Holiness, “intimate critique” and activism (part A)

Rabbi Yishmael, the son of Elisha, said: “I once entered into the innermost sanctuary to offer incense, and I saw the Crown of God, the LORD of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne.  He said to me, ‘Yishmael, my son, bless Me!’  So I said, ‘May it be Your will, that Your mercy suppress Your anger, and that Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes…and that You deal with Your children beyond the letter of the Law.’ And [when I had spoken], He nodded His head.”

(Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 7a)

During my childhood in the Jewish Hasidic community, these words from the Talmud became part of my spiritual DNA, set to a haunting melody by Abraham Fried, and repeatedly sung in the Hasidic community of Vishnitz in Bnei-Brak, Israel, where my family was living in a “modern Hasidic” mode. I sang these words and many other prayers and melodies together with thousands of Hasidim and with our leader, our Rebbe or Tzadik, when he taught us how to create holiness in our lives.

Holiness, in the Hasidic tradition, is not a state of being but an act of transcendence. We all have limits and borders. The laws of nature define our bodies, our need for rest and nourishment, and even our inevitable death. We also have boundaries set by society, like our roles and titles: you are a man or a woman, you are gay or straight, an artist or a criminal. Even our beloved Jewish religion has set borders for us: the halakhah (Jewish law), the divine commands.

Holiness occurs when we listen deeply and seriously to our need to grow, to live our lives in the fullest way. This desire shows us that limits and borders sometimes prevent us from fulfilling ourselves as we wish to be. Most often, we do not know precisely how we can be better, but it is clear to us that our lives, as we know them, are not the best lives possible. In an act of holiness, we make the decision to push out against the borders and to demand more of ourselves.

The Act of Holiness and ‘Intimate Critique’

The act of holiness includes elements of “violence,” in that we are saying “No” to the limits set for us by our beloved nature, society, and religion. In holiness there is a unique way of saying “No,” and demanding more of our community and even of our God, while remaining in relationship with both. This is a form of “intimate critique” of the limits that are dearest to us. I use the term here in a theological sense and context, and see it as having two distinct elements: love and voluntary suffering.

Intimate Critique and Love: Since we acknowledge that in saying “No!” there is an element of violence, it is essential that our critical act of holiness include also an element of love toward whomever we critique. In the Talmud, we learn of Rabbi Akiva, who reads the verses in the Torah concerning the Jewish court – the Sanhedrin – that on occasion must sentence sinners to death for their evil actions. Rabbi Akiva’s response to these verses is: “No! I love my Torah, but something in me cannot accept that my Jewish court should kill anyone.” Applying the tools of Jewish interpretation, Akiva sets such high restrictions and conditions on these Torah laws, that the Jewish court, in effect, no longer had the power to execute anyone.

Akiva was criticized by other rabbis for cancelling capital punishment de facto in the Jewish court, even when the divinely revealed Torah explicitly demands it. Akiva’s response was “Drosh veqabel sachar.”  Like all aphorisms, this saying defies translation, but can be rendered: “Learn these passages (“Drosh!”), as you learn all of the Torah, and you will have your reward for learning Torah (“veqabel sachar”). You should learn these verses, yes; but never should you literally act upon them.” For Akiva, from that day on, capital punishment in a Jewish court is part of learning Torah, but no longer part of daily life.

Rabbi Akiva’s choice of the term “Drosh” is crucial here. This Hebrew word is from the same root as drashah and midrash, both of which denote learning the words of Torah, not literally as they were written, but rather interpretively, as they may be read. It is fascinating to note, that Akiva never implies that the Torah verses are no longer relevant, only that their relevance has shifted from the actual practice of law to the act of learning.

Why is it so important that Jewish life, thought and theology return, again and again, to the revealed text of Torah? The first reason is love: by constantly studying Torah, the learner demonstrates a deep caring and affection for both the Jewish God and the Jewish Torah; and this is true even if we no longer observe this or that law in our daily lives.

There is, I believe, another reason for this constant return to Torah, and that is the observation that the text of Torah is a mirror reflection of our selves. The Torah reminds me that I carry within myself the urge to be violent, and even to kill.  This urge is a result of being so often hurt, and being constantly terrified of life, constantly in need of boundaries, sometimes very harsh ones, to protect myself and my community.

