Thursday, April 20, 2006

Shmini (Hasidism)

“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and when he stumbles let not your heart be glad.”

“My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you recite songs?”

The Sin of Nadav and Avihu

This week’s parshah contains one of the strangest incidents in the Torah, fraught with ambiguities: the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. We are told that, on the festive day of the dedication of the sanctuary in the desert, these two sons of Aaron took “strange fire that they had not been commanded” (Lev 10:1), offered up incense upon it, and fire came forth from the altar and consumed them. This is a story is shocking for several reasons: Why did such a thing happen specifically on the day of dedication of the Sanctuary, marring the joy of its construction as the visible sign of God’s indwelling among the people with stark tragedy? And to the sons of Aaron, priests, who were among the holiest and most spiritually developed people among the entire nation—some say, more so than Moses and Aaron themselves? Moreover, the whole thing is described by Moses with the enigmatic words, “With those that are close to Me I shall be sanctified, and before all the people I shall be honored” (v. 3)? And, most important, what was the nature of their sin—a point left rather vague by the text?

Indeed, the commentators offer a variety of explanations of this riddle, so much so that no two exegetes give the same answer—perhaps the surest sign of the elusive nature of the peshat (the plain, simple meaning). Rashi quotes two differing tannaitic opinions: R. Eliezer, who states that “they ruled in a matter of halakhah in the presence of Moses their teacher,” and R. Yishmael, who says that they entered the sacred precincts while drunk inebriated. A midrashic source, noting that the Torah states that they had no children (Num 3:4), says that they were haughty because of their family lineage, and had not married because no girl was good enough for them. Ramban says simply that they offered something that they had been commanded to bring, but then adds that they were on an extraordinary high level of holiness, and that God somehow wished to consecrate the Temple with the death of those who were especially close to Him, “so that they might fear Me.” Rashbam (R. Shmuel b. Meir) explains “strange fire,” that they placed fire on the inner altar to burn the incense, as the priests would do ordinarily thereafter, without realizing that on this special day of dedicating the sanctuary the fire was to come down from heaven (as with Elijah on Mount Carmel), so that their bringing fire detracted from the visible sign of God’s presence. Tosafot to Eruvin 63a (s.v. mai darush) raises the possibility that they brought the incense on the external altar, thinking that the latter enjoyed a special sanctity on this day. Yet another view has it that thy did not wear the proper priestly garments for entering into the holy place.

To summarize, the answers may be divided into three groups: a) that the sons of Aaron were guilty of some moral sin: drunkenness, arrogance, disrespect for Torah authority; b) that they committed a technical violation of the rules governing the Temple service, which they disregarded as a result of their intense religious enthusiasm, their sincere desire to serve God in an intense, supererogatory way; c) that God somehow wanted to make a kind of object lesson out of them: to demonstrate the fascinatingly numinous but also destructive power present within the holy, to instill in the people awe and fear of the sacred, which is not to be treated in a casual or familiar manner (not like a Hasidic shteibel!). This is in fact the literal sense of the haftarah designated for Parshat Shemini (when it does not coincide with a special Shabbat as it does this year), describing the incident known as Peretz be-Uzza, that occurred while David was bringing the ark of the covenant up to Jerusalem, in which a Levite who reached out his hand to steady the ark because the cattle stumbled was struck dead on the spot (see 2 Sam 6; see my discussion of this in HY II: Shemini). Once again, one has here the sense of the uncanny, dangerous aspect of the holy (the source of the rather silly pyrotechnics of Speilberg’s film, Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Most of the classic early Hasidic texts do not address this passage, instead devoting their discussions to other aspects of this parsha. I did, however, find an interesting and succinct teaching of the Sefat Emet, for 5636, s.v. beshem adoni mori uzekeini:

In the name of my teacher and grandfather, of blessed memory. “That He had not commanded them” [Lev 10:1]. To teach that the main power of all of man’s acts derives from the command of God, for man’s intellect is entirely nullified against this force. For Nadav and Avihu were great tzaddikim, and did what they did for the sake of Heaven—but there was only lacking the command. And one may learn from this also a fortiori, that this is all the more true regarding a positive attribute: If one who performs the will of God, blessed be He, even though he does not know the reason for the thing, so as to do it with the desired intention. [Nevertheless,] this power, from the aspect of the Divine command, as is said, “Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us…” This power of command is greater than anything else.

On the face of it, a straightforward and well-known line of thinking: obedience to the Divine command precedes all else; implied here is a clear rejection of individual religious enthusiasm and “experimentation,” certainly once it steps beyond the bounds of halakhah even slightly—an argument invoked often today, in various contexts.

And one may say, that which was written, “they entered [the Holy Place] being drunk from wine.” Because understanding of the reasons [for the Torah and mitzvot] is called wine, the wine of Torah. Nevertheless, it must be only at the command of the king. But because their own understanding had become dominant within them, to do even that which the Lord had not commanded, they were called “entering drunk with wine.” And in this light we shall interpret, “for your embraces are better than wine” [Cant 1:2]. That is, the attachment to and closeness with God by which we have drawn close to Him, are preferable to any human apprehension.

