Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Yom Kippur (Hasidism)

Yom HaKadosh!” (“The Holy Day”)

Yom Kippur is often referred to by Hasidim and in Hasidic texts simply as Yom ha-Kadosh—“The Holy Day” par excellence. The implication is that, over and above its qualities as a day of atonement and forgiveness of sin, beyond it being a day when we engage in teshuvah and confession of sin, when we search our in souls and plummet the depths of our own failings and inadequacies, it is a day of pristine holiness, the holiest day of the entire year.

The use of this term suggests something of the Hasidic approach to Yom Kippur. It plays down guilt and dwelling upon one’s own faults and shortcomings; as we have noted many times in these studies over the course of the past year, Hasidism tends to see sadness and self-castigation as the enemies of true religious service, which should be based upon a joyful approach to life, which feels the Divine energy pulsing throughout the universe. Hence, more than a dwelling upon one’s own imperfections and rooting out of the negative, teshuvah is seen as an act of regeneration, of reaching out to the Holy One. Yom Kippur is thus The Holy Day, because it is a day when God is close and available to man. “Seek the Lord when He is close” is the motto of the ten days of repentance generally, and of Yom Kippur in particular; in ancient times, this was manifested in a concrete way by the moment when the high priest entered the holiest place on earth, the Holy of Holies.

As many of the early, classic Hasidic books are collections of sermons on the weekly Torah portions, they do not have any special section on Yom Kippur or the other holidays. What follows is a selection from that place in the Torah where Yom Kippur is mentioned (which, incidentally, is located quite close to the exact center of the Torah: one of the middle portions of the middle book, read near Passover, the mid-point of the annual cycle). From R. Moshe Hayyim Ephraim of Sudylkow’s Degel Mahaneh Efraim, Parshat Aharei Mot, s.v. vekhiper:

“And he shall atone for the children of Israel of all their sins once each year” [Lev 16:32]. There are deep things here, in my humble opinion, and this is in accordance with the approach of the paytan [liturgical poet] who arranged Seder ha-Avodah for Yom Kippur: “And thus would he count: ‘One, one and one, etc.… one and seven’” [from Mishnah Yoma 5.3]. And the Talmud [at b. Yoma 55a] explains the reason why.

Seder ha-Avodah refers to the section of the Musaf service describing the order of service performed on Yom Kippur in the Temple in Jerusalem. The passage quoted here describes how the High Priest, after entering the Holy of Holies and offering the finely ground incense, sprinkled the blood (of “his” bullock and of the people’s goat of atonement) on the veil of the ark “once upwards, seven times downwards,” each time counting “One, one and one, one and two,” etc. The Talmudic passage offers two explanations as to why the word “one,” for the upward sprinkling, was mentioned together with each of the downwards sprinklings: so that the priest would not become confused, or because the practice is alluded to in a biblical verse. But he continues:

And there is, in my humble opinion, a Kabbalistic reason for this. For it is known that the sefirah of Binah [Understanding/Intuition] is called “one.” For Binah belongs to the World of Thought, and there, all is complete unity; but it is only in the body that the branches are separated into the right arm and the left, which are the aspects of Hesed & Gevurah [“Kindness” and “Sternness”]. Therefore thought is called one, for there the union is constant. And this is the “one” alluded to in the Avodah, which incorporates the three mind-aspects of Keter-Hokhmah-Binah (Crown—Wisdom—Understanding/Intuition), which are the secret of thought, that is called “one”… down to “one and seven,” which is Malkhut.

The realm of the upper, intellective sefirot is only rarely touched upon in Hasidic writings (with the exception of the school of Habad, so called because of its emphasis specifically on these attributes). The three sefirot mentioned are: Keter, representing the Divine Crown, the point of contact so-to-speak between the Infinite and the created world (which is the closest Kabbalah ever gets to discussing the Godhead itself); Hokhmah, the Divine Wisdom or Logos, the “point” from which the universe was created, symbolized by the letter Yod; and Binah, the quality of applied intellect or reasoning “which derives one thing from another,” that which spreads and extends the quintessential Hokhmah into length and breadth (symbolized by the letter Heh). The important point here is that these three sefirot are described here as one or, more precisely, as being in a state of constant union (Hokhmah & Binah are also called, mythically, “Father” and “Mother’)—together constituting that realm of Divine Wisdom and Will that so transcends the world that it cannot be differentiated.

We find, that there are included therein all ten sefirot, and in each there is mentioned the word “one,” so as to incorporate them all in the “one,” which alludes to Binah, and so as to sweeten the judgments in their root. And this is the aspect of Yom Kippur: mother and daughter [referring to the sefirot of Binah and Malkhut]; and understand. And this is alluded to in, “And he shall atone for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year” [ibid.]. “One” is the world of Binah, and “year” is Malkhut. That is, to draw the world of Binah into that aspect, that it might be incorporated and united therein, as in the Avodah. And thereby all the judgments will be sweetened by themselves, and the sins of all Israel shall be atoned—and understand this. For here the Torah alluded to our way, from whence atonement comes to Israel on Yom ha-Kippurim once a year, as mentioned above. And understand.

These three sefirot, which are so-to-speak spearheaded or concentrated specifically within Binah, unite in turn with each of the seven lower sefirot, which collectively represent the realms of emotion and action; and particularly with Malkhut, the feminine, which epitomizes all of them together, as well as the created world itself, which is known as “Daughter.” This unity results in sweetening and overcoming the “judgments,” the forces of conflict and disharmony present in the lower realms. Perhaps, too, for human beings Yom Kippur is a time for awareness of, and meditation on, the perfect unity of the transcendent World of Thought.