Rabbi Akiva’s radical “No!” to the precept of capital punishment, and to the Jewish court, was first and foremost a “No!” to those violent urges, given to judgment and cruelty, deep within himself. He understood that it is by returning always to the sacred text that we are reminded to be aware of these urges in ourselves, and never to ignore them.

We learn to love the texts of Torah, both the benevolent and the violent, and to understand why our communities and religions have created them. Only after we have demonstrated our deep love for them and the honor in which we hold them – only then are we free to elect to live differently, choosing only life.

Intimate Critique and Voluntary Suffering: There is a second aspect to intimate critique in a truly theological sense.  Our act of holiness in challenging boundaries must not come from egocentricity, or from a thirst for honor or comfortableness. As we have stated, there are good reasons for the limits set upon us; we must then clearly show how deeply we care about the issue at hand.  This we can do only by being ready to pay any price that our holy act of removing boundaries might entail.

The boundaries are there for us since we as humans are full with inner contradictions. Even what we call our “self” includes different parts that rarely unite to become one. Limits give us a sense of unity, and help us to find coherent meaning. Pushing against boundaries creates, almost by definition, some elements of chaos, as the limits of the known are shaken. Whoever demands such change must take into account, and take responsibility for, the cost of moving boundaries, a cost that includes a passage through brokenness and the sufferings of an inner hell.

Hasidic stories abound about the founder of the movement, Rabbi Yisrael (1700-1760), known as the Baal Shem Tov – an honorific title meaning “The Master of the Good Name.”  In many of these tales, we read of a childless couple coming to this holy man, complaining that all the doctors had told them that they would never have a child, since in the natural sense they were unable to create new life. The Baal Shem Tov told them: “This is what the doctors say, since they are limited by natural law, but I will struggle with God for you, and together we will push back against the borders of nature, forcing God, as it were, to grant you a baby in spite of the limits of nature.” The Baal Shem Tov must first prove how deeply he cares for this couple, by choosing of his own free will to participate in their suffering. God warns the saint, that should he force God’s hand to grant new life against the laws of nature, then he himself will lose the very things dearest to him – three capabilities that in fact define the devout Jewish man: his knowledge of Torah, his portion in the world to come, and even his ability to pray. It is only when the Baal Shem Tov chooses freely to pay this price, walking through an emotional hell with the suffering human couple – only then are all conditions for a true intimate critique met, with selfless love and caring becoming the seeds for a miracle and a new and different future.

I believe that only when we freely choose to walk with our fellow human beings through their suffering, even to be with them in hell, can we begin to see new possibilities in life, beyond the boundaries we know. It is at this point that we move from saying “No!” to a new and radical “Yes!”

Possible Holiness in the Depths of Hell

Another Hasidic story beautifully exemplifies all the elements of intimate critique. As a tzadik (a Jewish saint) lay dying, his beloved disciple came to him, requesting that when the tzadik reached heaven, he would appear in a dream to the disciple to tell him what it is like. The tzadik agreed. However, three days after his passing, the disciple had still had no dream visitation, so the disciple decided to ho himself up to heaven and find out what had happened. Arriving in the Higher Realms, the disciple asked for news of the tzadik. The angels replied that the saint’s Day of Judgment had gone very well, and that he had been invited by God Himself to study the sacred texts with Him in heavenly havruta – a term that means a most perfect companionship, when two people decide to reach out beyond their boundaries to include a friend within the intimate circle of the self.

The tzadik, however, had chosen instead to go down into hell. The disciple, who has always followed his teacher faithfully in life, decided to go there too. After days of walking in infernal darkness, he saw a light at the edge of hell. There, the disciple found his teacher standing on the bank of a great river, leaning on his stick and dazing sadly into the turbulent waters as they rushed by. “Rabbi,” said the disciple, “why are you standing here alone by this river, when God is waiting for you in Paradise?” The tzadik replied: “My beloved disciple, the water in this river is all the tears that are shed by people who are suffering in our world. When I heard that my lost was to enter Paradise, I said to God: ‘As long as You do not stop this flow of tears, I will remain here in hell, and will not enter Paradise with You.’” Similarly, it is told of the last rabbi of the Habad community, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902—1994), that he promised not to be tempted by heaven, but to wait in hell until God brings redemption to the world.

