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Confessions of a Recovering Muppet

Confessions of a Recovering Muppet

Chabad Psychology for Dummies (and Their Ventriloquists)

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Hi—my name is Michael—and I’m a recovering muppet. I’m also, as it happens, a university professor. But you should know that the latter distinction in no way ameliorates my muppet condition. If anything, it exacerbates it. Muppets with Ph.D.s generally need extra time to recover. (With tenure, their condition often grows chronic and irreversible.)

I’d like to share a small bit of my personal story with you, as well as some of my professor-type reflections. There’s much to say, of course—too much. In this session I just want to tell you about the first step in a program of recovery that began in full force for me when I was introduced to the psychotherapeutic technique developed by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

Let me stress that I have not moved beyond this first step. As I say, I’m a muppet in recovery. The step is the confession: I admit I am powerless over my muppeteer.

Now you might wonder whether I am, or I think I am, quite literally a muppet. If you don’t mind me sidestepping the question, I will at least confirm that I am a man. But I would add one observation drawn from my expertise as an academic, in the field of social studies, regarding the career and cultural impact of Jim Henson. It seems to me that since the release of the 2011 musical film The Muppets, which I consider to be the first premeditated attempt in Hollywood cinematology to broach the basic psychopathological issue behind Henson’s genius, it is no longer nonsensical or socially unacceptable to call oneself, in all seriousness, a muppet. I see my condition outlined with professional precision in the diagnosis that takes place in the crisis moment in the plot—it’s a song, but a diagnostic song, composed by Dr. Bret McKenzie:—

Am I a maaaaan or a muppet?
If I’m a muppet, then I’m a very manly muppet.
Am I a maaaaan or a muppet?
If I’m a man, then I’m a muppet of a man.

This is the fundamental dilemma facing the protagonist of the film. As the first option seems too remote a possibility, the second option follows by reductio ad absurdum. This is basically the condition from which I myself am recovering: being a muppet of a man. I’ll share with you just one memory on my way to this realization.

The Structure of Muppetological Revolutions

Sometime in my twenties, during my undergraduate studies, as I was taking my first faltering steps on the path of return to the way of my forefathers, I once had the good fortune of sitting down to a frank conversation with a chassidic rabbi and his wife who had invited me to their Shabbos table. The delicious sacramental meal was over, their children had gone off to play, and I was able to express myself quite freely about just how broad my connoisseur’s palate could be in a downtown Chinese restaurant. I also was living with a girlfriend at the time. For their part, the rabbi and the rebbetzin were making a heroic effort not to be judgmental. They wanted me to come back for future Shabbos meals. I tried to explain how difficult, if not impossible, it would be for me to disentangle myself from all the little pleasures that defined my life—defined not just various predilections I happened to have accumulated, but who I was.

Eventually, the rebbetzin got tired of my apologia pro vita sua, and sighed heavily and said, somewhat dismissively yet politely, “Yes, Michael, well, we all have our yetzer hara. We all have to fight it the same way, you know.” We all have our evil inclination.

I remember how this simple comment rattled me to the bone. I was not upset about being judged. I expected judgment. After all, I was expostulating on the virtues of Cantonese char siu to a rabbi and his wife. No, I was upset, and startled, at how profoundly I had been misunderstood.

“But you see, rebbetzin, that’s just the problem,” I said. “I didn’t grow up thinking of all this as the work of the yetzer hara! For me, this is perfectly normal behavior! At least in my world. This isn’t some inclination that I can take or leave. This is me. Myself.”

The rebbetzin, a chassid of the Gerrer Rebbe since her earliest memories, was at a loss how to respond. For someone raised solidly within the Tradition, the hardest part of dealing with a baal teshuvah, a returnee, is understanding the paradigm shift that has to take place in the latter’s way of thinking on the path of return.

