Field of human acts in Hasidic teaching of the classical period by Igor Turov, Ph.D.

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Igor Turov,PhD, Kiev
Field of human acts in Hasidic teaching of the classical period
M.Buber emphasized time and time again that according to views of the Chassids, the physical world which surrounds us, in all its manifestations is the place where God meets the man, and the space which enables the dialog between them . R.Margolin endorses this thesis with some reservations and substantiates it by means of a thorough analysis of sayings of three most authoritative followers of Besht of the second generation times . Ts.Koyfman has pointed out that in the Chassidic doctrine, the teaching on acosmism co-exists with views which acknowledge the existence of the physical world . At that, in all works of Chassidic leaders which were reviewed by her, the importance of the outward material space as the factor ensuring synergism of the man and his Creator is emphasized.
This study will examine the evolution of attitude towards the outward space in teachings of the followers of Besht of the early period of Chassidic history, and will provide some suggestions which explain the cause of such changes.
Much attention is given to the material world in works of Chassidic authors both as to the subject of contemplation and as to the man’s field of action. Topic of the processes which take place in microcosm prevails in discourses of leaders of the first three generations. The tsadiks ask their readers to remember in case of a contemplation contact that the beauty of people and things which can be seen, as well as any possible pleasures of this world are only an antitype of their original source in the Godhead. Attraction to the derivative must stimulate the mind to aspire to its perfect origin. Meditation of this kind will inevitably lead the believer to the desired unity with the creator. It is to it that main attention is paid in the teacher’s lectures.
While reasoning upon human actions, the early Chassidic authors, as a rule, emphasize that each outward action of the man must be preceded by an act of inward self-organization. Its absence makes any action pointless, however right and pleasing to God it may seem from the formal point of view. Typical examples of such views are the following sayings. “I’m the God of Bayt El” (God’s house). Point of the parable is obviously as follows: there is a house in which people live. Whenever a man puts on clothes, the house is, as it were, a preparation for the action. In the same way, in order for a commandment to become holy, it needs a house in which it can dwell. The house is the process of self-preparation by a man and of turning his heart to the Blessed Creator in order to fulfill any given commandment before performing the act itself. This is the house, in which holiness of the commandment dwells and which corresponds to the greatness or smallness (of preparations made by people) which they receive with that” .
“The man who wants to completely fulfill a commandment must sanctify himself first and attain to the perfection of spiritual qualities. He must become free of pride, envy, hate and suchlike qualities present in him. For depending on perfection of his qualities, the value of commandment fulfilled by him will be determined. Only in case if his qualities are perfect, the fulfilled commandment will be free of bad admixtures” .
In a number of cases, Chassidic teachers admitted that an action taken without the proper inward preparation may secure the granting of divine gifts to a believer, but such achievements were considered to be less significant than those attained by means of inward actions. A typical example of this is a commentary of rabbi Levi Itskhak from Berdichev on a saying of the sages to the effect that deliverance will come if two Shabbats running are celebrated properly. Having asked himself, why it is not enough to keep just one Shabbat, the rabbi from Berdichev states that for the first time, the Gracious Lord Himself prompts people to keep the commandment, and then as a reward for the enthusiasm in keeping the commandment He grants to them a great mind. This, in its turn, enables them to keep the commandment for a second time on a higher plane, using the highest gift.
When reasoning on the meaning of actions pleasing to God, rabbi Dov Ber from Mezhirich points out that thanks to the latter, the worlds of speech and of actions are united and the flow of divine blessings into this world is increased . Consequently, direct contacts between the man and the physical universe are necessary first of all in order to correct it and spiritualize it. As for the objective of saving the soul of a believer and its attaining unity with the Creator, in the teaching of Magid it is implemented by means of special meditative practices used during prayer, studying Torah and meditations on the Godhead . According to rabbi Yakov Yosev from Polonnyi, the 613 commandments of Torah correspond to the same number of organs of the physical body and of components of the soul. Keeping instructions of the law is food for organs of the soul. In its turn, this enables them to effectively influence the body and the world which is around it . The purpose of this activity is to transform matter into form and to unite the Lord with His Shekinah . In this concept, the soul-saving function of an act is much more significant, but even then most of its attention is given to transforming the world.
