Green on Hasidism; the Degel on descent
February 09, 2009
It felt weird, not having a Hasidut class anywhere on my slate this fall. Nu: this spring I'm making up for that deficiency; two out of my four courses are Hasidism-related! So you can expect to see some Hasidic teachings filtering into my posts over the next few months again, starting now, with some of the lovely ideas in Rabbi Arthur Green's essay "Hasidism," found in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (ed. Cohen and Mendes-Flohr) and with a teaching or two from the first Hasidic text we were asked to translate for my class in the Hasidic sacred year.
At the heart of Hasidism, writes Arthur Green, is the experience of the all-pervasive presence of God. "[T]he divine is everywhere, even -- and perhaps especially -- where we least expect to find it."
Ein od milvado, usually translated as "there is none beside God," is in Hasidism reframed as "there is nothing beside God." Not just a statement of theological uniqueness (no other "gods" can compare) but a statement of radical monism: everything is God. From this the Baal Shem Tov derived his teaching that our "wayward" or distracting thoughts are no distractions "since the very thought that distracts is itself a thought of God." (This is a teaching to which I frequently return...especially when my mind wanders during prayer.)
Reality may appear to be in constant tension between yesh (being) and ayin (nothingness), between immanent and transcendent, between Shekhinah (divinity manifest in creation) and hokhmah (in the Hasidic reworking of the classical Kabbalistic paradigm, hokhmah is the most transcendent part of God which we can aspire to comprehend) -- but in reality the two are always already one. The apparent binarism of thing/no-thing is illusion.
From our human point of view, there was a tzimtzum, a contraction of God's oneness, in order to make metaphysical space for creation. (This is what my teacher Jacob Meskin used to call the "bagelization of God" -- God creating a space of not-God in the midst of the all-that-is-God. It is in that not-God space that creation unfolds. This is the cosmogony of Rabbi Isaac Luria.) But, Green argues, from God's point of view the existence of a separate world is ultimately illusory. Our goal is to learn to see the world as God does, and to recognize that however real our world may appear to us, the deepest reality is that all is One.
The central motif of Hasidic religious life, as Green tells it, is yeridah tzorekh aliyah: descent for the sake of ascent. From the myth of the breaking of the vessels (again, this comes originally from Luria, who wrote that when God poured divine light into creation, the vessels were too weak to contain it and they shattered; creation is full of the shards from this original cataclysm) we learn that there are sparks of divinity scattered throughout creation. It is our job to find the sparks in creation, and lift them back up to God. Even in our moments of darkness and alienation, there are sparks of goodness which we can seek to uplift. And in each life, each of us is uniquely suited to raising up the sparks we alone will encounter. That's the role we each play in the cosmic drama of redeeming creation.
The first Hasidic text we were asked to translate for our first class is a passage from the Degel Machane Efraim (he's known by the title of his best-known book; his actual name was Reb Moshe Chayim Efraim of Sedelikow, and he was the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.) This little text is commentary on parashat Vayetze, which begins "Jacob went out from Be'er-sheva and went to Haran."
Almost every word of this passage has mystical resonance. Be'er-sheva, the place of seven wells, is associated with Shekhinah (I think that comes from Zohar); the place-name Haran is often associated with anger (it's a pun; the name sounds like Haron, "anger.") So Jacob went out from a place of holiness, toward a place of worldliness. He reached a certain place, the text tells us, and behold! there was a ladder stuck in the ground, its top reaching toward the heavens, and angels of God were moving up and down it. (Find this story in Genesis 28.)
The angels moving up and down the ladder are, for the Degel, an example of what we might call divine energy moving back and forth. No one can stand on one spiritual rung forever, he writes; everyone is constantly going up and down. The descent is necessary in order to ascend, for when one feels that one is in a state of katnut (small mind, constricted consciousness) one calls out to God; this, he says, is the meaning of "You will seek out God from there [e.g., where you truly are]" -- a quote from Deuteronomy 4:29.
It's a gorgeous passage. I love the sense that our "descents," the times when we are down, are necessary because it's in the dark places that we find the seeds of the yearning to rise back up again. It's when we're down that we get the impetus to rise up. And I love the way he brings the Deuteronomy quote to bear on the Genesis passage, and in so doing makes each passage richer and more multilayered. And, finally, I love this idea that we seek out God -- seek a source of meaning -- from where we already are. I don't need to improve myself before I can reach out to divinity. I can reach out from where I already am, who I already am -- even when I'm down, and holiness seems impossibly far away.
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