Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tazria-Metzora (Hasidism)

Male Waters and Female Waters

The Torah portions for these two weeks concern themselves with diverse forms of tum’ah—usually translated “ritual impurity”—resulting from various bodily states. These range (in order of severity, not in the sequence of the Torah text) from such natural and ordinary bodily functions as sexual intercourse, menstruation and childbirth, through venereal discharges, and ending in the mysterious skin affliction called tzara’at (usually mistranslated as “leprosy”) and its offshoots in the areas of clothing and housing. These chapters are among the most difficult for many modern readers to relate to in any way. (Recently, anthropologist Mary Douglas has attempted to explain the problematics of reading these chapters, and Leviticus generally, by noting that they present a view of the world by means of “analogical” rather than “rational-discursive” language, implying a certain picture of the universe through the way in which various things are structured in relation to one another in a series of laws, rather than in a the discursive, logical manner of Greek thought. I might add that the implied structure of the halakhah might well be read in much the same manner—but that’s another story.)

The Hasidic commentators, by and large, read these passages symbolically, thereby bypassing these problems. Many of them found the opening section of Tazri’a, dealing with childbirth, a particularly fruitful point of departure for discourses on the nature of male and female. Thus, the following brief passage from the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson, R. Efraim of Sudylkow, in his Degel Mahaneh Efraim, on Tazri’a:

Or one might say that the universe is poised in relation to the Holy One blessed be He, like a female towards a male. [That is,] to receive their vitality from the Holy One blessed be He, for the Holy One blessed be He is the attribute of the male with respect to the entire universe [kol ha-olamot], in that He overflows them with life and lovingkindness, which attribute is called male.

The Zohar and other Kabbalistic writings abound in erotic and sexual figures, the object of the metaphor being, of course, the relationship between man and God. In Kabbalistic symbolism, Yesod, the source of blessing, is identified with the male, among other reasons because he is the source of flow and life-giving seed in the physical sense. (But why cannot the female, in her role as nurturer, in both pregnancy and nursing, be understood in this way as well?)

Therefore, when a person desires to cleave to the Holy One, blessed be He, he raises the attribute of female waters, and there is awakened from above the aspect of male waters, and there are born abundance and life for him and for all the universe. But this is unlike what happens when he desires the pleasures of this world, which are themselves the attribute of the female, for they all need to receive their life force from Him, may be blessed.

Hence when a man, who ordinarily relates to the world in a masculine manner—assertive, initiatory, direct, even aggressive and propriatory—turns to God seeking communion and intimacy, he must do so in a feminine way, calling upon the aspect within himself known as mayim nukvin, “female waters.” A woman who seeks the attentions of a particular man usually does so indirectly, through a hint, a glance, a tone of voice, but not in the direct way of a man. The Sages say that, “It is the way of the man to ‘conquer’ [i.e., sexually] and it is not the way of the woman to conquer,” or that it is the nature of things for a man to court a woman, for she is like a lost limb of his body, and not vice versa—and such is still the way of most of the world, even in our age of feminism. In the same way, the God-intoxicated person must “seduce” God in a feminine way, so as to elicit His response of overflowing fulness and blessing. (We in fact find the verb “seduce” used with regard to God in some liturgical contexts: for example, afatenu be-verekh, “I will seduce him on [bent] knee,” in one of the Yotzrot for the Days of Awe.)

The lesson here is an interesting one: that, in entering the realm of the religious, men must so-to-speak turn about their ordinary mode of being in the world: to learn “feminine” wiles; to turn from the role of actors and doers, to that of waiting upon the Divine Other. This is a significant lesson, and not at all an easy one.

And it is known that a person does not transgress unless there enters into him a spirit of foolishness (Sotah 3a), and the soul departs him, Heaven forbid. But so long as the soul is present in a person, then he longs for his source in the Holy One blessed be He. And this is alluded to in the verse, “when a woman bears seed” [Lev 12:1]. That is, the soul, which is the aspect of woman, and female with respect to the Holy One blessed be He. And by this it emits seed, the aspect of female waters, in arousal from below to above. Then “she shall bear a male,” as mentioned, when there arouses lovingkindness and life and abundance from above to below, in the aspect of male waters, as above, and understand.

Kabbalah and Hasidism often speak of the interplay between the “arousal from below” (itaruta dil’tata)—that is, human initiative—and “arousal from above” (itaruta dil’eila)—Divine action and involvement in human affairs. At times the one comes first, at times the other. Among other things, this is an important motif in Passover: the slaughtering and eating of the Paschal lamb in Egypt, and the eating of matzah on Seder night today, are acts demonstrating faith and longing for the Divine redemption, a kind of expectant waiting upon God, of “arousal from below” intended to awaken Divine love and redemption.

“Leprosy” and the Level of Man

Another teaching of the Degel, one page later, provides a metaphorical interpretation of the three kinds of tzara’at mentioned in the Torah, as symbolizing obstacles to true servuce of God. I find this a particularly sweet Torah:

“When a man has in the skin of his flesh a swelling or an eruption or a whitish spot… he shall be brought to Aaron the priest” [Lev 13:2]. And one might say, reading this as a moral allusion, that there are several obstacles that may befall a person, that do not allow him to reach the level of the aspect of man, which is the highest level.