Above attitude to acts of believers, typical for the early period of Chassidic history, underwent considerable change in teachings of some of leaders of the times of the fourth generation. Sermons of rabbi Elimelikh from Dinov (1783-1841) are significant in this respect. Let’s consider some of his sayings as an example. “Know this, that lulav and other plants [used for prayer during Succoth] are 7 mercies proceeding from the woman (nukva) of a small face (nukva dezeir). And the small face is the man himself, who sets these mercies in motion and who lifts them up to the daat level of the small face, and thanks to moving them, they obtain light from the place of their lifting up. Thus we bring down light on the woman” . “What do the four plants [used during Succoth prayer] stand for? It seems to me, on the grounds of what the sages used to say and of the tradition handed over to us by the fathers, which is found in books of ancient cabbalists, no angel has authority over these four plants. They grow under supervision of the Lord Himself, may He be blessed, without any mediators. This in itself means that they are given a sign of life to Israel” . In these sayings an act in itself and things used to perform it, establish connection between the man and God, ensure flow of light from the higher levels of the world into the lower ones. Similar sayings, borrowed from Middle Ages cabbalist texts, from time to time crop up in works of the early Chassidic classics. However, there they are, as a rule, interpreted in the context of the ascetic’s inward contemplation . On the opposite, rabbi Tsvi Elimelekh pays most attention to an external action and to the factors of its endowment. It is an effective sign language of communication between the celestial and terrestrial worlds. According to his opinion, communication in the language remains effective even if believers are unstable in their virtues. If a man lives in accordance with commandments of Torah and from time to time violates them, the gracious God will not turn away from him. “Even the generation of idol worshippers honored Torah and won the war with Ben-Gadad, for Israel showed respect for Torah and its laws. Therefore the Lord, may he be blessed, dealt with them in accordance with laws of Torah” . Unlike the early teachers, who always emphasized that an act without proper inward preparation is pointless, the rabbi from Dinov, as we see from above, acknowledged the all-sufficient saving power of an external act. According to his teaching, the Lord during the New-Year synagogue service leaves His throne of judgment and descends to the throne of mercy as a result of the Jews keeping the commandment of the law, point of which can not be comprehended by the mind (they blow shofar). “Since the sons of Israel fulfill laws the basis of which they do not comprehend, they become worthy of salvation the basis for granting which they do not comprehend” . The offering sacrifices prescribed by laws on the New Year, according to Tsvi Elimelekh, is an evidence that the Jews accept the yoke of Torah. As a result of that, the Lord declares that they have not sinned at all. Such decision of the highest court is possible, since every time on the New Year God creates the world anew, thanks to which consequences of transgressions are done away with and the Jews have their innocence renewed. In this way an outer action provides not only for the saving of a believer’s soul, but for the renewal of his microcosm, which is a part of the recreated universe. In the world of outer actions no trivialities exist. For instance, the rabbi from Dinov gives significant attention to clothes in his teachings. Long outer clothing symbolizes the all-encompassing light (or makif) – the location of the highest sanctity of G-d. Jews wear it in the synagogue or when they are guests, whilst other peoples of the world use it only in necessity and take it off when they go indoors. This is why the Jews are worthy of the gifts of the highest fame and glory, while those who believe otherwise do not even know of their very existence .
Being faithful to the Chassid tradition, rabbi Tsvi Elimelekh in his teachings time from time returns to the subject of serving the Creator through the correct organization of the forces of the mind and soul. Nonetheless, according to his beliefs, the outer manifestations of the inner deeds of the soul play an exclusively important role. Speaking of the feeling of spiritual animation which encompasses the true believer when fulfilling the commandments, he notes: “G-d’s mercy sends signs (simaney) to those who fear G-d and love Him. And one of the more clearer pronounced signs proclaims, “Look upon their face, for upon it the light descends.” When [G-d] entrusts hearts let him see the hearts crushed before him, meaning let him see that their faces are red on the account of the aspiration towards the Creator and Maker which engulfs them. This is a sign for the true human from the people of Israel.” In this manner, ecstatic unity with G-d is provided for by an outer sign – the reddening of a human’s face. Only the passion of the heart cannot reach this. According to the views of the rabbi from Dinov, the sum of these outer signs is the tongue of speaking with deity, which holds up communication on a higher level than any other. He wrote: “Understand, that when a person speaks of something to another, he instructs him through the letters of the language. But when he cannot speak to another person, in the instance when the other does not understand his language, then he shows to his interlocutor that which he wishes to say through a sign (siman). This shows that a sign is much higher than a word and speaks of that which cannot be put into words. Understand, that if a person gives birth to any wise thought, he enlightens his companion by putting it into words. But it is very different when he enlightens his companion without vestments, through only the sign” . Further Tsvi Elimelekh says: “The beginning of the world is very good for commutating the sentence of the court through the sign and through the sign the transference to language is induced. This is why the correct means is blowing the shofar without words.”(Ibid.) In the quotes cited above the rabbi from Dinov’s system gains a theoretical grounding. Since the sign transfers the intention directly, while the language creates outer trappings, thus concealing it, speaking the language of signs allows the believer to converse with those higher layers of the plerome which are incomprehensible at the word level. Since signs in the teachings of Tsvi Elimelekh are identified with the outer deeds of the human and the manifestations of the states of his soul, the world of actions is given much more attention as the most effective medium between the Creator and his Creation (in comparison to the works of the early Chassidic classics, which saw such a medium first and foremost in speech and thought).
