Monday, October 20, 2008

Simhat Torah (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on Simhat Torah, see the archives to this blog at October 2006.

Between Joy and Ecstasy

All the festivals are joyous. Sukkot, more so than any others; indeed, it is known as zeman simhatenu, “the time of our joy.” Simhat Torah, at least in the Jewish religious culture we’ve inherited from medieval Ashkenaz, is the most joyous day of all (perhaps transferring the joy of Simhat Beit ha-Sho’evah, which was the epitome of joy in Temple times, to the final day of the festival). It is known in many places as a time for outbursts of ecstasy, of dancing and singing till the wee hours of the night. Hence, it is a suitable time to discuss the mitzvah of “rejoicing in the hag.”

The question that occurred to me was the following: are their any limits upon joy? There is a movement afoot today, among certain sectors of the Jewish religious world, to pursue ecstasy. This is surely one of the sources of the current revival of mysticism, of interest in Kabbalah and Hasidism. I have heard more than one person speak of “ecstasy” as a kind of goal of religious life, as the end result of prayer and other religious activity: to achieve intimacy with God through joy, through forgetting the self, the ego, in supreme ecstasy. There is a feeling in many circles that the more singing and dancing and clapping that occurs during the prayer service, the more lively the melodies one uses, the more authentic and “spiritual” the synagogue experience. Surely, singing and dancing are very fine things—this morning I was at a wonderful Hoshana Rabba davening, where Hallel was sung to the accompaniment of guitar, mandolin and fiddle, and the Shaliah Tzibbur danced, leapt, twirled about, and kakatzkad—but there are of course other components to the spiritual as well.

I brought this question with me to my reading of the Rambam’s discussion of this subject, in his treatment of the mitzvah of “rejoicing on festival days” in Hilkhot Yom Tov 6.17-21. Interestingly, he doesn’t use the active verbal form לשמח, “to rejoice,” but the passive phrase, להיות בהן שמח וטוב לב, “to be on them [those days] joyful and good-hearted.” He then places a series of limitations or qualifications on just how this joy is to be manifested. As I have discussed and translated this and a related passage previously (HY V [Rambam] Emor, Sukkot), I will merely review them here in cursory fashion. First of all, he stresses the ethical dimension of sharing one’s rejoicing with others—i.e., that one’s rejoicing may not be self-centered, restricted to one’s own family and invited friends; second, that one must not eat and drink and carouse all day long, but devote time to worship and Torah study (“half to yourselves and half to the Lord”); third, the avoidance of drunkenness, and the foolish hilarity that comes with it (especially salient in light of his view that in our time, when there is no Temple and hence no possibility to eat the flesh of the sacrifices, drinking wine is a central expression of “rejoicing in the festival”—see Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Aseh §54); fourth and finally, he places particular attention on the avoidance of sexual impropriety and debauchery, which can easily accompany ecstatic rejoicing (viz. the carnival in Rio).

He goes on to say that joy is to be seen as a form of Divine worship; a theme further elaborated in his discussion of Simhat Beit ha-Shoevah in Hilkhot Lulav 8.12-15, where he cautions against another kind of egotism: that of the sage who considers it beneath his dignity to sing and dance and revel with the ordinary folk.

In brief, Rambam presents here an aristocratic, Apollonian ideal of joy—one rooted in intellectual clarity, in transcendent spirituality, and a strong code of self-discipline and restraint at even the most ecstatic moments. It is an ideal of joy animated by an inner love and even mystical attachment to God—but without the Dionysian surrender to the present moment, to the instinctual, intuitive, and vital, that seeks the erasure of all boundaries and the dissolution of individuality in the oneness of existence.

This polarity between intellect and feeling is one of the major polarities of our age. Indeed, it has been a major motif of Western culture since the days of Rousseau and, in his wake, the Romantics, but it has gained a renewed popularity and vitality since the middle of the last century, with the profound disappointment felt by many in what they saw as the disastrous consequences of modernity and rationality. There are major movements in contemporary Judaism that wish to reassert feeling, after it having supposedly been quashed for so long by the much-celebrated Jewish “braininess.” But has this movement in turn gone too far, surrendering sober judgment even when feeling leads one in inappropriate, nay, disastrous directions?

