Shiur #25: Religious Zeal and the Chasid (The Pious Man)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

In the previous lecture, we dealt with two issues relating to the tension between serving God through abstention, mortification, and seclusion, and serving God while following the middle path and remaining connected to this world and human society.


In this lecture, I wish to deal with two additional issues connected to the picture that Rihal paints regarding – as he puts it - "one of our servants of God:"


1)   Religious zeal as opposed to halakhic deduction

2)   Who is Rihal's chasid?




This issue does not assume a central role in the Kuzari and it is mentioned only incidentally to another issue. However, owing to its centrality in the world of one who serves God, and especially in the faith system of one who wishes to serve God in our day, I will relate to this issue at length.


In the course of his discussion about the use of logic and reason with respect to the reasons for the commandments and the qualifications that accompany them, and as part of a more comprehensive discussion about the relationship between the Karaites and the Rabbanites, the Rabbi states: "Follow not, therefore, your own taste and opinion in religious questions, lest they throw you into doubts, which lead to heresy." When Chazal forbade one thing and permitted something else, so argues the Rabbi, "they did [so] neither in obedience to their own taste or inclination, but to the results of the inherited knowledge, handed down to them." In the framework of these laws, there is a "gray" area of actions that are halakhically permissible, but nevertheless unseemly, or put differently, activities that Chazal were not pleased with:


Whenever they settle the limits of the code and explain what is lawful or unlawful in strictly juridical deduction, they indicate apparently unseemly points. They consider it revolting to eat the flesh of a dangerously sick animal, or to gain money by means of legal trickery, or to travel on the Sabbath with the assistance of the eruv, or to render certain marriages lawful in a cunning manner, or to undo oaths and vows by circumvention, which may be permitted according to the paragraph of the law, but is devoid of any religious feeling. Both, however, are necessary together, for if one is guided by legal deduction alone, more relaxation would crop up than could be controlled. If, on the other hand, one would neglect the legalized lines which form the fence round the law and would only rely on religious zeal, it would become a source of schism and destroy everything. (III, 49)


This paragraph is stated incidentally, but it houses ideas of a very explosive nature. Essentially, it contains thousands of years of debate on the role of Halakha in the world of Judaism.


Attention should be paid to the realm that the Rabbi is dealing with. He is not discussing an action that is reprehensible by all moral and ethical standards but benefits from a "gap" in the law that permits, or at least does not prohibit, it. He is talking about qualifications appearing in the Gemara that restrict the scope of certain prohibitions or allow certain actions despite some fundamental prohibition. He is not discussing an action that frontally clashes with a clear and evident idea or value, but with a narrowing of a prohibition or granting of a leeway based on legal argumentation. In such a case, argues Rihal, halakhic deduction clashes with religious zeal; it therefore it cannot be accepted in unlimited fashion.


It seems to me that various Jewish thinkers would reject Rihal's underlying assumption and certainly his conclusion. I wish to use this disagreement to sharpen Rihal's position that flows from the above-cited passage.


Do all Jewish thinkers accept the distinction made by Rihal between "religious zeal" and "halakhic deduction?" It seems to me that the answer is no.


Some have argued that a person must strive with all his heart and soul to reach a full and complete understanding of Halakha, and that as long as he does so within a halakhic framework, accepting the exclusive authority of the tradition and using halakhic terminology, he demonstrates religious zeal.


This approach is more absolute when we consider God's commandments  decrees and we relate to Chazal as explaining and interpreting these decrees. From this perspective, the value of observing the law of techum shabbat in an absolute manner is no greater than the value of observing the laws of techum while exploiting "the assistance of the eruv."Religious zeal involves nothing more than striving to clarify the halakha. A religious act that is not accompanied by religious zeal is essentially a religious act that is lacking in halakhic clarification.


This approach would argue that the question of whether eating the flesh of a dangerously sick animal, gaining money by means of legal trickery, or undoing oaths and vows by circumvention fall into the category of deeds accompanied by religious zeal is determined according to their faithfulness to halakhic deduction. If their subordination to Halakha is lacking, there would be a deficiency in their religious zeal, but if they remain totally faithful to it, there is nothing faulty about their conduct. If halakhic deduction permits walking beyond the techum of Shabbat by way of an eruv, then the deed is permissible and legitimate. And if Chazal forbade it or showed their displeasure with it, it is only because they found it halakhically problematic for one reason or another.


Rihal's assertion that halakhic deduction leads to conclusions that religious zeal would reject assumes that there is a whole world of values that are not subject to halakhic deduction and that halakhic deduction merely serves religious zeal up to a certain point. Here, however, attention must be paid to what Rihal is saying. He is not referring to a world of values "outside the Torah." The Torah is truth, and halakhic deduction is merely a "fence" around the Torah, as the Rabbi puts it. Thus, it seems to me that Rihal's argument must be understood differently, in accordance with what we already saw regarding the mitzvot and what they require.


