Hasidism and George Harrison: Living in the Material World

Hasidism, which is currently 270 years old, has gone through many changes over that long period of time.

Modern types look to Hasidism for new age and then find something else completely different when they look the eighteenth century texts. For example, the main literary disciple of the Baal Shem Tov Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye wrote the classic volume of Hasidic Torah, the Toldot Yaakov Yosef.
He presents the story of Yitro as our fight against materiality, luxury, and excess. I do not tend to hear many homilies against the physical anymore, and barely any against excess. Torah is no longer a means to get beyond the material world. Now, we get Hasidic homilies about the need to embrace the physical world and the earthly part of our lives.

“Yitro heard,” then he came to meet the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai. “What was it that Yitro heard that caused him to come?” “He heard about two things: the splitting of the Red Sea and the war against Amalek” (Zevachim 116 cf. Mikhilta and Rashi).
First, why should he have been impressed by these two miracles in particular? Second, why should that have led him to come to the Jews? [Third, why do we care what happened “What was was” The Torah is not a story. This verse has a moral lesson for every individual at all times.—- I will deal with this below]

A human being is composed of materiality and form: the body and soul. Our soul is constantly aflame to cling to our Maker. But our physicality interrupts that clinging with its desires for physical things, such as sex and food…. The influence of our physicality creates an obstruction between ourselves and God. When we sin, an additional barrier is formed since the physical grows stronger than the form and seeks excesses of luxuries, more than a person needs in order to sanctify himself.
Yitro represents the state of withholding ourselves from the excess (Play on the word yitro for additional). To remove the obstruction of our physicality and the barrier of our sins, we need the splitting of the Red Sea and the war against Amalek.
[Rest of homily is from Alsheikh and Olalot Ephraim on splitting of Red Sea and defeat of Amelek as representing a splitting of materiality and a defeat of our evil inclination.]
When we hold ourselves back from unnecessary pleasures, represented by Yitro–we overcome the two obstacles that divide us from God. Our physicality, which is represented by the splitting of the Red Sea, and we overcome our sins, which is represented by the victory over Amalek.

In contrast, 180 years later the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Basi Legani spoke about using physicality to serve God, there should be dirah batahtonim. As an example of the new type of homily on Yitro, here is one by my friend Professor Tali Loewenthal.

The Midrash is intriguing. It says this first word Anokhi is Egyptian, because G-d wanted to speak with us in the language we had learnt while we were in Egypt. G-d does not want to relate to us only on the sacred, spiritual level of our lives, represented by Hebrew, the holy language. He wants to reach the earthly “Egyptian” dimension as well. We should not try to pretend that we do not have this lower aspect. Rather, we should try to control it, then elevate it and ultimately transform it into something holy.

I could have done this post equally well with Mitnagdut. We do not give the homilies of the Vilna Gaon and other eighteenth century Lithuanians who were puritanical or ascetic, other-worldly, fasting often, avoiding sleeping and eating, hiding from the sunlight and seeking inner angelic guides. Herman Wouk stated that we are clearly not the Vilna Gaon anymore. Currently we seen to have effaced this difference and portray a GRA of our own presentism.

What happened to our tradition of transcending the physical? Maybe serving God with the physical has reached its limits for our age and we need to return to the Jewish tradition of getting beyond our physicality?

George Harrison: Living in the material world

I’m living in the material world
Living in the material world
can’t say what I’m doing here
But I hope to see much clearer,
after living in the material world

I got born into the material world
Getting worn out in the material world
Use my body like a car,
[skipped the middle of the song]

While I’m living in the material world
Not much ‘giving’ in the material world
Got a lot of work to do
Try to get a message through
And get back out of this material world

My salvation from the material world

To return to what I skipped above in the homily by R. Yaakov Yosef:
Third, why do we care what happened “What was, was.” The Torah is not a story: “The Torah of Hashem is complete” This verse has a moral lesson for every individual at all times.

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef .does not value treating the Torah as an accounts of the past or as a story of earthy matters. What was, was! The past is past. To matter the Torah has to be eternal and not in the past. The Torah is eternal wisdom beyond its story. In this, he undercuts those who treat the Bible as literary narrative or as history. Rather than fit the Bible into a modern category, it is treated as eternal wisdom for the adept. I do not hear much of that anymore either. But I do find a serious rejection of history.

This past Sukkot, while sitting in a Sukkah with many people, I mentioned that I can date a hasidic story to within about ten years. Especially since most of them are 20th century inventions, reflecting the issues of that decade. In an instant, someone sitting at the other end of the Sukkah declared: “That is just like a Bible critic. You cannot date Hasidic texts because that is what Biblical critic do.”

5 responses to “Hasidism and George Harrison: Living in the Material World

  1. Mordechai Shinefield

    Do you think there’s an association between the Chassidic move from asceticism to this more material explanation of the spiritual with the Christian Evangelical community’s embrace of prosperity theology?

  2. It is interesting that the Christian connection I was thinking about as I read this post, is how Judaism has seemingly defined itself as earthly based, while Christianity was focused on heaven. I even think Rav Soloveitchik makes this point in Halakhic Man.

  3. Interesting to note this ascetic trend in early Hasidism. I had heard about avodah begashmiyyut in the early generations of Hasidism, that one should eat/drink and thus elevate the sparks (is this avodat habirurim?), from which the practice of shirayim came about, and how this was regarded (at least by opponents) as a rejection of Mitnagdic asceticism.

    Now I look into Elior’s article on Hasidic ideas arising from Maggid Meisharim by the Mechaber, (http://pluto.huji.ac.il/~mselio/elior-85.pdf) and I see more of a tension between the physical and spiritual. The bit you quote from Prof. Loewenthal sounds more like the avodah begashmiyyut that Elior brings from Tzavaat haRivash and Maggid Meisharim – that one should eat, but contemplate mishnayot (Karo) or the order of creation (Besht) while doing so, so as to devote one’s entire act of eating to God, rather than to any kind of personal pleasure.

    Seems like an ascetic mode of eating, as it were – resolving a tension between the ascetic tendency and the recognition, and sanctification of, the physical.

  4. Mordy-The Rebbe Rashab removed the original ascetic dualism, the Rebbe RMMS was always commenting on how America is different, your grandparents wore rags, lived in a shack, and ate one meal a day. The evangelical angle is interesting to understand the last twenty years.

    Elavating sparks and doing a yihud while eating is a means of overcoming the opposing physicality.
    Shivti Hashem Lenegdi Tamid- is to place God in opposition to the physical continuously. Most only quote the first half.
    R. Yosef Karo was quite puritanical, for example he fasted on Rosh Hashanah.

    Amanda Porterfeld points out that our renewed interest in the body leads to both yoga and asceticism, foodies and fasting.

  5. invisible_hand

    rivka schatz uffenheimer, in her chapter on habad as anti-spiritualism in her HASIDISM AS MYSTICISM already showed how an embrace of the world is in the earliest strands of Habad thinking.
    Also, the reversal of the body over the spirit is a major theme in wolfson’s new book OPEN SECRET, in which he reads many strands from
    “The Rebbe” back into the Alter (Rebbe).

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