Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Ki Tavo (Hasidism)

Shabbat, God and Israel

Rather belatedly, so as not to break the continuity of our presentation, we bring two relatively short teachings on Parshat Ki Tavo. The first of these, from R. Nahum of Chernobol’s Meor Einayim, provides an interesting understanding of the nature of the Shabbat.

“You have declared this day concerning the Lord… and the Lord has declared concerning you…” [Deut 26:17-18]. It is brought in the Tosafot in the name of the Midrash: “Three testify of one another: the Holy One blessed be He, and the Sabbath, and Israel” [I have not located the source of this dictum-JC]. Therefore we say at the Shabbat Afternoon Prayer, “You are one [and Your Name is one] and who is like Israel, one nation [on the earth]…. a day of rest and holiness…” And it is known what is written in the Talmud, “Were Israel to observe two Sabbaths, immediately they would be redeemed” [Shabbat 118b].

Like almost all Hasidic teachings, and Jewish homilies generally, this one opens with a verse from the Torah portion, followed by a difficulty, apparent or real—in this case, in a related Rabbinic saying, to which our author provides a new and unique solution. The opening verse is not expounded in the teaching, but serves as a kind of motto or thematic link between the weekly portion and the subject of the discourse: the intimate mutual relation between God and Israel. This is followed by a statement that the Shabbat serves as a third leg of the triangle, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the famous (and oft-misquoted) Zoharic saying that “Israel and the Torah and the Holy One blessed be He are one.”

Now, to understand what is meant by two Sabbaths: it is known that the world was created for Israel, as is written, “’In the beginning God created’ [Gen 1:1]—for Israel, who are called ‘his first produce’ [Jer 2:3]” [Lev Rab 37 (sic!)]. For the entire intention of the Creator blessed be He in creating the universe was for Israel, that they might serve Him perfectly, with attachment and great longing to the Source, namely, the Creator. And through this pleasure and longing come about within the Creator, so to speak, for the Creator takes great pleasure in the acts and worship of the lower creatures—far more so than from the supernal hosts. As is written, “Israel sustains their Heavenly Father” (Zohar III.7a], for they bring Him pleasure, so to speak, and all this, when they bring themselves close to Him in perfect truth and do not separate themselves from Him.

But we need to understand the nature of this attachment and apprehension, and how it takes place. For the Creator is without limit or finitude, while man is limited and finite: how then is it possible for these two opposites to draw close to one another? Thus, the Creator gave Israel the Shabbat, which is the intermediate between Israel and their Heavenly Father, that unites them and connects them with the Creator. And it contains two portions, that are similar to Israel and to the Holy One blessed be He, for it is known that every intermediate thing must have the properties of both aspects. As is written in the Zohar [II:88a]: “The Sabbath is the name of the Holy One blessed be He, that is perfect and whole in every respect.”

These two paragraphs elaborate the nature of the love relation between Israel and God, but raise a difficulty: one being infinite, and the other finite, how can they at all make contact with one another? The solution: the existence of an intermediate between them: namely, the Shabbat.

For the Shabbat is the life of the upper world and the life of this world, for it is an emanation of His Glory that devolves and is contracted within this seventh day that is in this world. And the seventh day that is called Shabbat by us is like the body or garment of the supernal Sabbath day, which is the Name of the Holy One blessed be He, as we said above. And the aspect of the supernal Shabbat is the soul of all the worlds, that constantly returns: six days, and the seventh day which is Shabbat….

For that reason it is written “those who desecrate it shall be put to death” [Exod 31:14], for by profaning and not fulfilling the Shabbat, one removes the supernal life, the supernal Shabbat which is the soul of the world, from this world, and he so-to-speak kills the world, for he removes its soul from it. And the word “desecrate” (mehallel) is like the phrase, “When one finds one slain” (hallal; Deut 21:1), which also refers to the removal of the soul. Therefore his punishment also is that he shall surely be put to death.

An interesting side digression explains why violation of the Shabbat entails the death penalty: the Shabbat is the life of the universe; hence one who empties it of meaning, leaving it like a lifeless corpse (the pun on hallal) is in effect a murderer.

And by means of the Shabbat, by fulfilling the Shabbat which is the aspect of two Sabbaths—the supernal Shabbat and the lower Shabbat, which is the soul and the life vitality of the Glory of His Name, may He be blessed, embodied in the seventh day, which is within time and finitude—one gives power to the Shabbat to be an intermediary between Israel and their Father in Heaven, that they may be attached to Him….

