Hasidism and “Nature”: Negation and Affirmation

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January 17, 2011

With the advent of neo-Hasidism, a postmodern bricolage of early Hasidic mysticism, non-Western and New Age spirituality, and contemporary politics, the philosophical and homiletical writings of 19th century Eastern European rabbis now sit in the same bookshelves as works of feminism, queer theory, and ecology. By and large, neo-Hasidism is a self-reflexive enterprise, led in part by scholars of Hasidic mysticism such as Rabbi Arthur Green, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and a newer generation including Or Rose, Natan Margalit, Shaul Magid, and others. It consciously sifts through Hasidic materials and combines them with contemporary social mores, fully aware that the Hasidic masters themselves would be mortified by the juxtaposition.

As regards the natural world, Hasidic texts offer a range of theological and practical options, from the nature mysticism of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav to panentheistic theologies which depict God as immanent in (and yet concealed by) the natural world. Would the early Hasidic masters be environmentalists? To ask such a question is, of course, anachronistic, yet to pose this anachronistic question is a useful entry point for exploring more general Hasidic attitudes towards the status not only of the “natural” world as we conceive it today, but the created cosmos as such. I want to suggest here that we can discern four distinct models of the relationships to what in contemporary parlance – though not to the Hasidim – is known as “nature,” and my purpose here is to explore each in turn.

Two prefatory notes are in order. First, I want to set aside non-Hasidic responses to this question, e.g., halachot like bal tachshit, the wide range of religious-aesthetic appreciation of nature in Psalms and elsewhere, ambivalent statements about admiring trees in Pirkei Avot, and the like. These may be important in practice for “what the Besht might say,” but they are of no interest here, because we are interested here in Hasidism qua Hasidism. Second, I want to set aside a large range of possible Kabbalistic responses to issues like deforestation in order to focus the question on ontology. For example, deforestation could be very good indeed if the wood were being used to build yeshivot: this would be an example of elevating gashmiut to ruchaniut, and certainly fulfills the Divine plan if the Earth is created for mankind’s sake. Even clearing the forests for cropland could be a good thing to do, because the crops might feed Torah scholars; vegetative matter is being used for spiritual ends. Sparks are being elevated. Once again, these are all interesting questions, but they are somewhat beside the main point. My main question is how the Besht (as a metaphor for trends in early Hasidism, not as R. Israel Baal Shem Tov) would view what is going on as an intrinsic, ontological matter, whether what goes on in the material/natural world ultimately matters at all.

The Shoemaker: Non-specific immanentism as a form of world-negation

Let us imagine the Baal Shem Tov is confronted with the destruction of the rainforests. Is what is going on there a good thing, or a bad thing? Or does it not matter at all?

We can begin to answer this question if we ask why something would matter at all, which generally has to do with a notion of divine service. Instrumentally, for example, a loaf of bread matters because it enables the hasid to live, and thus come closer to God in divine service, and it may matter because of its role in a theurgical or ritual observance. However, there are other ways in which material objects can “matter” in this worldview. Perhaps the bread has sparks of holiness within it, and perhaps it might serve as an object of contemplation. Everything can serve this purpose. R. Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye quotes a story of the Baal Shem Tov that depicts the mystical hero Enoch as being a shoemaker who “united the Holy one, blessed be He and his Shechinah, by each and every [act of] sewing.” Regardless of the “deed” in question, uniting deed and thought effects a supernal union.

Initially, this view seems to be highly world-affirming, and highly radical. It makes every act important, as in the Hasidic story of the hasid who went to the Maggid of Mezrich not to learn some esoteric aspect of Kabbalah or learned insight into the Torah, but to see “how he tied his shoes.” This story has been used by Buber and others to suggest that the Hasidim were not interested in supernal realms and abstract mysteries but in the existential realms of the day-to-and here-and-now.

