Thursday, March 30, 2006

Vayikra (Hasidism)


Parshat Vayikra opens the Book of Leviticus with a summary of the sacrificial offerings—first and foremost the olah, the burnt-offering which is completely consumed on the altar, representing the total surrender of the individual to the service of God. It is thus an apt time for us to study some texts about the concept of bittul, self-negation, which is so central in Hasidic thought.

One Habad teaching (Likkutei Torah, Vayikra, s.v. adam ki yakriv) in this vein speaks of this offering as symbolizing the submission of the nefesh ha-behamit, the animalistic soul, to God, noting that the various kinds of animals mentioned in this passage, cattle or sheep, represent different kinds of human dispositions. One person is dominated by aggression and hostility, like a goring bull, while another is gentle and passive, his weaknesses expressed primarily in a propensity to surrender to physical pleasures, like a fat little sheep; in a sense, the dichotomy of Eros and Thanatos, the libidinous and destructive impulses, which Freud saw at the core of human personality.

The following two passages from Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Amud ha-Tefillah, in which the essence of prayer is seen in terms of self-negation, are particularly strong:

§131. A person must consider himself as if he is nothing, and forget himself completely, and in all his prayers ask only on behalf of the Shekhinah. Then he may transcend the level of temporality, that is, ascend into the World of Thought, were all are the same: life and death, sea and dry land. And for this reason it is written in the Zohar (Beshalah, II.48a) “’[This is] my God’ [Exod 15:2]—specifically; for it depends upon the Ancient One [‘Atika; i.e., the Kabbalistic realm of Wisdom]. That they needed to abandon themselves and forget their own troubles so as to arrive at the World of Thought, where all is equal.

Here the goal of prayer/meditation is not only knowledge of God, but entering into what is called “the World of Thought,” where the person’s perception is transformed into that existing within the highest levels of the Godhead Itself. There is a mystical vision here of a place where all is one; of a radical monism, in which even the division between good and evil ceases to exist. But no Nietzschean or Promethean vision this, in which the “Übermensch” sees himself in his own self as beyond morality, but rather a negation of self, of ego, in which he somehow sees the universe from the purview of God: the sense that, in its divine root, all existence is good, by definition, simply because it is part of God. Somehow, even the moral universe and innumerable other distinctions made by the Torah are for the mundane, “sublunar” world, but not an essential property of any acts.

But leaving aside the transcendence of the moral, the idea is expressed here that the highest religious goal is hishtavut, equanimity, indifference to what will befall oneself. A strange story is told about this by Rambam. (Incidentally, I suspect that those modern rationalist Jewish thinkers who see in him their hero and model fail to appreciate how utterly different his celebration of intellect is from the pragmatic, eudaemonic rationalism of post-Enlightenment man). He recounts approvingly a story told in “one of the books of good qualities (sifrei hamiddot)” about a “pious man” who was travelling in the hold of a ship, wearing rags, and one of the wealthy passengers, a merchant, urinated on him in contempt. This pietist then relates that he did not feel any pain or shame on account of this incident, but was utterly indifferent to what had been done to him. To the contrary, he felt great joy (“it was the happiest day of my life”!) because he had reached such a perfection of humility. (Commentary to the Mishnah, on Avot 4.4) In brief, total detachment from the ego, seeing one’s self with detached, transcendent eyes. Who among us would even want to achieve such detachment?

But this is not the case so long as he is attached to the corporeality of this world, for then he is attached to the division into good and evil, that is, to the Seven Days of construction. And how can he go to that place that is above temporality, where there is perfect unity? For when he considers himself to be something, and seeks his own needs, then the Holy One blessed be He cannot be embodied within him. for He, may He be blessed, is infinite, and no vessel can contain Him. But this is not the case when He considers himself to be naught.

This passage concludes with an explanation that this self-abnegation is also necessary so as one may become a “vessel” for the Infinite God. The Kabbalistic “address” of the World of Thought referred above is the Sefirah of Hokhma, “Wisdom” or Atika, the “Ancient of Days.” Hence, the Israelites addressed God in the Song of the Sea by that name, specifically. By contrast, the ordinary, mundane world of corporeality, of selfhood, in which we ordinarily live, is identified with the “Seven Days of Construction,” i.e., the seven lower sefirot, through which the divine is filtered down and emanated into the concrete world.

