Shiur: Adar 2020 – Up is Down, Holy is Unholy: From Vayikra to Hasidut to Rav Kook and Rav Shagar

Up is Down, Holy is Unholy:
From Vayikra to Hasidut to Rav Kook to Rav Shagar

 

1. Talmud Bavli, Megillah 15b

 

“On that night the sleep of the king was disturbed” (Esther 6:1). Rabbi Tanḥum said: The sleep of the King of the universe was disturbed.

Kodesh vs. Hol

 

2. Vayikra 10:8–11

 

And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying: 9 Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages, 10 for you must distinguish (lehavdil) between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; 11 and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.

 

3. Vayikra 11:44–47

 

For I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth. 45 For I the Lord am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy. 46 These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, 47 for distinguishing (lehavdil) between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.

Hasidut and Its Opponents

 

4. Keter Shem Tov, Bereshit §189

 

“The whole earth is filled with his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). Nothing exists, large or small, that is separate from God. Thus, a perfect (shalem) person can perform divine unifications, even in physical activities like eating, drinking, and sexual relations, like business and mundane conversations between friends.

I have thus received a tradition from a wise man… this is the meaning of the verse, “Know him in all your ways” (Proverbs 3:6), which is like “And the man knew Eve his wife” (Genesis 4:1), meaning unification and coupling.

If this is true about physical matters, all the more so with matters like prayer that stand in the heights of the world. There are many levels, and on each and every level a person can perform unifications, in the mystery of “Thus shall Aaron come to the holy” (Leviticus 16:3). Whatever level a person is on, from there he can include himself within the entirety of the world, which are on these levels. They are all the limbs of the Knesset Yisrael. At this point a person can pray, and it will be that “his God be with him and he ascends” (II Chronicles 36:23).

 

 

5. Rav Ḥayyim of Volozhin, Nefesh Haḥayyim III:5

 

Translation from Eliezer Lipa (Leonard) Moskowitz, The Soul of Life, 304–5

But even considering this, these are His heroic and awesome [works]: that even so, He hid–so to speak–His glory so that it would be possible to actualize the matter of the existence of the worlds, and the powers, and created beings, both newly created and renewed, having different qualities and diverse situations, and distributed in different locations—places that are holy and pure, and the opposite: impure and filthy. And this is our perspective, namely, that our capacity for sense perception is limited to the realities as they appear, and on this perspective is built the system that mandates our behavior, as we were commanded directly by Him (blessed be He), it being immutable law. And from this perspective our sages metaphorized Him (so to speak) per the matter of the soul-Neshama’s relationship to the body. And as is stated in the Zohar that He (blessed be He) is the soul-Neshama of all the worlds, being that in people the senses only perceive a person’s body, and: 

  • even though the soul-Neshama permeates the entire body, it is an aspect hidden to eyes of flesh but revealed to the mind’s eyes,
  • so too, based on our grasp of what can be perceived, so appears the reality of all the worlds and creations, and that He (blessed be His name) permeates and is hidden (so to speak) within them to enliven them and to sustain them,

as in the matter of the soul-Neshama that permeates and is hidden within all the various parts of the body’s limbs/ organs, to enliven it.

 

6. Rav Ḥayyim of Volozhin, Nefesh Haḥayyim III:6

 

Translation from Eliezer Lipa (Leonard) Moskowitz, The Soul of Life, 307

And so it is that all of the fundamental principles of the holy Torah, every one of the warnings and command­ments, positive and negative, all operate within this context, that from our perspective there absolutely exist differences and variations between places. In clean/pure places we are permitted and also obligated to discuss and to reflect on the Torah’s words. And in filthy places we are prohibited even to reflect on the Torah’s words. And so it is with all the matters and the system of behavioral obligations that we are directly commanded in the holy Torah, and lacking this context of our perspective there wouldn’t be any room for the Torah and commandments at all.

 

7. Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, Mei Hashiloaḥ, vol. 1, Ki Tisa, s.v. Elohei Masekhah Lo Ta’aseh Lekha

 

“Molten gods, you shall not make for yourselves” (Shemot 34:17). “Molten” refers to the general principles. This is the meaning of the verse: In a moment when you have explicit “understanding of the heart” (binat halev), then you should not look to the general principles to guide your actions. Understanding of the heart should be your sole guide as to how to act in each individual instance, as we find by Eliyahu on Har Carmel, and as we explained well in Parashat Ḥukkat.

