Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
INTRODUCTION TO THE PHILOSOPHY OF RAV SOLOVEITCHIK
by Rav Ronnie Ziegler
LECTURE #8: Sanctity and the Body -
The Catharsis of Physical Existence
In the second half of "Catharsis," Rav Soloveitchik divides
our "total existential experience" into four realms - aesthetic-hedonic,
emotional, intellectual, and moral-religious - and shows how the principle
of catharsis applies to each. This section of the essay is particularly
fascinating not only since we can directly apply it to our daily lives,
but because the Rav provides powerful examples in each area. The themes
developed here recur throughout the Rav's writings, testifying to the central
place they occupy in his thought. Because of the importance of these ideas,
I would like to treat at length each area delineated by the Rav, building
on his discussions both in "Catharsis" and in other essays. We
will begin this week by exploring the nature of catharsis in the first
area of human experience, namely, that of physical existence. [Apart from
"Catharsis," the main source for our examination of this theme
is "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," pp. 207-217. This motif also figures
in "Halakhic Man" and "The Lonely Man of Faith."]
THE AESTHETIC-HEDONIC REALM
In this area, encompassing our physical drives and bodily pleasures,
the need for catharsis is clear and asserts itself more frequently than
in any other realm. Here, catharsis consists of withdrawal from an external
temptation, or, stated differently, in restraining and channeling one's
"The stronger the grip of the physiological drive is felt by man,
the more intoxicating and bewildering the prospect of hedonic gratification,
the greater the redemptive capacity of the dialectical catharsis - of the
movement of recoil." (p. 45)
This is beautifully illustrated in a midrash quoted by the Rav:
"It often happens that a man takes a wife when he is thirty or
forty years of age. When, after going to great expense, he wishes to associate
with her, she says to him, 'I have seen a rose-red speck [of menstrual
blood].' He immediately recoils. What made him keep away from her? Was
there an iron fence, did a serpent bite him, did a scorpion sting him?
Only the words of the Torah, which are as soft as a bed of lilies...
"A dish of meat is placed before a man and he is told that some
forbidden fat has fallen into it. He withdraws his hand from the food.
What stopped him from tasting it? Did a serpent bite him? Did a scorpion
sting him? Only the words of the Torah, which are as soft as a bed of lilies."
(Midrash Rabba on Shir Ha-shirim 7:3)
The identification of kedusha with restraint of man's primal drives
has a long history. For example, the Rambam (like the above midrash) groups
together the laws of forbidden sexual unions and forbidden foods in his
"Sefer Kedusha" (The Book of Holiness). [Rav Soloveitchik groups
a third drive with these two - the desire for acquisition, which must similarly
be restrained and sanctified.] What separates man from the beast is whether
he controls his drives or whether they control him. In this sense, the
Torah's restrictions in these areas actually give him freedom - he is not
a slave to his passions, but rather their master. I believe this is part
of what is meant in the following celebrated maxim:
"Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi ... 'And the writing was the writing
of God engraved upon the tablets' (Shemot 32:16) - do not read 'engraved'
(charut) but rather 'freedom' (cherut), for no man is truly free except
he who engages in the study of Torah." (Avot 6:2)
This type of understanding can lead to an ascetic approach which negates
the value of man's physical existence, considering it a hindrance to his
spiritual pursuits. Such a position, indeed, has been espoused by some
Jewish thinkers (most prominently by the Rambam in his Guide of the Perplexed).
Rav Soloveitchik, however, takes the opposite approach. The act of withdrawal
purifies and redeems man's natural urges, endowing them with sanctity and
allowing them to serve as means for spiritual growth.
According to the Rav, God does not desire that man live an otherworldly
ascetic existence, nor does He wish for man to adopt an ethereal and abstract
spirituality. Rather, God wants man to lead a full and enjoyable natural
life. However, he must instill it with meaning and direction, thus grounding
his spirituality in his concrete life. For example, if unrestrained and
unredeemed, the sexual act can be brutish and dehumanizing. Man succumbs
to a frenzy of primitive passions and treats his sexual partners as things,
as mere means to fulfill his desire. However, within the framework of marriage
(and at the permitted times), sexuality becomes something beautiful and
sacred. Hedged in by prohibitions, it turns into an act conforming to God's
will. Between husband and wife, it expresses love and commitment (which
are also desired by God). Furthermore, it actually becomes a vehicle for
fulfilling mitzvot, such as procreation ("peru u-revu") and the
obligation of conjugal relations (onah). Thus, one's physical life becomes
the fountainhead of kedusha.
