Reb Shmuel Munkis was the Alter Rebbe’s jester. Unlike King Lear’s fool, he was not the wisest man in the court. But at least he was the second wisest.

After a long farbrengen in Liozna where Chassidim stoked their souls with flammable spirits, fanned them with high-oxygen melodies, and then searched among the flames for one another and for themselves, all the while iron-branding their Rebbe’s words upon their wet hearts, they once found the jester upside-down, dangling by his feet from the gate to the Rebbe’s school. He had preempted their return. ‘What now, Reb Shmuel?’ asked the Chassidim, holding their sides from laughter. Shmuel answered, ‘Well, what else should hang here? A tailor hangs a pair of scissors above his door. A cobbler hangs a boot.’1

If Reb Shmuel Munkis was not just the Alter Rebbe’s all-licensed fool but also one of his best Chassidim—and there is certainly good reason to think he was just that—then it stands to reason that Chassidic wisdom itself is on not unfriendly terms with folly. Which would mean that there must be some kind of reasonable explanation for this folly.

There must be some kind of reasonable explanation for this folly.

And if Reb Shmuel Munkis was not just one of the Alter Rebbe’s best Chassidim but also a good Jew—and there is very good reason to think he was just that—then a reasonable explanation of his foolish prank above the gate of the Alter Rebbe’s school would have to suggest how the folly at play here must signify something about what it means to be a Jew.

Higher Than the Mind's Eye

Where is such an explanation to be looked for? According to Chassidic teaching, in a type of higher vision, a vision, to be more precise, yet higher than that of the mind’s eye.

What is the significance of such a vision? According to Chassidic teaching, it must be deciphered in the innermost identity of the one who, were he a legible sign dangling from a gate, would read something like, “Fools by Heavenly Compulsion Made Here.”

“The wisdom of the prudent is to understand his way; but the folly of fools is deceit.” (Proverbs 14:8) By a necessity so deeply entrenched in common experience and in language itself, not as a matter of truth but, on the contrary, as a necessity oozing from the sticky mendacity of the human condition itself, Chassidic teaching has found it pedagogically indispensable2 to make “folly,” shtus, the key term for referring to the positive value of becoming a fool for G‑d. The folly of the fool for G‑d is not a matter of deceit. But this world in which deception and obfuscation (h’elem) holds so much sway is still too heavily populated by the kind of fool about whom King David says, “The fool has said in his heart: There is no G‑d.” (Psalms 14:1, 53:1); and about whom King Solomon says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 12:15) It is this population problem that makes it necessary to explain the positive significance of being the kind of fool who is not right in his own eyes, whose folly is right in G‑d’s eyes alone.

This explanation appears, significantly enough, in the seminal Chassidic discourse by the Previous Rebbe, Basi LeGani 5710 (1950), which the Rebbe elevated to a kind of manifesto of Chabad Chassidism upon his assumption of the Rebbeship in 1951, and to which he added upward of four dozen elaborations under the same title.3 It also appears as the guiding question of an affiliated treatise by the Rebbe Rashab, the Kuntres Umaayan (1903).

In these discourses, under the pedagogic necessity to “answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit” (Proverbs 26:5), we find contrasted with a folly that is nothing but a brew of mindless conformity to the status quo, neurotic self-deception, bad faith, and bursts of irresponsible pleasure-mongering, a very different kind of folly, namely a folly of purely positive value called shtus dikdushah, “holy folly.” This kind of folly is not only praised, it is emphatically placed in the first order of business for the contemporary Jew. If there ever existed a time in which holy folly was a second-order issue, ours is not such a time, according to the Previous Rebbe. But was there ever such a time?—

If there ever existed a time in which holy folly was a second-order issue, ours is not such a time.

The discourse recalls a classic example of holy folly. It cites the talmudic account of the curious behavior displayed by another Shmuel, the talmudic sage Rabbi Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak. At weddings, Rabbi Shmuel had the custom of dancing before the bride in a highly animated fashion while juggling sprigs of myrtle.4 “This venerable Sage is embarrassing us,” a colleague was heard saying about the Sage. Eventually, however, the colleague recanted his criticism when a wondrous pillar of fire appeared after Rabbi Shmuel’s passing to distinguish him from his peers. In other words, Heaven gave a sign that, yes, true religiosity is occasionally marked by displays of folly that are unseemly, undignified, even embarrassing, precisely un-sage-like, beyond sagacity.