 

8. Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, Mei Hashiloaḥ, vol. 1, Ḥukkat, s.v. Vayis’u Benei Yisrael Vayiḥanu Be’ovot

 

It is written in the Gemara (Berachot, 54a), it is a time for God to act, for they have made Your Torah void’ (Tehillim, 119). says, “It is a time to do for God, for they have made void your Torah.” This means, since they have made your Torah void, act only in the will of God. At a time when it is perfectly clear that it is a time to solely for Eliyahu on Mount Carmel, then it is necessary to put aside the principles of the holy Torah and act only in the understanding that the blessed God instills in you. Rebbe Natan is saying that at a time when this given under standing is not completely clear to you, you must act according to the principles of the Torah and mitzvot without stepping out of the bounds of the Halacha. Yet Rebbe Natan is also saying that if your heart is drawn after the will of the blessed God, and have removed from yourself any kind of impurity (anything that could bring you down), afterward God may provide you with an opportunity to act in a way that may seem as if, God forbid, you have removed yourself from the bounds of the principles of the Torah. Concerning this Rebbe Natan said that for the one whose heart is drawn after God and has cleansed himself from any affliction, certainly God will not let him fall into a transgression, God forbid. He will surely then know that it is “a time to do for God.”

Kodesh vs. Hol 2.0: Spiritual vs. Unspiritual

 

9. Rav Kook, Mussar Avikha 2:2

 

Translation from R. Ari Ze’ev Schwartz, The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook, 55-56)

“In all of your ways, know Him” (Mishlei 3:6). One must search for God in everything one does. When praying, one must search for God by trying to focus on the words of prayer with deep concentration and a dedicated heart. One must not search for God in other matters at that moment. Indeed, while involved in that specific action, it may be said that God can be found within that action and nothing else. When studying Torah, one must realize that God is found in the very act of analyzing and trying to understand each idea. At that moment, God reveals Himself in that specific action and not in anything else. And finally, when involved in gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness), one must search for God by trying to uncover the best possible way to help one’s friend.

This principle is true in all actions that a person does. Do not all matters in the world uncover the Divine? Therefore, everything a person does should be understood as a mitzvah, because one must search for God in every action. We may accurately say that one who dedicates his or her entire mind and strength to performing every action with the greatest level of perfection knows God in all of his ways…

 

10. Rav Shagar, Nahalekh Baragesh, 170

 

Paradoxically, the logic of self-nullification (bitul) leads to a parabolic movement culminating in a return to the world. The righteous person nullifies himself, but in this the lack of nullification–the non-spiritual, worldly life–itself becomes nullification, a vessel for infinite light, an instance of “existing but not in existence.” The divide between creator and creature, between a righteous person and his creator, blurs. 

 

11. Rav Shagar, Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan I:29, vol. 1, 368

 

Similarly, Rebbe Naḥman’s understanding of tikkun habrit does not depict the berit as identification. Identifying with something still expresses a dualistic consciousness, because a person could identify with something outside of himself. Berit means getting rid of duality, so being overly aware of what we are doing ruins it. For example, we say “Thank God,” and that immediately traps us, as if we are doing something good by saying “Thank you.” We can free ourselves from this trap by saying “Thank you” from a place of linguistic oneness, of simplicity (peshitut). If I pray, and I must identify with the prayer, then this is still a matter of innerness and duality. The highest prayer is simply saying, speaking. This act can create the most delightful prayer.

Rav Tsadok Hakohen, Dover Tsedek, Aharei Mot, #4: An Annotated Translation

Below is the original Hebrew of a piece from Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin’s “Dover Tsedek,” followed by an annotated translation. In a future post I will apply the piece to some of the ongoing discourse surrounding the different Jewish sects, particularly the issue of continuity.

 

רבי צדוק, דובר צדק, אחרי מות, אות ד, עמ’ 187:
ומרגלים ראו הלבוש דמשכא דחויא, ויהושע וכלב ראו הפנימיות דטובה הארץ. ומה שהלבוש דמשכא דחויא מכשיל מאוד על זה נאמר ״אם חפץ בנו ה׳״ וגו’ פירוש אם ה׳ יתברך חפץ להביאנו והוא יודע גם כן מהמשכא דחויא. על זה נאמר בהדי כבשי דרחמנא למה לך. ואף על גב דחזי ברוח הקודש דהוה ליה בנין דלא מעלי כדאיתא בברכות. ועל זה אמר ר’ שמעון בן יוחאי אהא דחד איילתא דתמן… לא תשאל ולא תנסה את ה’, והכי דייקא. וגם בחיי עולם הבא יש משכא דחויא ולבוש [כמו ששמעתי על פסוק להביא את ושתי ערומה ולא באה כי בעולם הזה אי אפשר בלא לבוש] שיש בו מקום לטעות. וכמו שאמרו באחר דטעם הטיול בפרדס הוא טעימה מעין עולם הבא, ואחר טעה.

