May 18, 2022

Fooled by Holiness

By Zohar Atkins

Sam Haddix, Untitled, 2016

I am a Jewish man trapped
in the body of a Jewish man.
—Charles Bernstein, “Unready, Unwilling, Unable”1

Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. 
—1 Corinthians 3:18

Just as nothing is more foolish than misplaced wisdom, so too, nothing is more imprudent than perverse prudence. And surely it is perverse not to adapt yourself to the prevailing circumstances, to refuse ‘to do as the Romans do,’ to ignore the party-goer’s maxim ‘take a drink or take your leave,’ to insist that the play should not be a play. True prudence, on the other hand, recognizes human limitations and does not strive to leap beyond them; it is willing to run with the herd, to overlook faults tolerantly or to share them in a friendly spirit. But, they say, that is exactly what we mean by folly. (I will hardly deny it—as long as they will reciprocate by admitting that this is exactly what it means to perform the play of life.)
—Erasmus, In Praise of Folly2

I.

To be a fool may be foolish, but to study the fool may be wise. It’s just as Saul Lieberman is purported to have said of Gershom Scholem’s academic study of Kabbalah: “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship.”

On the other hand, to be a fool may be wise, but to study the fool may be foolish. For who knows better what it is to be a fool—the fool, or the analyst of fools? The idea that one could know the native heart of the fool by becoming a tourist in the land of Chelm is itself some kind of joke. Will the anthropologist go rogue? There is no way to examine the fool without this risk, and there is no way to write about foolishness without the danger of becoming a double agent.

How can we discern which kind of foolishness is foolish and which wise? Is discernment in the wheelhouse of the fool or the sage? Or is it only when discernment falters that the sage and the fool prove to be reflections of one another, “two nations in your womb”?3

Can the fool be holy? Can the troll be a prophet? Can the idiot travel where the philosopher cannot? As the Talmud quotes: “Rabbi Yochanan said: From the day that the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to imbeciles and children.”4 Perhaps this situation is a punishment, perhaps a consolation. Either way, the Talmud offers us a postexilic theology in which God speaks to us indirectly: not from the center (the Temple), but from the margins (the socially excluded, the deranged).

I will not pretend to be a fool. Nor will I pretend to be superior to the fool. My argument is moderate: our lives, I propose, would be improved by admitting more of the right kind of foolishness into them. 

The fool as archetype is an extreme figure: a joker, a wild card, a coyote, a nudnik, a schlemiel, a gadfly. But he comes to remind us that foolishness is one-sixtieth of theophany (just as dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecy, and sleep is one-sixtieth of death: one-sixtieth is the halachic ratio of those illicit substances and mixtures that can exist in a whole without corrupting it). Not all fools are holy, but some open up a way.

II.

The biblical Psalms take a generally negative view towards fools. “How great are Your works, O LORD, how very subtle Your designs!” the psalmist cries. “A brutish man cannot know, a fool cannot understand this.”5

Here, the fool (k’sil) is a figure of arrogance, self-deceit. The fool is the one who falls into Socrates’s traps, the schlemiel who is easily taken in by appearances. The letters in his name, k’sil, sound like a play on the Hebrew word sechel—intelligence, or discernment. The fool cannot tell the difference that makes a difference. The fool is stuck in the Matrix.

However, according to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, cited above, one must become a fool to avoid self-deceit. The fool is therefore not stuck in the Matrix; rather, the fool is the only one who has a chance of leaving.

III.

Ecclesiastes moves us closer to an appreciation for the fool, not by virtue of the fool’s greatness, but by virtue of the fact that wisdom itself is a ruse. In a relativistic world, one might as well be a fool, since nothing is gained by being a philosopher:

A wise man has his eyes in his head,
Whereas a fool walks in darkness.
But I also realized that the same fate awaits them both.6 

The sage is fooled in thinking that he is superior to the fool. We are all fools. There is no escape from the Matrix. Those who think they can escape or have escaped are the biggest dupes. 

Lacan writes about this in his commentary on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,”  introducing us to the allegory of the three ostriches.7 The first has his head in the sand. The second looks on, feeling superior. But he doesn’t see the third ostrich who is taking advantage of him. Rather than posit a triad of ostriches, we might say that Ecclesiastes posits ostriches all the way down. It doesn’t matter that some have their heads in the sand. It’s no better to have one’s head above ground, either.

IV.

