Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Kedoshim (Hasidism)

“My Holiness is Higher than Your Holiness”

Parshat Kedoshim presents what is perhaps the most exalted and difficult ideal of Judaism—that human beings may become holy, like their Creator. Indeed, our Rabbis long ago noted the paradoxical nature of this goal. A famous midrashic passage asks: “’You shall be holy’ [Lev 19:2]. Is it possible [that you should be holy] like Me? Scripture says: ‘for I am holy’ [ibid.]—My holiness transcends your holiness” [Lev. Rab. 24.9]. This passage, with its attention to the paradoxical nature of the human striving for holiness, is expounded by every Hasidic book I have examined on this portion—Toldot, Degel, Meor Einayim, Noam Elimelekh, and no doubt many others. But whereas the midrash resolves the paradox by positing a clear ranking or hierarchy between Divine and human holiness, the Hasidic texts positively revel in the notion of human holiness, and turn the midrash on its head. Thus, Degel Mahaneh Efraim on this verse:

It also alludes in this, “You might think [that you shall be holy] like Me?!” That is, that every person can be holy like God, blessed be He, as it were. For the soul is part of God Above, literally, and the part can be like the whole, for it is the ultimate purpose. From whence do we know this? The Torah says, “I am the Lord”—My holiness is higher than your holiness. That is, the fact that My holiness ascends on high, is only because of your holiness, so to speak. That is, that Israel, through their good deeds, provide power and holiness to the supernal entourage. And this is what is meant by the verse, “I am the Lord”—that I am “the Lord” is only because I am “your God,” who is “your God, the God of Israel.” And the wise person shall understand this. For there are here deep and hidden matters.

This is a far-reaching idea: that God himself is dependent upon Israel to be uplifted. “There is no king without a people.” Or more than that: perhaps the “deep and hidden matters” alluded to at the end refer to the theurgic aspect of the mitzvot; that is, that our mitzvot perform tikkun, the “correction” of God’s universe, and are thus somehow of benefit to God Himself in a way that nothing all can be.

“All Becomes Holy Service”

The Degel continues by expounding various other verses in our parsha which, as is known, follows the grand opening statement that “you shall be holy” with a host of specific laws and rules. First and foremost among these is the injunction against idolatry, which may be seen as an elaboration of the second commandment:

“Turn not to the idols” [Lev 19:4]. And our rabbis expounded it thus: “Do not turn [from] God consciously” [Shabbat 149a]. And one should understand this by what by grandfather z”l [i.e., the Baal Shem Tov] said on the verse, ”lest you turn aside and serve other gods” [Deut 11:16]. The meaning of “you turn aside” is: as soon as a person turns aside from being attached in his thought to God, may He be blessed; then “you serve other gods”—it is considered as if you worship other gods, Heaven forbid. And even though his words require profound elaboration, in any event, in accordance with my slight intellect, I shall explain it in brief. For the person who serves God in all his ways, and fulfills “In all your ways know Him” [Proverbs 3:6], meaning, that he does all things with consciousness, such as eating and drinking and his converse with the world [i.e., other people]—whether to draw them close [to Torah?], or to remove them from sadness, or to earn his livelihood, so as to enliven his soul, so that this will not prevent him from serving God—if he does all with this consciousness, then everything he does becomes holy service. And as I have already said [elsewhere], they [these acts] are called “secular things that are made with the purity of sacred things” [see below]. And this is what is meant by the Sages, in their dictum on the verse “And his leaf shall not wither” [Ps 1:3]: “Even the mundane conversation of a sage requires study” [Sukkah 21b]. For all his words are Torah and upright behavior, in addition to the fact that one may find in all their words sublime wisdom.

This is a particularly clear and lucid explanation of the central Hasidic concept of avodah begashmiut, “service in the corporeal realm.” The basic idea is that all human actions may be made acts of Divine service; that, rather than it being as confined to formal worship or performance of mitzvot, or even Torah learning, one may bring the religious impulse into the secular realm. This idea, perhaps more than any other, was the cause for Hasidism’s appeal to such secular or, better, non-formally-religious thinkers, such as Martin Buber or A. D. Gordon, who saw in this idea a basis for their own attempts to build a better, more just and ethical society, based on intimate, strong human community—ideas that they saw as ultimately rooted in the religious. The same idea motivated Rav Kook’s positive attitude to the secularist pioneers engaged in building the Land. Many of these ideas of early Zionism, of “sanctifying the profane” and of “spirituality within the earthly,” have been almost forgotten today; perhaps they are worth remembering from time to time (particularly on the Shabbat close to Yom ha-Atzmaut).

But an important point here, often overlooked, is that the emphasis here is not so much on the humanistic or other specific telos of the action, but on the da’at, perhaps most felicitously translated “religious consciousness“ or “awareness,” with which one goes through one’s everyday life. That is, that in the back of ones mind, even when engaged in everyday acts, one is on some level constantly aware of God. Interestingly, Maimonides, in the final chapters of the Guide (see III.51), puts forward similar idea. The ideal is for a person to cultivate constant religious awareness.

Two specific points worth noting in this passage. The examples of speech by which one serves God include “to remove them [others] from sadness.” Sadness and depression are the great enemies of any positive religious life in early Hasidut. One teacher, I think it was R. Nahman of Braslav, talks about how one who may spend hours telling silly jokes to cheer up a depressed person is engaged in holy work. Second: the term “Secular things made with the purity of sacred things” requires explanation. During Temple times, sacrifices and tithes and various other Temple stuff had to be eaten in a state of ritual purity, requiring elaborate precautions that structured daily life; after the destruction of Temple, there were those who wished to preserve this level of formal purity and its concomitant sense of holiness even regarding secular things. Tosefta Demai 2.2 describes this as one of the central characteristics of one who wished to be a “haver.” Here, the term is used metaphorically, to apply to everyday life, without any formal ritual component of purity!

But when he performs his deeds, Heaven forbid, without consciousness or intellect, then he is compared to the beasts who are dumb [after Ps 49:21], so that even the good things he does are considered as things of folly and stupidity. And as was said by the late Rabbi, the Maggid R. Dov Baer z”l, “Every prudent [or: crafty] man acts with knowledge” [Prov 13:16]—that is, even in his material acts, and even the crafty things he does, he performs with knowledge of his Maker, like Abigail. “But the fool flaunts [yifros] his folly” [ibid.]. That is, even if he performs acts of asceticism [perishut; word play on yifros, “flaunts” in the above verse] and holiness, it is considered foolishness, even if it is an act of mitzvah and wisdom….

The interesting and daring thing here is that R. Efraim also insists on the opposite: to wit, that a person who performs pious acts and mitzvot, and even practices perishut, ascetic withdrawal from the world, and is meticulous about all the formal, external requirements of the halakhah—so long as the crucial element of da’at, religious consciousness, is absent, his acts are virtually worthless! This is certainly a far cry from the prevailing pan-halakhism of today’s Orthodoxy.


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