"South By" wrapup post
This week's portion: a home for God

Worship through corporeality

"How do you find time to blog as a rabbinic student?" people ask. One answer, of course, is that when I read something interesting for school, I blog about what I'm learning. Today I'm struck by some of the reading for my Hasidism class, a section from Norman Lamm's The Religious Thought of Hasidism on avodah be-gashmiut, "worship through corporeality" -- on which I had the pleasure of offering a brief teaching in class last night.

Avodah be-gashmiut is the teaching that we can serve God in and through the physical world, which brings the entire range of human activity into the domain of religious significance. Everything that occupies one's ordinary day becomes a way to (potentially) serve God.

For example, take eating. According to a mainstream traditional understanding, we sanctify eating by making brachot and by guarding our consumption according to kashrut. But Hasidism goes further: sanctifying the very act of eating itself. (Think back to Jay Michaelson's book God In Your Body, which I reviewed recently -- specifically, return to the chapter on sanctifying eating, which is excerpted online here. "Precisely because [eating] is a mundane, necessary act, it awaits and invites elevation," Jay writes. Bingo.)

Hasidism challenges us to engage the possibility of uninterrupted devekut (union with God.) Who among us can honestly say she is actively and mindfully connected with God in intimate union at all times? That kind of rapture can't be constantly maintained. (As my teacher Reb Shaya Isenberg often quips, while devekut is all good and well, one wouldn't want to be driving down the highway behind someone so immersed in devekut he forgot to think about his car!)

But here mundanity itself becomes the vehicle for connecting with God. Devekut doesn't require abandoning the ordinary world. Instead we're meant to approach all things consciously, intending to release the sparks of divinity that vitalize all that exists, thereby revealing the immanence of God in creation.

Of avodah be-gashmiut, Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes, "rather than spirituality being about the withdrawal from the world or withdrawal from other people, really it is in the everyday. It's in the ordinary moments, not the extraordinary moments, that the spirit is engaged, that the spirit is elevated, that in fact, we can strive to practice and to be who we want to be."

One of the teachings that Lamm excerpts in this chapter is a passage from Likkutei Amarim (a.k.a. Tanya) by R' Schneur Zalman of Liady (here in translation, with commentary.) The passage I'm focusing on is called "Two kinds of self-indulgence." This is admittedly a little esoteric, but I think it's intriguing, so bear with me.

In order to appreciate this passage, we need to know that classical kabbalah posits four layers of kelipot ("shells" or "husks") which represent evil in the world. (Think of it this way: everything in the world contains a spark of goodness, but in many cases that spark is concealed within a shell which hides its light. Our job is to find those sparks and elevate them. If this interests you, here's Chabad's page on kelipot -- dense, but comprehensive.) Of the four kelipot, three are considered basically impure, while the fourth -- the kelipat nogah (translated alternately as "venus husk" and "husk of glow" and "shining shell") -- is a kind of intermediate stage, which can be swayed either toward the impure or toward the pure. With me so far?

This teaching from Tanya focuses on how eating is a great place to encounter the kelipat nogah, because we can incline the act either in a good direction or a bad direction. The text specifically mentions one who "eats fat beef and drinks spiced wine in order to have the mental leisure to serve God and Torah" -- that person distills the vitality in the kelipat nogah, the "glow" husk, and elevates that to God like a burnt offering. But one who gluttonously consumes in order to satiate his body alone: in this case the energy acquired through that consumption is degraded, absorbed temporarily in the evil of the three impure kelipot.

In other words, if I imbue my consumption with the desire to recognize and elevate the holiness of what I put in my mouth, and the desire to use that sustenance to fuel study and prayer and good work in the world, then I tip the kelipat nogah in a good direction... but if I root my consumption in the desire purely to satisfy my body, without awareness or good intentions, then I tip the shell surrounding that act in a bad direction, and the opportunity for holiness is lost.

The obsession with dividing everything into clean and unclean, good and evil, may seem unduly dualistic. And the assumption that the physical world cloaks sparks of God in four levels of shell or peel may be strange. But what appeals to me here is the understanding that physical acts like eating aren't inherently good or bad -- and that the moral valance arises through our mindfulness and our intention to serve.

If I eat with the intention of strengthening my body in order to do holy work in the world, then that consumption allows me to fulfil that intention. But if I eat with the intention only of feeding my body in "meatspace," then I implicitly deny the importance of heart and mind and spirit, and in so doing I moor myself utterly in the physical and temporarily lose access to those other levels of being.

I read this as a profoundly anti-ascetic teaching. This text isn't telling me to eschew succulent beef and spiced wine in favor of dry matzah and water, right? The question is what kind of consciousness I bring to the action of eating, and whether and how the eating fuels my service of God. And, I suppose, what consciousness I bring to the action of standing in line at the grocery store, and filling up my car with gasoline, and reloading the dishwasher, and all of those other physical things that I do. The teaching of avodah be-gashmiut suggests that everything we do in the physical world can be a kind of avodah, service to the Holy One of Blessing; the challenge is figuring out how to bring that service into being.

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