Rihal establishes that there are two circles with respect to the world of Halakha.


The first circle includes those mitzvot that are axioms given as "halakha to Moshe at Sinai" or interpreted by Chazal by way of the thirteen hermeneutic principles.


The second circle is made up of fences and boundaries that Chazal established regarding the manner of observing these mitzvot by way of qualifications based on their understanding of their reasons and  the cases in which those reasons do not apply.


According to Rihal, the first circle is not connected to "halakhic deduction." Halakhagiven to Moshe at Sinai and the interpretation of the Torah by way of the thirteen hermeneutic principles are based on a tradition passed down from master to disciple. This tradition brings this circle into the framework of revelation that is not based on human logic and reason, but rather on the word of God.


The second circle, in contrast, involves halakhic deduction that serves the first circle, establishing its borders and allowing "escape hatches." This is what bridges between the idea and reality and provides man with the tools with which to preserve and observe the ideas.


As such, we must relate to this circle as part of a system whose primary tools are logic and reason. Their role with respect to Halakha, as we saw in the lectures on the mitzvot, is merely to draw the branches closer to the roots. From this perspective, using these tools is legitimate, although caution must be exercised; inasmuch as they are human qualities, they can contradict and clash with the ideas themselves.


It appears to me that the possibility of a contradiction between halakhic deduction based on human reason and the mitzvot and ideas based on revelation is the tension which Rihal refers to here between religious zeal and halakhic deduction.


The aspiration to cling to the Torah and observe it as it is, on the one hand, and the process of halakhic deduction that comes to help and provide support to those who walk in the Torah's path, on the other, are liable to find themselves on a collision course. At that point, argues Rihal, religious zeal has the upper hand.


Rihal also relates to the other side of the coin. Abandoning halakhic deduction in favor of religious zeal will lead to heresy and cause the loss of everything.


Rihal does not specify here the nature of that heresy or why a person who takes this path is liable to lose his world. However, the words of the Rabbi in another passage fill in what is missing here. Abandoning halakhic deduction means observing the Torah without Chazal as go-betweens. The vacuum that this creates, however, will not remain empty for long. This is what the Rabbi says about the Karaites:


However far a Karaite's zeal may lead him, his heart will never be satisfied, because he knows that his zeal is but based on speculation and reasoning. He will never be sure whether his practice is God-pleasing. He is also aware that there are among the gentiles some who are even more zealous than he. (III, 50)


     The Torah, as we have seen in the lectures on the mitzvot, demands interpretation and deduction; abandoning "halakhic deduction" will lead to some other type of "deduction." In any event, a person will not be able to escape the need to bring the ideas to realization in actual practice. From this perspective, Chazal's halakhic deduction has a decisive role and doing without it will only distance a person from the Torah and its mitzvot.


Rihal adds another important point. A person might raise an objection: Indeed, there are many different interpretations of the Torah, and when a person decides to forego the interpretations offered by Chazal, he will perforce have to choose a different interpretation. But this in itself should not be illegitimate, provided that he will continue to aspire to fulfill the Torah and its commandments.


To this Rihal would respond: Such an approach focuses religious elevation on zeal and striving. Truth is subjective and this approach lacks the advantages of religion. In other words, the thinking is pleasing to the Creator, but the acting is not.But acting in accordance with the interpretation of Chazal is indeed pleasing to Him, asserts Rihal, for the act itself guides a person to the absolute truth, which, according to Rihal, indeed exists. The superiority of a member of the covenant over one who is not a member of the covenant does not lie in his religious zeal, but in the Divine truth that was revealed to him and is explained to him by Chazal.[1]




     In Part III, sections 1-21, Rihal describes the world of the chasid. I have already mentioned many of the qualities and characteristics of the chasid, or as the Rabbi calls him, "one of our servants of God."


     The chasid follows the "middle path," rules over and governs all his faculties, keeping them in perfect balance, and thereby lives a natural, proper and perfect life.[2]


     The Rabbi continues with a description of the structure of the chasid's day, week and year, which is comprised of "husk and kernel;" that is to say, his time revolves around a central axis of drawing near to God.


     All of this, as was already noted in the lectures on the mitzvot, belongs to the chasid's intellectual plain that also includes elements from the Divine realm, owing to the unique qualities of the Jewish chasid.