§132. I heard it said, that when the Holy Rabbi, our teacher R. Gershon [Kutover; the Baal Shem Tov’s brother-in law] once spoke to our master the Baal Shem z”l in the following words: So long as you are still able to pray and to say, “Blessed are Thou,” with your own will, you have not yet attained the intention of prayer. For a person needs to be so much in a state of casting off [i.e., incorporeality] that he has neither strength nor mind to speak the words of prayer.

And yet, he nevertheless prays. The idea here seems is that the worshipper should be in such a state of transcendence of his own selfhood, of his own will, that he davens, not so much in an automatic way, but in such a manner that he is unaware of any effort will. One is reminded of the Eastern (Taoist? Zen?) description of the archer who is so totally at one with his bow and arrow that he does not see these tools as anything separate from himself (or himself from them). This same idea was translated into ‘60-ish American idiom in Robert M. Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Or, to return to Hasidic terminology, the fascinating words of the psalmist: “And I am prayer” (ve-ani tefillah; Ps 109:4), may be read as stating that the person himself IS his prayer.

* * * * *

What are we to make of all this? At first glance, this ideal of bittul seems one of two things: either impossibly inhuman, cruel, masochistic, “life-denying,” etc., etc.; or else, utterly unrealistic, arousing suspicion that those who claim to be practicing it are deceiving wither themselves, others, or both. Living in an age of popular psychology, we find it hard to take such extremes of piety at face value. There thus comes to mind, for example, from Christianity, such examples as Simon of the Desert, who stood on a pillar for twenty years , to conquer “temptations” and was regularly plagued by lewd and lascivious visions, products of his fevered imagination (a lot of help his asceticism did him, the Jewish folk sage would say). But to this I would also add the example, known to me personally, of a baal teshuvah friend who devoted himself so intensely to prayer and fasting that he eventually died of malnutrition.

Many of us who seek a new religious path want one which affirms the value of the individual, which enables an integration of individual expression with feelings of religious awe. Many young religious Israelis today speak of the need for hithabrut, for feeling connected to a particular mitzvah, for the sense that its contents somehow serve as a vehicle for their own expression. They would like to feel that being religious does not center upon a constant war between individual identity and the external authority of the halakhah, but rather upon a sense of unity, of joy in the cosmos, of harmony within the universe in which we live.

What lessons can we bring to this from the idea of bittul, of self-abnegation? Is there any way to redefine or understand bittul in a “healthy,” non-dualistic light? First and foremost, the message is that God and not the individual is the center. This is, to my mind, the irreducible, ineluctable essence of any and all religious experience. (I would therefore be critical of those who make “being connected” a sine qua non of their own observance.)

This carries with it, as I see it, a rejection of certain features of modern culture, personified for many in American culture, with its obsession with fame, success, physical beauty and youth, wealth, and pleasure. The fast pace of this type of modern life, in which making lots of money and “success” are the primary life goals, leaves little room for quietness and introspection, not to mention goodness and compassion for others. The old-fashioned path of Jewish tradition, however one interprets it, is very different from competitive, individualistic feel of US culture, where being “sexy” is the highest compliment. At times, I see high-wired Yuppie types—lawyers, managers, financial advisors, accountants, computer experts—coming into shul, and wonder whether they realize the profound change demanded for them to get into tefillah, to “enter into the word,” as the Baal Shem Tov put it, beyond merely mouthing the words. Seems almost impossible.

The following passage, from a different cultural context, expresses what I am alluding to. It is from a book by young American woman of half-Korean parentage, who describes her own journey to her forgotten ancestral homeland:

There was a specific atmosphere in the restaurant then which baffled me. I’d also felt it in the hotel the previous day. It was Koreanness, or at least an Orientalness. I felt it everywhere, but what was it? A calmness combined with bustle? Not exactly. It was something more subtle; a feeling of great energy, but without spiky neurosis; without the uneasy sexual striving and competition I felt in the streets of Western cities. There was a quality of benign sisterliness in Korean women when they looked at you or went about their business that felt rather shocking. There was no hostile eyeballing—judging your looks, clothes and status with men. There was a sense of warmth and tolerance. There was a wholesomeness about public places. Families went out together with their children. Businessmen drank together, and women met up separately. There were no visibly sexed -up single couples displaying their designer wardrobes, cars and bodytone. People were well-dressed, but modest. It felt extremely odd. At first, I wasn’t sure I liked it. To one conditioned to such strife, the atmosphere lacked edge.

