Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Beshalah (Hasidism)

Moses and the People

For a change, I will begin with the concluding incident of this week’s Torah portion: the battle with Amalek. R. Nahum of Chernobol, the Me’or Einayim, elaborates on a well-known Rabbinic dictum concerning this incident:

“And it happened, when Moses lifted his hands, [then Israel were stronger; but when he laid down his hands, Amalek was stronger]” [Exod 17:11]. In the gemara of Rosh Hashana (29a), it is asked: “And did Moses’ hands make war or break war? Rather, when Israel looked upward [and subjugated their hearts to their Heavenly Father, they grew stronger; and if not, they would fall].” Offhand, the original question remains: “And did Moses’ hands [make war]?” Since it all depended upon whether or not Israel gazed heavenward, why is Moses’ name mentioned in the verse…? Is it not the looking upward of Israel that makes the war?

The biblical verse, describing the war against the Amalekites who attacked the weak rear-guard of the straggly mob of Israelites shortly after the Exodus, suggests that Moses’ hands somehow miraculously contributed to the Israelite victory—so much so, that when he grew tired, a stone was placed beneath them to prop them up. The Rabbinic dicta (actually a mishnah, in Rosh Hashana 3.8) takes this a step further, moving the source of victory from human effort and skill to religious submission, humility, trust and faith in God. But, as R. Nahum of Chernobol points out, this dictum leaves a basic question unanswered: if it was all ultimately a function of the people’s attitude, rather than of Moses’ actions, why are these mentioned at all?

But it is known that the essential thing in man’s service of his Creator is Da’at (i.e., knowledge/awareness), for it is by its means that he truly knows and understands and comprehends the Creator and shall serve Him, as is written, “Know the God of your fathers and serve Him” [1 Chr 28:9]. And Da’at is divided into love and fear. For by [a person] having complete knowledge of God, may He be blessed, he loves Him and fears Him, to listen to His voice and perform His commandments.

Now love and fear are called “hands” and “eternal arms.” And it is well known that Moses our Teacher, z”l, was the Da’at of all Israel. And this is what is meant by, “when Moses lifted his hands,” which is the Da’at of all Israel; for by means of this Da’at he lifted up his hands, which are called Love and Fear, as mentioned, which are called the eternal arms. Then, by this means, Israel gazed upwards, since their Da’at, meaning the attributes of love and fear, are lifted up. Therefore Israel became strengthened; and similarly the opposite, when he laid down his hands. We therefore find that the gazing of Israel upwards or downwards is itself the attribute of Moses lifting his arm or laying them down, as stated.

A central idea implied here is the complete symbiosis between the people and the leader, as if they were one body. In Hasidic thought, the connection between Hasid and Rebbe is not only based upon what actually happens in the personal encounters between the two (which may be relatively infrequent), but on the idea of a “soul connection” between the two, of invisible conduits of energy from the Rebbe to the Hasid. The former is described elsewhere as “the head of the community.” True, the concept of the Rebbe (or Tzaddik) is not as central for R. Nahum as it is for R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk, but it nevertheless seems implicit here.

Equally important here is the idea that the people constitute a single organic entity. Once again, this is a major problem in modern culture, and a significant watershed between it and traditional Judaism. Much of contemporary social theory grants preeminence to the individual, his rights, and their protection. To this school, this is in fact the main role of government, while the polity or society are often seen as having no valid moral or other claims on the individual beyond the minimum required to guarantee the private, individual rights of others. For some, claims made in the name of social cohesion or mutual responsibility or the historical-cultural heritage of a given national group are seen as tantamount to fascism. In Israel today there is sharp polarization around these kinds of issues; the conventional wisdom sees society bifurcated between a more traditionalist, “right-wing,” which celebrates old-fashioned Zionist and Jewish identity, and “Left-wing” urban secularists, influenced by the American ideals of privatism and economic liberalism. The latter are often opposed to “ideology” in reaction to the old-school of pioneering Zionism, which left an entire generation with an overdose of collectivist talk and rhetoric and “recruited,” even “Bolshevik” thinking. Interestingly, in the United States there recently seems to be a certain resurgence of communitarian thinking, doubtless prompted by the awareness that privatism has been taken as far as reasonable in culture.

In any event, it is clear that within Judaism, the notion of collectivity, of mutual responsibility and interconnectedness, is not only a quasi-mystical concept rooted in Hasidism and Kabbalah, but also a basic halakhic idea: “All Israel are responsible [or perhaps, translating literally: ‘bondsmen’] for one another” and “Do not stand over your brother’s blood.”

Shabbat Shirah and Tu Bishevat: On Hasidim and Mitnaggedim

The following unsystematic reflections were inspired by the confluence this year (and many other years) of Shabbat Shirah and Tu bi-Shevat. These two occasions both seem to express the aesthetic, poetic, celebratory, and universally appealing side of Judaism, free of heavy moralising or otherwise troublesome and conflict-producing aspects.

The Song of the Sea, from which Parshat Beshalah derives its title as “the Sabbath of Song,” is a central focus for the experience of song in Judaism—simultaneously verbal , musical, and dance. It stands at a central point in the liturgy, as both the halakhic source for the laws of Hallel, and the final section read in the daily Pesukei de-Zimra (a subject to which we shall return in a few weeks). Shabbat Shirah, with its emphasis on song and melody, thus stands on the interface between structured prayer and the outpouring of emotion represented by song.

