In this chapter we will look at Dirah Betachtonim’s distinctive outlook on the human; particularly, the relative importance of body and soul, and briefly, perspectives on man and woman.
The Body and Soul in Earlier Writings
The purpose of Torah obligations and the general message of Judaism are generally represented in Jewish writings as aiming to increase man’s dedication to matters that enhance his spirit and downgrade the significance of his body. As phrased in the Chasidic classic Tanya, “the foundation and root of the entire Torah is to raise up and elevate the soul over the body, higher and higher...”
The notion of the superiority of the soul and the consequent importance of transcending the body and its needs, and concentrating one’s energies on matters of the soul, has been given considerable attention by both rational and mystical thinkers. Throughout their writings runs an antipathy towards the body and the strong emphasis that it is the soul which is the primary part of man.
Man is comprised of two qualitatively different parts, declare these thought systems; one—carnal, mundane, requiring food, drink, sleep and a livelihood; another, spiritual, sublime, self-sufficient and transcendent. The body feels pain, is contingent, suffering with changes of climate and health, and is temporary; the soul is absolute and permanent. Clearly, it is the soul that ought to attract man’s interest.
In terms echoed by numerous writers (of different schools) with no more than shifts of nuance, Maimonides writes:
It is therefore clear that all corruption, destruction, or defect comes from matter . . . Man’s shortcomings and sins are all due to the substance of the body and not to its form; while all his merits are exclusively due to his form . . . According to the wisdom of G-d . . . it was necessary that the very noble form of man, which is the image and likeness of G-d, as has been shown by us, should be joined to the substance of dust and darkness, the source of all defect and loss. For these reasons the Creator gave to the form of man power, rule, and dominion over the substance;—the form can subdue the substance, refuse the fulfillment of its desires, and reduce them, as far as possible, to a just and proper measure. The station of man varies according to the exercise of this power. Some persons constantly strive to choose that which is noble . . . Whenever they are led by the wants of the body to that which is low and avowedly disgraceful, they are grieved at their position, they feel ashamed and confounded at their situation. They try with all their might to diminish this disgrace, and to guard against it in every possible way. They feel like a person whom the king in his anger ordered to remove refuse from one place to another in order to put him to shame… Some consider, as we just said, all wants of the body as shame, disgrace, and defect to which they are compelled to attend...
Chasidic Perspectives on Body and Soul
As discussed in Chapter Seven, though primarily interested in man’s soul, Chasidut does attribute great significance to the involvement of the body in worship, or more correctly, to the eventual transformation of the body and its negative drives, as opposed to merely ignoring and repressing them. Chasidic literature frequently quotes the Sages’ comment on the biblical command “Love G-d with all your heart”—“with both your yetsarim (drives).” That is, love G-d with both the yetser tov (positive drive) as well as the yetser hara (negative drive, or “evil inclination”).
Now in Chasidut, the terms and concepts yetser tov and yetser hara—very commonly used in Jewish literature to refer to the human’s desirable and undesirable parts, respectively—are generally superseded by two broader terms: nefesh haElokit, the Divine soul, and nefesh habehamit, the animal soul. This latter soul is not necessarily man’s evil part; it represents, rather, a notion very similar to the modern conception of man. A wide variety of today’s sciences as well as the common current perception regard man as on a continuum, part of the same tree, with animals. Man is Homo Sapiens: an animal like any other, made of similar biological matter, requiring the common needs of sustenance and reproduction, driven by the same mechanisms such as flight or fight, merely with some additional gray matter. Animals vary: monkeys climb trees, cows moo and humans cogitate. In turn, all animal behavior is increasingly viewed as determined by biological makeup. Even colloquially, “a surge of adrenaline” is often substituted for “a surge of fear,” for example. This attitude to man is in fact affirmed by Chasidut: It terms this dimension of man, that is, his biological and “psychosomatic,” dimension, or natural (= of nature) self, the nefesh habehamit, or animal soul.
But then, according to Chasidut, there is another part of man, a Divine soul, which is part of G-d. Man includes a dimension that is inherently transcendent, inherently above the order of this world. Though he might not be conscious of it, there is a part of man that has no desire for things of this world, that is not governed nor influenced by its accidents, that is in fact blind to all its perspectives, oblivious to the very frame of reference of this reality. Being part of G-d, its “operating system,” as it were, is G-dly. Its desires and perspectives are those of G-d. When this part of man encounters natural phenomena, they are regarded purely in terms of their spiritual potential. This soul wants man to act in G-dly ways, to be G-dly.
