “Pop Cartoon Kabala”. He lives in Jerusalem, but misses California.

The great master R’ Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, like many of the highest of the Chassidic rebbes, loved to walk through nature. The forest on the outskirts of his hometown was the place where he would take his intimate friends and most earnest of potential disciples. Once, he was walking with one of the more promising and pious of the young students of his school. They were passing a tree when the young student suddenly became ashen and nervous. The student, whose name is lost to history, tried to explain:

“This tree here… it’s not so modest.”

“Not so modest? What do you mean?”

The young student hemmed and hawed nervously before finally pointing to the tree, and elaborating, “this tree, it looks like a woman!”

Menachem Mendel looked at the young aspiring chassid, sighing and laughing all at once, and said:

“Ah! Alas! My chassidim! I’m trying to teach ’em how to look at a woman and think of a tree, and they’re lookin’ at trees and imagining women! Alas.”

There is a lot of metaphorical eroticism in Chassidut, inherited from Kabbalah – the kisses of her lips filling all the most intimate of prayers, devotions and meditations – but almost no literal eroticism.

There is a terror in chassidut of being identified with the sinful and decadent sort of practical mysticism that radical innovation in Jewish spirituality was identified with after the Sabbatean/Frankist debacles. In this permutation of Jewish spirituality, metaphors were taken for literal, the visionary eros of King Solomon’s love songs and the transgressive ambitions of the messianic prophecies were ultimately to be expressed as publicly and unapologetically as possible. That is, until the wider leadership of both Jews and Gentiles – with their political and social concerns – stepped in to quash the whole thing.

Chassidut successfully conquered Judaism only because of its unassailable caution and nuance. This secured legitimacy and trustworthiness enough to offset the ecstasy and expressiveness that made Chassidut special and exciting in the first place – and the beginning of piety is not seeming creepy.

Pleasure (תענוג’) experienced in any and every way, physically as well as spiritually/conceptually, was NOT to be devalued in this incarnation of chassidut , but instead ratified as Holy-of-Holies, a grace yet still dependent on permissibility and kashrut to be justified. Although all Kabbalah makes clear how much that pleasure is the only test of actual good, it also ratifies the danger of the unchecked and amoral as far as destroying everything good that is had.

Part of the hope and power of this form of temperance is to make the hearts of aspiring chassidim sensitive to a truer part of the social problem of the gross eros, on the same level as the finest of Buddhists: the degree to which neither the fantasy aspiration for, nor the physical experience of, the lusted-for is necessary – because of how intimately G-d’s thighs are wrapped around our whole selves.

Making love becomes more about being so present with the Beloved surrounding at every moment and place, an intimate clarity LEARNED OUT from the experience of carnal lust, as the Baal Shem Tov and all the better rebbes after him taught.

The same passion that comes so naturally when directed toward another beautiful human is reapplied to the infinitely present and inherently accessible atmosphere, with all the moral and social lessons experienced from her warmth and her hostility-neediness translated into more wisdom and conceit, digested without need from the nihilistic drama that tends to emerge from amoral competitive sexuality.

This has gone on a long time, becoming especially relevant as the functional social lesson deeply ingrained into boys. Partially to pacify the internal danger of aggressive male sexuality, the horror of liberated noble sexual sadism is contrasted with wholeness and a guarantee of sainthood for whoever could be good enough to never hurt a sister through his amorous selfishness.

This caution-lesson goes back to biblical Amnon ben David, and to a lesser degree, Shechem, the rapist of Dina. But there are those who say that the lesson is inherent in all circumcision: your pleasure cannot matter in the face of “girl’s” humanity. To the degree that humanity can’t bring itself to be honored, because of the dissonance and quiet tacit revulsion inherent in incest, adultery, perceived idolatry or “impurity”, most physical intimacy winds up forbidden.

Once one is there, in an intimacy pulled together with wholeness, concern and true attention, the lessons and experiences of divinity are so inherent that they become the standard by which all more intentional and formal experiences of divinity are established or compared. Solomon’s Song of Songs uses the best things in the world – wine, spices, breasts and kisses – to establish specifically what is NOT as wonderful as Your embrace. How could Proverbs tell us that something as real as “grace” is false, when nothing is experienced as more real? Only to provoke a groping for whatever must be more real, and present.

That said, a bunch of chassidic Torahs and stories address real human eroticism to make points about all kinds of intimate experiences in the divine storydance. I intend to write a series of essays that will raise exciting Torahs from three of my favorite of chassidic rebbes: Baal Shem Tov, R Nachman of Breslov and Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitza, and will close with a piece about the pickle of applying some of the more charged of these teachings in the context of the Torah, as well as the lives of certain important modern teachers in this lineage.

This Torah should help bridge the sensual and sensed gap between physical experience and conceptual realization that make certain kinds of right, whole, sweet, and oh-my-g-d encounters possible, everywhere and at any moment, as well as that special and rare late night when a stranger brings you somewhere unbelievable for as long as you can stand, if not forever, amen selah.

Author of Cannabis Chassidis: The Ancient and Emerging Torah of Drugs ( and the upcoming Pop Cartoon Kabala. Armchair anti-scholar of cathartic mythology, education and health, occasionally writing on these topics for Huffington Post, Jewschool, Zeek and others. Based in Jerusalem.