Wherein lies the need on such a happy social occasion to overstep social norms and to transcend the etiquette of sagacity? As the discourse goes on to say, marriage, while it may be a “normal” phenomenon within the social dimension, is in essence a metaphysical pleat in the fabric of the cosmos which harbours the potential for the most apogeic, exquisite revelation of the Divine presence, the Shechinah, which can take place in the “cherubic” space between two human beings. For the roots extending their tendrils upward, as it were, into the supernal source of Divine benediction which send vital waters into the sap of marital bliss transcend the entire cascading chain of metaphysical causality whereby the world was created and is re-created from breath to breath.5

This potential revelation is encoded into the very etymology of the words “man” (איש) and “woman” (אשה), each of which is composed of the elemental word “fire” (אש) plus one soft consonant (י and ה respectively). When a man and a woman are fused in holy matrimony in a meritorious manner, these two soft consonants unite to form G‑d’s Holy Name.6 Rabbi Shmuel’s mystical vision7 of the Divine Name at the heart of a happy marriage and his ecstatic performance dramatizing this vision was perhaps the most encouraging, joy-infusing spectacle a bride and groom could hope for, the spectacle of the cheerful certainty of an ecstatic Sage who is evidently able to leap above the usual constraints of the spatiotemporal continuum, by virtue of his light-footed “dance,” from which elevated vantage he could see this future blessedness of theirs as a fait accompli—right there before his eyes. From this height, above time, Rabbi Shmuel could see their very house, built above time itself, “an everlasting edifice.”8

Such a vision would have to be a little prophetic. And, in fact, as the discourse goes on to point out, it belongs together with the prophetic powers that we find at work in the “crazy” behaviour of some of the biblical prophets who “cast off their clothes” in moments of divine inspiration (e.g. I Samuel 19:24). What this gesture represented is a divestment of their corporeal existence.9 After all, how could a prophet attain the necessary altitude for his far-reaching vision, his higher sight, were his eye tethered to his cumbrous natural body with its five viscous senses? To attain a supernatural view he must have an “uncovered eye”.10

Can We Believe In Reason?

And reason—what of reason? Does the Chassidic advocacy of holy folly entail an hysterical leap into the irrational? Far from it. “Make me not the reproach of fools!” (Psalms 39:8)

Now this is not the place to summarize, much less give an account, of what Western philosophers since Immanuel Kant have developed from various angles as the critique of reason. Suffice it to say that, since the sun of the Enlightenment began to set at the end of the 19th century, when the application of reason in the sciences was just beginning to pick up speed, reason in its broadest parameters has no longer been regarded as the only, or even the exemplary, means of access to the truth. As Hamlet warns his best friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” This “more” embodies the critical point of the Chassidic critique of reason, namely that reason is not wrong—reason is just not enough. There is more.

Like the Maccabee resistance to the spiritual empire that Alexander built on Aristotle’s ideals,11 what the Chassidic doctrine of holy folly is suspicious of, in other words, is the hegemony of reason, reason as a totalitarian intellectual regime, wherein the Torah is submitted to a reductionism in which only the rational and sensible precepts of the Torah pass muster, and everything else must be discarded as nonsense. In this regime, by the same token, the temperature of a Jew’s passionate love for G‑d’s Torah is humbled by reason’s supercilious gaze, lowered to a cool, dispassionate, scientific, all-too-sensible approach to truth.

What the Chassidic doctrine of holy folly is suspicious of, in other words, is the hegemony of reason.

If the nostalgic reluctance to loosen the hegemony of reason, which still holds some Western academic minds enshackled, has been thrown off by the best Western philosophers of the last century, the academic training of the mind’s eye,12 the discipline that trains the mind to see with its own intellectual vision, holds it back from practising a certain self-nullification that would allow it to share, periscopically, as it were, in the vision of an eye above the mind. The latter praxis belongs to the discipline of Chassidic thought.

