Shiur 20: The "Mitnagdi" Experience

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

In the previous shiur we began to demonstrate how the religious experience enjoyed a new appreciation in the teachings of Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin. This development was part of a new phase – the solidification of the Mitnagdi movement after the passions stirred up in the initial struggle abated. Prior to the publication of "Nefesh ha-Chayyim," it was generally the Hassidic movement that adopted the direct spiritual experience as one of the foundations of its approach. This greatly contributed to the strengthening of the movement and the power of its attraction. Large numbers of people were drawn to the Hassidic masters and their teachings precisely because of the profound experience of Divine service, embracing both heart and soul, to which they had become exposed while in their company. When Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin's book was published, it competed for the hearts of those young people who valued and sought out the experience of cleaving to God. The inclusion of experiential components among the values of the Mitnagdi approach spoke to them, and thereby undermined what had been perceived as an exclusively Hassidic matter.


Of course, Rabbi Chayyim's thoughts on this issue are not mere propaganda. His approach is solid and its formulation is based on a didactic and educational stance. The example cited in the previous shiur appears as a lengthy footnote in "Nefesh ha-Chayyim," one of the many notes found throughout the book.[1] But, in fact, the first three of the four sections of the book establish a moral-spiritual foundation that is meant to guide the reader-student along the paths of spirituality and holiness. In my opinion, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that these sections reflect a Mitnagdi ideology meant primarily for the purpose of persuasion, rather than to fashion the minds and souls of the audience of readers. The author's son heard from his father the explicit purpose of the book: "To instill the fear of God, and the Torah, and pure service in the hearts of the upright who seek the ways of God." Rabbi Chayyim himself, after having completed the first three sections of the book, turns to the reader and says:


You, my dear reader, I have guided you in the paths of truth, to show you the path upon which you may walk in safety, and you can train yourself slowly in the order of the aforementioned steps, in accordance with the purity of your heart, and your comprehension, more than what is arranged before you here, and also according to longstanding habit. You will see with your own eyes, that the more you train yourself in each of these steps, your heart will grow in purity, both in Torah study, and in the observance of the mitzvot, and in the fear and love of God.


Rabbi Chayyim's words cannot be any clearer. But in order to understand their full significance, we must examine more closely the earlier sections of the book.


The power of the "image of God"


The book begins with Rabbi Chayyim's fundamental tenet: Enormous power has been entrusted to man. This strength is based on the kabbalistic perception of reality, which sees our world as a thin veil that alludes to another reality that is immeasurably deeper and more ramified. This hidden reality is an inner mechanism of worlds and forces that influence each other and maintain a mutual relationship among themselves.


Against this background, Rabbi Chayyim directs the spotlight at man who was created "in the image of God." The kabbalistic interpretation that he proposes for this concept is bold. The category, "image of God," draws an analogy between the power of the Creator, "the all-powerful," and the power of man. Man's soul is enmeshed in and connected to the hidden spiritual system, so that he too is "powerful." His good deeds increase the vitality of the worlds, and his evil deeds do just the opposite.


This concept is the key to understanding the place of man's inner world in "Nefesh ha-Chayyim."We will illustrate this with the help of Rabbi Chayyim's theory of repentance (I, chapters 19-20).


The human soul is comprised of three elements – nefesh (mind), ru'ach (spirit), and neshama (soul), neshama being the most elevated of the three, under which is ru'ach, and nefesh being the lowest. These three elements give expression to the three realms of human activity: action, speech and thought (respectively). These three elements are connected to each other – the upper end of the nefesh to the ru'ach, and the upper end of the ru'ach to the neshama, like links in a chain.


The connection between these elements opens a door to the rescue of one who sins: Man's sins are liable to bring him to the extreme state of karet, excision, which severs the nefesh from the source of its vitality. But the connection between the nefesh and the ru'ach above it cannot be cut completely. Therefore, by repairing the element of ru'ach, that is, speech, e.g., by way of a verbal confession coming "from the depths of the heart," a person can reawaken the spiritual bounty so that it should flow through his ru'ach and nefesh¸ until it renews and strengthens the connections that had been severed. The capacity of a spiritual element, such as speech, to repair concrete breaks in the real world is a victory of experience over external action.


In this context it should be emphasized that when Rabbi Chayyim speaks of "confession" he is not referring to words uttered as a mechanical action. He emphasizes that the confession must be made "from the depths of the heart."


This last point is further clarified when he deals with the repair of sins on the plane of ru'ach. For example, one who sins with prohibited talk, or "neglecting Torah study which is equivalent to all of them," causes great damage to his ru'ach, but the connection between the ru'ach and the neshama, which is the level of thought, is not hurt as badly. Therefore, the key to repairing the situation lies in repairing one's thoughts. But what are the desirable thoughts?


Through genuine contrition of the heart, and bitterness about the extent of his sin, as in "Their hearts cried out to the Lord," and thoughts of repentance in his mind which is the abode of the sparks of light of the soul… it awakens his neshama, which shines the splendor of its light also on the ru'ach… and breaks the power of the unclean spirit which intensified with his transgression…


We are clearly not dealing here with ordinary correct thoughts, but rather with thoughts bearing a high emotional and experiential charge, such as bitterness and a crying heart.