 

 

Rav Tsadok Hakohen, Dover Tsedek, Aharei Mot, #4:

The spies saw the outer layer (levush),[1] the skin of the snake,[2] while Joshua and Caleb saw the inner truth that the land is good. The skin of the snake causes people to fail, regarding which the verse says, “If God desires us” (Numbers 14:8), meaning that if God wants to bring us to the land he will do so, even given that he knows about the skin of the snake.[3]

It was said regarding this, “Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He?” And this even though he had seen through the holy spirit that his sons would not be good, as it says in Berakhot (10a).[4]

In reference to this, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoḥai said (Zohar, Beshalaḥ, 2:52b), “There is one doe there… do not ask and do not test God–so it is precisely!”[5]

Outer layers and the skin of the snake exist even in the life of the world to come [as I heard regarding the verse (Esther 1:17) “bring Vashti” naked, but she did not come, for in this world there is always clothing (levush)][6] and there is room there [in the world to come -LM] to make mistakes.

As they said, Aḥer tasted from the trip through the orchard (Ḥagigah 14b), a taste like that of the world to come, and he strayed.[7]

Notes:

1.  The “levush” (literally “garment”) is a common idea in hasidic thought with its roots in the Zohar, referring to aspects of a thing that obscure and prevent access to the inner truth of a thing, just as clothing obscures and prevents access to the body. See, for example, Zohar 3:152a where the Torah is divided up into outer layer, body, and soul, parallel to narratives, laws, and mystical secrets respectively.

2. “The skin of the snake” is a common kabbalistic trope going back to the Zohar, referring to the mystical evil that has attached to holiness since the primordial sin, drawing power from it and corrupting it.

3. Rav Tsadok is working here with the narrative of the spies from Numbers 13-14. When most of the spies claim that the land will consume them, two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb respond with the referenced verse: “If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us” (Numbers 14:8). Rav Tsadok is pointing out that Joshua and Caleb at no point suggest that the spies were lying and incorrect, instead claiming that God wants them to enter the land despite the spies being correct about the land “consuming its inhabitants” (13:32). God knows about this, and commanded it anyway; it’s the people’s job to listen to the command.

4. Rav Tsadok is referring to an aggadah that depicts a back-and-forth between King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah, and it’s worth quoting in full:

What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do to effect compromise between Hezekiah and Isaiah? He brought the suffering of illness upon Hezekiah and told Isaiah: Go and visit the sick. Isaiah did as God instructed, as it is stated: “In those days Hezekiah became deathly ill, and Isaiah ben Amoz the prophet came and said to him: Thus says the Lord of Hosts: Set your house in order, for you will die and you will not live” (Isaiah 38:1). This seems redundant; what is the meaning of you will die and you will not live? This repetition means: You will die in this world, and you will not live, you will have no share, in the World-to-Come.

Hezekiah said to him: What is all of this? For what transgression am I being punished?

Isaiah said to him: Because you did not marry and engage in procreation.

Hezekiah apologized and said: I had no children because I envisaged through divine inspiration that the children that emerge from me will not be virtuous. Hezekiah meant that he had seen that his children were destined to be evil. In fact, his son Menashe sinned extensively, and he thought it preferable to have no children at all.

Isaiah said to him: Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He? That which you have been commanded, the mitzva of procreation, you are required to perform, and that which is acceptable in the eyes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, let Him perform, as He has so decided.

Hezekiah said to Isaiah: Now give me your daughter as my wife; perhaps my merit and your merit will cause virtuous children to emerge from me.

Isaiah said to him: The decree has already been decreed against you and this judgment cannot be changed.

Hezekiah said to him: Son of Amoz, cease your prophecy and leave. As long as the prophet spoke as God’s emissary, Hezekiah was obligated to listen to him. He was not, however, obligated to accept Isaiah’s personal opinion that there was no possibility for mercy and healing. (Koren-Davidson Translation)

This aggadah plays with the same tension Rav Tsadok highlighted in the narrative of the spies between the divine command and negative future consequences of following that command. Hezekiah doesn’t want to have children because he knows that his son Menashe will be the worst king of Judah, marrying a foreign princess and bringing her nation’s idolatry into the heart of the temple itself . Isaiah rebukes him for getting involved with the “secrets of God,” meaning the potential future consequences of obeying the divine command.

