If I Wasn’t a Chassid I’d Be a Nihilist
Laugh Out Loud—everything matters!
The following personal essay comes from Ariel Fine, a high school English teacher, and part-time writer who is currently studying for his rabbinic ordination in Brooklyn, NY.
Nihilism and Chassidism seem to be on opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum, yet my mind seems to believe that I can reconcile them. It’s likely that I cannot, but at the very least I can explain why I am drawn to each philosophy and justify why I choose to believe in Chassidism, with all its obligations, instead of in the pure negation of nihilism.
I was only introduced to nihilism recently—academically, anyway. Experientially, it has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I was learning chassidus for many years and was beginning to think more broadly when I decided to expand my studies to other schools of philosophy and mysticism. My intention was to find more words that I could use to explain and understand chassidus. I cannot fully describe the sense I had when I came across nihilism. It simply resonated on a deep level. Naturally, being a chassid, I felt the need to synthesize my new affinity toward nihilism with my belief in Chassidism.
Nihilism is, at least in my view, the philosophy that life has no meaning and that nothing is real. This is a wonderful outlook on things. If nothing means anything, then nothing really matters. Free from the anxiety of whether you have made or will make the right choices, you can never screw up! There are no mistakes because everything you do is of equal value—none of it means anything! All the rules about right and wrong are based on the illusion that some source of authority exists outside of the nothing that is everything. But there’s no authority, say the nihilists, so there’s no reason to accept the rules. No rules mean that you will always be free, no matter where you are.
Perhaps it will be clearer if I illustrate the inverse. If you believe that everything matters and life is inherently meaningful, then you will always be burdened with the task of living up to your potential. What if I made the wrong choice? What if I waste an opportunity? What if I fail? Being a nihilist promises to free you from these worries. You never have to become something or be someone. Nothing can ever go wrong! Nor do you have to worry about other people’s feelings or your obligations to them.
If you just accept the absurdity of this meaningless existence, you can live a liberated and, ironically, a meaningful life. It’s almost as if nihilism, which denies religion and afterlife, is a life-affirming philosophy. It forces you to stop searching for something greater, something beyond yourself, some “out there” higher-purpose bullshit. Instead, it forces you to be in the here and now only. Because there is nothing else (there isn’t even this).
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I have no deeper explanation for why I am drawn to nihilism, but the great thing about it is that I don’t need one. The whole point of believing in nothing is that it doesn’t need to be justified. What would you even justify it with? More nothing? There is something to be said for how satisfying it feels to not give a crap about anything. Nothing can ever bother me if nothing means anything. I’ll be like the bottom of a riverbed and let everything just rush over me—water, fish, plants, life. The riverbed never changes, never even flinches at what flows by. Existence sounds like hard work, but the riverbed is a very comfortable and pleasing mode for getting through it.
However, the same case can be made in reverse because, ultimately, as lovely as the dream may be, we cannot become riverbeds. Our minds insist on making sense of the world. And if life is meaningless, you, a meaning-seeking being, will always be uncomfortable and burdened by thinking, “What is the point?” Never at ease, always missing something, and lacking direction. You’ll be prone to let life slip by without feeling a need to do something about it until one day you find yourself overcome by intense regret. Just thinking about the last time in my life when I had no direction, no goals or drive, I become intensely miserable. You can probably recall a similar period from your own life.
Chassidus, the ideas derived from the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples, is the absolute antithesis of nihilism. Chassidus says that everything is purposeful, nothing is a mistake, and every person in every moment has a meaningful task to fulfill. Yes, that sounds daunting. Responsibility is always a little scary. But I think, perhaps counterintuitively, that only structure, direction, and obligation allow for a truly liberated existence. Chassidus gives us that direction and that drive for something greater, something beyond ourselves.
Chassidus does not ask that we accept imprisonment over freedom. Rather, the goal it outlines is a unity between the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the now. Chassidus does not require you to negate your life in lieu of something greater. On the contrary, it teaches that the higher meaning and truth of existence are not kept far from us in the heavens but are found in the present moment, inside the confines of your personality and the reality that surrounds you. In simple words, the point is the here and the now. According to chassidus, that is the most satisfying thing in life: to idealize that the ultimate “beyond” is in the ever “now.”
I don’t choose to be a chassid. I just am one. I don’t necessarily prefer chassidus, but it is my mother tongue, my home base. Chassidus rings deeper and truer than anything else could.
That being said, I do believe that chassidus has an edge over nihilism. Judaism at large and chassidus especially has within it a concept of nihilism. We can find examples of nihilistic negation in the books of Job and Koheles, in which individuals struggle with a sense of meaninglessness and despair. It’s there as well in the chassidic concept of Atzmus, God’s true identity, which is described as being nothing we can ever fathom; i.e., it is nothing. God is also the only thing that exists. Thus, everything is nothing. Huh. However, chassidus doesn’t leave the conversation there. Rather, it puts everything into context. It explains how we really are significant because God gives us that significance. Nihilism does a great job of defining a human experience, but it leaves you hanging empty. It tries to silence the inner voice, the struggle that we all have. Chassidus does not. Chassidus lifts you up by validating your inner voice and by giving you opportunities to grow and become accomplished.
Chassidus teaches us that through ascribing meaning and responsibility to things, we can ultimately re-arrive at that place of “nothingness.” This time, however, it won’t be an empty nothing, it will be an enlightened nothing, a Godly nothing. A nothing of wholeness and truth.
An earlier version of this essay appeared at the author’s Substack, Ariel’s World.