THE YETZER HA-RA
Although he does not state it explicitly, it seems that Rav Soloveitchik
perceives the "yetzer ha-ra," commonly translated as the "evil
impulse," to be identical with man's natural biological drives. These
in themselves are neutral and necessary for survival, and can be turned
to good or evil. If one gives in to them without recognizing any restraints
or exercizing any selectivity, they drag him down to, at best, a coarse
and animalistic existence. At worst, in a relentless quest for gratification
of his ever-increasing desires, man can become criminal and depraved, almost
satanic. On the other hand, if one exercises control over these natural
urges, they can be a force for good.
This approach is firmly rooted in talmudic sources. For example, an
aggadic passage in Yoma (69b) recounts that once the sages managed to imprison
the yetzer ha-ra. Three days later, however, they searched for a freshly-laid
egg and could not find one in the entire Land of Israel. The sages realized
that if they would not free the yetzer ha-ra at once, the world would be
destroyed. This approach is also articulated in a midrash explaining why
on the first five days of creation God beheld His works and "saw that
they were good," while on the sixth day "God saw ALL that He
had created, and behold, it was VERY good" (Bereishit 1:31):
"'Very good' (tov me'od) - this refers to the yetzer ha-ra, for
without it, one would not build a house, marry, beget children, or engage
in business." (Bereishit Rabba 9:7)
The gemara (Berakhot 54a) teaches that the commandment to "love
the Lord your God with your WHOLE heart (be-KHOL levavkha)" (Devarim
6:5) refers to "your two impulses: the good impulse and the evil impulse."
It seems to me that the most plausible way to understand this gemara is
along the lines suggested above - you must serve God through both your
spiritual and physical impulses. The necessity of this approach and its
attendant dangers are highlighted in the following aggadic passage:
"One's 'yetzer' ... should be pushed away with his left hand and
brought near with his right." (Sota 47a, Sanhedrin 107b)
ELEVATION OF THE BODY
Rav Soloveitchik takes the Sages' approach a step further by stating
that not only are man's natural urges necessary for his survival but, as
mentioned above, they themselves can be a source of sanctity. In fact,
the Halakha insists that man's spirituality be based precisely on his physical
existence and that it penetrate every aspect of that existence. Large portions
of "Halakhic Man" and "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham" polemicize
against the type of spirituality which ignores or denies man's natural
life. [In chapter 8 of "Halakhic Man," the Rav offers two major
reasons for rejecting such an approach: 1) man cannot free himself of his
physicality, and a doctribased on the desire to do so is inherently false;
2) such an approach would be confined to a small elite, rendering religion
an esoteric and undemocratic affair.] Halakhic religiosity is focused on
this world; as opposed to those who pine for the purity of the World-to-Come,
the Halakha abhors death, assigning anything connected to it to the realm
of impurity (see "Halakhic Man," pp. 31-37).
As the Rav points out in "Halakhic Man" (p. 51), Halakha is
a realistic doctrine which takes literally the statement, "God saw
all that He had created, and behold, it was very good." It affirms
the value and dignity of man's physical existence by giving it direction
and meaning. What Halakha opposes is boundlessness and non-directedness,
the darkness of untrammeled bestial drives, but not physicality per se.
To the contrary, man must serve God with all the powers at his disposal,
starting with his body.
This is why, for example, so many mitzvot revolve around the meal.
"Eating, the animalistic function upon which man's life depends,
was refined by the Halakha into a form of religious worship and an act
of high morality."
("U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," henceforth UVM, p. 208)
"Eating is the act of realizing the idea of kedusha, which means
sanctifying both the body and the spirit. If a person eats in the appropriate
manner, in accordance with the demands of Halakha, then he is eating before
God, serving Him by means of this 'despicable' function, and cleaving to
Him." (ibid., p. 212; note: quotations from UVM are my translations)
Not only are there restrictions on what we may eat (kashrut), and not
only are we obligated to pronounce blessings before and after eating, but
many of the most sublime mitzvot are fulfilled through the consumption
of food - e.g. eating kodshim (offerings), matza, kiddush, rejoicing on
festivals, etc. These are not mysterious symbolic rituals, like Catholic
communion, but real acts of eating which one enjoys and which satisfy his
hunger. In fact, if one eats in a manner which does not please him, such
as if he is already full and is now merely stuffing himself (akhila gassa),
it is questionable whether he has fulfilled these mitzvot.