First, at times he falls from his level in order to achieve a higher level, whether for himself or for others. As is known in the name of my grandfather [the Baal Shem Tov], z”l, and is as brought in the book of the “high priest,” my late master and teacher, R. Yaakov Yosef [i.e. of Polonnoye] z”l: when he is on the level of smallness, he does not know what this is or what this is about [Est 4:5], and he is pained in his soul, and he beseeches Him, may He be blessed, and examines his actions, and says, “O God, O God why have you abandoned me?” [Ps 22:2]—until God helps him and he achieves the higher level.

Hasidism speaks often of the pendulum-like swings of a person’s spiritual mood: ups and downs (ratzo vashov—lit., running back and forth; mohin degadut and mohin dekatnut—“great” and “small” states of mind) are seen as part of the normal course of religious life. But here, R. Efraim he seems to be alluding to something more serious: perhaps a protracted or particularly severe period of spiritual aridity, which leaves the person puzzled and frustrated, even feeling abandoned by God, not realizing that this is part of an overall Divine plan to bring him to a higher stage. All that can be done is to pray, and wait.

Second, at times a person falls from his level and is unable to achieve [his suitable] level because of people who surround him, for they prevent him, or do no not help him in his service, whether in a spiritual or a physical way or regarding his livelihood, or Heaven forbid because they do not walk in the upright path—and their acts confuse [lit., “render unfit”] the thoughts of the great man who is among them. As is known in the name of my grandfather z”l regarding the world generally, that the evil acts of the world, Heaven forbid, confuse the thoughts of the righteous people who are among us—each one according to his aspect and level in particular.

Man is a social being, and even the more developed person can be easily swayed and distracted by the ordinary problems and frictions of everyday life, by lack of cooperation and support on the part of others, and all the more so by overtly negative or hostile input. Obstructions, mockery by others, quarrels and arguments with those close to him, can all direly affect his service of God. (And I would add: prayer is not merely an external act of reciting words and performing various gestures at the proper time; the technical stipulations of the halakhah are merely the outer shell, the bark of the tree, the formal expression of the deeply personal, inner act of surrender to God in passionate love and awe.) Maimonides wrote that, beyond a certain point, when a person finds that those among whom he lives are wicked, and do not leave him in peace to serve God, he must eschew human community and go to live in the desert, in caves and crevices (De’ot 6.1).

Third, that at times there fall into the thought of the one serving [God], that he is zealous and brilliant in his performance of the holy service, and he performs in his mind kavvanot and unifications—but they are hidden from God, because they have not entered the hidden chambers to negate corporeality; and let a hint of this matter suffice, for I refer to this only in brief. Or there is a person who is wise and sharp-witted to understand and be knowledgeable in Torah and service, like a flowing spring, but there is none to pour out the water; and for that reason they do not flow anew, as is known from the matter of wells. That is, each one says: I have understood and apprehended more than this other person, and I do not need either him or his teaching. And for that reason there is an obstacle to the flow, when one does not receive because there is no one to receive—and let this suffice.

But the most serious obstacles are neither those stemming from the cyclical vagaries of life, nor those coming from society, but a person’s own inner nature and mind-set. The worst of these is pride: pride in his own alleged religious perfection, in the thought that he is an accomplished mystical adept; or else pride that he is wise and clever and quick-witted, that he is better than others and so doesn’t need either teachers or companions. The Degel speaks of the former type only in an indirect, allusive manner, so it is difficult to know exactly to what he is referring: perhaps a specific sort of mystical heresy? The second type, the arrogant religious scholar who is overly proud of his own attainments (an unfortunately all-too-familiar type) loses his spiritual gifts, because he cuts himself off from the “flow” of giving to and receiving from others.

And this is alluded to in the verse: “A man…” That is, he who is a holy soul of the highest level, that is called by the name adam. “When he has in the skin of his flesh”—that is, in his garments. “An affliction (nega’ tzara’at)”—which Onkelos translates into Aramaic as makhtesh segiro (a closed eruption), meaning, the withholding of the flow, as is said in the Holy Zohar. And he falls from his level, and is unable to reach the higher level, by dint of one of these three things. “A swelling (se’eit)”—from the language of being lifted up, that is, that the descent is for purposes of ascent, as mentioned. “Or an eruption (sapahat),” from the language of that which is attached or gathered together, as in “Put me, I pray you” [sapheni na; 1 Sam 2:36]—that is, the second obstacle, because of the people who are connected to and surrounding him, who prevent him from reaching the level, Heaven forbid. “Or a whitish spot (baheret),” from the language of clarity or brilliance in the skies, as is said—that is, the third obstacle.

And this is the advice of the Holy Torah in all of them: “and he shall be brought to the priest”—that is, to the attribute of repentance and loving-kindness. For all is from Him, may He be blessed, and God corrects everything, and it is in His hands to remove all filth and stench, and to draw down the abundance via the known channels through the entire universe. Amen. And understand it.


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