Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pesah - Shir Ha-Shirim (Zohar)

In memory of the illustrious teacher of our generation, Ha-Gaon he-Hasid Rav Yosef Dov (Baer) ben Moshe Halevi Soloveitchik, who ascended to the Heavenly Yeshivah on 17 Nissan 5754 (Pesah 1994). May the memory of his teaching be an ongoing blessing.

Solomon’s Garden

It is customary on the Sabbath of Pesah to read Shir ha-Shirim (the Song of Songs), the lyric love poem most often read as an allegory of the connection between God and the people Israel. Hence, we present here one of the Zohar’s homilies on a verse from that book, from Parshat Terumah. Zohar II: 127a-128a:

“Let them take Me an offering” (Exod 25:2). Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Eleazar, Rabbi Abba, and Rabbi Yossi were sitting one day beneath some trees on the plain by the Sea of Ginnosar [i.e., the Kinneret or Sea of Galilee]. Rabbi Shimon said, “How pleasant is the shade of these trees covering us! We must adorn this place with words of Torah.”

Rabbi Shimon opened, saying, “King Solomon made himself a pavilion from the trees of Lebanon” (Song of Songs 3:9). This verse we have already established and it has been discussed; but “pavilion” refers to the palace below, which is in the image of the upper palace; [And indeed,] the blessed Holy One called it Garden of Eden, which He planted for pleasure, and He desires to delight therein those souls of the righteous who all exist there, enrolled within. Those souls, having no body in this world, all ascend and are crowned there, and have places from which to gaze, to revel in the sublime joy called “the delightfulness of the Lord (YHVH).” And there they are filled with the enchanting rivers of pure balsam.

Afarsimon(balsam) alludes to the upper palace, which is concealed and hidden. And apiryon (pavilion) is the lower palace, which has no [letter] samekh until it is supported (אסתמיך) by the upper palace. Hence the letter samekh is closed on all sides, like the closed letter mem.

The Zohar engages here in an elaborate numerological-word-play on the relation between the words אפרסמון (balsam, referred to in several places in the Mishnah as the most fragrant and precious oil known to the ancient world; NB: the use of the same word to refer to the persimmon fruit is modern) and אפריון (palanquin or pavilion). The word afarsimon contains the letters samekh and mem, the only two letters of the Hebrew alphabet that are closed on all sides. The one, samekh, is roundish in shape, alluding to the highest of all worlds, the Divine “point” or origin in Hokhmah or even higher; the latter is squared off, as if “crouching” above the constellation of lower sefirot. The word apiryon, instead of samekh and mem, contains the letter yod, a simple point, the square of whose value, 10 x 10 = 100, equals the sum of the value of samekh, 60, and mem, 40. It also alludes to Yesod, which inter alia symbolizes the phallus, the conduit of Divine flow from above into the lower worlds.

What is the difference between them? When it is enclosed and hidden within itself, within the supernal point above, She [i.e., Binah] assumes the form of the letter samekh, enclosed and hidden, ascending above. But when She returns and crouches over her children below to suckle them, She assumes the form of the letter mem, revi’a (meaning both “crouching” and “square”), enclosed in the four directions of the world.

Hence, She is both afarsimon and apiryon; and instead of the two letters samekh and mem stands yod, in the mystery of the covenant—ready to receive all, mystery of one hundred blessings—sixty and forty. Sixty [also] corresponds to the six aspects [the six central sefirot] issuing from the letter samekh, and forty corresponding to four the directions of the world—in all, totaling one hundred. And the letter yod fulfills the mystery of one hundred, corresponding to the pattern above. Thus, it is afarsimon, balsam, and it is apiryon, pavilion.

Those rivers issue from this balsam, and the supernal souls that have no body in this world draw upon the radiance emitted from those rivers of pure balsam, reveling in this sublime joy. And souls that ascend and descend, having a body in this world, ascend and suckle from the radiance of this pavilion, giving and receiving—giving the fragrance of the worthy deeds in which they engaged in this world, and receiving of the fragrance remaining in the Garden, as is said: “like the fragrance of a field blessed by the Lord” (Gen 27:27)—the fragrance remaining in that field. They all exist in that Garden, these delighting above, those delighting below.

The Zohar goes on to discuss the use of the phrase Ha-Melekh Shlomo, “King Solomon,” as a symbol for God Himself—who, in making the Garden for Himself, also made it for the souls of the righteous:

“King Solomon made himself—for himself. Now, you might say, ‘Look, souls of the righteous delight within, and yet you say made himself?’ Certainly so! Because this pavilion and the souls of the righteous all exist for the delight of blessed Holy One. “King Solomon”—the King who possesses (shelama), peace—namely the supernal King, as they have established. “The king”—anonymous [i.e., without a name following the title]—is King Messiah. This is the World of the Male; that is the World of the Female. “From the trees of Lebanon—planted trees, uprooted by the blessed Holy One and transplanted elsewhere. These are called cedars of Lebanon, as is said: “the cedars of Lebanon that He planted” (Psalms 104:16). This pavilion was built and decorated with them alone. Again, “From the trees of Lebanon”—these are the six days of Creation, each arranging in this pavilion a fitting arrangement. …

—Translation by Daniel C. Matt, from the as-yet-published manuscript of The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, Vol. 5, which Prof. Matt has very kindly allowed me to use.