The Chabad Psychoanalytic Methodology

Years later, my path brought me to Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s Book for Betweeners. This is his term (beinonim) for “muppet men.” Studying this text, I found myself confronted with a further complication in the theme of teshuvah. And it was hard to tell, at first, whether the new twist in the theme was supposed to make things easier or harder. I read in the Book for Betweeners:

In every Jew, whether righteous or wicked, are two souls. As it is written, “The souls that I have made” [Isaiah 57:16]—two souls. One soul originates in the Husk [kelipah] and Other Side [sitra achara], and is clothed in the blood of a human being, giving life to the body. As it is written, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11). From it emerge all evil character traits, from the four evil elements contained in it.1

[This is] the vitalizing animal soul in the Jew, which is derived from the aspect of the Husk clothed in the blood of the human being, like the souls of domestic and wild animals and birds and fish that are kosher . . ..2

What is the advantage, I wondered, of this two-soul teaching over the two-inclinations teaching? At the juncture in my personal odyssey when this question arose, I was already committed to Torah and mitzvot. The paradigm shift from a life oriented by television to a Torah-oriented life had already taken place, so that those old pleasures to which I had once freely given myself were no longer “normal” and acceptable in my eyes. They were sins that I now struggled to avoid and that I bitterly regretted whenever I backslid and gave into them. The question of identity, of “who I am,” however, had remained essentially unaddressed.

Were sins like so many delicacies paraded under my nose and before my eyes on a platter by some nasty inclination within my psyche, something like the proverbial “little devil” leaning on one’s left shoulder? If so, then I could consider the temptation an external enemy, a foe who tried to infiltrate my being through my ear, who flattered my smug sense of victoriousness like a Trojan horse waiting to be taken inside the gates. But then who exactly, I wondered, is fighting these sins, these temptations? I? Who am I? Am I the one who is opposed, down to my very core, to such external temptations? Is it not G‑d who is opposed to this—and I’m just the guy trying to make G‑d happy? And, after all, if the enemy is an evil inclination, then the counterforce conscripted by G‑d for my personal protection must be a good inclination, a yetzer hatov. In which case, I was dependant on a champion to do the fighting for me. And what if my champion was not always up to the task?

Which is precisely where the Book for Betweeners came in to complicate the issue. On the one hand, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was telling me that I need to recognize sin as something normal to me—normal, at least, to one part of me, one of my souls, the animal soul. This seemed to pull me back closer to my old paradigm.

On the other hand, this teaching proffered an opportunity of unprecedented empowerment against sin. The forces of good constituted much more than even the most valiant armies of the yetzer hatov coming on wild horses to my emotional rescue. The forces of good were not simply mine. They were me. Myself.

The second soul of a Jew is truly “a part of G‑d above” [Job 31:2]. As it is written, “And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” [Genesis 2:7].”3

This is why even the most featherbrained of the featherbrained and sinful among Jews, will sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of G‑d’s Name, in most cases, and will suffer harsh torture rather than deny the one G‑d. [ . . . ] This is because the one G‑d illuminates and animates the entire soul.4

And again, empowerment is the issue for the one who admits to being powerless over his muppeteer. Is there anything more powerful, in terms of sheer martial force, as it were, than a soul willing to die for its identity, especially when this identity is identified with G‑d Above? What chance can any temptation to sin have against such a soul—if only this soul becomes committed to its identity?

I can be such an animal sometimes!

Anyone who knows what it means to love a pet, if she or he is honest, will probably vouch for the applicability of a Talmudic statement made about servants—bearing in mind that the Talmud requires a diligently compassionate concern for the wellbeing of a servant—to their pets: “One who acquires a servant acquires a master.”5 Must we not say something comparable about someone who acquires a pet? Some pet owners come a tad too close to becoming their pet’s pet.

In allowing myself to become the man-pet of my animal soul, likewise, I submit my divine soul to the most pathetic type of exploitation. I effectively put a leash on my innermost sublime identity, and place the leash into the hands of a soul whose primary concerns in life are different only in sophistication, but not in essence, from such preoccupations as finding another scrap of something edible between doggy-bowl times, chasing squirrels and frisbees, and barking at perfectly innocent mailmen.

I am such a dummy!

Of course, this still characterizes the relationship between the two souls from the outside. How does it feel from the inside? How do I become sensitive to the exploitation taking place within my own psyche? My animal soul is not something that stands vis-à-vis the divine soul. The situation, again, is not like that of a human head flanked by a little red devil and a little white angel making symmetrically positioned claims upon the head between them. My animal soul is something that wells up from deep within me—like a controlling hand rising through me, through my chest and neck, and gripping my brain.

