Meir Abehsera’s “Possible Man” – The Holy Fool, The Writer, and the Beggar – Part I

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At the beginning of the summer, I had an interesting talk with the Kabbalah scholar Elliot Wolfson about Holy Fools.  The subject that I wanted to discuss with him, which pertains to the Holy Fool, is something he was familiar with in his studies of Habad (Lubavitch) Hasiduth and Mysticism; namely, something called Ruah Shtut D’kedusha (“the Holy Spirit of Foolishness”).  What spurred our conversation was a challenge that I posed to his reading of “negative theology.”  I suggested that we pay closer attention to the “madness” that this negative theology suggests and to think about how it may or may not relate to what Paul deMan – the literary theorist – would call, following the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire and the German Romantics – the “irony of ironies.”  As I have suggested in other blog entries, deMan’s reading of madness, which is spurred by the “irony of ironies,” leans toward the Daemonic.  What I wondered was whether the “madness of the Holy” differed from this type of madness prescribed by deMan.  To be sure, The Zohar, one of the most important books in Jewish mysticism, often makes distinctions between what’s called the Sitra d’Kedusha (the side of the Holy) and the Sitra Achra (the other side).  Where did the madness of the Holy fit?  Elliot was very intrigued by this question and has, since, exchanged some emails with me about it.

But the point I ended our conversation with was, to my mind, the most important. I suggested that Elliot take a look at Meir Abehsera’s book The Possible Man: Life in the Shadow of the Just.   For me, this book took the Holy Fool not so much as a concept than as a Midrash and an account of someone very close to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, someone who, in my view and perhaps his own, plays and played the Holy Fool.  During his years with the Rebbe, he lived out the “Holy Spirit of Foolishness” and, fortunately, he gave it to the next generation of Jews by way of parables in his book.  It can be found in the chapter entitled “The High Road.”

Before I discuss this wonderful work or writing, I just want to say a few words about Meir Abehsera.  I have great respect, love, and admiration for Abehsera.  Before becoming the Rebbe’s “whistler” (a name I will explain over the next few blog entries), Abehsera was a writer, artist, and poet in Paris. He was also one of the major people who was instrumental in bringing Macrobiotics (a way of life, eating, and community) to America.  After touring through the United States in the 1960s, he settled in Binghamton, New York, created something of a community, and influenced countless people there.  Two of those people are very close to me today.  (One of them is my uncle.)  In many ways, I find Abehsera to be one of the most important Jews in my life.  He is, in many ways, a schlemiel-rebbe for me.  His Jewishness is all-embracing, kind, joyful, and inspiring.  He wants to people to dance, sing, and talk with each other.  His gatherings at his home, whether in New York, Los Angeles, or in Israel, were gatherings unlike any I have ever been to.  I am not a child of the 60s, but in many ways I feel as if what he did is the closest thing I will ever come to a Jewish “be-in.”

That said, I’d like to summarize and unpack his wonderful parable.  I think it would be appropriate for Schlemiel-in-Theory to start the Jewish New Year with a spiritual reflection on the schlemiel (or at least one, important, variety of the schlemiel: the holy fool and the “holy spirit of foolishness”).

Here it goes:

Before talking about the Holy Fool, Abehsera begins his “High Road” chapter with a reflection on Memory, Imagination, and Redemption.   The serve as a central motifs in his chapter and they are the preface to his words on the Holy Fool, the Writer, and the Beggar.

Speaking of himself in terms of his inadequate memory, Abehsera writes that “unlike the Just – who are the true repository of memory… – I am a broken vessel, who must resort to circuitousness to find my own way around.  My memory is that of an archeologist by comparison.  Each fragment that I unearth calls for the next, until I finally face the complete form”(94).    What kind of memory do the Just have and how can we tap into it?  How is it possible?

Following this reflection on memory, Abehsera turns immediately to something that concerned The Baal Shem Tov and his grandson Rabbi Nachman of Breslav; namely, the rift that grew in Europe between educated Jews and simple Jews.  To be sure, as Ruth Wisse notes in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, this rift gave birth to the first “literary schlemiels” in Rabbi Nachman’s stories.  The schlemiel, in these stories, challenges the Jewish intellectual who sees himself as closer to God as a result of his greater intelligence and skepticism.  The simplicity and naivite of the simpleton are, for the intellectual, negative traits.