Rabbi Soloveitchik and the Zohar

The theme for this year being Zohar, it seems fitting to devote our essay on the occasion of Rav Solovetchik’s yahrzeit to some thoughts—unfortunately truncated brief and inadequate—to the Rav’s attitude towards Zohar, Kabbalah, Hasidism and the Jewish mystical tradition.

The Rav is generally thought of as an arch-Mitnagged—an outspoken opponent if Hasidism. And indeed, one year when the Rav was the keynote speaker at the annual dinner of the Lubavitcher Day School in Boston, he began his remarks by describing himself as belonging to a family who were noted as “fierce opponents of Hasidism in general, and of Habad Hasidism in particular.” But he then went on to speak in rather glowing terms of Habad and its teaching.

More significantly, a major section in the first book-length exposition of his thought, Halakhic Man, harshly criticizes involvement in Kabbalah and mystic flights of imagination, stating that the experience of “halakhic man” is deeply rooted in the concrete world, the halakhah serving both as a kind of conceptual map projected against the universe, and as teaching concrete, practical guidelines and mandated actions (i.e., mitzvot ma’asiyot) towards changing the self and redeeming the world.

But in his later writing and public teaching there seems to be a certain softening of what some have called his ”pan-halahic” approach; here and there one finds positive and sympathetic presentations of passages from the Zohar and Hasidic thought. (A more systematic study of this issue, based on careful reading of his major essays, is a desideratum.)

But one must also remember that the Rav was very much an heir to the tradition of the Vilna Gaon and R. Hayyim of Volozhin, which very much respected Kabbalah and saw it as one of the branches of Torah. The Gaon was deeply involved in Kabbalah, wroting commentaries on such Kabbalistic works as Tikkunei ha-Zohar & Safra de-Tzeni’uta, while Nefesh ha-Hayyim is filled with Kabbalistic quotations that serve to refute Hasidism. Their objection to Hasidism was thus on other grounds.

Moreover, the Rav had a deep childhood connection to Habad—and to Lubavitch. He was fond of repeating the story of his childhood melamed, a Habad Hasid (the White Russian town of Haslavitch, in which the Rav grew up, was almost the only town in the region which did not have a Habad ma”tz or da”tz [i.e., rabbi], but rather the Rav’s own father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik). This melamed clandestinely taught the young boys Tanya when he was supposed to be teaching them Talmud, posting a lookout to quickly hide the “taboo” Hasidic text when the Rav of the town, i.e., the Rav’s father, came by unexpectedly. In later years the Rav stated that he owed his sense of religious experience to this man. When the gates of the Iron Curtain began to open slightly and rabbis from America were permitted to visit the Soviet Union, Rabbi Herschel Schacter (not to be confused with Rabbi Hershel Schachter, currently rosh yeshiva at YU and a generation younger) went there and located this melamed, who was by then an elderly man, and told him that ”Your talmid has become a gadol, a great Torah teacher in America.”

There were also warm personal relations between the Rav and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. When the Rav’s wife died in 1968, the Rebbe, who never left Brooklyn, sent his personal secretary, Rabbi Khadakov, to offer condolences to the Rav.

But this issue goes far beyond the question of the Rav’s personal attitude, and entails broader issues: the relationship between “Talmudic Judaism” and mysticism; the somewhat related issue of philosophy and Kabbalah; or, more broadly, between the legal, behavioral aspect of Judaism and its philosophical, religious and experiential aspects: i.e., which is essential and which is secondary? This is a vast topic, going back to the tension or interplay between halakhah and aggadah in the world of Hazal, of classical Rabbinic Judaism—or even, some might suggest, to the Biblical corpus, with its interplay between priest and prophet, between wisdom and poetic literature and the legal chapters.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common to speak of this issue in terms of Torah and yirah: that is, the balance between halakhic-oriented, text-centered study, and those forms of study or other activity intended to inculcate “fear of God.” In very different ways, this was the goal of the Mussar movement, of Hasidism, and of such diverse ethical treatises as Mesilat Yesharim and Orhot Tzadikkim, all of which warned against excessive focus upon textual mastery alone. In its own way, the rationalist philosophical schools of the Middle Ages also attacked Talmudism and offered an alternative path to knowledge of the Divine. But it seems to me that it was in the modern period, with the Enlightenment and the emergence of movements of religious reform, that one begins to find within the Orthodox world a “pan-halakhic” reaction, which strives to deduce religious thought directly from the details of the halakhah (thus, for example, in such diverse schools as that of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and the Shi’urei Da’at of Telze).

But ultimately, the issue is one of degree, not of black-and-white alternative options. Certainly, at least in his later years, Rav Soloveitchik was cognizant of the valuable lessons to be learned both from Hasidism and philosophy, as well as from the classical canon of Hazal and rishonim. But due to time restrictions I have barely touched the surface, and the subject requires much further discussion.


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