Q: How is chassidus relevant to Jews today?
R. Steinsaltz: My background is such that chassidus was the only way that Judaism appealed to me. To ignore chassidus is like going back to the Judaism of the Gemorrah and ignoring the Acharonim. The reason chassidism did not spread all over the world was assimilation and the destruction of the Jews, due to the pogroms in Russia and the Holocaust.
Q: Can chassidus provide any understanding and comfort with respect to these tragic events?
R. Steinsaltz: Since the expulsion from Spain, the only theology that our people have had is the theology of the Kabbalah. Kabbalah is accepted not only by chassidim, but also by those who opposed it. The Vilna Gaon was possibly more deeply involved with and wrote more about Kabbalah than many of the chasidic masters put together. Even the Sefardim have been taken with the Kabbalah. So kabbalistic ideas don't belong only to the chassidic point of view. They are a part of a general Jewish psychology and theology.
R. Chaim Vital in his kabbalistic work Sefer Etz Hayyim writes, that our world is such that it's mostly evil. Evil is the ruler of this world and there is very little good in it. In the 18th century dispute between Leibnitz and Voltaire, Leibnitz said we lived in the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire mocked Leibnitz and felt that we lived in the worst possible world. From a Jewish point of view, my answer is: "We are living in the worst of all possible worlds in which there is still hope." There are worlds below us in which there is no hope at all, and this is what we call "Hell." But to speak of the entire structure of the world: it really is a world teetering on the edge. If it were to be just ever so slightly worse than it actually is, its basic structure would become entirely hopeless; the balance would be irreversible and evil would be irrevocable.
Evil can be conquered, but we live in a world in which we have to deal with a vast amount of evil. This is not usually understood as a Jewish idea, is really a statement of what I would call "Jewish optimism." If a person sees the world as warm, fuzzy, he's a fool. An optimist is one who, in spite of seeing the terrible facts, believes that there can be improvement. If everything were all right, then you wouldn't have to be an optimist. I do believe that we, as Jews, are optimists because we are a people with hope and we have a theology of hope.
Q: But has G-d placed us in this worst of all possible, but hopeful worlds for a reason?
R. Steinsaltz: You're referring to certain mysteries that simply can't be grasped. One such is the purpose of Creation. The Midrash mentions that the Almighty had a taiva (desire), to create a Creation and if you have a desire, you don't ask "why". A taiva can't be explained. To answer a question about the "why" of Creation, can be proven to be impossible. Such questions are unanswerable, not because we lack knowledge, but by definition. Yet this much can be said: When you speak about the world from this point of view, it is, so to speak, an experiment in existence, an experiment where rectification is possible. So in a way, existence in any other world is not "proof." Proof in the most extreme case occurs only when you can do things under the worst of circumstances. If I want to test a new car, the way to do it is to put it through the most extreme conditions. I cannot test it by driving it off a cliff, but I can test it on the roughest terrain where I come to the edge of a cliff and have to stop. How is a new plane tested? They put it through nearly impossible conditions short of the plane disintegrating. Otherwise the whole experiment doesn't prove anything. The same with Creation. Creation would have been pointless unless it were a Creation under precisely these difficult circumstances. So, theologically speaking, the worst possible world in which there is yet hope is the only world in which Creation makes sense.
Q: You have made an analogy to a mathematical problem that can only be solved by positing a point in a third dimension. Could you elaborate on this and could you explain what the problem on earth is that we need to solve and how does the point in the higher dimension solve it?
R. Steinsaltz: I made a similar point when I spoke to a group of science historians in Russia. It was a group of people, supposedly atheists, and I argued that without getting to the fifth dimension, problem in this world can't be solved. By problems of the world I mean all the basic questions, not just the theological and philosophical ones such as "What is the purpose of things?" "Why are we here?" or "What is the justification for the things we experience?" But I am speaking of other, more mundane questions as well. I don't believe that you can resolve problems of economic justice or social equity from within any given "earthly" framework. This is because such frameworks can't assure their own success. You can show, for example, that there are many elements that will make even an egalitarian framework socially and economically problematic and which will lead to its collapse. So most of the questions of the world, economic, ecological, philosophical come to an impasse and are unsolvable within the framework of our own world. This is because the world contains enough contradictions, enough destructive elements, so as to eliminate any possibility of a solution. The only way we can solve these questions is through movement into a higher dimension or world.
One example: you cannot have an egalitarian society in which justice prevails unless you have a belief in something higher. Democracy is based, strangely enough, on a religious principle. Democracy would be totally irrational unless we held firm to the belief that we have souls and that these souls are all equal to one another. As it states in Orwell's 1984, one can't rationally make the statement that all men are equal, this is simply because it is obviously untrue. People are not equal from any point of view. Therefore, to create a society based on the notion that the vote of a wise person carries the same weight as that of a drug addict, you must posit that they have equal souls. This is also true with respect to the rights of man as well. Why should a person who is the highest intellectual be regarded as equal to somebody who is ignorant or who is a criminal with respect, for example, to the right to be saved by a given medical procedure? Therefore, this belief that people have souls and that souls are of inestimable, equal value, is the source of every social structure we hold dear.
Q: And that's how that point in the fifth dimension solves the equation?
Rabbi Steinsaltz: Yes, without having the (unprovable) notion that we have souls, we would be unable to have a just society. An egalitarian society would collapse under the weight of people's natural differences. The notion in The Talmud that one should have self sacrifice with respect to bloodshed is based on the question: "What makes you believe that your blood is redder than the blood of another?" One might well answer: "What do you mean `what makes me believe ...'? This guy is a no-good lowlife and I am so and so, the great. I should be killed to save the life of this miserable wretch?" But by Jewish law, if am ordered, at the expense of my own life to kill him, I cannot. I must be killed rather than kill another person regardless of any difference in status. Because who knows that my blood is redder and I am superior? This statement serves as the basis for the very possibility of law. Where does it come from?
Q: So you feel that the world is riddled with these contradictions and in every case, not just here, the higher world is needed to resolve them?:
R. Steinsaltz: Yes, but that's just one example. We don't have enough time for all the world's other problems.