The central argument of this discourse (although there is much more, which we cannot translate for reasons of both time and space) culminates in a unique Hasidic reading: the “two Shabbats” referred to in the original Talmudic dictum are not consecutive, but refer to one single Sabbath, which contains two aspects: earthy and heavenly.

To translate this into practical terms, bearing perhaps upon our own way of keeping and celebrating Shabbat (which is particularly appropriate as we enter the last Shabbat of this year): the “supernal Shabbat” may be understood as that aspect of Shabbat whereby we somehow receive an infusion of divine light and blessing, a day of spiritual awareness and God-consciousness. This is the result, both of some metaphysical property of the Shabbat, of a kind of mystical presence of the Shekhinah or the extra soul on that day; and as a result of the spiritual work, the state of consciousness, that we may ourselves bring about by guiding our minds and hearts in the right way. The “lower Shabbat” is Shabbat as a concrete vessel: as a distinct, delimited unit within the mundane realm of space-time; second, in the formal legal structure of the Shabbat, as constituted by the strictures of the Oral Law: the 39 prohibited forms of labor, the Rabbinic prohibitions (shevut), those objects forbidden to move (muktzeh), etc. There are those people who are meticulous about every detail of the laws of Shabbat in the Shulhan Arukh, but rarely feel the song and poetry of the Shabbat ; and there are those for whom every Shabbat is a spiritual “high,” which they celebrate with ecstasy and love and beauty, but who are perhaps not so halakhic in the way they do so. The ideal, it would seem, is to integrate both—and if such a thing could happen, it would indeed bring about, or itself be a sign of, the true Redemption.

Rav Soloveitchik once commented that the difference between the Hasidic and Mitnaggedic approach to Shabbat—and perhaps to Jewish life generally—is exemplified in what they recite between Kabbalat Shabbat and the Ma’ariv (Evening) Prayer of Shabbat. Hasidim recite kegavna: a passage from the Zohar celebrating Shabbat as a day of unity in all the worlds, in which all forces of evil are nullified; while Mitnaggedim recite Bameh madlikin, the second chapter of Mishnah Shabbat, which enumerates the wicks and oils that may or may not be used to light the candles: i.e., a dry legal passage.

Long-time reader Michael Kagan, who recently returned to Israel after a two-year stint in the New Age spiritual center of Boulder, Colorado, made an interesting observation at a talk he gave this week. He noted that we speak of the Eschaton as yom shekulo shabbat: “a day that is entirely Shabbat.” Is it conceivable, he asked, that in messianic times, we will never do any labor at all, as every day will be like Shabbat? Does that mean that we will never eat cooked food or wear clean clothes, since the acts required for them are forbidden? That we will never go beyond the geographical limits where our feet can take us, nor communicate with others by phone or email? Or never write an essay, paint a picture, make music, or engage in other creative work through which man expresses himself on the most profound level? Rather, he said, every day will be like “the Supernal Shabbat” of this teaching: that is, a time in which God consciousness will permeate all of life.

The Exile of the Body

The second Torah also relates to the very essence and substance of the relationship between God and Israel, and between matter and spirit. Sefat Emet, Ki Tavo, 5634, s.v. lev lada’at:

“The Lord has not given you a heart to know [lev lada’at], nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear, until this day” [Deut 29:4]. It is difficult to understand this, for the generation of the desert was a generation of knowledge [dor de’ah] that stood at Mount Sinai. But this verse does not say, “He did not give you knowledge,” but rather refers only to the vessels—the heart and eyes and ears. For certainly, when they stood at Mount Sinai, they were as if without a body, as is written, “My soul went out when he [He] spoke” [Song of Songs 5:6]. For they were literally a generation of knowledge, without a body; but the correction of the body was given to the children of Israel when they entered the Land of Israel.

And the general rule is, that the Holy One blessed be He gave the Israelites two things: the Torah of holiness, that teaches a person knowledge, how to transcend the physical matter of the body and corporeality; and the Land of Israel and the Temple, by which one may draw corporeality and the physical matter of the body close to holiness, that there may be a connection of soul and body together. As is written, “When you come [into the Land] and you shall plant [all kinds of trees]…” [Lev 19:23]. And this is the correction of the body that they were lacking before they came into the Land.