But of course Rambam is not all of Judaism. Are there other sources in Judaism that hold otherwise? Part of the appeal of Hasidism to today’s world is that it seems to promise unrestrained joyousness and spontaneity of religious feeling. An interesting passage in the late 19th century Hasidic thinker, R. Mordechai of Izhbitz, seems to suggest an alternative approach. In Mei ha-Shiloah, Parshat Ki Teitsei, he speaks of the value of teshukah, “passion” or “desire” (even, or perhaps specifically, in the sexual sense!) as a positive emotion, albeit one that needs to be channeled in the right direction. The piety of the person who serves God without passion, without excitement, without passionate longing for knowledge of the Divine, even mystical union, is somehow deficient. (Indeed, each one of us, thinking of those moments in our lives when we felt most alive, would surely point to those moments when we were possessed with feelings of passion, of intensity of feeling, of presence—be it in romantic love, in moments of overcoming great challenges, in surges of creativity, in moments of rapture in the experiencing of great beauty, or perhaps, even, in fleeting glimpses of the Divine. What Abraham Maslow referred to as “peak moments.”) But is even the Izhbitzer truly Dionysian? Would he have said, like the ‘60s hippies, “If you feel, with all your being, that it is the right thing to do in this time and place, then just Do It!” Contrary to a certain reading of his thought that is popular today, I think not.

* * * * *

And so we come to the end of another year. I am grateful that the Almighty has given me the health and strength to continue, despite all obstacles, to record and share my thoughts on Torah with a reading public—and one which seems to contain more than few learned people. If at times I have not had the time to expand upon them as fully as I may have in times past, perhaps that too is to the good: some say that brevity has made my musings more readable. Be that as it may, I am grateful to my readers for their moral, intellectual, and at times material support (here I reiterate my pre-Rosh Hashanah)—and even for just being there. My thanks, too, to my wife Randy for putting up with my occasional preoccupation with this project—which I consider one of the most meaningful things I have done in my life. I account it a privilege to teach Torah in this manner, and hope that I may continue to do so for many more years.

Some comments about the continuation of Hitzei Yehonatan. As I have noted a number of times, I have written several major papers that have been residing in nearly-complete form on my computer for far too long; some of these were originally intended for milestones that have long since passed. These include: reflections on the thought of Simon Rawidowicz and its contemporary implications; a birthday tribute to Arthur Green; thoughts about sexuality (viz. Bereshit); on violence and warfare (these two being the beginnings of a kind of philosophical anthropology); Part II of my “Sinai” paper, Part I of which was sent out on Shavuot; and an expanded version of my proposal to the Bronfman competition, for a full-length book on the issues of modernity, individuality and community, and their relation to Judaism. I have decided to publish these, even if not in the fully finished form originally intended, during the coming weeks.

As for the new theme for the coming year: I am still very much torn between two options: the Ramban and medieval Torah commentary, and Sefer ha-Zohar. The former may be taken to represent the tension between the mystical and the rational, the proto-Kabbalistic and the halakhic: a thinker who was at once highly erudite and closely reasoned, and more than any other engages in carefully argued polemics with other parshanim, and on the other hand deeply involved in the world of Hokhmat ha-Nistar, hidden or esoteric wisdom. The Zohar is, of course, the canonical text of the Kabbalah, a poetic, mystical midrash on the Torah, which holds deep fascination and attraction for many in our generation—yet I fear that, in the manner of Parkinson’s Law, I may rise to mystical heights that are beyond my competence. But perhaps studying such an esoteric text will present an interesting intellectual challenge.

I may postpone starting the new theme until these major papers are “off my desk” and out in the world, so to speak—or, at least, treat the new theme only every other week until the latter have been completed.


Post a Comment

<< Home