Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Mishpatim (Hasidism)

In the early days of the Havurat Shalom, almost every year someone would point out how this Torah selection was a kind of let down after the “high” of Yitro. One week we read of the unique human-divine encounter of Mount Sinai, of how the people heard the voice of God or, as the text actually says, “seeing the voices”—a turn of phrase on which both the Zohar and Rabbinic Midrash pick up, saying that there was such intensity of concentrated energy (to use contemporary language), that the people’s senses crossed with one another, and they “saw” that which they ordinarily only heard. The next week, we read a codex of mundane civil laws: what to do with your endentured servant; how much compensation to pay if someone’s cow, or crop, or tools, are damaged or lost; the responsibilities are of different kinds of shomrim, people entrusted with guarding other’s property; an anxious father’s guide on what his rights are if his young daughter is seduced or raped; etc.

This line of thought always bothered me. The various halakhot are in fact seen as the very stuff and substance of God’s Torah. The vast bulk of the traditional yeshiva curriculum is not sublime theological insights, but Baba Metzia and Baba Batra and Gittin and Ketuvot and the rest—the detailed working out, nay, hammering out in the debate in the Beit Midrash, and in the case book of Rabbinic courts, of the laws that make human society tick, on the every day level. The day after the dazzling brilliance of the sights of Sinai, one awakens to the grey reality of the everyday, of “the day of small things”—but such is the essence of Torah.

I found both a strange appropriateness and irony that Parshat Mishpatim should fall just after the Israeli elections [of 2002], when these words were first written. By way of analogy, anybody who was foolish enough to think that Israel would wake up on the morning after elections to see a bright new dawn breaking, was surely disabused of that illusion on Wednesday morning. A sense akin to despair, that Israeli democracy had exhausted itself in a tumult of noise and fury, signifying nothing, and the mountain gave birth to a mouse; that in the midst of the country’s worst crisis in its history, the public seemed blasé, apathetic, fatalistic, lacking in the belief that anything can change. After all the coalition haggling, and our leaders’ pious remarks about how “the people wants unity” and lambasting those who are so rigid as to actually wish to honor adherence to “principle” and “ideology” (but isn’t the essence of parliamentary democracy the clash between opposing camps and visions of how the body polity should be run?), all we can look forward to is “Blood sweat and tears.” And (pardon the editorializing), Sharon sure as hell ain’t Churchill. As my brother commented, if we didn’t plan to live the rest of our lives here, and would like to see our children raising our (as yet unborn) grandchildren here, Israel’s political life, especially around election time, could make a brilliant comédie noire. Or, as David Hartman said recently in another context, there are some things which are so serious, if not terrifying, that the only way to react is to make fun of them.

A “Menschlikher” Holiness

After this long and round-about introduction, what does Hasidism tell us about this must “mitnaggedic” of Torah lessons? I decided to break with my practice thus far of bringing thinkers from the early age of Hasidism—the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid, their disciples and near contemporaries (R. Nahman, R. Nahum of Chernobol, R. Shneur Zalman, et al)—and jump almost a hundred years to the Sefat Emet, Reb Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, who quotes here a lovely Torah in the name of the Rabbi of Kotzk.

But before beginning, a historical comment. The Sefat Emet was one of a group of late nineteenth-century teachers whose names are frequently encountered in what might be called “Neo-Hasidic” circles—among other reasons, perhaps, because they were special favorites of Reb Shlomo Carlebach ztz”l, who did so much to spread Yiddishkeit and Hasidism to people who would otherwise never have been exposed to it. The other two are: R. Mordecai of Ishbitz, author of Mei Shiloah, disciple of the Kotzker and cohort of Hiddushei ha-Ri”m, R. Yitzhak Meir Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe and grandfather of the Sefat Emet; and R. Zaddok ha-Cohen of Lublin, author of the five-volume Peri Zaddik and numerous other smaller volumes, the best known of which is entitled Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, who “converted” to Hasidism under the influence of the Izhbitzer. All three ultimately go back to the school of Psyshyscha.