The habitat of the animal soul—derived from the Incandescent Husk [kelipat nogah] in every Jew—is in the heart, in the left ventricle that is filled with blood. It is written, “For the blood is the soul” [Deuteronomy 12:23]. Hence, all lust and boasting and anger and the like are in the heart. From the heart these passions spread throughout the whole body, rising also to the brain in the head, in order to muse and become cunning via them, just as the blood has its source in the heart and from the heart it circulates to every limb, also rising to the brain in the head.6

From the outside, as anyone can observe, I behave like the pet of my animal soul. From the inside, I’m like a dummy. Where the animal soul is my ventriloquist. I’m a muppet. Where the animal soul is my muppeteer.

One of the genial aspects of Henson’s creation of beloved muppets like Kermit and his non-kosher fiancée is to have given a human voice to an animal, in this case a frog and a sow. (Not that Kermit is any more kosher than his fiancée, incidentally—a cramp, perhaps, on Jewish-French cuisine.) But the unexamined dark side of this stroke of genius, I propose, lies in a certain inversion of the truth, a concealment of the truth. The truth is that we humans are muppets—and our muppeteers are animals.

Or as the Viennese psychologist Georg Groddeck liked to say—and Sigmund Freud liked this so much that he appropriated this way of speaking in his own writings—my experience of my own personality as something that I live through is an illusion. In reality, something impersonal, something more like an “it” than an “I,” is living through me. I am lived by this “it.”7

What I sometimes experience as my feeling, my desire, my pleasure, even my thought (as the above citation indicates), is in fact a feeling, desire, pleasure or thought that is using my “I” as a kind of performance stage for its own ends.

The “I” is often just a spectacle put on by the muppeteering “it,” the animal soul, for the latter’s profit. And this is the animal soul’s one and only highly developed skill, its virtuosity; but then again, an average chihuahua puppy can be a maestro at playing its master, if only the latter’s affection is strong. The animal soul produces the show, it stages the show, and it collects the cash from the box office at the end of the evening. And during the entire production it makes the gullible star of the show, the “I,” believe that everything on stage is real! The “I”—muppet that I am!—believes it is the real hero of a true story in the real world.

And if that’s not enough, I, having foolishly put on my best performance, realize that I have been taken advantage of only at the end of the day, when, after my animal soul has satisfied all its desires, I get the blame—not it—for being “selfish” and “egoistic”! The clever little beast is able to exploit common language itself to dupe me. Dummy that I am!

Muppetry and the Art of Illusion

Now, chassidic teaching offers an explanation of this dynamic which reaches even beyond psychological categories into the metaphysical fabric of reality itself. It explains the word ha-olam, “the world,” as an etymological-conceptual derivation of helem, “hiddenness.”8 Science, which used to be called Natural Philosophy, sees nature as a manifestation—that is, as something that makes itself manifest to the senses and to cognition. This is why science can approach truth empirically, i.e., with telescopes and microscopes, with Erlenmeyer flasks and litmus tests: because nature makes herself available to such investigation. From a Kabbalistic perspective, nevertheless, this scientific understanding of nature, while certainly true, is relatively shallow. At a depth of truth that operates fathoms beneath the empirical facts, the natural world is in fact a superficial obfuscation of a much profounder reality: the reality of G‑d in His G‑dliness. But the obfuscation happens precisely by means of a manifestation. The world does not cover up divine reality like an ugly gray cloak that no one looks at twice. It covers up reality like a gorgeous multicolored, gold-threaded garment that dazzles the eyes, arresting their focus on the superficial layers and dissuading them from bothering to look any deeper. “Your eyes after which you stray . . . ,” warns the Shema (Numbers 15:39).

As Rabbi Schneur Zalman places the distinction between the two souls at the very beginning of his psychology, as the axiomata of his entire psychological analysis, there is reason to suppose that the dazzling force of helem works its most pernicious magic precisely where common language says, in blithe innocence, “I . . .”

We know what happened to poor old Cain on this account. When Cain was still just tossing around in his head the idea of his brother’s downfall as a theoretical possibility, G‑d warned him: “Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is toward you. But you can rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). The atrocious desire that he was feeling was in fact not his own. It was the sin that was feeling desirous. The sin desired Cain. That’s why Cain, if only he had decided to, could readily have mastered the desire, simply by rebuffing its advances. Alas, poor Cain fell victim to the machinations that this seducer,9 his desire, worked upon him. He was flattered, by the helem of the seductions, into believing that the desire was in fact his own.

