"Every human being, even the greatest of the great, has periods of elation and depression, of ups and downs, and this lack of spiritual equilibrium is inherent in the nature of things and is not necessarily a function of the individual's own failings." by Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz

The Rabbi's Essays
"Most of the Jewish people are so very scattered and removed from each other that they hardly ever find a common language, or even any language that makes sense to them as Jews. This is what is called assimilation, which is basically the loss of the common heritage. We therefore have to try to reach some deeper levels of the soul, many of them bordering on the unconscious, to help us get back to talking together, to having some kind of a common language."

Homecoming by Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz.
Articles in English:
Search Essays
Innocence And Modern Man

The Crisis of Innocence

The Hebrew word for innocence – temimut – comes from the same root as wholeness, perfection. And although the word is not used in the exact same meaning as "perfection," it is universally accepted that innocence entails a state of primordial perfection.

How does innocence find expression? How do we define it? Usually we see innocence as a direct approach to things, an approach that is neither convoluted nor intricate, without complicating and without even thinking that things can be complicated. It’s a simple, direct approach based on trust and without apprehension.

Surely, the innocent approach is not always sufficient for finding solution or unraveling intricacies, either natural or man-made ones. But innocence can sometimes fall short, because it can be deceived and tricked, and as a result it often seems to us somewhat ridiculous and silly.

But however we may relate to innocence, we must realize that innocence, or rather the innocent attitude towards things, is a primary attitude or, to be precise, the most pristine attitude. It is pristine in two senses: firstly, time-wise. Childhood is the first stage in human life, and at this stage the human being is very innocent. Who is more innocent than a baby? Innocence is the baby's point of departure – it is his ability and desire to hear, to learn, and to believe everything he is told. And it is this attitude that eventually brings him to whatever else he studies. Psychologically, too, innocence is the most basic attitude, it precedes all the other human attitudes throughout a person's life, as well as in the world in general.

Innocence which, as we said, is the most pristine conception of things, without complications and without problems – but simply as they are, is characteristic not only of childhood, but also of spirituality. Spirituality must, as a primary means of conceiving and understanding, absorb things as they are – innocently. In grasping things for the first time, one cannot quip with the facts or analyze them, because he must first grasp their very existence. Only then can one begin to investigate, analyze and compare; but the basis for all that is the simple, innocent grasp of reality.

But if man is born innocent, and this is how he grasps the world, why does he not remain so? The reason for this crisis of innocence – on in terms of the personal crisis of the adolescent and of the general crisis of sophisticated generations – is in innocence itself.

Innocence, being holistic, does not contain the possibility of making distinctions. Innocence can only be one, and can always be directed towards one object (or a group of similar objects). But at a certain point in human development, man begins to know about different objects, which at first he learns about innocently, but then finds out that they are different and even contradictory, and he can no longer contain. Thus, innocence becomes self-destructing, and is followed by periods of life, and by generations, that are convoluted and intricate – but which are accompanied by an ever growing thirst for this lost primordial innocence, with longing for those times when everything was so whole and perfect.

Three Types of Error

One can find among modern men different, even contradictory attitudes toward innocence; yet they are all based on one premise: innocence is a lie, complexity and complication is the truth.

In certain people, this premise will create contempt for innocence and admiration for all forms of complexity. This contempt for innocence is accompanied with a measure of anger and envy. The man in the street mocks all forms of innocence and derides simple-minded adherence to ideals – but in his heart of hearts he envies the innocent.

A more sophisticated approach is conscious of the advantages and value of innocence, and is even aware of the shortcomings of the loss of innocence. Still, he is fettered to intricacy by his striving to reach the truth, saying: How happy are the foolish innocent, and what a shame that I cannot deceive myself like them.

A third attitude, which differs from the first two, is also based on the premise that complexity is the truth – but it consciously chooses innocence, saying: It is better to delve into pleasant experiences that make one happy than to get involved in the difficulties of real life.

This last approach, although it seems to be a sort of innocence, is nothing more than synthetic, sham innocence. A person who embraces such an approach does not become innocent, even if he adopts this view in earnest, because he nevertheless believes that his innocence is nonsense – or a lie. In addition, such innocence cannot exist for long, because it goes against the natural flow of life. Life evolves from the simple to the complex; this is the way of the world. Any attempt to return to innocence is therefore bound to fail. In fact, it seems that nothing can stop the further evolvement of ever growing complexity.

More Problems on the Way to Innocence

After realizing that whatever path modern man may choose will only take him farther and farther away from innocence, we should ask ourselves: Is the return to innocence at all possible?

One thing is certain: the existing premise makes the return to innocence impossible; only once we get rid of it will we be able to see if there is indeed a way back to innocence.