And what was Psyshyscha? Art Green describes it as a kind of “puritanical reform movement” within Hasidism, a kind of reaction to the courtliness and institutionalization of the role of the Tzaddik, following R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk. Whereas the Baal Shem Tov might best be described as epitomizing the qualities of Hesed & Kedusha, “lovingkindness” and holiness, that of Psyshyscha may best be summed up as emet: the pursuit of truth; rigorous, unflinching, even painful, brutal honesty. Without pretense or pomp and circumstance. Psyshyscha, and Kotzk in its wake, taught that holiness and purity can suffer from its own kind of delusion, about both self and others. One who denies himself the ordinary pleasures of this world—fine food and drink, fine raiment (when and if he can earn it), women—in favor of long hours of prayer and study, can also, on a very subtle level, be absorbed in himself and in aggrandizing his own ego. This is, if you will, a very “Litvish” kind of Hasidism—down to earth, opposed to exaggerated flights of mystical rapture. Its goal was simple honesty with self.

To summarize the chain of master and disciple that led up to this point: R. Yaakov Yitzhak, the Hozeh of Lublin (d. 1815), was a disciple of the Maggid, of R. Elimelekh, and of R. Shmelke of Nickolsburg. His own best know disciple was “Der Yid Hakadosh” (“the Holy Jew”), also Yaakov Yitzhak of Psyshyscha, d. 1814, who was in turn the teacher of R. Simha Bunem (d. 1827), who made his this small town into a center which attracted a certain very special and particular kind of young man. R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk was in turn a disciple of both the Hozeh and the Holy Jew; a stern, demanding figure, given to both Zen-like aphorisms and outburst of anger, he belonged to the next generation, dying in 1859. Ger and Izhbitz , as mentioned, were in turn offshoots of Kotzk.

The Sefat Emet, who lived at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century, was the third rebbe in his dynasty. The five-volume set of teachings by which he is known, contains torahs identified by the year in which they were spoken, over more than thirty years of leadership (5632-5663 = 1871-1903). He often starts with midrashim, reworking the same text over and over again during the course of the years, each time discovering a new facet, like a precious diamond. (One might describe his torahs as being very much in the spirit of “Turn it around and turn it around, for all is there” [Avot 5.26]). All of which is a long, round-about introduction to the Sefat Emet: Mishpatim, 5632, s.v. beshem:

In the name of the holy rabbi of Kotzk, z”l, on the verse “and you shall be holy people unto Me” [Exod 22:30]. That there should be guarding of holiness in the acts and designs of men. That is, that God, may He be blessed, suffers from no lack of supernal angels, Seraphim and Holy Creatures. But He desires the holiness of human beings; therefore, he drew sparks of holiness down into this world, in measure and limit.

This teaching of the Kotzker is often quoted in much briefer, aphoristic form: that this verse is intended to teach “menshlikhe heiligkeit”—that is, in colloquial terms, that your holiness conform first and foremost to ordinary human decency, implying: rejection of pietistic pretense and cant, excessive flights of mystical excess or asceticism.

Therefore, “Meat in the fields [that is torn] you shall not eat” [ibid.]. And Hazal expounded this, that it implies a general rule [prohibiting] any thing that has gone outside of its boundaries [e.g. an animal earmarked for the holiest category of sacrifices that was taken outside of the Temple precincts; see Zevahim 82b; Hullin 68a, 73b]. The interpretation is as above: that in everything there is a spreading forth of holiness in measure, and we need to guard its corporeality, that it not go beyond the limits of holiness.

The interpretation of “you shall be to Me” is also a promise that the children of Israel will ultimately be holy unto the Lord. Therefore, we need to watch ourselves now so as to be prepared to be placed upon the head of the King, as in the midrashic parable, whatever precious stones and pearls you are able to fix, do so, for in the end it will be upon the head of the King, as mentioned above. [And according to this, “and you shall be holy people” is a known secret, according to the Kabbalah of the earliest ones.]

I do not know whether these two paragraphs are from the Kotzker or, what seems more likely, Sefat Emet’s own elaboration and development of the motifs used here. It is interesting that Torah Temimah explains tereifah, not only as an animal attacked by a wild animal, but as anything that has changed from its natural order (thus tereifah, meat with internal defects or injuries that made it moribund; a foundering ship at sea, a scrambled egg, a box that has been shaken up, etc.). See ad loc, §230.


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