Furthermore, as the Rav points out, the Halakha turns eating into "an
act of high morality." First of all, it is forbidden to eat stolen
food, and any mitzva utilizing it is disqualified. Secondly, in all halakhic
feasts (e.g. eating kodshim, the seder, a se'udat mitzva, etc.) one must
invite the needy and unfortunate to dine along with him. As the Rambam
so memorably puts it,
"When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he
must feed the stranger, orphan, widow, and other unfortunates who are destitute.
In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and
drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the
embittered, is not engaging in the rejoicing of a mitzva but rather in
the rejoicing of his belly." (Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:18)
Inviting the poor is not extrinsic to the mitzva of rejoicing but rather
is part of its very fulfillment. This is not only an act of charity, but,
more importantly, an expression of community, fellowship and concern. Your
own enjoyment should not be complete if others are alone and suffering.
[This thought should give us all pause when planning weddings, bar mitzvas,
and the like.]
HALAKHA'S NON-DUALISTIC APPROACH
Having purified our aesthetic-hedonic experience, what is the nature
of our enjoyment? The Rav writes:
"The Halakha commands man to enjoy the splendor and beauty of creation
to a degree no less than that of the sybarite. However, the pleasure of
the man of Halakha is refined, bounded-in and purified... The Halakha never
forbade man the pleasures of this world nor did it demand of him asceticism
and self-torture... [But] the Halakha does despise the chaos of hedone
... Halakha distances man from madness and the hysteria of desire. Halakhic
enjoyment lacks overintensity, overstimulation and drunkenness of the senses.
However, it possesses the beauty of gentility and the aesthetic splendor
of life. When man enjoys the world in accordance with the view of the Halakha,
his enjoyment is modest and refined, lacking the mania of sexual desire
and the frenzy of gluttony."
(UVM, pp. 207-208)
Halakha's belief that physical life can be sanctified stands in stark
contrast to the dualistic approach of Western (i.e. Greek and Christian)
thought. The latter "despaired metaphysically and morally of man's
natural side and devoted itself to his spiritual-intellectual side"
(UVM, p. 207). It created an unbridgeable gap between the physical and
the spiritual. While the Torah declared, "And you shall eat before
the Lord your God, in the place where He will choose to establish His Name,
the tithes of your new grain and wine and oil, and the firstlings of your
herds and flocks, so that you may learn to revere the Lord your God always"
(Devarim 14:23), Greek thought would not be able to fathom such a command:
"The animal eats; man thinks and cognizes the spiritual, general
and ideal. The intellect, not the stomach, approaches God. 'And you shall
eat before God' - is there anything more self-contradictory? [But Judaism
says:] Nevertheless!" (UVM, p. 208)
In Judaism, the Rav teaches, all spirituality is based on the real,
the concrete, the physical. Anything holy must have a defined time and
place (see his essay "Sacred and Profane"). In response to those
who mock Halakha's "excessive" attention to physical life, the
Rav proudly and unabashedly declares:
"Indeed, the Halakha is the law of the body. But this is where
you find its greatness; by sanctifying the physical, it creates a unified
psychosomatic individual who serves his Creator with both his spirit and
his body and elevates the animal [in him] to the heights of eternity."
(UVM, p. 215)
Next week we will discuss the catharsis of the second realm of human
experience, namely, the world of emotions.
FOR FURTHER REFERENCE:
1. Natural Man and Spiritual Man: see Rav Soloveitchik's essay "Confrontation."
2. Jewish vs. Greek View of Eating: see UVM, pp. 211-212, where
the Rav contrasts the Jewish se'uda with the Greek symposium.
3. Sanctification of Physical Life: this theme is examined by Chaim
Navon, "'Ve-hinei Tov Me'od' - Ha'ala'at Ha-guf Be-mishnat Ha-grid
Soloveitchik," Alon Shevut 149 (Nisan 5757), pp. 131-147.
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