The greatness and the danger of Chabad Chassidus is its intelligibility. Whereas nearly all forms of mysticism reject the external world to various extents and the conscious mind most of all, Chabad launches a daring direct assault on reality through reality’s honor guard, the ratiocinative intellect of worldly apprehension. The intention is for the the soul’s union with the Creator to embrace all of reality, even the parts that make sense; if the world is full of lies and illusions, it is nevertheless not itself a lie but rather part of G-d’s original desire, the most precious of all prizes, the single ultimate ground for the expression of His unity.
Though Chabad aims to reach the Creator without having to reject the world, there are still prices to pay for its bold intellectual approach—intellectual prices. If the intellect must cooperate and be brought into the mystical fold for the way of the Alter Rebbe to work, then a stubborn intellect has the power to ruin everything. Even worse (for a stubborn intellect will usually be caught misbehaving and rehabilitated) is the pliant intellect, the mind that buys quickly and deeply into the assumptions of (Lord help us) the common constructed narratives of 2018.
The problem most recently presented itself to me in connection with the doctrine of hislavshus, that is, the enclothement or investiture of light into vessel commonly described in Chassidic disourses. Chassidus Chabad aims to explain the inner unity of each creation with its Creator using the kabbalistic concept of Ohros v’Keilim, lights and vessels. Roughly synonymous with soul and body, the light of each creation, level, world, dimension, emanation, etc. is that aspect of it which faithfully expresses G-d, whereas the vessel is that aspect which allows that expressive light to exist as other, as “separate” from G-d. Chassidus explains how not only are the light and vessel each united with G-d, but they are, in fact, totally unified with each other as well.
The way light is invested in vessel, and then goes on to be the light for some further reality or creation, is called hislavshus. For example, light and vessel in the realm of emanation, Atzilus, are united in the sefirah of Chochma, wisdom, and this unity in turn is invested into the second sefirah of Binah. Similarly, the light of the soul is united with the intellectual vessels of the human mind, and this unity in turn births our emotions, themselves a unity of the soul’s light with different vessels. All of these investitures are called hislavshus, and it is by these interaction of light and vessel that the cause-effect chain of worlds and dimensions, Seder Hishtalshelus, is formed. This system, this order, is, to the conscientious student who endeavors to understand it, the key to understanding the means by which the infinite G-d expresses himself in the nature of each individual creation, that is, how G-d is united with the world.
But what is the nature of these interactions? Here we come to a break between the way the modern mind is taught to think and the way of thinking the Rebbes of Chabad try to teach the modern mind.
If one studies the Rambam or any other philosophy influenced by Aristotle, one is soon confronted with the idea of the four causes. Any formal substance, that is, anything with being and essence (metzius and mehus) is, on this ancient understanding, explained by four and only four things.
They cover the four distinct meanings of the word “cause”:
(1) The material cause. This is the material substance of which a thing is comprised. A statue’s material cause is the marble of which it’s carved, a tree’s is the biological matter of which it consists.
(2) The formal cause. This is form of the substance that lends it unique essence. Many things have been carved into marble, but the form of this statue is King David; this tree is an oak.
(3) The efficient cause. This is the cause external to the material and form that bring them together. The efficient cause of the statue is its sculptor, in our case, Michelangelo. The efficient cause of the oak tree is another oak tree, the acorn it produces, perhaps the rain that falls on the acorn, etc.
(4) The final cause. This is the unifying purpose or end toward which the being is directed. The statue is directed toward enthralling all who behold it, and the oak tree is directed toward producing more oak trees.
Out of the four Aristotelian causes, two at most have made it into the standard modern worldview, the material and the efficient. Especially under the mechanistic materialism of the early enlightenment (which seems to persist today as the assumed metaphysical framework of most scientists), everything in the world is explained by materials interacting efficiently. A tree or a statue is ultimately just a phenomenon emergent from materials moving around and striking each other like billiard balls. The mind that perceives them is the same sort of phenomenon. To “cause” something in this framework almost always means merely to move it, to touch matter to matter and impart acceleration or energy, etc. The complex transformations of biology are reduced to chemistry which in turn reduces to physics, at least in theory. Though you can understand phenomena differently, at other scales and with other means, ultimate explanation is usually reserved for some sort of efficient interaction, usually at the microscopic, molecular, or sub-molecular level.