And yet, at the same time, the “shoemaker view” includes too much to be of use for environmentalism per se. Shoes or shoelaces are no more and no less useful than forests and rivers; this form of panentheism collapses into an apathy regarding what we today would call the “natural world” as against anything else. Moreover, Hasidic sources are ambivalent as to what, exactly, is meant by the yichudim in the Enoch story. Surely it is not a mindfulness-like attention to the texture of the shoes and the stitches. More likely it is utilizing the material object as a means to attain some spiritual insight or experience. Enoch is holding the shoes, but he is thinking of supernal spheres.

Radical panentheism, in other words, is often diametrically opposed to “environmentalism” in a religious sense. It is true that, taken out of context, the shoemaker view is quite radical: alone, it suggests that a non-Jew can have the same devotion to God as a Jew, and implies that the observance of the commandments is not really so important, because making shoes can effect the greatest changes on the supernal realm and even in the individual soul. Further, to the extent that we take seriously the Hasidic “leveling” of formerly-valued objects/activities (e.g. Torah and Torah study) and formerly-mundane ones (e.g. shoemaking), we would also have to question the continued priority of traditional avenues to spirituality over other ones. It is indeed radical in its consequences.

But if any action can be done with devotion, then what matters is that devotion, not the context of the action. Phenomenal features of the natural world, be they forests or parking lots, are unimportant, because all are equally valid gateways to God.

The Tanya: Nondual acosmism as an intermediate, but unsatisfying, position

One of the most pregnant equations in Hasidic quasi-environmental thought is R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s quotation of the Zohar that Elohim is numerically equivalent to Hateva. Yet R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Tanya presents an ontological worldview which essentially holds that everything we think of as yesh (something) is actually ayin (nothing) and that which is ayin is really the only true existent. However, the Tanya is not purely acosmic, in the sense that it does not deny the reality of the world but envisions yesh as the “body” and ayin as the “soul.” The dichotomies of this aspect of the Tanya may be presented as:

tzimtzum / or (uncontracted light)
gevurah / hesed
elohim / YHVH
hateva/immanent / transcendent
olam/maalim (covering) / ne’elam (that which is covered)
what seems to be yesh / what seems to be ayin
actually ayin / actually Yesh

What is critical to understand is that everything on the left covers what is on the right, but also in some way reveals it. First, there can be no existence without tzimtzum, according to the Tanya, so the left column is not merely the “bad stuff” from which the gnostic wants to get away – the left column is an integral, and real, element of the dialectic of existence. Second, and relatedly, the left column is not “unreal,” although I there is considerable unclarity on this point that leaves room for the possibility that R. Schneur Zalman believes the world is a “dream,” like his Vedantin counterparts. I think we can say, though, that although the tzimtzum is only a condition of the Ultimate, and not the Ultimate itself, it is still a real condition. The world is in a state of tzimtzum. There is elohim, not just YHVH. Even though the “rays of the sun,” R. Schneur Zalman’s metaphor for existent beings, are nothing (ayin v’efes mamash) in relation to the sun itself, the sun does not fill the entire universe at all times. Because of the tzimtzum, there is space for the “rays” to have independent reality, even if that reality is ultimately not true reality.

The equation of hateva, the order of nature as understood in Aristotelian terms, with elohim, a name of God, suggests a certain valuation of that order of nature – after all, it is given a divine name/property – and subsequently one might expect that a Hasidic master would be concerned with any human interference with that order. Yet at the same time, this hateva/elohim actually conceals the ultimate reality of the universe, which is not material but spiritual; what is important is not so much the mask but penetrating behind the mask. But, then again, elohim is a mask, not just a veil, and masks reveal, even as they conceal.

Yet this returns us to where we were with the shoemaker. All of hateva is Elohim – not “nature” in the contemporary sense, but the laws of nature, including the physical properties of the garbage dump. Hateva in this sense is everywhere – it is not “nature” as commonly constructed today. Not only does everything equally participate in the natural order, but everything is an equally valid object for uncovering its true, spiritual essence. That one object is uglier than another, or apparently closer to what we today would call “natural,” does not matter. Shoes as much as trees are part of the material world, and can reveal its wondrous spiritual reality just as well.