Abhesera points out the Baal Shem Tov came around to address this rift:

He proceeded to transmit to common folk, in their own terms, what had been previously reserved for a select few.  His rationale was clear: the same Father in heaven who gives clever people the capacity to understand, also creates the feeble mind, and grants it no less right to share in the divine feast. (96)

Echoing the Baal Shem Tov, Abehsera lauds the simpleton. They, who live in the “now,” are closest to what Martin Buber would call “root experiences” (such as the giving of the Torah, Splitting of the Sea, etc) and they are the one’s who are closest to the Messianic.  And reflecting on what he says about memory, Abehsera describes this relationship to the “now” of the messianic the “memory of the future as well as of the past”:

Simple people were ideal chariots to transport the sacred, with never a self-conscious thought, for they did not suffer from the vanity with which the gifted are apt to be plagued. They could travel in an instant through time to Sinai, and fall to their faces, trebling as if they had just received the Law….The messiah was not a fable for these good people, or a possible dream of times to come; for them, redemption was now.   Cunning minds might contend that they were merely naïve.  I would say, rather, that they bore the mark of wisdom: a good memory of the future as well as of the past. (97)

The point of the imagination – and the point of the Baal Shem Tov’s famous expression “memory is redemption” – is to “bind past events with those that must inevitably come, to fuse the two extremes of the time and bring them to peace with the present.”  In other words, what Abehsera learns out of the Baal Shem Tov is that the imagination has a messianic and temporal task.  Imagination is equated with memory.  And for Abehsera memory/imagination is an “agent of healing” and spurs the “process of reawakening.”

Nonetheless, memory is challenged by the forces of trauma and destruction.  Memory “slips away.” And, for Abehsera, this is where the Baal Shem Tov and he himself comes in: his work (echoing that of the Baal Shem Tov) is the work of memory and its task is to heal the wounds that Jews have endured by exile and the Holocaust.

After pointing this out, Abehsera notes what he is up against; namely the fact that, in the times of the Baal Shem Tov, people were much more imaginative and hopeful.  Today, in contrast, the imagination is “less obsessive.”  We are – by and large – skeptics and rationalists who live in a disenchanted world.  And “yesterday’s dreamer is an extinct breed.”  So, in this world, we have to “smuggle” light in.  And this is done by way of metaphor.  Regarding this, Abehsera writes: “A metaphor is a transfer that can only be carried out by flesh and blood.” And it is human beings – and not angels – who have to use metaphor to transfer/smuggle light.   In other words, the way to truth, for Abehsera, is by way of the oblique.  We must hint at things but this is done by way of parable.

The trick is to keep this parable simple enough so as to speak to the hearts of people and not to an intellectual elite. And this is certainly something that is on his mind.

What I like most is how Abehsera situates himself within this framework and how, in his parables, he brings in the Holy Fool.  To be sure, it is the Holy Fool who smuggles in the light but, and here is the twist, this is conveyed by way of writing.  For this reason, Abehsera gives a parable that involves the relationship between the “writer” and the “idiot” (Holy Fool) so as to illustrate what is at stake.

In the next blog entry, I hope to discuss the dream that inspired this parable. Since this dream offers a, so to speak, allegorical key to the parable it deserves its own entry and must be laid out.  As I will demonstrate, it gives us a new way of understanding the schlemiel, one which shows how deeply personal and spiritually meaningful this comic character can be.

2 thoughts on “Meir Abehsera’s “Possible Man” – The Holy Fool, The Writer, and the Beggar – Part I

  1. very enjoyable article. the rebbe in several places says that (to paraphrase your article) the holy fool apprehends Godliness from below to above (by way of metaphor); the Rebbe apprehends it in the opposite direction: he understands “below” in light of his prior understanding of “above.” It’s important (at least to me) to point out that the objective of the Baal Shem Tov was that “simple” people (the holy fools) have the ability to achieve great heights of intellectual understanding thru his teachings that illuminate their hearts. This is the understanding Chabad has of the Baal Shem Tov’s objectives for which it was (and perhaps is) controversial among other Chasidic groups and teachings.

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