The real challenge, however, is this: when we push against the boundaries, demanding more of our community, our religion, our sacred teachings, and especially ourselves, we cannot know if a new reality of the future will certainly be superior. We can say that the current reality does not satisfy us, that we wish for more, but we cannot say that this “more” is surely better.  When we push against violence, we cannot be sure that this action will not itself contain violence.  When Rabbi Akiva took action against the death penalty in Jewish courts, for example, he could not be sure that this would create more life. There is a real possibility that without capital punishment, criminals will be less afraid of courts and more inclined to murder.

There is a forceful saying in Judaism: “Whoever practices compassion toward the cruel, will end by being cruel to the compassionate.” We find such a moral dilemma in Genesis. God appears to Abraham and tells him: “I have two things to share with you. First, you will father a child; second, I am going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.” Now, these two cities were really full with cruelty, abuse and murder, to say nothing of the raping of guests and women. Moreover, the two cities were inside the Promised Land, which God had promised to bring under Abraham’s control.  The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was, then, a win-win proposition for Abraham. In spite of this, Abraham opts for an act of holiness, and says “No!” to God, demanding that the evil cities be spared. In a famous Genesis passage, Abraham negotiates with God about the minimum number of righteous people that the two cities need, in order to be saved. Starting with fifty righteous people, they end up agreeing on ten, but when even these cannot be found, Abraham agrees to allow the destruction.

This is the biblical narrative. But my Hasidic Jewish tradition goes further, remembering the words of Rabbi Levi Itzhak of Berditchev (1740—1908), who said that had he been present when Abraham bargained with God, he would never have accepted God’s final condemnation of Sodom. He would have argued the number down to one, and then, if he could not find even one righteous person there, Rabbi Levi would himself have gone to live in Sodom, so that he himself could become the single tzadik for whom the city would be saved.

Neither Abraham nor Rabbi Levi knew that they would change the behavior of Sodom and Gomorrah. Actually, by interfering with the divine plan to destroy the evil people of these cities, they are giving them the chance to continue their violent ways. It is true that there is always a potential for change, and if we transcend the limits of judgment by practicing mercy, we can encourage improvement (as happened with Nineveh in the case of Jonah) – but we can have no certainty. We endeavor to bring about change in ways that we believe in, but we can never be sure that saying “No!” – our act of holiness – even done perfectly as an intimate critique, will bring about a better future. Exactly for this reason, the act of holiness entails serious responsibility, and must be preceded by deep listening, to ourselves and to others.

To read the Genesis narrative through a theology of intimate critique is to shift our focus away from absolute divine decrees and toward human acts of holiness. For years, both Abraham and Rabbi Levi had lived in such a way as to train themselves to care for the lives of other human beings. They also had learned through experience that divinely decreed collective punishments never worked, in that they never resulted in the greater good. Knowing this, then, Abraham and Rabbi Levi – like the Baal Shem Tov – dared to become “boundary movers.”

And this is an exact mirror of our life. We are like Abraham and Rabbi Levi and the Baal Shem Tov, when we care deeply about the lives of others; when we are ready to work with them for change, even if we don’t know that we will succeed; when we create an act of holiness, pushing against the law and abiding a season in hell, unsure that the future will be better. All that we can do is listen with open hearts to our desire not to kill, to speak our intimate critique to God, saying our “No!’ to the divine judgment, with love and care for the “Yes!” of mercy.

Also, we can go live inside Sodom and Gomorrah, dedicating ourselves to a change toward goodness. And I believe that when we live there, with care and a deep desire for change, we will find that those violent people were themselves abused in the past, by their community or religion – or even by us! – and that their sin is a result of their inner pain. If we live beside them, in the hell of their suffering, and if we open our boundaries and let them within us, perhaps then we can allow them, for the first time, to speak to us of what they have endured. They will no longer be merely citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, but will have personal names and a personal human story.  Only then, perhaps, will they be healed, and we with them.

Profound thanks to Daniel and Natalie Bergner and Rebecca Fletcher for reading the text and sharing their unique ideas. Special thanks to my editor Dr. Henry R. Carse. This article is based on my lecture at the Eli Talk

About the Author
Dr. Yakir Englander is working to create Jewish and Israeli leadership in the US. Originally from the ultra-Orthodox community of Israel, the Viznitz Hasidic dynasty, Englander earned a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in Jewish philosophy and gender studies. He is a Fulbright scholar and was a visiting professor of Religion at Northwestern and Rutgers universities and Harvard Divinity School. In addition, he was a Shalom Hartman scholar in Jerusalem. Englander served as the Jerusalem director of Kids4Peace and later as the vice president of the organization.
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