The Beautiful Woman: Specific contemplation as a form of world-affirmation

R. Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye tells a story of a humble man who meditates with great emotional longing on the image of a beautiful woman. Though his motives at first are purely carnal, he eventually separates himself from the corporeal aspects of this longing and unites with God. This story has its echo in the Maggid of Mezrich’s advice on dealing with distracting thoughts: rather than banish them from the mind, the Maggid advises taking the thought to its “root” – a beautiful woman, for example, is the aspect of tiferet. And it has different consequences for the ontological value of objects in the world, including “natural” ones. While the “shoemaker view” implied that the appearance of the shoes (or anything else) was totally unimportant, here, the fact that the woman is beautiful seems quite relevant: the humble man might not be as inspired by an ugly woman or a random form.

Consider R. Zeev Wolf of Zhitomir’s Or HaMeir, wherein the beauty of R. Akiva’s non-Jewish (future) wife is said to

emerge from the Shekhinah, which is called the most beautiful of women … and the essence of beauty and adornment is the vision of the colors Black, red and white, which are the secret of the three lines, Hesed, Gevurah and Tiferet, the forefathers of the world. … And behold, there is a gain from the extension of the colors, that cause they cause a delight to the creator, Blessed be He, certainly it is good that someone is elevating them to their source.

In R. Zeev Wolf’s conception, the specific beautiful features of the woman are entirely relevant, because they reflects the sefirotic harmony. If this is true, then, unlike the shoemaker view, the “beautiful woman” view would regard the aesthetics of the “natural” object as critical. A tree and a parking lot are not the same, because the tree is beautiful, and thus reflects the extension of the supernal light better than does the parking lot.

It is important to temper this view, however. Due to the racist nature of most Hasidic thought, R. Zeev Wolf goes on to praise Rabbi Akiva for seeing “the extension of those colors in an impure place, in a defiled body, and the dust of the gentiles.” So, while the divine forms are reflected in the beautiful woman, they may be so concealed that they might also be reflected in a smokestack or garbage dump. What is really valued here is the sage’s ability to see beauty in a dark place, not maintaining beautiful places – or people.

Nonetheless, I think it is fair to say that the “beautiful woman” view does value the aesthetic qualities of the object of contemplation. Unlike the shoemaker, the hasid in the beautiful woman case is in some ways interested in the actual “structure” of the woman, at least insofar as it leads him to meditate on more sublime matters. This is hardly environmentalism, but it could be a start.

The Song of the Grass: Simple Devotionalism as Ecological Foundation?

Lastly, then, we turn to R. Nachman of Bratzlav. So far, we have seen three distinct Hasidic approaches to the “natural world”: first, that any form can be used for contemplation, a car as well as a cheetah; second, that while the contours of ‘nature’ reveal as well as conceal, they are not those of ‘nature’ in our contemporary sense; and third, that beautiful forms may be better than non-beautiful ones for proper intellection.

R. Nachman has a few isolated, but by now famous in Neo-Hasidic circles, passages in which he rhapsodizes about the beauty of the natural world and the efficacy of using natural settings for meditation: blades of grass sing a song to God, meditation should be done in fields to partake in their beauty, et cetera. (See e.g. Sichot HaRan #98, #144, #227) That these statements are not tied to any larger philosophical scheme, or any real idea of the divinity, should not give us much pause. Nothing in R. Nachman is tied to a philosophical scheme per se; indeed, he was quite opposed to philosophy, which he saw as opposed to faith. (See e.g. id. #40) At the same time, R. Nachman does develop a fairly consistent system of religious life, and in that system, the above statements fit in quite well.

R. Nachman’s religious life depended on an engagement with the specific obstacles that the material world threw in front of him. As discussed in passages in the Likutei Moharan, the goal was in each case to reveal that these obstacles are nothing, that they are in fact sent from God. But R. Nachman has a different solution to the dualist problem. He does not fall back on earlier Kabbalistic notions, and does not see the aspects of the material world and material mitzvot as simply pointing to something else. Rather, R. Nachman sees the materiality of the world as essential for creating struggle.