Here, he takes the further step of symbolically identifying yayin with human intellectual apprehension—of the reasons for the mitzvot? Perhaps of esoteric knowledge?—which may lead a person to think that he knows “better than the Rabbis” what God really wants. Simple obedience to the path of Torah and mitzvot and the experience of intimacy with God they may ultimately afford, is here seen as preferable to all personal, intellectual insight. (Might this also be a covert polemic of the more Orthodox Gerer Rebbe [Sr.] with his erstwhile companion, the Izhbitzer, with his greater latitude for individual deviation and decision-making?)

Nehama Leibowitz, in one of her Studies on this parsha, makes this point quite strongly. For her, individual religious experience is seen as potentially chaotic, leading away from community (which she sees as the essence of Judaism generally, and of the priestly function in particular), and possibly even taking the person into strange and even a-moral places.

Interestingly, Judaism by and large has not had no real mystical heresies, such as were rife in medieval Christendom, and in Islam—with the notable and traumatic exception of Sabbatianism. Nor does one have many mystical diaries or accounts of extraordinary, transformative individual experiences. Mysticism was somehow tamed, normalized, kept within the community (see my comments on Tzav). Kabbalah is in fact more of a theosophic doctrine, a theoretical literature based upon a particular map of the cosmos, a symbolic interpretation of the Torah and the mitzvot within that system, than it is a system of mystical exercises for the individual to achieve ecstasy or ascend heavenwards. Such, at least, is the conventional historiography. A revolution in scholarship over the past few decades, spearheaded by Moshe Idel, has placed new emphasis on the existence of ecstatic mystical techniques among such figures as Abraham Abulafia and Isaac of Acre, reopening these questions.

But leaving all that aside for the moment: is this rather conventional, anti-individualistic and anti-mystical message the last word on the meaning of Nadav and Avihu’s act? I would like to connect this with a discussion I had last Shabbat with one of my readers, who commented on a passage in my page for Vayikra, where I said: “First and foremost, the message is that God and not the individual is the center… I would therefore be critical of those who make ‘being connected’ a sine qua non of their own observance.” First, to clarify, I was referring here to the Hebrew slang expression lehithaber, used by Israeli youth to signify a personal connection to some person, thing or act, the implication being, that without some kind of personal, emotional resonance they wouldn’t do the mitzvah at all.

I objected to this approach on religious grounds, of God being the center. But, on further reflection, I realized that there are two very different explanations as to why a person should do the mitzvot even if he doesn’t feel any personal feeling of connectedness to them. The one is the standard Orthodox line: basically, the idea of the Divine authority underlying the mitzvot, that the commitment of the Jew to Torah and halakha is based upon the concept of heteronomy (the rule of the other, i.e., God), rather than autonomy, summed up in the phrase na’aseh venishma’ (“we shall do and we shall hear”).

The second answer is one found in many places in Hasidic writings (I don’t remember if I’ve translated any of them here), based upon an important but subtle theological point. Praying and performing mitzvot even in a state of katnut demohin, of spiritual or intellectual “smallness,” even when one doesn’t feel any sense of attachment to God, reverence, awe, etc., expresses faith in the immanence of God. God is present within the world, within the person’s soul, within the mitzvah act, even if the person himself does not feel any of this at the moment. Upon reflection, this comes out to be a very radical position. To put it more precisely, the center is not man’s subjective feelings, but God’s objective presence, everywhere, at all times. To make too much of one’s own moods is, so to speak, to deny Gods’ omnipresence!

In her book, Hasidism as Mysticism, the late Rivka Schatz describes Hasidism as a form of “religious quietism”: that is, the omnipresence of God implies that the mystical disciple may find God wherever he is, right there. This approach, once properly internalized, somehow mutes the need for constant striving and pushing that one sometimes meets in the religious world. At times, I’ve prayed in yeshivot where the tension, the sense of constant, body- and mind-punishing effort reflected in the tortured faces, is almost palpable. The feeling seems to be that, if one wold only daven a little harder, be a little stricter, learn later into the night, one will somehow achieve a breakthrough to some vision or knowledge of the Divine, to some goal of personal perfection. The quietist approach, be it Jewish, Christian, or Buddhist, is not thus: it calls upon one to empty one’s self out and wait upon God. It teaches an inner change of consciousness, a sudden insight that turns about one’s mind-set, one’s way of being in the world (this is the purpose of the Zen koan: a riddle, a paradox, a conundrum to which there is no rational, cognitive “answer”; it is something upon which to meditate so as to alter one’s mind-set). That, and not hyper-intense meditation, is the key. Maybe this is what Nadav and Avihu failed to understand.


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