Screen for the Spirit, Garment for the Soul

Translated by Rabbi Josh Rosenfeld and Alan Brill

Translated by Rabbi Josh Rosenfeld and Alan Brill, first published in the blog kavvanah.wordpress.com. this is the first part of a longer sermon published in the book ‘Lehair et Haptachim’.
a sermon for Hanukah: on the meaning of mitzvot according to R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and its relation to authenticity and the infinite.

The Soul and the Commandment

There is a well-known custom of many Hasidic rabbis on Hanukah to sit by the lit candles and to contemplate them, sometimes for hours. This meditation immerses the spirit and allows the psyche to open up to a whole host of imaginings, discoveries, thoughts, and emotions, which subsequently blossom into, what Chabad thought formulates as, the “words of the living God”. Therefore, looking at the physical entity is instructive. The candle and its light are crucial elements in the explanation of the meditation upon the candlelight.

For example, R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi  (1745-1812; henceforth, Admor ha-Zaken) distinguishes between two different types of light emanating from the candle: “The fact of the matter is that the candle consists of both the oil and the wick [producing] two types of light: a darkened light directly on the wick, and the clarified white light” (Torah Or, Miketz 33a).

This differentiation serves as a springboard for a discourse upon two pathways in religious life. It is possible, to a certain extent, to posit that the discourse is the product of the Admor ha-Zaken’s own meditation upon the different colors of light in the candle’s flame, and without that, there would be no discourse to speak of.

The motif of the candle, especially the imaginings it conjures, are a frequent theme in scripture and in rabbinic writing – mitzvah candle; candle of the soul; candle of God. Thereby, leading many Hasidic discourses to seek explanations of the relationship between the soul, the commandments, and God. Most importantly, in our study of the discourse of the Admor ha-Zaken, we will encounter the tension between the godly and the commanded – the infinitude of the divine as opposed to the borders, limits, and finitude of the system of commandments.

However, prior to doing so, we will focus our attention for a moment on the tension between the soul and the commandment – the internal spiritual life of the believer relative to the externalized performance of the commandment.

The emergence of Hasidism brought to the fore the following challenge: does the fact of an increased individual emphasis upon internal spiritual life mean that a person will, of necessity, distance himself from the practical framework of halakha? In a different formulation, does the focus of Hasidism upon the ‘soul-candle’ mean that the light of the ‘commandment-candle’ will be dimmed?

The tension between the two is clear: one’s obligation to do specific things affixed to specific times stands in opposition to one’s attunement with and attention to their own inner voice. Our own eyes see, and not just in connection with Jewish religious life, that when one follows his own personal truth, he does not behave according to the dictates and accepted norms of society at large. For example, one who desires to be ‘more authentic’ may be less polite, as the rules of etiquette are seen as external social constructions that dull one’s inner life. Similarly, for this type of individual, when it comes to halakha, it will be approached and understood as a system that holds him back from his own truth, and not only that, but it sometimes will be perceived as a lie. From a halakhic point of view, he must pray at specifically ordained times, but in his heart of hearts he knows that right now his prayers will not be fully sincere, but rather just going through the motions. Must this individual now answer the external call to prayer, or should they rather hold fast to their inner calling, thereby relaxing the connection to the outer halakhic reality?

In truth, this question has yet another dimension with which we may be able to sharpen our understanding – the chasm between objective and subjective experience.

Should an individual seek out the truth through their own subjective experience, or should they rather find it in the absolutist objective realm of reality? Once a person apprehends the truth as a construction of their own subjective internal experience, the concept of truth loses its totality and becomes relativized. Truth instead becomes dependent upon one’s specific perspective, their emotions, feelings, and personal experiences. In this sense, halakha is identified with the absolute and fixed sphere of reality – within which God commanded us, and this type of relativism is untenable in relation to it.

It is possible to argue that the ideal state is when the internal, personal truth is parallel with the objective, external truth.[1] The meaning of this situation is that on one hand, the individual’s internal life burns strongly, and because of this his sense of obligation to this inwardness  is unassailable. This leads to a perspective where the inner life is understood as objective reality, absolute. A person in this type of situation loses their sense of relativity and their inner directives obtain the strength of an outside command, possessing no less force of obligation or truth.