In light of these Chasidic teachings, the religious goal of man encapsulated in “Love G-d with all your heart,” implying the totality of the human being, denotes loving G-d not only with the Divine soul, but also with the animal soul. That is, the goal is not to employ solely the Divine soul in turning to G-d whilst ignoring the natural, Homo Sapiens self, but rather to transform the biological self too. Love G-d and worship Him body as well as soul.
What is to be gained by the transformation of the body? Chasidic literature frequently quotes the verse “verav tevuot bekoach shor,”—“many harvests by the power of the ox.” Much like man harnesses the ox to achieve more than human power can achieve alone, the soul similarly harnesses the body, as it were, to gain additional energies. Physical drives are particularly powerful, motivated and energetic, and their transformation introduces new powers, new energies, into the soul’s arsenal.
Note, that according to this view the body is merely a tool, it is the soul that is both subject and object of spiritual endeavor. The soul, the true player in this drama, “hijacks” the body’s energies and puts them towards its own uses, enhancing its own self.
Now in Chasidut, the gain for the soul through the transformation of the body is seen as the very purpose of life in this world. Why do souls come down to this world? asks Chasidut time and again. Prior to their descent, souls existed in a world of pure spirit, basking in the presence of G-d—why do they come down to this mundane existence? The standard answer: “The descent is for purposes of ascent.” That is, the soul’s temporary confrontation with, and eventual victory over the body enable it to move on thereafter to unprecedented heights. The challenges of this existence provide it with opportunities to obtain new capabilities, new spiritual powers, enhancing its spirituality ever after.
The soul, again, is the focus of religious endeavor. Its existence in the body is transient. This life is valuable merely in that it provides the soul with an opportunity to plunder the powers available here on this trivial, lowly earth, and subsequently soar back victorious with renewed vigor to its ideal and permanent home.
The Soul and Body in Dirah Betachtonim
According to Dirah Betachtonim, however, the transformation of the body is of value not because it provides the soul with new energies, but as an end in itself. In fact, not the soul is the religious object in this system, but rather the body and its physical surroundings. The soul comes down to this world, not as a necessary evil, as a prelude to greater heights in its spiritual, G-dly home, but because the ideal home for the soul is specifically here—the arena for union with the Essence of G-d. The descent of the soul is not “for purposes of” a later ascent when it will eventually return to its Maker, rather the descent itself—from the higher worlds where G-dliness is manifest to this G-dforsaken reality—is an ascent: away from manifestations of G-d towards His Essence.
(In this light, a distinction comes to the fore between two distinct classes in the sublimated state of the body (both beyond it’kafya, subjugation of the body, see above Chapter 7), that may well go unnoticed to the student of conventional Chasidic literature. In Chasidut in general the notions of bechol levavecha, worship with the entire heart, i.e. with both parts of the personality including the animal soul, is used seemingly interchangeably with the notion of the demise of the animal soul—“My heart is killed within me.” Many references are made to both concepts in the context of it’hapcha, the sublimated state of the body, conceptually virtually as one. In Dirah Betachtonim however, they emerge as two distinct stages: a first stage where all bodily drives have merely been killed, as it were; a second stage where they are converted towards positive use. For especially in this system the body is not something to overcome, whereby the difference between its demise and transformation into a positive entity could be marginal. Here the object of religious endeavor is specifically transformation, discovering the positive in the body: killing it would be totally missing the point. The “demise” of the body is at most a perhaps necessary intermediate stage.)
The Value of the Body
We have noted in earlier chapters that metaphysical value lies in the “lower realms” of the finite and physical primarily in the context of essence, but also in the less significant context of manifestations because the communion of physical reality with G-d demonstrates G-d’s all encompassing infinity. Let us elaborate on this in relation to the human specifically, seeing first the potentially greater religious value of the body in terms of manifestations and subsequently in terms of essence.
As noted in the book’s second and previous chapters, the compatibility of G-d with this reality is expressive of G-d’s true infinity, His all-encompassing reach. Were it true that G-d is compatible solely with the spiritual, “you would detract from His perfection”: His infinity would not be total, as there would remain the physical from which G-d would be barred, paradoxically, specifically because He would be too lofty. Something similar to this is true with regard to the human’s connection with G-d—in terms of the human. If man’s relationship with G-d were to be only with affairs of the soul such as prayer and meditation, his relationship would be limited in scope. It would be confined to his higher dimensions, where a relationship with G-d is easier achieved and where some community with G-d might be expected. It is specifically when man involves his physical body in the performance of mitzvot that he gives expression to an all-encompassing communion with G-d.
