Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Matot-Masei (Hasidism)

On Vows and Abstinence

This week’s double Torah portion opens with some rules concerning vows and oaths, particularly about women in the situations of daughters, wives, widows, divorcées, etc. R. Nahum of Chernobol takes off from the broader implications of vow-making, which often involved abstinence from various kinds of pleasures, and the ambivalence towards the subject expressed by the Rabbis. Me’or Einayim, Matot, p. 168:

“And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes… When a person makes a vow… he shall not violate his word. Everything that comes forth from his mouth he shall fulfill” [Num 30:2-3]. Let us preface this by the saying of our Sages about what is written about the Nazirite “and the priest shall atone for him that he sinned concerning the soul” [Num 6:11]: And against what soul did he sin? Rather, because he pained himself by not drinking wine [Ta’anit 11a].

To understand this matter: it is known that the entire world and its fulness were made by the word of the Lord, and with the breath of His mouth all their hosts [Ps 33:6]. For it was by means of speech that all of existence came about, small and great. And it is He who sustains it and gives it life, as is written, “and You give life to all” [Neh 9:6]. And were it not for the life that is within each thing, it would not exist. But rather, they are things that fell in the Breaking [i.e., the primordial catastrophe known in Kabbalah as “the Breaking of the Vessels”] into this lowly world, as is known, from the sin of Adam, and also in the generations that followed. For several sparks of the fallen souls are embodied in things of this world, in kinds of food and drink and the like, for this is nothing in this world that does not have a holy spark, by which it was emanated from the word of the Holy One blessed be He, who give life to that thing. And this is the source of the taste in each thing that is sweet to the palate, as is said ,”Taste and see that the Lord is good” [Ps 34:9]. That is to say, that which you taste and see as good, is God—that is, the holy spark embodied in that thing….

As always in Me’or Einayim, there is a strong sense of God’s immanence, of the immediacy and ubiquity of his presence—even in something as mundane as food or, in the next section, in the processes of digestion and elimination, explained in quasi-theological terms. This is integrated with the Lurianic theory of the Breaking of the Vessels, which created the primordial fault lines within the cosmos and, as we shall see presently, the human being’s task of fixing it. There is an interesting word play on the biblical metaphor of “taste and see that God is good”—which is understood literally, e.g. that the sweetness of a chocolate bar is the Divinity within that thing.

As we can see in a tangible manner, that after a person has eaten that food and the life-element remains within him, the waste matter is expelled without it’s vitality, and it is an unpleasant and poor thing. For the main part of the food that a person eats and by which he is sustained and which gives him strength is the holy spark within that food, which is the source of the good taste sensed in that food or drink. Hence, when a person eats a particular food, that spark is set aside for the life-energy of that person, and he gains strength. And when he believes with perfect and complete faith that this is spiritual food, and that His Divinity is embodied therein, and he turns his mind and heart to its innerness, and attaches himself to it with all his vitality and thought, and with the power and vitality that is added to him by the holy spark that has come inside him, to the Source of All, from which all has emanated—then he returns the holy spark, that until now had been in a state of brokenness and Exile, to Him, may He be blessed; and from this He derives very great pleasure, as is known. For this is the very essence of our service: to draw all of the holy sparks from the shells, where they are in brokenness, to the place of holiness, so that the holy may be lifted up from its brokenness. And this is particularly so in all of the worship and Torah that one performs through words, because of the power and vitality that he received from the food, which is a holy spark. And when he links his speech to the primordial speech, he also lifts up that spark which is also the word of God, all of which are fallen letters….

Again, we have here a central idea in R. Nahum, that of avodah begashmiut (“service in corporeality”), here articulated in a particularly clear manner: he states here in unequivocal fashion that this is our main service, more so, or at least as much, as that of Torah and mitzvot.

Therefore, every person must turn his eyes and heart to see this, which is the secret of, “In all your ways know him” [Prov 3:6], as we have written elsewhere. And when he turns his mind to this, he will understand how the Creator enlivens him with His godliness, literally. As is said, “For man does not live by bread alone, but by all that comes forth out of the mouth of the Lord” [Deut 8:3], referring to the attribute of speech embodied in that thing, and in that bread. For it is known that all food is called bread, as in the verse “ he prepared much bread [i.e., food]” [Dan 5:1].

Therefore, one who pains his soul and afflicts himself so as not to enjoy this world is called a sinner, just as there is an opinion in the Talmud that one who constantly fasts is called a sinner [Ta’anit 11a]. For it [i.e., uplifting the material world] is also an act of service of God, just like Torah and prayer and wearing tefillin and all the mitzvot. For the Holy One blessed be He created the world with the Torah [Zohar Hadash I.5] , and He runs the world with Torah, and in every thing there is Torah, as is known. And every believer must know that there is nothing outside of His service, may He be blessed, but that all is according to Torah. For the Torah allows us to eat and to drink, but only so that one may do so for the sake of their results, and not for our own pleasure—but in the manner described all is called pure service. Therefore, [one who fasts or behaves ascetically] is called a sinner, for he withholds the uplifting of holiness to its source, that is embodied in those kinds of foods, from which he refrains. And even if he does not have a fully attentive mind, he nevertheless performs this action through this…

There is a strong rejection here of any kind of dualism; one who thinks that he may attain holiness through rejecting pleasures of this world is in fact called a sinner, because he thereby denies that God is at the root of everything. The sanctification of the physical is seen as an indispensable part of Divine worship.

There are several questions one may ask here. First, is what R. Nahum preaches in itself a more subtle kind of dualism? That is, if, as he argues, one ought to enjoy all the physical pleasures of the world, but with a kind of mental distancing from them, a mind-set that one is doing so for their beneficial spiritual results—eating to give one’s body strength to learn Torah and to pray with devekut; engaging in sex to produce holy offspring, to celebrate the Shabbat, or to perform a kind of mystical imitatio dei; etc.—is not this too a kind of denial of the physical pleasures of the world as goods in themselves? Why can one not simply enjoy them in a spirit of appreciation and gratitude of God’s beneficence—and why can not this, in itself, be seen as an act of elevating and redeeming their holy sparks?

Second, what argument may be propounded against this? What might advocates of a somewhat ascetic or at least abstemious approach to life, such as Rambam, argue? They would no doubt claim that human nature is such, that to adopt a laissez faire or even positive attitude toward indulgence in the physical is too dangerous: that a person may be too easily caught up in a whirlpool of hedonism and seeking pleasures as ends in themselves, completely forgetting the spiritual dimension of life. A certain sense of disgust, of wishing to transcend the carnal, has always been the lot of a certain type of moralists and holy men of all religions and culture. The debate between “world affirming” and ”world-denying” religion would seem as old as mankind.

Third, I found myself engaged in a kind of ironic musing: that had R. Nahum lived now, he would not have been so sanguine about eating. It is by now clear that obesity and its resultant medical consequences, what have come to be called eating disorders, are a major epidemic of or time; that the percentage of obesity, and the average weights of the population generally, including many children and teenagers, has increased drastically throughout the “developed world” just over the past twenty years. Social historians say that this process began in the early 19th century with the introduction of refined flour and sugar in Europe; its recent acceleration is doubtless due to sedentary habits, exacerbated by computers and other technological devices that make it easier to stay at home, and by the spread of American-style junk food and the decline of family meals. (Traditional Jews may be grateful for the Shabbat for assuring those at least one day a week.) One wonders whether, seeing today’s world, the Chernobler would have found “He gives food to all flesh, for great is His lovingkindness” quite so unmixed a blessing.


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