Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

Is a Tisch or a Kumsitz Religiously Significant?

Two communal spiritual events from last week stand out in my mind.  The first event was a weekly machshavah chaburah last Thursday that I hosted in my house with an amazing group as we began to study about the differences between philosophy and mysticism.   The second event was a ruach-filled Shabbat of song in our community with Craig Resmovits and his “harmonizers.”  And I was thinking about how our Shabbat experience related to what we learned last Thursday evening.

The Rambam believes that we have the opportunity to observe five mitzvot when we study metaphysics, which he calls “pardes” or “maaseh merkavah.”  These mitzvot include the first two of the Ten Commandments that God took us out of Egypt and that we should have no other gods, the verse “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem echad” – i.e., the unity of God,  and the mitzvot of loving and fearing God.  What’s fascinating about the Rambam’s listing of Mitzvot in this regard is that they contain both (1) intellectual mitzvot – understand that God and no other being is the source of creation and belief in the unity of God – and (2) emotional mitzvot – love and fear God.

What that means is that for the Rambam, the study of philosophy is not only an intellectual pursuit.  It must lead to an emotional connection with God, both the feeling of awe and the feeling of love.  If we view our exploration into understanding the nature of God and His interaction with the world as merely an intellectual pursuit, we have missed the boat.  Our connection with God must be an emotional one, as well.  But how do we achieve that?  We had such an inspiring Shabbat with a soulful Shabbat davening, Friday night tisch and seudah shlishit kumsitz.  Is this the emotional connection about which the Rambam writes?  Do praying and singing praises of God create this type of emotional connection?

On the one hand, the soulful prayer, kumsitz and tisch might not be what the Rambam had in mind to achieve the love and awe about which the Rambam writes.  After all, the Rambam writes in Chapter two of Hilchot Yesodei Ha’Torah that the method of achieving love and awe is through the intellect.  When a person truly contemplates the greatness and wisdom of God’s creations and how insignificant he is compared to God, he becomes full of love and awe of God.  The connection to God that we feel from a soulful prayer or a niggun might be emotionally satisfying but it may not be religiously authentic, at least according to the Rambam.

However, in the tenth chapter of Hilchot Teshuva, the Rambam speaks of an individual who serves God out of love, who occupies himself in Torah and mitzvot and follows the path of wisdom, not out of fear of punishment, but because Torah, mitzvot and wisdom represent truth.  This is the highest level of service of God and it is a fulfillment of the mitzvah to love God.  When a person truly loves God then he will observe all mitzvot not out of fear but out of love.

The Rambam, therefore, provides two avenues to achieve love.  One avenue is through the intellect, be it understanding of metaphysics, Torah or other wisdom.  Another avenue is through service of God.  Certainly, prayer is included in this and therefore, according to the Rambam, meaningful prayer is a path to real, authentic love.  But what about the kumsitz?  What about the tisch?  A number of people told me that the tisch that we had on Friday night brought them back to and reminded them of their Yeshiva days.  That’s all wonderful and great, but that doesn’t seem to be considered an “avodah,” service of God, according to the Rambam.  Is it, then, an authentic religious avenue towards love of God?

I think that the answer is maybe in the past and almost definitely yes in today’s day and age.  I know a number of people who get so excited and emotionally connected through Torah study.  These people feel connected to God when they fully understand a Brisker chakirah (Talmudic analysis), or when they innovate a new way of understanding a Talmudic topic or a story from the Chumash.  Other people, like orthodox Jewish scientists, feel the awe of God when they contemplate the greatness of the world in which we live.  But for many Jews, deep-seated love for God comes through singing Joey Newcomb’s “Thank you, Hashem,” and when these people sing these songs, they will more likely perform mitzvot out of love for God.  Maybe it’s not a mitzvah, but at the very least, it is often a hechsher mitzvah.  The ultimate question is what will lead to our sense of connection to God and our desire to learn more Torah and to be more halachically observant.  For some it’s the intellect and for some it’s the emotion.

Many modern orthodox communities pride themselves on their intellectual rigor and on their commitment to Talmud Torah at the highest level for both men and women and these certainly are critical values in our growth as Torah Jews.  At the same time, we always must ensure that the emotion is there, the feeling of connectedness is there, and the love and awe for God is palpable in our avodat Hashem.  If we can get it through Talmud Torah, that’s great, but there are many who get it through the kumsitz and the tisch, and we must create opportunities for these people in our communities, as well.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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