Prayer in the Mitnagdi world


The second section of "Nefesh ha-Chayyim"is wholly dedicated to the essence of prayer, and the discussion continues to apply man's lofty role in the preservation of the world. When we learn in this section about the important place that Rabbi Chayyim assigns to prayer, Rabbi Shneur Zalman's arguments cannot but echo in our ears. Rabbi Chayyim writes, for example, as follows:


Just as man's soul is connected to and exists in his body by way of eating and drinking, without which his soul would separate and depart from his body, so too the connection of God's essence to the worlds… His will decreed that it should depend on Torah study, the performance of mitzvot, and the service of prayer of the chosen nation, without which the Blessed One would remove His essence from them, and in a moment they would all return to nothingness. Therefore the Rabbis said in [tractate] Taanit (3b): "But what is meant by that which is written: 'For I have spread you abroad as the four winds of heaven'… As the world cannot endure without winds, so too the world cannot exist without Israel."


Prayer is presented here with a status similar to that of Torah study, in terms of its necessity for the existence of the world. There is no mention here of that polemical diminution of the standing of prayer that characterized the early arguments of the Mitnagdim.


Prayer achieves its effect on the world in accordance with the purity of the worshipper's heart and the depth and intensity of his intention. Rabbi Chayyim offers detailed guidelines on this matter, one of which we will cite here:


To this end, when a person rises to pray before his Maker, he should remove his body from his soul, that is, he should remove all of the vain thoughts that come from the bodily forces that were engraved in and adhered to his soul, so that his prayer service should come exclusively from his soul… Before he rises in prayer, he must nullify and remove from himself in his thoughts all of the body's pleasures and enjoyments and all its affairs, to the point that he establishes in his thoughts to despise his body, as if he had no body at all. And only his soul alone speaks its prayer. And when he speaks each word which is a force and part of his soul, he should attach to it his will to pour out his soul, literally, completely, and join it to the heavenly root of the words of the prayer that stand in the heights of the world… Then he should think as if he were removed from this world, and that he is one of the heavenly beings above, to the point that even after his prayer, it will be difficult for him to direct his thoughts to matters of this world. It should seem in his eyes as if he were falling from an elevated roof to a deep pit. Like the early Hassidim who would wait an hour also after their prayer… His love should grow and burn in his soul to such an extent that he truly craves and yearns that when he now utters a holy word from the text of the prayer, his soul should exit his body completely and rise up to cleave to Him, as it were. This is what it says here: "And to serve Him… with all your soul."


All of these guidelines relate to the realms of thought, intention and will. This is the inner world which was so empowered in Hassidic teaching, and which here in "Nefesh ha-Chayyim"is given such a spectacular welcome by Mitnagdi thought.


One could go on at length illustrating this phenomenon in "Nefesh ha-Chayyim," but this we will leave to the interested reader. We will address a different question: If indeed Rabbi Chayyim warmly adopted the religious experience as a means for spiritual development, in what sense is he still a "Mitnaged"? Did perhaps the Mitnagdi movement chose – at least on this front – to fold up, and attach its voice to the dominant spiritual choir, the sounds of which were only growing stronger?


Religious complexity as a remedy for Hassidic over-zealousness


The answer is that despite the internal, spiritual challenge that Rabbi Chayyim presents, he remains a Mitnaged in every fiber of his body. He distances himself from Hassidic thinking, and formulates a novel, independent position which becomes from now on the inheritance of the Lithuanians. The essence of his novel approach is that on the one hand he recognizes the truth and value of the religious emphases of Mezibuz and Mezeritch, while on the other hand he justifies the concerns and suspicions that he felt should be cast on those emphases. He describes at length the dangers latent in them and he issues warnings about them.


With the "Nefesh ha-Chayyim," a new contour begins to stand out that will eventually characterize the world of Lithuania, and serve as the basis for its spiritual strength: dialectics and complexity. Rabbi Chayyim discovered that when spiritual complexity is possible, it is no longer necessary to react strongly against the new movement in order to protect oneself from the dangers it poses. It is possible and correct to concede that it contains positive elements, and even to implicitly agree that it succeeds in pointing out the shortcomings of the existing approach, and that it is fitting to carry out repairs and improvements in light of its criticism. All this is possible provided that boundaries are maintained, and that precautions are taken against excess and exaggeration.


Rabbi Chayyim demands of one who wishes to serve God that he live in two-valued worlds. While Jewish tradition set our moral world on three legs – Torah, service, and acts of kindness – Rabbi Chayyim, focusing on the first two legs, said that we are not dealing here with a simple and harmonious combination. One must constantly struggle with the unbearable ease of adopting one of these pillars at the expense of the other. While the popular view describes man and the world as standing before an all-powerful Creator, whose orders we must carry out as would a son or a slave, Rabbi Chayyim establishes an outlook that is based on a cosmic paradox that demands of man that he navigate between two contradictory images of the nature of the God's connections to His creation.[2]


Manifestations of this complexity are scattered throughout the book, but the most prominent concentration is found in several chapters, whose location in the book presents a minor bibliographical puzzle. "Nefesh ha-Chayyim"is divided into four sections, which in turn are divided into chapters. In between the third and fourth sections there are eight independent chapters that are not defined as a separate section, nor are they part of the other sections. These chapters relate to what came before them, and also allude to what will come after them. Their separation from the other sections is apparently connected to the fact that they are entirely absent in the first edition of the book. They are printed with the rest of the book only from the second edition and on. To my knowledge, the meaning of this remains a mystery to this day. In any event, there is no doubt that these chapters were written by Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin, that they are an organic part of the book, and that they are located in the right and natural place. Let us examine these chapters to get a taste of their spirit.