     Rihal then relates to the chasid's observance of the Divine commandments, in the course of which he lists the chasid's characteristics that are connected to the Divine realm: the continual experience of "I have set the Lord before me at all times," knowledge and recognition of a permanent and eternal providence (including an acknowledgment of the rightness of Divine judgment on both the individual and communal plains, and the recognition of God's hand even in the troubles and afflictions that befall him and the world), and harnessing the entire material world to the experience of God's closeness.


     What is the highest level reached by the chasid?


If the religious person remembers this, with every movement he first acknowledges the Creator's part in them, for having created and equipped them with the assistance necessary for their permanent perfection. This is as if the Divine Presence were with him continually, and the angels virtually accompanied him. If his piety is consistent, and he abides in places worthy of the Divine Presence, they are with Him in reality, and he sees them with his own eyes occupying a degree just below that of prophecy. Thus, the most prominent of the Sages, during the time of the SecondTemple, saw a certain apparition and heard a kind of voice [bat kol]. This is the degree of the pious, next to which is that of prophets. (III, 11)


     According to this, the chasid achieves a certain inspiration and revelation of the Divine influence, albeit indirect. Rihal, therefore, asserts that the chasid's level is only lower than that of the prophets.


     What prevents the chasid, it may be asked, from reaching the higher level of prophecy? What must the chasid still do that he had not yet done?


     Rihal answers these questions in the words of the Rabbi that sum up the sections dealing with the chasid:


Now I have sketched out to you the conduct of a religious person in the present time, and you can imagine what it was like in that happy time and that divine place amidst the people whose roots were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They represent the essence of the latter, men and women distinguished by virtue, suffering nothing unbecoming to pass their lips. The godly man moves about among them, but his soul is not polluted by the improper words which he may hear, nor does any impurity adhere to his garment or dress from issue, or vermin, or corpses, or leprosy, etc., because they all live in holiness and purity. This is in a greater measure the case in the land of the Shekhina, where he only meets people who occupy the degree of holiness, as Priest, Levites, Nazirites, Sages, Prophets, Judges and Overseers. Or he sees "a multitude that kept holiday with the voice of joy and praise" (Tehillim 42:5) on the "three festivals in the year." He only hears the "Song of the Lord," only sees the "Work of the Lord," particularly if he is a Priest or Levite who lives on the bread of the Lord and, like Samuel, lives in the "House of the Lord" from his infancy. He need not seek any livelihood, as his whole life is devoted to the "Service of the Lord." How does his work and the purity and excellence of his soul appear to you?


The Khazar king: This is the highest degree, above which there is none but the angelic one. Such a mode of life entitles man to the prophetic afflatus, particularly where the Shekhina dwells. A religion of this kind can do without ascetic or monastic retirement. (III, 21-22)


     As we saw in the lectures on the Divine influence, Eretz Yisrael and the resting of the Shekhina are necessary conditions for achieving prophecy. Their absence explains the difference between the chasid of our time and the chasid who lived during the period of the Temple.


     The chasid living during the period of the Temple was a "waiting point" for prophecy. The anxious waiting for prophecy, as we saw in the past, is what distinguishes between the presentation of prophecy as a spiritual or intellectual attainment and its presentation as a way in which God turns to man. The assertion that through his actions man can reach the level of the chasid, which is one level below that of the prophet, but that the leap to the level of the prophet is no longer in man's hands is what bestows objective and transcendental force to the phenomenon of prophecy in Israel, according to Rihal. The difference, then, between the chasid and the prophet lies not in each one's potential but in the realization of that potential, and this realization is not influenced by man's actions.


In our generation, on the other hand, the chasid is a vessel waiting to be filled, and that filling will only be achieved when Israel's exile comes to an end.


(Translated by DavidStrauss)



[1] In our time, a generation during which existentialist schools have mushroomed and the search for truth has weakened and the quest for authenticity has become sanctified, Rihal's words assume even greater force. Religious value lies not only in zeal, but in the objective act. While Rihal is well aware of the limits of human reason and he therefore does not sanctify it, he is not ready to give it up in the manner of the existentialist schools, who, despairing of reason, chose to abandon it. Religious zeal and the longing for communion with God and His Torah do not substitute for the quest for truth, study, halakhic deduction, and the striving to reach the truth of the Torah through toil and effort. According to Rihal, the desired goal can only be reached through a combination of the two. 

[2] As part of the proper use of the chasid's faculties, Rihal also mentions the use that the chasid makes of his imagination: "He directs the organs of thought and imagination, relieving them of all worldly ideas mentioned above, charges his imagination to produce, with the assistance of memory, the most splendid pictures possible, in order to resemble the divine things sought after. Such pictures are the scenes of Sinai, Abraham and Isaac on Moriah, the Tabernacle of Moses, the Temple service, the presence of God in the Temple, and the like" (III, 5).