The problem with the situation within which we live is that our inner lives lack strength and force. Our inner lives are prone to ups and downs, steps forward and back. Because of the dullness of our internal lives, they are susceptible to all kinds of outside influences, and thus there is a subsequent lack of authenticity. This is the reason the Shulhan Arukh – not internal spirituality – is the basis for our religious obligations, as the absolute cornerstone of our lives.

To be sure, divine truth is revealed on a number of different levels and planes in our lives. An individual is forbidden to think that truth is obtainable only in one dimension, either in the internal or external life alone. An encompassing, total reality takes both our internal and external lives into account and unifies them. However, in our incomplete, non-ideal reality, to every dimension and perspective there are benefits and detriments, in which we ignore either at our own peril. To this end, our rabbis taught us that we must serve God through both fear and love: and so Hazal said, serve out of fear, serve out of love.[2]

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Admor ha-Zaken

Until now, we have seen the tension between the mitzvah candle and the neshamah (soul) candle, to wit – the conflict between the formal halakhic system and the unmediated spirituality sought by Hasidism, a spirituality that nevertheless has as a central prerequisite the authenticity of action. Thus, authenticity stands in opposition to the fact that the believer stands commanded to perform certain actions at appointed, limited times.

In his discourse for Hanukkah, Admor ha-Zaken deals with yet another tension addressed by Hasidism, especially in the system of Habad Hasidism: What is the connection of physical actions – the performance of the commandments – with the metaphysical, spiritual payoff that they are supposed to engender, such as an attainment of closeness with God?

Furthermore, the commandments, as they are sensed and experienced through action, are part of the world of tangibility [יש] – the finite and created human reality. Therefore, what connection can these have with faith in the divine infinity?

As it appears to me, the movement of the Admor ha-Zaken is a dialectical approach. On the one hand, he presents the commandments in a strictly utilitarian manner without any truly inherent value, but on the other, this very physicality of the commandments in our reality that which accords to them their roots in the pure divine will:

It is written: ‘A mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is Light.’ The mitzvot are called ‘candle.’ And it is also written: ‘the candle of God is the soul of man’, that the soul is called ‘candle’. The Zohar explained that the mitzvot are called ‘garments’… and in order to be fully clothed, the soul must fulfill all 613 mitzvot… The soul’s garments… are explained as boundless illuminations… for there are countless understandings of the light and the glow, which is an emanation of the infinite light, Blessed be He…

The delights that derive from the infinite light, which is the source of all delights, are without end. Similarly, we perceive with our senses… that physical delights are also without measure, for there are infinite ways to experience pleasure… Because of this, the soul as an aspect of the finite is unable to fully apprehend the revelation of this glow, which is the very being of the divine, except through a garment – a filter – [The soul] is only able to receive the light and the glow through that garment and filter. (Torah Or, Miketz, 32d)

The soul requires ‘garments’, for without these garments and filters, there is no comprehension. I will try to explain what I mean here. For example, when we speak of an eternal remembrance of a person’s life, are we talking about transcribing the details of a person’s life, as if entering a transcription of reporter’s notes into a computer? Of course not! All these moments of a person’s life are mere garments, a medium for the real that occurred in them. This real is not something specific, not a definable factor, but rather is the thing that grants meaning to the content of those experiences, even though it itself is undefinable.[3] Thus, ‘eternal life’ is life that retains with it the meaning of these experiences – something which can never be quantified or simply entered into a computer.

This undefinable thing that grants meaning, and is the life-force to everything else, is what Admor ha-Zaken calls the ‘glow of the infinite light’. It is not simply ‘meaning’, but rather the ‘meaning of all meaning’. In the discourse before us, as well as in other discourses of his, Admor ha-Zaken draws a connection and equivalence between this glow and the delight and pleasure that in our world always appears via a medium, some physical object. Pleasure will never materialize in this world in its pure state – “like delight in the earthly realm that always devolves from something outside it, like when we take pleasure in some delicious food or in the study of some wisdom” (R. Schneur Zalman Likkutei Torah, addenda to Parshat Vayikra, 52a).