Tu bi-Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, likewise connects to this poetic, nature-loving side of Judaism, celebrated as it is with tables laden with various kinds of fruits and nuts and, in Israel, with the planting of saplings. It might well be described as a concrete manifestation of the Hasidic idea of avodah begashmiut, the service of God in and through the concrete, physical world.

In addition, Parshat Beshalah is the source for the mitzvah of the Third Meal (Se’udah Shelishit) eaten on Shabbat afternoon. The three-fold repetition of the word hayom (“today”) in the verses about the manna (Exod 16:25) is taken by Shabbat 117b as the source for this mitzvah. This practice is an important focal point in Hasidic life: traditionally, the third meal, eaten in the synagogue, is the occasion for the Rebbe to “say Torah” to his flock. It is also a time when many people are accustomed to singing songs expressing the soul’s deep yearning for God: Yedid Nefesh; El Mistater; slow, meditative melodies without words; and, especially, the Lurianic table hymn composed for this meal, B’nai Heikhala, which expresses the idea that this is a time of special Divine grace and love (ra’ava de-ra’avin). Indeed, the very act of eating this meal may often be performed (especially on short winter Shabbats) purely for the sake of the mitzvah, to demonstrate one’s joy and attachment to God in the Shabbat; even if one is not hungry, one eats a small amount, simply for the sake of the mitzvah. Thus, this meal too is a kind of concretization of the Hasidic idea of avodah begashmiut, of serving God in and through the concrete, physical realm.

On the other hand, for me this date, more than any other, symbolizes the conflict or polarity between the Hasidic and Mitnaggedic aspects of in own personal experience. The 15th of Shevat is the Yahrzeit of my paternal grandfather, Rav Simhah Eliyahu Cypkewicz, who was the very model of the Lithuanian lamdan. A student at the Lomza yeshiva, he received semikha from R. Yitzhak of Brisk, and was renowned for his piety and hatmadah, ceaseless devotion to learning. Shy, something of a recluse, his life was devoted, more than anything else, to the study of the Talmud; family legend has it that he died, 55 years ago, sitting at his shtender (reading stand) learning Talmud. He was extremely reluctant to come to the United States even after the rest of my grandmother’s family had migrated from Poland, in the first decade of the last century, because it was a “treif” land, unconducive to the life of traditional piety and study. (By contrast, my other grandfather, though not formally a hassid, was raised by his grandfather, Rav Eliyahu Yosef Galante of Radzhanowa, who in his youth had been a disciple of the great R. Simhah Bunem of Psyshyscha, and who himself peppered his popular sermons with Hasidic stories and parables).

Turning to a more general purview: How are we to interpret, and ultimately perhaps harmonize, these two diametrically opposed movements? This is a vast subject, with a vast literature—traditional, academic, anecdotal—which I can only address now in a most sketchy fashion. On the one hand: Mitnaggedism, traditional halakhic Judaism, may best be characterized as hard, concrete, rooted in the everyday reality of this world. Talmudic learning is concerned with the stuff of actual human life—business matters, family life, damages—and with concrete realia, such as the definition of Sabbath domains and forbidden Sabbath labors, the niceties of pure and impure vessels, and even such seemingly unseemly topics as the examining of animal innards (for tereifot), or the details of women’s menstrual flow (for laws of niddah), etc. Hasidism, by contrast, is concerned with more intangible, subjective realms, such as the nature of kavvanah (inner intention in prayer); the inner vagaries of the soul (depression and alien thoughts); the ebb and flow of religious consciousness (mohin degadlut, mohin dekatnut); the role of the leader (Tzaddik) in the inner life of community, or else with the interrelations of the sefirot and various other Kabbalistic concepts, all of which by their nature cannot be pinned down in any final, definitive way.

Thus, on the theoretical level, whereas Hasidism often seems to have a dualistic bent, perceiving the vast gulf between Heaven and Earth which it strives to bridge through prayer and intensity of religious emotion (witness the numerous Hasidic stories and melodies that revolve around the themes of yearning and distance), Mitnaggedism seems solidly rooted in a this-worldly acceptance and sanctification of this world. This, writ large, is the thesis of Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik’s famous essay Halakhic Man. Indeed, in that essay (p. 91) he quotes a story that very much stresses the centrality of the earth-grounded ethical moment: “Once R. Hayyim of Brisk was asked what the function of a rabbi is. R. Hayyim replied: ‘To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.’”

On the other hand, in actual practice Hasidism often seems more rooted in concrete, everyday life. Whereas the Lithuanian ideal, with its emphasis on learning, tends to stress the accomplishments of the extraordinary individual, and often seems to produce a reclusive, ascetic, aloof elitist type, Hasidism often stresses the making of community of ordinary ba’alei batim, which are noted for their extraordinary level of social cohesion and esprit de cours. The Mitnaggedic type often seems dour, strict, even harsh and overly critical, while the Hasid seems filled with a more easy acceptance of this world, a kind of joie de vivre, as in the popular images of the Hasid singing, dancing, drinking “Lehayyim” and eating kugel. Yet in truth, both types exist in both worlds, and stereotypes are little more than that. There are Hasidic shteiblakh and Mitnaggedic batei midrash where one can find minyanim characterized by deep, soulful prayer, and places of both types where one can find people racing through the davening. There are ascetic Hasidim, and there are jolly Mitnaggedim, for whom studying Torah is not only a holy act and obligation, but also just about the best fun and good time they can imagine.


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