Binah is equated elsewhere with teshuvah as well. Why? Perhaps because the act of teshuvah is ultimately a mental act: of drawing distinctions, of winnowing out the good from the evil within one’s own soul and self—and as such involving the faculty of discrimination. On the other hand, teshuvah is also an act of will: after one examines one’s acts, or even ones entire life and way of being in the world, and pinpoints those things which need to be changed—the classical function of the understanding—an act of will is required to in fact undertake implementing these change in one’s behavior and day-to-day actions. This will (which we will discuss again below, from a different viewpoint) is in fact related to these upper sefirot, to the spark of the Divine will and wisdom within man.

Thoughts on Atonement and Guilt

To return to the phrase Yom ha-Kadosh: there is an interesting paradox here, in that the very day on which we must focus upon our sins and the negative facets of our personality, is that day that is connected to the most sublime holiness. But perhaps the solution to this paradox lies in the Hasidic concept of bittul atzmi. Teshuvah is the most sublime form of self-abnegation, whereby the very act of searching out one’s faults and shortcomings and attempting to renounce them brings one to a place in which one’s own ego and self are somehow left behind, and one approaches God, as it were, as a pure soul stripped of ego.

In this context, I wish to address a somewhat related issue, that always comes up during this season: the role of guilt in Judaism It seems to be a truism among many modern, educated people that guilt is a bad thing—a destructive, negative, “unhelpful” emotion. There are those who, troubled by the emphasis on sin and atonement, and the concomitant emphasis on guilt, de-emphasis this aspect to the point of attempting to read it even out of Yom Kippur. Thus, they may invoke the first teacher of Ger Hasidism, the Hiddushei ha-Rim, who called upon his disciples not to indulge in protracted Vidui (“Confession”), but to recite it quickly and joyfully, and to focus only upon the yearning for and love of God. Indeed, one Yom Kippur morning I was taken to task because, following the custom of my teacher R. Aharon Lichtenstein, I was beating my chest too vigorously.

It seems to me that this attitude hearkens back to the earliest days of modern psychology. Victorian society was one in which many people were plagued and even crippled by guilt. Many of Freud‘s patients, whose case histories have become classic psychoanalytic texts, were neurasthenic, sexually inhibited, fearful individuals. Much of his therapy was thus concerned with clearing up unnecessary neurotic compunctions and inhibitions.

Can there be any doubt, observing contemporary culture, that our society has for better or worse turned about 180 degrees in this respect? Today’s problems relate more to such issues as anomy and isolation, rootlessness and confusion about identity, the relativity and uncertainty of all values and ethics, the inability to love, and excessive sexual freedom and lack of inhibition that ultimately results in shallowness and vacuity of relationships. (See on this, already several decades ago, Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism)

Thus, one could well argue that what is needed today is a stronger sense of sin, of right and wrong, a more definitive sense of the parameters of good and evil. Moreover, such concepts as obligation, responsibility, external norms, and the consequent sense of one’s life being set before the bar of judgment, need not imply guilt but may, on the contrary, be seen as an act of kindness on the part of God, providing guidance and rock-bottom sureties and truth in a rudderless world.

I would also like to address a somewhat related issue. At a talk about the Jewish Renewal movement that he gave some weeks ago, Michael Kagan pointed out that R. Zalman Schachter, while very strong on traditional halakhah, insisted that Jews today are Jews by choice. That is to say, the traditional concept of obligation, of halakhah and Torah and mitzvot being imposed upon people willy-nilly, of God “holding the mountain over them like a barrel,” simply doesn’t work today.

I would of course agree on this point as a sociological description. I wrote here once that most of the forms of Judaism we see in the world today are in a sense ”inventions” of part fifty years or so, and that most Jews who are religiously observant today have in some sense or another chosen to be so. Not only are the numbers of converts and “ba’alei teshuvah” legion, but even those “raised in the faith” must have, in light of the pressures and temptations of the modern secular world, at one point or another consciously chosen to “stay within the fold.” There are also educational consequences of this: one can no longer simply say, “You are obligated to keep Shabbat because you were born Jewish,” but rabbis and teachers need to persuade a person of the beauty of Shabbat, help him/her to feel its light, its holiness, etc.

But all this is true only in terms of how we understand the sociology of the world in which we live. In principle, on the theological and philosophical plane, matters are totally different. The alternative to the concept of obligation is autonomy, in which the criteria for selection are ultimately given over to the individual, with the guidelines for ethical choice not at all clear. I believe that the concept of heteronomy is important and central to any Jewish scheme. There must be some external source of norms, both ethical and religious, not invented by human beings.

All this follows from a certain understanding, a philosophical anthropology, if you will, of the nature of man—of the fallibility of the human mind, of human moral sense and judgment. Emmanuel Levinas, in his Nine Talmudic Readings (Bloomington, Ind., 1994, pp. 30-50, at p. 32), discusses the well-known concept by which the Torah is literally thrust upon man (Shabbat 88a-88b), and contrasts it with what he calls “the temptation of temptation.” He sees, in the need to experience everything—to maintain infinite possibilities, not so much to actually experience unlimited sex, power, wealth, etc., but to have them available as an option—a basic disease of modern man. The moral force of the Torah derives precisely from its heteronomous nature. To freely, autonomously choose it would merely make it one more human choice:

The temptation of temptation may well describe the condition of Western man. In the first place it describes his moral attitudes. He is for an open life, eager to try everything, to experience everything, “in a hurry to live. Impatient to feel.”… He must be rich and a spendthrift and multiple before being essential and one.”

From this perspective, teshuvah, return to Torah, is quite simply a path back to mental and moral health.


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