Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Ekev (Hasidism)

Two Types of Torah Study

The Torah portions for both Vaethanan and Ekev are particularly rich in material of a spiritual and hortatory nature. The compendium Sefer Baal Shem Tov contains much material on the unity of God implied in the first verse of Shema; on the study and teaching of Torah (”you shall teach them to your children…”—Deut 6:6); and on the theme of the fear of God (“Now Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you but to fear Him…”—Deut 10:12). The following teaching gives a new and unique twist to a well-known saying about Torah study. Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov, Vaethanan, §50:

It states in the Talmud (Sukkah 28a): “… a great thing and a small thing. ‘A great thing’—this refers to the Work of the Chariot. ‘A small thing’—this refers to the logical arguments [havayot] postulated by Abbaye and Rabbah.” And it seems problematic that the arguments of Abbaye and Rabbah should be called a small thing, for is not this the very essence of our Torah that was said at Sinai?

The passage quoted from Sukkah contains a long list of the extraordinary spiritual gifts of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (who was himself supposedly the smallest of the disciples of Hillel the Elder), concluding with the statement that he had mastered “a great thing and a small thing,” which are then interpreted as above.

This statement seems astonishing within a traditional Jewish setting, in which the study of the Law, and the analysis and understanding of its complex dialectics, is a central religious act, which traditionally fills most of the day for yeshiva students. Maimonides indeed takes this passage at face value: for him as philosopher, the intellectual contemplation of God, engagement in metaphysics and theology, alongside study of the natural world (which he identifies with Ma’aseh Bereshit, “the Works of Creation”), are the ultimate aim of religious life, leading as they do to the highest knowledge of God of which a human being is capable. (See Rambam, Yesodei Hatorah 4.12-13, where he explicates the superiority and priority of the study of metaphysics above practical halakhah; and cf. Talmud Torah 1.12 and Teshuvah 10.6.) Similarly, the Kabbalist would read this passage as giving ultimate priority to the “Works of the Chariot,” albeit he would interpret it in a rather different light, as esoteric mystical teaching.

But here, the Baal Shem Tov gives a rather different answer: namely, that it all depends upon ones attitude:

But rather, the following is the interpretation: that, in truth, the revealed Torah and the hidden Torah are all of a piece, for everything follows man’s intention. If his intention is to know its subject matter alone, he does not merit anything, and concerning him it is said, “and all his [man’s] loving acts are [transient] like the grass of the field” [Isa 40:6]. But if his intention is that he desires to cleave to God, may He be blessed, so as to be a chariot for Him, and seeing as how there is no path to this but by means of Torah and mitzvot, then, both by means of the revealed parts of the Torah [i.e., the legal halakhic passages], and by means of the secrets of Torah, he may merit to be a chariot for Him, may He be blessed. And this is what is meant by “’a small thing’: the arguments of Abbaye and Rabbah”— that is, that one who learns for the sake of intellectual acuity and pleasure and for his own needs, that is a small thing, meaning that he serves God in a small way and is like naught, for he is just like someone who longs for any other kind of wisdom. But one who longs to be a chariot for Him, may He be blessed, by the study of Torah, this is a great thing. And this is, “’A great thing’: this is the Works of the Chariot.” That is, that he makes himself a chariot for God, may He be blessed, by means of the Torah.

Implicit here is the old (at the time still new) polemic between Hasidim and Mitnaggedim about the relative weight of Torah study vs. piety. The Hasidic teachers felt that, in practice, Something about Torah lent itself to ulterior purposes, and they were all too familiar with Torah scholars too often engaged in study for extraneous reasons—at best, for the intellectual pleasure and interest; at worst, for self aggrandizement and to acquire social status by means of their position as scholars. Hasidism tried to change all that, and to return to the center a kind of simple, earnest intention, of trying to make oneself into a vessel upon which the Divine spirit might rest. One might study Talmud in the holiest way, or might study Kabbalah and divine secrets as in an unholy, even demonic way; but what really concerned them was how it made one a holier human being.


Post a Comment

<< Home