The Danger of arrogance


We cited earlier Rabbi Chayyim's words at the end of the third section. He opens his discussion with a sentence that summarizes the gist of the book up to that point: "I have guided you in the paths of truth," how to climb the steps to purity and the fear of God. But here he takes a turn. The program that I have presented, says Rabbi Chayyim, is all holiness and purity, but it is dangerous:


However, be very careful and cautious that your mind not become haughty and that your heart not become arrogant when you serve your Creator with purity of thought. At first glance you will not feel your arrogance in this matter, and you will have to inspect and scrutinize yourself very carefully. And it is explicitly written: "Everybody that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord" (Mishlei 16:5), that even if one's arrogance is not visible to other people, but found only in the thoughts of his heart and in his own eyes, he is a real abomination before God, as it is known that this is the source, the yeast in the dough, of all the evil traits. And the Sages said: Whoever is boastful, it is as if he built a bama, and the Shekhina wails over him, and it is as if he pushes His legs away, complaining and saying: He and I cannot live together, and the bed is too short. Woe to the son who forces his father out of his own residence. And the Sages went as far as to say there that he is regarded as if he worshipped idols and denied God and as if he engaged in incestuous sexual relationships. And they said: Whoever is boastful, if he is a Sage, his wisdom departs from him.


The welcomed aspiration for religious uplifting, which Rabbi Chayyim himself had encouraged, guided and nurtured up to this point in the book, now awakens in his heart the gruesome nightmare of the Mitnagdim: religious arrogance. Incorrect inner thoughts turn the entire spiritual achievement into an abomination. The experience of cleaving to God, rather than drawing the person closer to his Creator, achieves the very opposite, establishing a partition and distance: "He and I cannot live together." Instead of being righteous and pious, he is considered as if he worshipped idols and engaged in incestuous sexual relationships. Rabbi Chayyim remembers well the sharp protests sounded by his masters against the Hassidim in the previous generation, precisely on this point. His way of dealing with the issue is different. One should strive to achieve the experiential feeling of cleaving to God, but on condition that one weed out from his heart the roots of haughtiness - even those that are not visible on the outside, and even those that the person himself has difficulty identifying.


The danger of arrogance is only the first hurdle along the path of him who wishes to advance in his cleaving to God. We will also encounter other land mines. Indeed, the danger of arrogance lies in wait precisely for those with high spiritual ambitions. Such people have a special kind of evil inclination, and their disregard for this painful reality can be disastrous. Rabbi Chayyim writes as follows:


How much excessive caution must a person exercise to protect himself in these and similar matters. The Rabbis have already said: "The greater the man, the greater his evil inclination." For the evil inclination adapts itself with its schemes for each person according to his nature, and his level in Torah and Divine service. For if it sees that according to the person's level, were it to tempt him to abandon his place and rank to commit some sin or transgression, severe or trivial, he would not yield, it disguises itself as the good inclination, blinds his mind, casts its venom, and causes him to stray in the very manner to which the person is attached, showing him some path that at first glance appears to be the counsel of the good inclination, showing him a higher path… and the person falls in his net, as a bird hastens to the snare without much consideration, not knowing that it is for his life…


The evil inclination that masquerades as righteous is very difficult to identify. A person who is occupied in sanctifying himself cannot imagine that the evil inclination is interfering with his desires and intentions, and thus he is liable to fall into its snare. It is precisely one who seeks closeness to God who is exposed to these serious dangers.


We already saw a source for this idea in the Gra's commentary to Mishlei.[3]Rabbi Pinchas of Polotsk, a disciple of the Gra, also describes at length the temptations of the evil inclination which dons a mask of righteousness and piety. In fact, his polemical tract, "Keter Torah" is based entirely on this idea.[4] This assessment became more intensified for the Mitnagdi thinkers in the wake of their struggle with the Hassidim. However, while Rabbi Pinchas of Polotsk uses this argument in the framework of his all-out war that he wages against the new movement, Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin uses it to balance and purify the inner world of his own disciples, those who he wishes to educate. On the one hand, Rabbi Chayyim encourages the spiritual experience, but on the other hand, he requires moderation and restraint, in order to refine it.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] The majority of these notes were written by the author himself, while a minority were written by his son, Rabbi Yitzchak, who published the book after his father's death.

[2] Regarding the tension in cosmic reality according to "Nefesh ha-Chayyim," see shiur no. 16. Here we shall deal with its moral aspects.

[3] See shiur no. 17.

[4] An example of his approach was brought in shiur no. 11.