The comment about the “sisterliness” she felt among the women is reminiscent of the kind of remark sometimes made by outsiders observing the frum community. Some 20 years ago, one of the editors of Rolling Stone magazine, whose brother had become caught up in the scene at Yeshvat Eish Hatorah, visited him in Jerusalem, ready to condemn that world, especially the oppression of women within Orthodoxy; instead, she was overwhelmed by the warmth and closeness and mutual support she found among the women.

A second point related to the concept of bittul relates to activism and passivity, or what medieval man called via activa and via contemplativa—the active as against the contemplative life. Our own culture celebrates activism, and at times seems to make an ideal of almost constant activity. “Activism” is seen even as a religious value. Classical Reform sometimes identified Judaism almost exclusively with social action, which it identified with prophetic Judaism or “ethical monotheism.” For others, Zionism, and Zionist activism, are almost inextricably identified with religious identity. Even the great contemplatives, Habad Hasidim, have been transformed into a missionary and messianic movement, marked by lots of noise, hysteria, and constant running around. How can one daven or even think calmly and deeply in such an atmosphere?

The point is not to denigrate such activities as such, but to note that there is another side to the picture. There is a certain quietness of the soul that is related to bittul. The medieval understanding of life saw contemplation as an ideal, independent of any practical benefits it might create. The intellect was seen as a tool for reaching pure, eternal truths, especially cosmic, religious truths: the “Active Intellect.”

It is also important to note that the contradiction between “reason” and “mysticism” is in a sense a modern projection back to those days. Traditionally, philosophy was also concerned with religious ends; Kabbalah and medieval Jewish philosophy arguably had as many or more points of conversion than they did differences (e.g., a multi-tiered picture of the universe).

In Eastern religions as well, especially Buddhism, the ultimate goal is quiet apprehension of the “eight truths”—that is, a state of wisdom and depth insight attained through quiet contemplation and reflection. Similarly, in Hasidut, bittul atzmi is both a goal, and a means for achieving the proper religious consciousness (da’at).

All this, as said, involves a radical change from our usual way of thinking. To be religious, in this sense, entails tremendous reorientation of all of our thinking about life —far deeper than simply becoming observant and starting to keep Shabbat, kashrut, etc., with all the upheaval that involves. Ultimately, it means a radically different kind of life, with radically different goals and values, largely alien to Western, and especially contemporary, culture.

The Atoning Power of Sacrifice—and of Shabbat

The Sefat Emet has some interesting things to say about the meaning of the Temple worship. In a torah on Parshat Tetzaveh (5661, s.v. zayit ra’anan), he draws a comparison between the candles lit in the golden candelabrum in the Temple and those lit in Jewish homes at the onset of Shabbat. Somehow, both of these candles signify a place of kaparah, of Divine forgiveness and purification. In the Temple, teshuvah and moral cleansing, actions which affect kaparah, are a prerequisite for offering a korban. This is difficult, because the paradigmatic expiatory offering is actually the korban shogeg (found in this week’s portion, Lev 4:27-35), the sacrifice offered for inadvertent or unintentional transgression. Yet, he explains, even when offering sacrifice for sins committed in a state of shogeg a person needs to do general teshuva for all his sins, including those committed deliberately (the zedonot as it were “take a tramp” on the shegagot). Hence, the Temple is seen as a place of spiritual purification.

Interestingly, there are certain echoes of this in the Roman Catholic practice of confession as a prerequisite for participating in the sacraments, such as Eucharist, etc. (a fact that appears in innumerable works of fiction by the likes of Graham Greene and Andrew Greeley). This is so because the sacraments are conceived by Christianity as an exact substitute for the Temple worship, enabling the faithful to participate in the general expiatory effect of their mysteries of Incarnation and Crucifixion. (This theme is also used by some very primitive Evangelical missionary tracts, which seem to imagine that contemporary Jews actually wander around worrying about how they can be atoned without the blood of the sacrifices, not realizing the central role played by teshuva, by the power of inner turning, in our thinking about such matters.)

To return to the Sefat Emet: he goes on to describe Shabbat as a substitute for the Temple service, even in the sense of its atoning for sin (as in the Sabbath hymn “Barukh El Elyon”: mehallo = mahul lo; he who keeps the Shabbat is forgiven all his sins” ). This is one more striking example of the central role played by the Shabbat in Sefat Emet’s thought.


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