I spent a lot of the day feeling down and vaguely depressed (not really in the clinical sense). Out walking, I gave way to depressive thoughts about politics and the state of the world, COVID and Afghanistan. On the one hand, who would have thought two years ago that the most divisive political question of the age would be, not Trump or Brexit, but vaccinations? And who would have thought the ending of the perpetual war in Afghanistan would be the source of so much misery? The latter bringing back comparisons with Vietnam.

I had a whole tirade in my head about Vietnam, Robert McNamara and technocratic government (the RAND Corporation etc.) and mission creep arguing against technocracy and big government versus COVID and vaccines arguing for it. I won’t go into the whole thing, as I suspect it’s not that coherent now I can set it out in black and white.

Suffice to say that I feel we’re in a double bind, morally bound to try to intervene in the world to improve it, but intellectually unable to do so in a safe and successful way (Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit,” the mistake belief that limited human intelligence and knowledge can change the world for the better). I am cursed to have the ethics of a moderate liberal and the intellect of a Burkean conservative: I think we should make the world better, but I don’t believe we have the ability to do so, except in incremental ways.

Anyway, I can’t work out if I’m vaguely depressed because the world is depressing, or I feel the world is depressing because I’m vaguely depressed. If the latter, why am I depressed (again, not in the clinical sense)? Am I just stressed after a difficult fortnight at work and looming religious festivals?

***

Other than that, I emailed the Maudsley Hospital to try to find out about my referral for autism-adapted CBT. (If anything is an argument in favour of Hayek and against technocracy, it’s NHS bureaucracy.) I wrote my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, unusually before reading the sedra (Torah portion), as the idea for what to write hit me suddenly on Friday night. I’d like to write one for next week this week too, as next Tuesday and Wednesday, when I usually write, will be Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). However, I’m now working over the next two days (which is a whole story in itself, but I’m too tired now), so I’m not sure how I’ll fit it in.

I tried to go to an online discussion on Sefaria’s YouTube channel, where Dr Erica Brown was talking about her book for this time of the Jewish year, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, which I recently purchased. The discussion was marred by connection problems (at the speakers’ end) and after a quarter of an hour, it suddenly stopped, apparently abandoned by Sefaria, which was disappointing. They have apparently now recorded the interview and posted it as an ordinary YouTube video, so I’ll have to try to watch that at some point.

In the evening I Skyped E and had a discussion with my parents about some family stuff that is not for here. I feel vaguely anxious again, not quite as bad as I used to feel on Sunday evenings when I was at school, when I was dreading the week ahead, but was not sufficiently in touch with my emotions to realise that I felt like that, but still apprehensive of the week ahead.

***

I had been looking for a particular quote recently and suddenly came across it last week and wanted to blog it, but hadn’t had the chance. The quote is from the nineteenth century Hasidic rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (the Kotzker Rebbe), but he is elucidating a passage in the Talmud. The Talmud (Megillah 6b) says, “Rabbi Yitzḥak said in the style of a previous passage: If a person says to you: I have labored and not found success, do not believe him. Similarly, if he says to you: I have not labored but nevertheless I have found success, do not believe him. If, however, he says to you: I have labored and I have found success, believe him.” (Translation from sefaria.org; bold indicates words literally in the original, ordinary font indicates words added in translation to elucidate). This passage raises a question, assuming we are talking about success in religious life (faith and Torah knowledge), as some people do genuinely search for God and Torah and not find them, and the Talmud seems to blame them for not trying hard enough.

The Kotzker says, “If you have laboured, even if you have not found, do not believe that you have not found. For the moments of labouring, they are the moments of finding. The search for knowledge, it itself is knowledge.” (The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk edited Simcha Raz p.119) This opens the door to the concept of those who are ‘unconsciously religious,’ who live meaningful lives outside of organised religion or belief, yet touching on the transcendent and the kind. Moreover, it sees the religious life as an ongoing search or quest throughout life, not a matter that is easily settled one way or another, forever.

I find this attitude helpful because it moves the focus on the religious life from the end itself to the process towards that end, from actually being close to God constantly to the desire and attempt to be close to God. It moves it from the rare and ephemeral moments of connection to the attempt to achieve those moments in the midst of mundane events and activities. Likewise it can be read as being about religious study, about trying to understand rather than attaining understanding. In short, it means that Jewish achievement is about the effort to be Jewish rather than assuming that only perfect faith or superficial religious observance are the only signs of religious achievement.

It is a proto-existentialist attitude. Attitudes like this in his teachings mark the Kotzker as perhaps the first modern, Orthodox (not “Modern Orthodox”!) Jewish thinker, not in the sense of more Westernised nineteenth century figures like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann who combined Torah knowledge with secular university studies and awareness of wider trends in Western theology and Bible criticism, but rather “modern” in the sense of wrestling with existential doubt and a sense of human insignificance and the search for individuality and authenticity. (The key text here is A Passion for Truth, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s comparative study of the Kotzker and his contemporary Soren Kierkegaard, the first Christian existentialist.)

12 thoughts on “The Moments of Labouring are the Moments of Finding

  1. The search for knowledge is indeed the gaining of knowledge. How would you define success and is it the same for everyone? I was struck by your political musings regarding the liberal versus conservative sides of you. I feel that too.

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    1. I thought “success” was an odd translation, although I didn’t want to start changing it. “Success” isn’t in the original Aramaic, but is necessary in translation as saying “I have laboured and I have found” sounds slightly strange in English if you don’t say what you have found. I think it’s about finding God, wisdom or meaning. I don’t think it’s the same for everyone.

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  2. “Moreover, it sees the religious life as an ongoing search or quest throughout life, not a matter that is easily settled one way or another, forever.” This resonated a lot. I was raised one way, and there is a lot I carry with me because of it, but I needed other perspectives. I’ve been exploring different directions (when I have the energy ha) of spirituality/religion and what those even mean and trying to listen to whatever direction I’m being pulled toward next.

    Liked by 1 person

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