Obviously, the premise that complexity is the truth, and innocence a lie, is only a subjective, psychological feeling that has no mental basis. Man feels a strong tie with complexity, because complexity is man-made. Man does things without asking himself why, and is so immersed in creativity that he no longer has the time to ask himself what the point of it all is. He likes the things he does, and feels no need to find a reason for them. At moments of leisure man may entertain some thoughts about how complicated the world has gotten, and how complicated it can get, to the point of perdition; but soon enough he gets immersed again in his work and continues to do all sorts of things that are sure to bring about his annihilation.

All of this is augmented by the fact that being busy with his own work makes man feel independent, free and mature. It is only when this freedom and independence – and the responsibility that comes with them – get to be too heavy, does man begin to look back to innocence. Because innocence is weakness, it is the direct result of the child's weakness and total dependency; but innocence makes sense only when one is completely confident of being assisted.

The transition from innocent dependence to mature complex independence occurs both in the life of the individual and in the history of the human race. In ancient times, man felt his dependency on so many natural and social factors, and at the same time he was also much simpler, psychologically. Modern man, on the other hand, has control over so many natural forces – and the greater his control, the greater his inner complexity; he must, just must be sophisticated and wily in order to circumvent all the world's complexities.

It is therefore extremely difficult for modern man to admit his weakness and his dependence on powers greater than he. Admitting his dependence means ceding his independence and maturity, and even more so – his wisdom, which enabled him to overcome nature's forces and improve his quality of life, and which seems to him the highest, most supreme wisdom that can solve any problem.

The wisdom-complex haunts man wherever he goes; being (or at least seeming to be) wise is considered a supreme value, whereas any deviation from wisdom seems humiliating. In this context, the return to innocence looks like a nightmare, and is tantamount to the loss of spiritual existence.

The way to innocence, then, is fraught with many obstacles that originate in the psyche and which, although they have no logical basis, are profoundly influential. These obstacles must be examined closely and eradicated through education.

But in fact, underneath all these problems there hide other, more fundamental issues that have to do with the very relationship between innocence and today's complex world. The most fundamental issue is the essential disparity between innocence and intricacy. Innocence is simple unity that can neither be divided not multiplied. How can all the myriad objects and concepts of this world be included within this unity? And the other problem is psychological: is all of life really leading towards development and expansion, despite the difficulties? And if so, is it at all possible to direct life in a different direction? And, on other words: is there still a way to regain innocence?

About the Way Out

Being both innocent and cunning seems impossible. The concessions entailed in the return to innocence seem to require a tremendous effort, even when the pain created by complexity is great. It is always impossible to solve one's life problems from within oneself, when innocence is but a desired value within an entire set of values.

In order to regain innocence we must turn to a supreme cause which is above and beyond the whole set of human values. Only an Archimedean point of leverage will disentangle this mess. A prisoner cannot free himself from prison. Man can emerge from the labyrinth of his existence only when he feels the presence of a Supreme Entity, for the sake of which he can give up on everything.

But beyond the point of concession there is another, deeper point: is there no inner contradiction in an innocent, simplistic approach to complex issues? Is it possible to achieve innocence only through demolishing, or ignoring, complexity?

In order to reply to this question we must first make a clear distinction between human acts and the emotions they create. The progress and development created by man are positive, even necessary, and should not be ceded; but it must also not be allowed to foster self admiration, which is a kind of idol worship. It is this sort of emotions that create complexity and intricacy and threaten human psychological integrity.

The remedy lies in the awareness that despite human progress, independence and maturity, man still needs to rely on his weakness and innocence. He still is as unable as he ever was to nourish his own soul and direct the path of his life from within, and he will always need divine assistance in order to live a good, true and full life. He desperately needs innocence, and passivity, in order to absorb the absolute, super-human truth.

But changing the way we feel is not enough: emotions must be given an objective, intellectual basis. How can man remain innocent, while still retaining his understanding of the complex world around him? In the final analysis, the relationship between innocence and complexity, unity and multiplicity, is the issue of faith in the one God as against the great multiplicity of phenomena and myriad beings of this world. How can man adhere to God's simple unity, without being swept by the things of this world?

The solution lies in the Chassidic worldview that says that "God's glory fills the entire world" – Divine unity is to be found in every single part of our complex universe. Every place, every situation, every psychological and philosophical tangle can lead us to the Creator – because He is within it, because He is revealed within the multiplicity of hues and contradictions. All this multiplicity is but different aspects of one and the same thing, and are all revelations thereof.

This is also the solution of the problem of life vs. innocence. Because if everything that there is in life, all the seemingly contradictory manifestations, are only the unity within multiplicity, unity that encompasses all of life and is reflected in every one of its aspects. The entire flow of human life, with all its beauty, are the revelations of the unity within multiplicity.

So the solution to the problem of innocence is not ignoring multiplicity but rather finding the unity within multiplicity. Innocence is not gained by waiving wisdom: true innocence can be found within disunion. Man's task is to find the unifying principle of all of reality, and then everyone will see the multiplicity as parts of the one unity. And the very understanding that one cannot evade the One, Who is found in everything, is itself the key to wholeness and perfection.