If so, the commandments are garments through which our world obtains its substance, existence, and meaning. In the language of Admor ha-Zaken, the commandments act as a conduit for the infinite light to penetrate into our world. That is to say, the commandments as an entire system of life form a space within which a person may experience the Eros of true meaning. Through them, an individual may feel alive, that is sensations of satisfaction, excitement, longing, the joy of commandment, and intimacy – all these we may incorporate metonymically into the word ‘light’ or ‘holiness’, that which Admor ha-Zaken would call ‘delight’ or ‘pleasure’.

In order for this light to be apprehended, it must be arrayed in the outer garments of the commandments. This is to say, that the commandments themselves are not the essence of the light and delight, nor are they the meaningful point of existence, but rather only a garment, that receives its light only by dint of the subjective experience of holiness and pleasure felt through it.As Admor ha-Zaken explains in the discourse we are studying:

Behold, it is not the way of the divine infinite light to be infused in the mitzvot unless it is through… the Godly soul itself that performs the mitzvah, and thereby draws forth through them a revelation of the divine infinite light. As it is written: “that the individual shall perform them” – the individual makes them into mitzvot, in drawing forth through them the infinite light. (Torah Or, Miketz.33c)

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The Source of the Commandments

To be sure, it is possible to say that any way of life or cultural system is but a garment for the infinite light, in that, the system bears the weight of the meaning of life and the essence of reality. An individual experiences his or her life through cultural constructs and the social systems – especially the most critical ones such as love, longing, lower and higher fears, loyalty, etc. All these things grant to life meaning and purpose, something we would not trade for anything.

Hasidic thought recognizes this truth as related to the fact that the world was created through “ten utterances” through which the divine light is revealed even without a specifically religious language, such as the Ten Commandments. Yet according to Admor ha-Zaken, there remains a difference between these [human] systems and the system of the commandments, even if the commandments are a ‘human system’, in that, they devolved into [a human form] from their ideal original rootedness in the infinite reality.

At this point, Admor ha-Zaken ceases to see the commandments as merely a garment or tool alone, but rather that they themselves represent constitute a direct encounter with the presence of the divine in our reality. This is to say that the commandments are a system meant to signify and symbolize the infinite itself.[4] They do not simply give expression to it, but direct us to it as well.

How do the commandments symbolize? As a system, they point to the divine will itself, as a closed system, without determination or purpose. One might even say that the symbol does not signify something that we are meant to understand, but rather that the signified is incomprehensibility itself, the ‘void within the void’.

In order to understand these things, we must pay attention to the distinction that Admor ha-Zaken makes between “the infinite light” and the “essential will of the infinite light”:

It is impossible for the essential will of the infinite light to be revealed to any created being, unless that divine will is embodied in some physical act, which are the performance of the mitzvah… The root of the mitzvot is very lofty, rooted in the uppermost realms of the supernal crown, keter… until it devolves into our realm through physical actions and things, tzitzit and sukkah, specifically in these things that the divine will is revealed, as‘the final in action is first in thought’.  In action, heaven was [created] first… but in thought, physicality came first… for the light is revealed from the aspect of divinity that encompasses all realms…

Thus the performance of mitzvot, whose roots lie in this encompassing aspect of divinity – the supernal keter – cannot be expressed below in the aspect of ‘inner light’, but rather must find their expression in exterior, physical actions, as it is well known that that which in its essence is loftier and elevated falls to the deeper depths.

Therefore, through the performance of mitzvot, there is created a covering, an encompassing screen, so that through the mitzvot the [soul] may be able to delight in the delight of the infinite light…    (Torah Or, Miketz. pp. 32d-33a)

Admor ha-Zaken presents the commandments as having a dual character. As a garment, they are only a vessel through which the infinite divine light finds expression. They are the delight of the soul, holiness in which all that is perceived is as the essence of this world. The commandments themselves are not the inner aspect of life but rather a medium for this interiority.

On the other hand, Admor ha-Zaken identifies them with the ‘encompassing’ lights (makifim, מקיפים); a reality that cannot be truly apprehended or experienced within ours. The root of the commandments are as vessels, conduits of a reality beyond ours – ‘the essential will of the infinite light’.