This would not matter, except that it hurts our understanding of Chassidus.
When Chassidus says intellect is mislaveish, invested, in emotions, the typical beginner student of Chassidus imagines something like a hand in a glove, when in fact what is intended is more like the investiture of a statue in marble. Within the order of worlds, when we speak of hislavshus, we mean precisely that the light informs the vessel, and the vessel is informed by the light. They are not two separate beings in interaction; they are two tightly bound facets of one motion, one unity. The light of G-d interacts with its vessel not as two material beings touch or transfer energy, but as a form inheres in its matter.
It is only by this understanding that we understand the questions (How do the infinite light and finite vessel interact?) and the terms (G-d and His causations are one) of Chassidus. It is also vitally important to realize that the unity of G-d with the finite creation goes far beyond the unity of hand with glove, especially if we are to move on whether the finite creation exists apart from Him at all. The assumed ultimate explanation of all causality as efficient, in the austere mechanical sense of materialist scientism, is thus a detriment to at least one fundamental building block of Chassidic metaphysics.
Of course, I do not mean to imply that most students of Chassidus think of light and vessel like hand and glove. Eventually, most students of Chassidus who do not rethink their own metaphysics circumvent this issue by the power of the Rebbes’ pedagogic metaphors, e.g. education. The Rebbe will explain hislavshus in terms of education, and hislavshus is understood in the correct sense, and only in the correct sense, from the process whereby a teacher edifies his student.
There is no true material explanation of how a student learns from their teacher, since there is no true material explanation of a private unified human being’s abstract thought. Just as I can materially explain how strawberries moved from my hand to yours but I cannot explain what it’s like to taste them, I can materially explain how meaningful sound vibrates in your ear but cannot explain how you came to know the information it carries.
Instead, the process of teaching and learning is assumed to work more or less in the ancient way; our minds participate in the forms of the object of study; their nature becomes one with the protean hylic matter of the intellect. In other words, the expression of the teacher is mislavesh in the mind of the student. The student’s mind is not mechanically compelled by the teacher but rather is unified with his teaching, reflecting them in a lower place; it now conveys the teacher’s thought as part of its own identity, the way a block of marble conveys a sculpture.
When the student of Chassidus unpacks this educational metaphor, he gets a sense that hislavshus is not about a compulsive or causative material mechanism at all* but is rather an interlocking system of spiritual inhering causes — a true hishtalshelus chain from the highest of heights to the coarsest reality, a cosmos permeated by, defined by, G-d. And there are other metaphors used in Chassidus (such as metaphor and intimacy) that also serve to negate the materialistic assumptions.
However, these metaphors are not sufficient for truly understanding by the standards of Chabad. The average student of Chassidus today can reach a non-material feel for hislavshus, but that intuition will not be integrated with their general understanding. In other words, though they may in practice fail to explain education in material terms, they tend to assume this merely reflects ignorance on their part. They assume that education, like all formal or final causality, can ultimately be explained materially.
In this, they fail to understand their own understanding. Hislavshus, Memalei Kol Almin, and Seder Hishtalshelus are not meant to be miraculous notions belonging to G-d alone, that we can only approximate with “poetical” illustrations. These are precisely those aspects of G-dliness we are meant to relate to most directly, most rationally, and with our intellect at full tilt. They are supposed to be integrated into our waking understanding of how the world works, as ultimate and truest explanation.
On final analysis, if the notion of formal causality (or something like it) cannot be reintroduced and the tyranny of efficient causes cannot be laid to rest, our understanding of the unity of world and G-d as explained at length by the Chabad Rebbeim will always be lacking. There will always be a gap between the way we understand the world to really work and the inexorable chain of being and emanation spoken by the Creator at every moment.
*Interestingly, material mechanistic causality is a much better metaphor for the non-intellective kochos makifim, such as will, and their supernal analogues, such as Ohr HaSovev. It could be argued that the average student of Chassidus, insofar as actual understanding goes, groks these higher notions better than he understands hislavshus and Ohr Hamemalei. A chassid who understands miracles better than nature might sound like a pleasing reversal, until he pays a bill, suffers from a cold, or, most importantly, thinks. In addition, most of his animal soul’s claims are very natural, and if he can only see how G-d commands the creation of his animal nature but not how G-d works through that animal nature, how the deepest truth of that animal nature is G-dly, the chassid creates for himself an assar panui minei…