There are two religious paths: one of negation or mental transcendence of the body, a kind of asceticism in which the body is seen as an obstacle to spirituality, while holiness is conceived as pure spirit; and one of integration, unification of body and spirit. These two paths are similar to William James’ “world-denying” and “world-affirming” religiosity (defined in his Varieties of Religious Experience). But here he does not express preference for one or the other, nor posit a conflict or dichotomy between the two paths, but sees both as legitimate, with the ideal being for both paths to exist side by side, complementing one another.

And now as well, in our Exile, the Holy One blessed be He has left us the Torah of holiness. But we do not have the Temple. Therefore it is impossible to exist in holiness save through negation of the body, to transcend corporeality by means of knowledge from the Torah; but the correction of the body is in exile, as we said above.

And concerning these two things we pray [in a phrase recited at the very end of the Amidah]: “that the Temple may be rebuilt … and give us our portion in Your Torah.” And these refer as well to the two signs that must be in every Jewish man: circumcision and tefillin or, on the holy Shabbat, circumcision and the Shabbat, as our Sages have written. And these correspond to these two things, which are the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. And the Shabbat is the aspect of the Land of Israel and the Temple, for it entails the correction of the body. Therefore we are able to receive the aspect of the extra soul, which is the illumination of the soul within the body.

Interestingly, circumcision is not thought of here as tikkun haguf, the “correction of the body.” I assume that this is so, because it is interpreted as symbolizing the reining in and control of sexuality, rather than its sanctification and elevation to a kind of unitive sacrament, as it is in some passages in the Zohar.

More striking here is the Sefat Emet’s longing for the redemption of the bodily. He expresses here the clear sense that religious life in Exile is too spiritual and disembodied. I find this very reminiscent of certain ideas in Rav Kook, who writes about this constantly. The latter saw in Zionism, in the return to the Land, and through it to artziut, to “earthliness,” an opportunity for setting right the balance of body and soul within the Jew. He saw arts, music, literature, sports, and all aspects of human creativity blossoming in Eretz Yisrael—but in a holy way, in an atmosphere of God consciousness. No longer the pale, bookish Yeshiva bokhur as the religious ideal but a strong, healthy person, at home in his own land, serving God with a joy born of an integrated, whole personality. (I leave it to the reader to judge whether Rav Kook’s latter-day disciples, and those of his son, have realized this dream. Off hand, in recent years there is a disturbing move towards a more narrow spiritualization.)

In any event, reading this discourse prompted my own speculations—which are rather intuitive and not backed up by any systematic historical research—that such ideas might have been “in the air” in those days. This teaching was given in 1874, one generation before Rav Kook arrived in Yaffo. Certainly, he was influenced by the Haskalah, by nascent Jewish nationalism, by the sense of the Russian and Polish exiles being a dead-end. But there is a paradox in Ger: the successors of the Sefat Emet were among the most outspoken ideological opponents of Rav Kook, and of religious Zionism generally. Gerer Hasidism was a central component in the creation of Agudat Yisrael, the organization—created by an alliance of Polish Hasidism, Lithuanian Talmudism, and German Hirschian Neo-Orthodoxy—that championed an uncompromising, strict, even zealous Orthodoxy, opposed alike to Zionism and to any synthesis of secular culture and Torah (for example, I know from family traditions that Gerer Hasidim were the major opponents of the Orthodox gymnasium founded in 1915 by Rav Yonah Mordecai Zlotnik of Plotsk).

On the other hand, my friend and teacher, Art Green, often quotes his own teacher, Prof. A. J. Heschel, as saying that “If one seeks ‘radical theology’ in Judaism, one should start with Sefat Emet and R. Zaddok of Lublin.” I see these elements, for example, in the Gerer’s constant counterpoising of written and oral Torah, in which the latter is defined as hiddushei Torah: that is, human creativity, insight and input within Torah; or in his constant discussions of the interplay between Shabbat and weekday. Similarly, in his teaching on Parshat Pinhas for 5640 (see HY I: Pinhas), in which he speaks of the “heavenly” manner of running life during the generation of the desert (“bread from heaven”), as against the more earthly, human-initiative one of the generation who entered the land (“bread from the earth”), clear echoes of which are heard in this homily.


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