Within the domain of the foolish are two types: those who pretend to be fools in order to lead other fools to their doom, and those who really are fools.

In 2021, someone in the infamous Reddit group WallStreetBets declared to the investment establishment: “We can stay retarded longer than you can stay solvent.” This offensive, provocative statement has since been adopted as the rallying cry for this group of rogue retail investors who self-identify as a band of fools beating the experts by leveraging collective unpredictability. 

And yet, not all fools are equal. Some in the WallStreetBets forum are retail investors who genuinely believe that foolishness is more profitable than expertise. Others are experts who seek to incite the band of fools so as to take advantage of them. Some fools, in other words, fool us into thinking they are fools. Others are fooled by this. 

The dark side of the fool is the manipulator. But perhaps we cannot achieve genuine, fruitful foolishness without making ourselves vulnerable to the machinations of pseudofools, the Pied Pipers who weaponize absurdity to lead us off the cliffs of reason.

V.

The Talmud describes a person who goes mad with piety, the hasid shoteh:

Who is considered a foolish man of piety? One who sees that a woman is drowning in a river, and says to himself: It is not proper conduct to look at her while she is undressed and save her.8 

It’s an ironic scene: in an effort to avoid wrongdoing, the foolish “sage” becomes complicit in a tragic loss of life. Jewish law requires one to sacrifice most laws for the sake of saving a life. But one of the exceptions to the rule is “sexual immorality.” Here, the hasid shoteh mistakes a “fence” around sexual transgression (modesty) for the thing itself. The hasid shoteh is fooled by piety, mistaking the ritual for the ethical, or the legal for the moral.

So why does he avoid an “immodest” situation? One possibility is that he doesn’t want to be seen as acting immodestly. His propriety is what compromises him. A true fool would have jumped in the water, perhaps even if there had been no mortal risk.

Thus, the hasid shoteh is a person more concerned with the appearance of wrongdoing than with wrongdoing itself. A fool, on the other hand, is not self-conscious, for better and for worse. Thus, the schlemiel—like the child—can sometimes have more moral acuity than the person whose moral compass has become too tightly wound. 

The inverse case of the hasid shoteh is that of the sage Rabbi Samuel, son of Rabbi Isaac, who would dance before brides on their wedding day, with a branch of myrtle in his hand. Accused of cheapening or making light of rabbinic authority, this joker proved to be a righteous person. Upon his death, the Talmud declares, a pillar of fire went up to the heavens, signaling that he had brought the Divine Presence into the world.9

The practice of such foolery at weddings continues to this day, and often involves not just a badchan, a clown, but acts of levity conducted by otherwise serious people. Sometimes, the most effective forms of foolishness are delivered by those who are otherwise considered above such behavior.

VI.

We saw that the Psalms generally repudiate foolishness. But the Talmud takes a more complex view of the fool. For the line between nudnik and critical thinker is not always clear. Sometimes you have to be willing to ask annoying questions to push at the frontier of what’s known. But how can one tell a destructive question from a productive one—especially when the question is strange? These sorts of inquiries emerge from the following tale:

Peleimu raised a dilemma before Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi: In the case of one who has two heads, on which of them does he don phylacteries? Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi said to him: Either get up and exile yourself from here or accept upon yourself excommunication for asking such a ridiculous question. In the meantime, a certain man arrived and said to Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi: A firstborn child has been born to me who has two heads. How much money must I give to the priest for the redemption of the firstborn? A certain elder came and taught him: You are obligated to give him ten sela, the requisite five for each head.10

The rabbi scolds the fool Peleimu for asking stupid questions about nonexistent two-headed creatures. But then, the text tells us that such a person did exist! Bracketing the empirical question, we should ask: Does Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi change his mind? Or is it only the case that Peleimu’s question is theoretical (and therefore problematic) while the unnamed man’s query is grounded in reality?

The tale is sufficiently ambiguous, but one possibility is that the fool is eventually vindicated. Fools are simply people who are “early,” before their time. As times change and authorities adapt their frameworks to new realities, what once seemed foolish or a matter of “science fiction” becomes a pressing question. At some point Space Travel goes from pure fantasy, pure foolishness, to reality. It is thanks to fools, then, that innovation happens, and that the halacha expands.

And yet Peleimu’s question is not directly answered. The child born with two heads might live long enough to merit redemption by the priest, but will he live long enough to place two pairs of tefillin on himself? Perhaps a distinction remains, since a viable life and an adult life are not the same; the fool conflates biological existence with a thriving one. One can always rationalize the fool’s questions away if so motivated.