This idea shows a classic HaBaD teaching, which Admor ha-Zaken formulates thusly: that which in its essence is loftier and elevated falls to the deeper depths. We locate the root of the commandments, which in reality are purely utilitarian and without their own essential, inherent meaning, in the very essence and core of the divine.

The claim of Admor ha-Zaken is that the source of the commandments is to be found in the divine will itself. The meaning of the commandments is not resolved through adhering to some system of rules, some ethical or moral ideal, or some historical-progressive idea through which they were conceived.[5] In the most simple sense, God wanted commandments, and through this there developed a system with meaning and sense, which we might call wisdom, but that system does not fully define the Will of the creator, nor is it necessary in the absolute sense.

In the aforementioned discourse, Admor ha-Zaken teaches that the actual final action precedes the first thought, which explains and gives the action meaning. In actuality, the physical performance of the commandments is connected to the Divine Will. This warrants it to be done this particular way and not differently, without any humanly discernible reason.

This is the way of the Divine Will, to desire without dependence upon any externally motivating factor. One might say that since they are grounded in the Divine Will, the commandments as such signify a degree of arbitrariness and happenstance.[6]  The commandments serve as a reminder of the ultimate unknowability of the Divine Will that tautologically ‘desires because it desires’.

This is also the reason why the commandments primarily take the form of actions and not intentions. As actions, the commandments manifest themselves as closed and sealed deeds, their meanings not easily teased out nor defined by the meanings attached to them. Ultimately, there is just the light and the delight that we are able to attain through it.

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[1] Thus a reduce conflict between the soul-life and the practical-life. See further torah no. 33 in Lectures on Likkutei Moharan vol. 1, 295-310; torah no. 6, 68.

[2] Commentary of R. Ovadia Bartenura on the Mishnah, Avot 1:3. I will point out, however, that it is basically impossible to impose upon someone a completely external commandment. Therefore, even the ability to follow an external command is a matter of personal prerogative, related to the realm of personal freedom. This is to say that the internality of a person itself transitions between many different phases – sometimes appearing as the freedom to be unfree, limited, and inauthentic.

[3] We must differentiate between ‘sense’ and ‘meaning’ [English in the original; JR]. As we shall soon see, ‘the glow of the infinite’ is what gives ‘sense’ to ‘meaning’. ‘Sense’ is completely attached to the level of content – words, actions, situations. ‘Meaning’ is the internal, animating force behind these, granting these things spiritual ‘weight’.

[4] This may be likened to the Lacanian idea of the real.

[5] The position of the Admor ha-Zaken here parallels in a certain sense the positions of Yeshayahu Leibowitz with regards to the commandments. JR- See further R. Shagar, “Faith and Language According to the Admor ha-Zaken of Habad”, Nehalekh b’Regesh, pp. 175-178.

[6] See R. Shagar, Pur hu ha-Goral; 32-37

[1] Thus a reduce conflict between the soul-life and the practical-life. See further torah no. 33 in Lectures on Likkutei Moharan vol. 1, 295-310; torah no. 6, 68.

[2] Commentary of R. Ovadia Bartenura on the Mishnah, Avot 1:3. I will point out, however, that it is basically impossible to impose upon someone a completely external commandment. Therefore, even the ability to follow an external command is a matter of personal prerogative, related to the realm of personal freedom. This is to say that the internality of a person itself transitions between many different phases – sometimes appearing as the freedom to be unfree, limited, and inauthentic.

[3] We must differentiate between ‘sense’ and ‘meaning’ [English in the original; JR]. As we shall soon see, ‘the glow of the infinite’ is what gives ‘sense’ to ‘meaning’. ‘Sense’ is completely attached to the level of content – words, actions, situations. ‘Meaning’ is the internal, animating force behind these, granting these things spiritual ‘weight’.

[4] This may be likened to the Lacanian idea of the real.

[5] The position of the Admor ha-Zaken here parallels in a certain sense the positions of Yeshayahu Leibowitz with regards to the commandments. JR- See further R. Shagar, “Faith and Language According to the Admor ha-Zaken of Habad”, Nehalekh b’Regesh, pp. 175-178.

[6] See R. Shagar, Pur hu ha-Goral; 32-37

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