5. Rav Tsadok is referencing a passage from the Zohar:

Rabbi Shim’on said, “There is one doe on earth, and the blessed Holy One does so much for her. When she cries out, the blessed Holy One hearkens to her anguish. And when the world is in need of mercy, for water, she cries aloud and the blessed Holy One listens and then feels compassion for the world, as is written: As a hind longs for streams of water… (Psalms 42:2).

“When she needs to give birth, she is totally constricted; then she puts her head between her legs, crying out and screaming, and the blessed Holy One feels compassion for her and provides her with a serpent who bites her genitalia, opening and tearing that place, and immediately she gives birth.”

Rabbi Shim’on said, “Concerning this matter, do not ask and do not test את י׳הוה (et YHVH)–so it is precisely!” (Pritzker edition, trans. Daniel Matt, Vol.4, pp.265-266)

Continuing the theme of childbirth from the narrative about Hezekiah, the Zohar speaks of God enabling childbirth by way of violence. While there are more esoteric interpretations (see the commentary in the Pritzker edition, ibid.), Rav Tsadok seems to be working with just the surface level of the parable, focusing on the idea that the divine plan might include, or even hinge upon, violence and suffering. It is concerning this that it was said, “do not ask and do not test God;” it’s not there are no problems and therefore you shouldn’t unreasonably ask/test God, rather even though there are problems that might encourage asking/testing God, you still should not do so, as this is simply how the divine works. There is always the skin of the snake, as Rav Tsadok said before.

6. This bracketed comment is a later insertion by Rav Tsadok himself. He is referring to a teaching from his teacher, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica. This is the relevant passage from a larger piece in the book of Mordechai Yosef’s teachings, Mei ha-Shiloa:

The Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory, said about “naked and she did not come” that this matter of naked has not yet come, end quote. The idea is that God gave Israel the Torah and the commandments, which are outer layers (levushim), and it is through them that Israel can grasp God’s essence. In this world, humans are incapable of grasping God’s essence except through crude [literally, “corporealizing” -LM] outer layers, so that ultimately everything that we receive comes via outer layers. […] Therefore when the men of the Great Assembly say that Aashverosh commanded that Vashti come before him naked, they understood that God wanted to give Israel true revelation, without any outer layer, such as there will be in the future when God will reveal his light without any outer layer… (Mei ha-Shiloa, Vol.1, Bavli Megillah 12b, s.v. vehakarov, p.259)

Rav Mordechai Yosef is getting at the same idea as his student, Rav Tsadok, regarding the presence of outer layers that mediate between people and the divine. However, Rav Mordechai Yosef is arguing that the mediated relationship with God characterizes our ordinary, banal, existence, there can potentially be an unmediated relationship with God, in an eschatological future period, or even in the here and now if God decided to reveal himself in that way. Rav Tsadok, on the other hand, is arguing that even the eschaton, “the world to come” is characterized by a mediated relationship with God. There is no escaping the skin of the snake or the outer layers. (This is not the only time we find Rav Tsadok arguing with the text of the Mei ha-Shiloa. The Mei ha-Shiloa suggests that Zimri, and not Pinhas, was the hero of Numbers 25 (Vol.1, Pinhas, s.v. vayera, p.164), whereas Rav Tsadok claims that Zimri really did sin (Tsidkat ha-Tsadik, #43). Interestingly, Rav Tsadok attributes this opinion to his teacher, seemingly contradicting the opinion attested to in the text of the Mei ha-Shiloa).

Rav Tsadok, at this point in the homily, is moving past the simple argument that the divine command or plan may involve some sort of problem, on to saying that even the most ideal situation imaginable is still going to have problems. There is no ideal, perfect, experience of God, clean of all imperfections, and we need to stop thinking that there is.

7. Here Rav Tsadok is referencing the aggadah about four individuals who “entered the orchard.” The exact nature of this experience is debated, with one major line of interpretation being that it was a mystical experience of the divine, which is why Rav Tsadok likens it to the world to come. Of the four, one left unscathed, while one died, one went crazy, and the last, Aḥer, “cut saplings,” traditionally understood as a metaphor for some form of heresy. Rav Tsadok claims that Aḥer did not stray upon experiencing the orchard so much as he strayed because he experienced the orchard. Even mystical experiences of the divine, as close to unmediated as possible, contain some elements of crude superficiality and mythical evil.