Muppet Show Apocalypse: Kermit Fires Jim Henson

The challenge that faces the human being, according to the Book for Betweeners, is that of redeeming the divine “I” from its tyrannical muppeteer. Certainly no easy task, since the human being experiences his own animal self as if it were his entire human self.

For although he understands and meditates with his intellect on the greatness of G‑d, this is not grasped by, and fastened to, his brain to the extent that he would be able to prevail over the coarseness of the heart, precisely because of this coarseness and vulgarity. The cause for this is the vulgarity of the Husk [kelipah], which exalts itself above the light of the holiness of the divine soul, obscuring and darkening its light. For this reason one must crush it and cast it down to the ground, doing so by setting aside appointed times for humbling oneself into being despicable in one’s own eyes and contemptible. As is written: “A broken heart, a broken spirit” [Psalms 51:19]. This is the Other Side [sitra achara] that is the very man himself in the case of Betweeners. For the vital soul that animates the body is found in its inborn strength in the heart. This is the very man himself. Whereas with regard to the divine soul within him it is said, “The soul which You gave within me is pure.”10 This specifies “which You gave within me,” implying that the man himself is not the pure soul. The latter applies only to tzaddikim, in whom the contrary is the case—to wit, that the “pure soul,” i.e., the divine soul, is the man himself, while their body is called “the flesh of man” [Exodus 30:32].11

In the extraordinary person of the perfectly righteous individual, the tzaddik, it is no longer possible for the animal self to pretend that it constitutes the whole human being, “the very man himself.” The allure and the very being of the ventriloquous animal soul is thoroughly crushed and eradicated, so that the divine identity, the pure soul, which in the case of ordinary human beings remains trapped “within,” is altogether externalized in the case of the tzaddik. The tzaddik alone wears his divine identity out on his sleeve.

Thanks to this embodiment of righteousness, though, this extraordinary person provides ordinary human beings with an ideal to be approximated as well as they can. As an ordinary human being, taking my orientation from the tzaddik as from a lodestar, my task is to cultivate a fuller awareness of a feeling that sometimes sparks ups in me when I have done something I cannot be proud of, and I end up blurting something like: “Wow, I’m really not myself lately!” “Good grief, I can be such an animal sometimes!”

And the Book for Betweeners is a strong gust of oxygen that fans the flames of such epiphanies. It fans the one who has the epiphanies, namely me, encouraging me to get a hold on my true self, my divine self that is rooted in the divine. So that my soul “is ignited and flares up towards the glory of the splendor of His greatness, in order to gaze on the glory of the King, like the fiery sparks of a mighty flame surging upwards.”12

Under such passionate circumstances, the above-cited contempt that I am supposed to feel for my grubby animal soul is not something I need to force upon myself. It comes quite naturally.

If I am to stop being a muppet, if I am to refuse any further commands from below and from within—yes, from my own heart, my own feelings, my own “natural self,” all those things that seem to be me but are in reality the fingers of my muppeteer, the natural, animal soul—if I am to fire my animal muppeteer below, then I need to attach myself to something Above.

It is told that Rabbi Meir of Premishlan never slipped in the winter on the icy mountain path on the way to his mikvah. When once asked how he managed to do so while no one else braved the perilous path, he answered: “If a man is bound up on high, he doesn’t fall down below.”13

At the end of the day, there really is no “middle” option between being manipulated from below or being pulled along from above. One or the other must hold true. No one is suspended in the air by his or her own efforts in the way that Baron Münchhausen is fabled to have pulled himself up from the quagmire by his hair. The Betweener is between what is above and what is below, and either looks up or looks down. I am a man, yes. What kind of man? A recovering muppet of a man—a man powerless over his muppeteer. I confess I do not know to what extent I have managed to paralyze the paw of the animal muppeteer which grips my core from below. But what I do know is that what I want to be is something more like a marionette tied to the blessed, benevolent hands of the Good L‑rd above.