Practical Unreasonableness

We have noted the holy folly of Rabbi Shmuel at weddings. But the range of holy folly is wide. Thus the Rebbe Rashab gives an example that displays none of the wild exuberance of Rabbi Shmuel’s ecstatic dance but, on the contrary, embodies the painfully monotonous virtue of the busy businessman who, despite the enormous pressures placed on his time by his business affairs and the need for his play-by-play attentiveness and availability to the constantly shifting floor of his game, nevertheless obstinately sticks to his schedule of praying three times a day and studying Torah on a daily basis. The obstinacy is an old inheritance. “For they are a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 34:9). “The fact that they are stiff-necked is a virtue … namely the resoluteness that inheres in souls to turn away from evil and do good without any rationalization and without any excuses or explanations.”13 Such stubbornness too is a species of holy folly. As the more prudent business associates of such a man will say, only a fool can devote himself in such a way to an invisible God when the color of money is right there before his eyes.

—Unless this stubborn fool sees something they don’t …. But what would constitute such seeing, this “higher” seeing? Is it another type of thinking? Is that how we are to understand its “height”?

Since its presentation by Alter Rebbe, the test case, admittedly an extreme one, the most extreme, in which something of the nature of this higher seeing is revealed is the case of the martyr. The Jews who climbed into the flames of an auto-da-fé upon being solicited to betray the G‑d of their fathers, “even when they were boors and ignoramuses and did not know of the greatness of the Lord,” suffered martyrdom “simply as if it this is something that is altogether impossible, namely to forsake the one Lord.”14

As during the Maccabee resistance to the regime of totalitarian reason, this extreme folly, folly unto self-sacrifice (mesirus nefesh), “comes from the perspective of the soul’s essence being bound up with G‑d, notably the category of yechidah. For what is at stake in this essential bond is that it is altogether impossible for the soul of the Jew to be in another manner, Heaven forbid.”15 It is impossible for the soul of the Jew to do otherwise, in other words, because it is impossible for this soul to be otherwise, to be other than what it is.

Being a Jew is something that is “too much reality” for reason. It transcends reason; more, it even transcends the transcendence of reason that takes place through the critique of reason.16 It is the quintessential identity of the self which Chassidic teaching calls yechidah, the point of absolute “onlyness” where the soul is at one with G‑d.17

But this peculiar situation regarding being is bound up with the special type of seeing that takes place above reason. In the technical vernacular of professional philosophers, we would say that the ontology here is an epistemology, or:— This being is a type of seeing.18

To have some idea, at least an inkling, of what this equation means, we might imagine ourselves taking a stroll in the Garden of Eden in the course of which we chance upon Adam and we decide to challenge him to produce a rational demonstration for the existence of his beloved Eve. Imagine how hard the man would laugh.

But even such an encounter with Adam, even if we fully got the joke on us, would only illuminate that type of knowledge (daat) that belongs to perfectly indubitable and undemonstrable, which is to say, perfect, intimacy. In order to reach the still higher ontology of yecḥidah, where the soul is not just perfectly intimate with G‑d but participates in the core-essence of G‑d, we must avail ourselves of the joke of someone like the Alter Rebbe’s fool.

Shmuel Munkis swayed in the breeze under the gate of the Alter Rebbe’s yeshivah. During that era, presumably, the shoe that a cobbler would suspend from a wall-mounted bracket above his storefront was a sample of his work. Whence Reb Shmuel’s profound point seems to have been that the Alter Rebbe’s yeshivah needed to be seen as a manufactory of sorts, and that he himself wished to provide a sample of the merchandise manufactured on the premises. This prank could no longer have the same effect during a later era when hanging signs were no longer samples but were instead exaggerated replicas or just painted representations of the product.

And yet perhaps it is possible to read another significance into Shmuel Munkis’s performance which remains of enduring validity and relevance. Perhaps this holy prank was also a kind of critique of signs—of signification. Perhaps what should make us laugh today is the lesson that a Jew cannot be, strictly speaking, signified. That a definition of a Jew, strictly speaking, and not for lack of eloquence, cannot be formulated. And this simply because the soul is not an “image” of something, not even an “image of G‑d,” at least not just that. Because, beyond all imagery, the soul is a part of G‑d. A sample of G‑dliness.

Or as Reb Shmuel’s explained to his audience in response to their amused consternation: “Above a Rebbe’s door there should hang a chassid !”