The story is a kind of Rorschach test. For it asks us to consider different lines of questioning: 1) Does law apply to beings that are impossible? 2) Does law apply to beings that are marginal? 3) How do we know whether a case is impossible or simply unheard of? 4) Are we willing to suspend our own doubts when confronting the case of the two-headed man?

Yet if the fool is thrown out of the academy for asking bad or annoying questions, he is returned to it through citation. Peleimu lives on in the pages of the Talmud, and his anecdote becomes the basis for a new teaching. It is not always fun being a fool or being around a fool, but indirectly, the fool contributes to the institutions that officially exclude him.

VII.

What explains the shift from the Bible’s view of the fool as simply bad to a rabbinic ambivalence about the fool? Does the fool become holy precisely in Exile, precisely in the wake of destruction? Is the fool an emblem of the hidden tzaddik, the messiah in rags?

Here we come to the idea, elucidated in Kabbalistic theology, that in times of darkness salvation will come not from the obvious places, but from those we tend to find embarrassing, minor, or insignificant. When the king is gone, the fool is all that remains.

By the early modern period, the fool or court jester became a kind of profession. King Lear’s fool, for instance, is the main source of sanity in a drama in which the king’s mind is warped by power.

Read Jewishly, every king is a symbol of God. A fool without a king is an image of tzimtzum, the contraction of God’s infinite presence to make space for finite creation. God is not in the world, God is absent. But the trace of God is available in the figure of the fool. For if there is a fool, there is a court. And if there is a court, then there is a sovereign. The fool is the corporal expression of the via negativa, the path of negation by which we arrive at the real presence of the Divine.

In a secular age, perhaps every fool is holy, for every fool is a finger pointing at an empty throne.

VIII.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was a paradoxical thinker who found God to be present in absence, and who found wisdom and delight in irony and humor. Many of his stories can be read as vindications of foolishness, attempts to show that cleverness and wisdom are not the same. Nachman’s fools may be naïve, but their naïveté saves them from overthinking, as in the story of the “chacham and tam”—a Hasidic version of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” in which an excess of cleverness and ambition leads to downfall while innocence and piety eventually win out. 

Or consider the heroic fool in Nachman’s story “The Chandelier,” in which the perfect chandelier-maker is said to be the one who can make a chandelier entirely composed of flaws. For only a perfect craftsman could show other craftsmen their imperfections.

IX.

Socrates was the wisest man for knowing that he didn’t know. But does the fool know that he doesn’t know? In contrast to the Socratic questioner, the Jewish fool is not always so deliberate. Sometimes the village idiot is more like a dupe who inadvertently stumbles upon a treasure than a coy cross-examiner. Perhaps the difference here is the difference between the philosophical and religious approaches to life and knowledge. The Socratic moral is that reason must fall on itself. The Schlemielian moral is that when the Jew trips, there is sometimes treasure on the floor. The one deploys reason and dialectic as a tactic of advancement, while the other allows God to offer grace in moments of clumsiness.

X.

If we are trying to be fools, we are trying too hard. But without trying to be fools we find that we often are. While some forms of foolishness are unproductive, other forms are generative. We can’t always tell which is which; part of the paradox of foolishness is the way it offers redemption in moments of difficulty or even monstrosity. 

The fool is a challenging figure because nonduality is a challenging theology. But the fool is also a welcome figure: for foolishness is one-sixtieth of wisdom. The fool transports seriousness to the land of the comic and comedy to the land of the serious. The fool is in the world, but not of it; in the world to come, but not of it, either. The fool is on and off the derekh, spilling the soup of history and reciting the grace after meals before the meal has begun. But the fool is also right and righteous. For there is no before and after in the Torah.

Footnotes

  1. Charles Bernstein, Recalculating (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 129.
  2. Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, trans. Clarence H. Miller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 44.
  3. Genesis 25:23.
  4. Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 12b.
  5. Psalms 92:6–7.
  6. Ecclesiastes 2:14.
  7. Jacques Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,'” trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, Yale French Studies, no. 48 (1972): 44.
  8. Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 21b.
  9. Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 17a.
  10. Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 37a.

Zohar Atkins is the rabbi and founder of Etz Hasadeh and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He writes a philosophy newsletter and is the host of the podcast Meditations with Zohar. He is also the author of Nineveh and Unframing Existence.