It is interesting to note the typological similarities between the views of the rabbi from Dinov and r. Israeli from Roujin. The latter also thought that the main means by which the historical and spiritual salvation of the chosen people should be hastened is the interaction of the righteous person with the material world surrounding him. Since it is beneficial on its own, he does not usually view this interaction in the context of an intellectual action, or an action inside the soul, which is so characteristic of the leaders of early Chassidism. This saying is very characteristic in this respect: “In these current generations it is very difficult to achieve the correction of the soul through the Torah or prayer (an. Version – through fasting and repentance), for the souls of this generation come from the feet (of Adam Kadmon) and when they want to bring themselves nearer to G-d through the Torah or prayer (fasting and repentance), then because of their uncertainty, pniut shall fall upon them, G-d forbid. Even the tsaddiks have difficulty in saving this generation through the Torah or prayer (fasting and repentance). Mostly, they can do it through the material, through the interests of this world. This is why a righteous man (tsaddik) must concern himself with wordly matters and indulge himself in its passions to raise the souls of these generations, since they are very small in their perfection.” As it is known, it was rabbi Israel from Roujin created the teaching according to which the tsaddik saves the generation the more successfully the more items he has at his beck and call. Moreover, it is preferable that there are many specimens of one kinds (for instance, many watches , many horses, et cetera). Using all of this luxury, the tsaddik makes lighter the burden of the simpler souls, which are attached to such things.
It is beyond doubt that rabbi Tsvi Elimelekh and rabbi Israel of Roujin were representatives of two opposite poles of the Chassidic world of the first half of the XIX century. The first is a mystic, ascetic, who devoted his life to understanding the Torah, distinguished by having a healthy sense of temperance, devoted to traditional values . The latter wallowed in luxury, was not very strong in learning, leaned towards imitating the lifestyle of the Jewish aristocracy . But they are united by having a certain similarity in the way they relate to the world of things and outer actions. It has one of the most important positions in their teachings, being the main arena for the battle for the salvation of righteous souls and the restoration of universal harmony. At the same time, the processes which go on in the microcosm during the perpetration of the outer action are either not mentioned at all, or given incomparably less attention than in the sayings of the early Chassidic teachers. If interiorization was characteristic for the spiritual practices that the early Chassids preached, then the authors of the fourth generation that we are examining evidently gave their preference to externalization. Since rabbi Tsvi Elimelekh and rabbi Israel of Roujin were influential leaders which had the support of numerous groups of followers, their views disseminated widely within Chassidic society. They certainly deserve the attention of those researchers who study the difference between Chassidic worldviews during the early and middle part of their history.
Naturally, a question arises about the reasons for the reconsideration that some of the influential teachers inflicted upon the concepts so popular with the previous generations. One of the possible explanations consists in the fact that at the beginning of the XIXth century, Chassidism becomes a mass movement, engulfing all layers of the Jewish populace of the regions where it spread. This, in turn, gave a certain advantage to those teachings in accordance with which an action of a believer is by itself of utmost importance, having an unseen influence on the higher worlds, in comparison to those concepts which demanded serious work upon oneself and achieving the desired results through many-layered meditative practices. But the meaning of this factor shouldn’t be exaggerated. Several influential teachings in Chassidism, such as HaBaD, Kamarno, and Gul-Kalvaria remained faithful (in the question which interests us) to the ideals of the founders, which, nonetheless, averted potential followers from them.
The matter of European enlightenment (gaskala) gaining influence in Jewish society played an essential role in the formation of XIXth century Chassidic ideology. This prompted the tsaddiks to exalt the traditional way of life more than before, and to announce its smallest details as soul-saving and important in their own right. But if rabbi Tsvi Elimelekh was one of the irreconcilable enemies of the gaskala, a defender of the Jewish world from its pernicious outside influence , r. Israel of Roujin’s attitude to the enlighteners was not without benevolence , and his and his family’s way of life was a challenge to the tradition, and condemned by many Galitsian tsaddiks, including the Dinov rabbi .
Of the factors which ensured the reasons for such successful dissemination of ideas which differed from the concepts of the classics and founders among the Chassids, the most important one is the very structure of the followers of Besht. Chassidism was never a sect with a centralized government. From the very beginning, it was a set of separate communities ruled by leaders independent of each other. The way of life and accepted teaching of the followers of different Chassidic houses mostly depended on the preferences of their tsaddik. While the circle of the leaders of the movement remained within the circle of rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov and theirs students, a certain similarity in their views on the most fundamental positions of the teachings could still be kept, despite some differences in the interpretations. But in every next generation of the spread of Chassidism it was more and more difficult to keep the similarities. Besides, the authority of every particular tsaddik during the classical period of Chassidic history was defined in no small way by the originality of his opinions and lifestyle. The concept of spiritual practices done through the medium of forces of the mind and soul was heavily developed by the first three generations. This is why some of the leaders which replaced the students of Besht were interested in revising the ways of serving G-d in new ways. The material world that surrounded the person, the space of outer action, which used to play a subordinate, secondary role, becomes of primary importance in their preachings. Interiorization is replaced by exteriorization. And in many ways, the logic of this event is congruent with the logic of scientifical revolutions of the academical world.

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