If the goal of the shoemaker story was to show that a complete heart, lev shalem, is what is needed to attain the ultimate goal, let us remember that for R. Nachman, ein lev shalem k’lev shavur, there is no pure/complete heart like a broken heart. And for the heart to break, there must be action. There must be an actual giving of money, an actual trip to the rebbe, and above all, an actual cry. This means that the contours of the material world matter essentially for the spiritual world. That a field brings more joy than a basement is relevant, because the emotional journey of the mystic is relevant.

The necessity of the world’s materiality is well expressed in R. Nachman’s use of the Besht’s “illusory walls” story, which some have suggested can be traced all the way back to Hindu sources. This is the well-known tale that a king sets up palaces and walls of illusion, which the righteous person sees through. For the Besht, the true tzaddik understands that the walls the king has set up are illusions, and he operates in accord with that understanding. For Rebbe Nachman, however, one must break one’s inner walls to see that the external walls are really nothing. R. Nachman refers to the Tikkunei Zohar, appropriately enough, as a source for his “spiritualization” of the world, but changes the context both of the Zoharic idea and the Besht story to suggest that the recognition of the world’s illusory nature is not automatic but is at once extremely difficult and, because of that difficulty, the essence of religious life.

Without the challenges of the outside world, this psychomachia could not take place. There must be something to push against, a challenge to fight against, or else there can be no challenge, and thus no religious value. For R. Nachman, unlike the shoemaker, there must be real difficulties in the actual making of the actual shoes. Correspondingly, R. Nachman will be more willing to use “natural” objects to attain joyfulness. Since, for R. Nachman, what is “out there” is a valuable religious tool, it is a tool for happiness as well as for struggle. R. Nachman does not regard the outside world as irrelevant to his devotion. If it is a shoe, it is a shoe. If it is a beautiful field, it is a beautiful field.

At last, then, we seem to have arrived at a form of Hasidism which would value the natural world: emotive devotionalism that has a use for R. Nachman’s statements about the song of the grass and the efficacy of meditating in natural surroundings are not random utterances based on his childhood walks in the forest. Rather, they fit in with his general engagement with the world, for better and for worse, but always for God.

Yet this is a rather surprising position. First, R. Nachman’s nature mysticism is not distinctively Hasidic – it has more in common with Wordworth than with the Baal Shem Tov. Second, R. Nachman is precisely the Hasidic master who had the least to do with nondualism, panentheism, and immanentism – all of which are popular with neo-Hasidim. Precisely the Hasidic outlier who didn’t see “God in all things” turns out to generate the best religio-mystical foundation for an affirmation of the natural world.

But what today’s popularizers miss is that “seeing God everywhere” does not offer a reason to preserve the trees and streams. At some intermediate level, natural settings are important for spiritual experiences. Yet at an advanced level, seeing God everywhere means that God is also in the parking lots and shopping malls.

Of course, one cannot guess what the Besht would really say when confronted with the destruction of the rainforests. I would like to extrapolate from his concern for his community, and his emphasis on joy, the guess that he would be horrified. Certainly, I would like to suppose that his experiences of God filling the entire world lead him to a diminished sense of ego, which today would hopefully be expressed by less selfish behavior, less consumerism, and less waste. And I would even like to imagine that he would embrace the extension of ethical consideration to non-human life, regardless of its utility to humans. Bittul hayesh, today, should lead to a rejection of anthropocentrism.

But not for the essentially psychological reasons of spiritual experience. As we have seen in actual Hasidic communities, the belief that God is everywhere goes quite well with a total disregard for the material world, and, at the very least, a lot of littering. Focused on a higher beauty, many Hasidim pay little attention to the “lower” forms. Our ecological consciousness must come from elsewhere.

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