The further reach of this type of relationship with G-d can also be measured in terms of time and circumstances. Where man’s relationship with G-d is intellectual, emotional or even transcendental, circumstances that are not conducive or are hostile to these forms of involvement with G-d will jeopardize the relationship. As it were, when there is “static” on the mind and heart “frequencies” where these types of relationships occur, or when these are not in operation entirely, no connection will exist. In fact, simply on an “off-day,” when intellectual, emotional and spiritual levels are at a low, the entire relationship with G-d might wane or even rupture. Whereas when in community with G-d via the body, through actions meaningless in terms of intellectual or emotional relationships, the connection evidently exists beyond the mind and heart “frequencies,” and hence may well endure through emotional and intellectual adversities. Paradoxically, the communion via the body “transcends” the world of heart and mind; it specifically is in a sense absolute, remaining in place even where the emotional and intellectual wavelengths are not in operation.
In short, the far reach of man’s relationship with G-d—in addition to the concomitant manifestation of G-d’s far reach and compatibility—is fully realized specifically via the body, as hereby it is thoroughly encompassing, both in terms of the number and types of human faculties involved as well as in terms of time and circumstance.
Most important of all, man’s body is of religious value because it is the vehicle of essence. As we have seen at length in earlier chapters, in the higher worlds where Divine qualities are manifest, the relationship or “communication” with G-d proceeds along the limited “wavelengths” of these qualities, and consequently the essential (=of essence) connection between reality and G-d is not manifest. But in our G-dforsaken world, the absence of “higher” modes of communication points to the involvement of essence; devoid as it is of all higher features, the deeper and broader connection with G-d—the essential connection—which must be in operation throughout G-d’s all encompassing domain, comes to the fore. (And indeed, the being of this reality is ontologically the Being of G-d and furthermore, the very external character of this reality itself bespeaks essence: it is finite, hard and fast, non-expansive, merely is.)
The same is true concerning the human. Where the mind and heart are in a manifest relationship with G-d, the co-essence of man with G-d is not manifest. Relationships involving man’s soul involve that dimension of man that is manifestly Divine—manifestly, not essentially. Whereas on the other hand, in communication with G-d through the performance of physical mitzvot via the hard and fast, indifferent, finite body, involving that part of man that is manifestly unG-dly—man’s relationship is via essence, declaring in fact that he is co-essential with G-d.
In summary, Dirah Betachtonim’s view of religious man is in stark contrast to that of other thought systems. Where lies the greatest potential for religious experience, how does man reach his most sublime relationship with G-d? Through his body, not his soul.
The Body at the End of Time
A later chapter will dwell on the Dirah Betachtonim view of the end of time. We will but briefly note here that according to Chabad Chasidut and particularly Dirah Betachtonim the state of existence at that final and ultimate time will not be spiritual, but physical; man will then comprise body as well as soul. This position follows naturally from the general thrust of the Dirah Betachtonim system. A “utopian” state is one which represents the total realization of that which is generally perceived as ideal. As we have amply seen, according to Dirah Betachtonim, ignoring and escaping the body is far from ideal. To the contrary, the much sought after religiosity, the ultimate union with G-d, is to be found specifically through and in man’s body. Clearly, therefore, at the end of time, in the ideal “utopian” world, this greatest of metaphysical states must exist—bodies as well as souls.
Chasidic writings in fact state that unlike now when the soul is the source of animation in man, at the end of time the reverse will be true: the soul will derive its vitality from the body. For then will be a time when that ultimate dimension, the Essence of G-d, will be manifest, and it will hence become evident that all derives from essence. Accordingly, the soul, merely manifestation (its evident spirituality pointing to its belonging to the manifestations trend) will derive its source from the body which is co-essential with G-d.
Man and Woman
A metaphor used in this context brings us to one last point concerning humanity. In expressing the idea that the body will be superior to the soul in the World to Come, it is often said , drawing on a Scriptural verse, that the “woman of valor” will then be “her husband’s crown.” Often, in Kabbalah and Chasidut, when discussing spiritual spheres which are in a provider-recipient relationship, “man” is used as a metaphor for the providing sphere and “woman” for the recipient. In this vein, the soul is referred to as “man” and the body as “woman,” since the former provides life for the latter. But in the future the “woman” will be the “crown” of her husband—the body will be greater than, and will provide for, the soul.
In Dirah Betachtonim the overall connotations of the “man” and “woman” metaphors change markedly. That which is metaphorically “woman,” a receiver, not active but passive, here represents that which is devoid of active Divinity, i.e. of spiritual manifestations: its spiritual role is, rather, passive—essential. And hence, all metaphorical references to spiritual realms as “woman” in Kabbalistic and Chasidic texts undergo a significant change of overtone when read from the vantage point of Dirah Betachtonim: these spheres are now, primarily, no longer receivers but essences. And it is for this reason that at the end of time, when the ultimate perspective of essence will be manifest, that “woman,” the body, rather than “man,” the soul, will reign supreme.