Footnotes
1.
R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Sefer Shel Beinonim, being Part I of the Tanya (Vilna edition, 1900), ch. 1, p. 5b.
2.
Ibid., ch. 7, p. 11a.
3.
Ibid., ch. 2, p. 6a.
4.
Ibid., ch. 18, p. 24a.
5.
Talmud, Kiddushin 20a. As Abaye explains there, an eved “must be on par with you in food and drink: you should not eat white bread while he eats black bread, drink aged wine while he drinks new wine, sleep on a feather bed while he sleeps on straw.” See Tzvi Freeman’s article, Torah, Slavery and the Jews.
6.
Tanya, ch. 9, p. 13a.
7.
“Der Mensch wird vom Es gelebt.” Georg Groddeck, Das Buch vom Es (Leipzig: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1923), p. 10, and cf. p. 19. See Sigmund Freud, Das Ich und das Es, in Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 15 (London: Imago, 1940), p. 251. Is this perhaps why Hillel asks, with regard to egoism: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” (Pirke Avot 1:14). Hillel does not ask, “Who am I?” Hillel appeals to me, to the only personal “who” in the room, to reflect on what impersonal force is driving me to be only for it. What is usually called “egoism” is thus in reality an “idism.” My “id” is being selfish through my “ego.”
8.
E.g., R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Likkutei Torah mi-Sefer Bamidbar (Zhytomyr: Shadov, 1866), p. 37b.
9.
See Talmud, Bava Batra 16a: אמר ר"ל הוא שטן הוא יצר הרע הוא מלאך המות. An important complication of this desire is brought out in the parable of the harlot from the Zohar (II:163a) cited in the Tanya, ch. 29.
10.
A phrase from the morning liturgy. See Talmud, Berachot 60a.
11.
The key phrase in this text (ch. 29, p. 36a) is היא האדם עצמו.
12.
Tanya, ch. 50, p. 70b.
13.
The full story is found in R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Likutei Dibburim, vol. 2 (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1984), pp. 271b–272a.
Michael Chighel (Kigel) received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto for his dissertation on the Book of Job, after a specialization in 20th-century French and German thought. In Canada he taught in the departments of philosophy and of Jewish studies at the universities of York, Queen’s and Waterloo. He produced Passages and Messages for eleven seasons on Canadian television (CTS). Until this year he held the Rohr Chair of Jewish Studies at the Lauder Business School in Vienna, where he taught Torah, European ethics and political economy. He has translated a number of books and published various articles in Jewish thought. Michael and his family have recently made aliyah, and now live in Jerusalem.
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Anonymous June 5, 2015

What a read! Makes the Tanya u learn much more real and practical. Reply

Olga village of onion smiters June 5, 2015

Thank you, R. Kigel the structured muppetological revolutions, for me are:

Craving, longing & everyday attachment. In that way i can be pull one into a lot of museums.

(Your chesed for Cain and his failures is truly a unique interpretation).

If you would excuse me it seems I have a lot of prep work to do for Shabbat!!

(Wish I was in Israel with the flowers blooming; the fresh lemons) Reply

SKM UK June 4, 2015

To be like Hashem My reading of the Tanya would suggest that Hashem in His absolute mercy and kindness bestowed us with a gift, this being an actual part of His Own Soul placed within us, His desire being to dwell in physical reality through us. The Divine Soul is actually housed in brain and controls the flow of soul to the rest of the body thus maintaining its flow of life to each organ. The animal soul's vitality is in the blood. One cannot dwell without the other. The righteous manage to totally subjugate the physical body so Divine will is expressed in physical reality, hence Avraham called a chariot. It is essential for our animal soul to be in awe of its purpose rather than seek to satisfy itself. The animal soul needs to serve in kindness and mercy, seeking to please the Divine soul within (not oppressing it). Through this service our lives express Divine Will, which is to be a vessel of bestowal, like Hashem, seeking to give pleasure to the Divine, beginning with the gift of Divine Soul within. Reply

Michael Kigel Jerusalem May 27, 2015

klipot I quite agree. I could have quoted my other favorite green creature who is well-versed in the esoteric wisdom. I mean, of course, Shrek:--

"Ogres are like onions."

Peal away the animal soul klipah and you'll find a deeper divine soul within.

Alas, no metaphor is final. .... Reply

Muska D Jerusalem May 26, 2015

the essential power of the hand I loved the last metaphor of being a marionette tied to the blessed source of life...
Your perspective is clear and amuzing, however it's hard to picture myself as a muppet of my animal soul, even though quite often. I am. I see the G-dly soul then as an essential power in the hand of the muppeteer. The G-dly soul is even more internal and powerfull then the animal one, otherwise I would not become a "returnee" and I would never have a chance to win over the muppeter.
I hope I am not getting confused here, but I feel that the animal inclination is a marionette in G-ds arms, while it muppets us around, just in order for us to go and find out who we really choose to be. Reply

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