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The Practical Implications of Infinity

The Practical Implications of Infinity

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What is mysticism? The word conjures up connotations of lofty abstraction, other-worldly meditation, abstruse speculations into the meaning of existence--a world apart from, perhaps even opposed to, the mundane and prosaic questions that make up the texture of daily life.

If that is so, what does mysticism have to do with Judaism? It is, after all, the defining feature of Judaism, which some praise, others criticize, that its concern is with the small details of conduct. Though it is other things as well, Judaism is supremely the Halachah, the open-ended rules for decision-making in practical contexts. Perhaps the subtitle that the first Lubavitcher Rebbe gave to his classic work Tanya--Sefer Shel Benonim, the "Book for the Average Man"--is the aptest of descriptions of Judaism as a whole.

The Torah is a book for the average man in average situations. And surely, almost by definition, a mystic is not an average man; his vision is anything but the norm.

In many places the Torah itself, and certainly the rabbis in their comments upon it, insists upon this fact--that the law it contains is not lofty, remote or esoteric:

For this commandment which I command you this day, is not hidden from you, nor is it far away. It is not in Heaven, that you should say: Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?... But the thing is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

The Sages were fond of saying: "The Torah was not given to ministering angels" (Talmud, Berachot 2Sb). The Talmud describes a dialogue between Moses and the angels when he ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah. The angels protested: How could the most precious of Divine treasures be handed over to man? Moses replied with a long string of rhetorical questions:

Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why then should the Torah be yours?... Do you perform work that you need the Shabbat as a day of rest? Do you have business dealings that you need a law against falsehood? Is there jealousy amongst you that you need rules against murder and theft? (Talmud, Shabbat 88b-89a)

Moses descends, victorious. The Torah is not for beings who are perfect. It is not for those who live above the problems of ordinary human life.

So our question returns: What has mysticism to do with Judaism? It could be said, and convincingly, that Judaism needs a mystical dimension. Do we not dress in white and refrain from eating and drinking on Yom Kippur in imitation of the ministering angels? There are times, especially in prayer, when we must commune with the Infinite. It would be a pale shadow of a religious existence if there were no place for meditating on "He who spoke and the world came into being" and no time for thinking of "He who teaches Torah to His people, Israel." In fulfilling the mitzvot we would be like someone who keeps the command of the king while forgetting that there is a king.

But our concern here is with a more significant issue than the dimension of depth that mysticism is.

The Talmud, which always relates intellectual issues to real choices, has a standard question when it is faced with a difference of opinion between two views. It asks: what is the practical difference? And this is our question. Does a mystical vision make a practical difference to the way we are bound to act in accordance with the Halachah? What are the practical implications of infinity?

Custom, Beauty and Law

It is one of the strange facts of the history of the Jewish mind that the great mystics have also been the great halachists. Their concern with infinity took them into some very finite areas indeed.

To mention only the most familiar names: Joseph Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Laws), was a member of the great mystical circle in Tzefat. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Lubavitch, is as well known for his code of law, the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, as for his mystical writings. Perhaps the greatest of all the early rabbinic teachers, Rabbi Akiva, whose methods shaped the whole development of the Halachah, was a profound mystic whose views sometimes perplexed, sometimes scandalized his contemporaries.

This mysticism/Halachah connection (for which a whole string of names can be adduced) is all the more striking compared with the other approach to resolving the fundamental questions of religion: philosophy. Of the great Jewish philosophers who were distinguished as halachists, only the name of Moses Maimonides stands out, with perhaps the lesser-known figure of Rav Saadia Gaon.

The reason lies deep. But for a single-sentence summary it would perhaps be fair to say that while the philosopher attaches great significance to great truths, the mystic attaches it to small ones as well. Since every fragment of the infinite is also infinite, perhaps also it could be said that while the philosopher thinks his way towards G‑d, the mystic experiences and lives his way. For the mystic every detail of the mitzvah is important. And hence his concern with detail--the essence of the Halachah.

But did all this make a practical difference?

In some ways its impact was obvious. In the area of minhag, a great many Jewish customs are based upon considerations that are Kabbalistic: the way we hold the kiddush cup or the double loaves of bread on Shabbat, for example; or the retention of mayim acharonim (the hand-washing at the conclusion of a meal) after the original reason ceased to apply. Perhaps the most dramatic incursion of a Kabbalistic practice into the normal routines of Judaism is the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday evenings. The Lecha Dodi song and the turning at the end to meet the Shabbat bride coming from the direction of the setting sun--all originate from the sixteenth-century mystics in Tzefat.

Also, the mystics attached great significance to what is known as hiddur mitzvah--performing a precept in the most beautiful manner possible. This is an age-old concept:

"This is my G‑d and I will beautify Him" (Exodus 15:2)-- beautify your fulfillment o f His commandments. Make a beautiful succah, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful tzitzit and a beautiful Torah scroll--write it with fine ink, a fine pen, a skilled scribe, and wrap it in beautiful silks. (Talmud, Shabbat 133b)

Nonetheless it received a prominence amongst the mystics, certainly amongst Chassidim, that it had not had hitherto.

But both custom and beautification, intensity and adornment, are themselves dimensions of depth within the basic framework of the Halachah. Given then that the mystics had a profound motivation to be interested in the details of Jewish law, and that they added to it refinements which went beyond the essential requirements, do we have instances where the mystical vision affected the Halachah itself, in the sense that, in response to specific practical issues, the answers which emerged did so because of a certain fundamental orientation towards the infinite dimension in existence?

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Judah bar Ilai

The figure whom Jewish tradition invests with the honor of being the grandfather of mysticism--not the first but the most influential--is Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Rabbi Shimon was one of the greatest of the rabbis of the late Mishnaic period, and he is a dominating presence in the early rabbinic literature, in both Halachah and Aggadah. Mysticism as such does not figure largely in the statements attributed to him in the Talmud: that belongs to the more esoteric literature of the Zohar. Nonetheless, a graphic picture of his personality emerges. He was a man of extremes, always uncompromising, always radical, a man for whom the study of the Torah transcended all else, and a man who cared nothing for the cliches of conventional wisdom.

The Talmud relates that, because of his opposition to the Roman government then in power in Israel, Rabbi Shimon was forced to escape for his life and to take refuge in a cave, where he and his son lived for twelve years, oblivious to the hardship, and only concerned not to waste a moment of time that could be spent in studying Torah:

So they went and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred and a carob-tree and a well of water were created for them. They would take off their garments and sit up to their necks in sand. The whole day they studied. When it was time for prayer, they robed, covered themselves, prayed and then took off their garments again so that they should not wear out. (Talmud, Shabbat 33b)

What is of interest to us here is: what occurred that Rabbi Shimon had to escape from the Romans? The account given by the Talmud is intriguing:

Rabbi Judah [bar Ilai], Rabbi Yossei and Rabbi Shimon were sitting, and Judah ben Gerim was sitting near them. Rabbi Judah began the discussion by saying: How fine are the works of this people (the Romans). They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have constructed baths. Rabbi Yossei was silent. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai answered and said: All that they have made, they have done so for themselves. They built marketplaces to put harlots there; they made baths to rejuvenate themselves; they made bridges to levy tolls. (ibid.)

Judah ben Gerim, who had overheard the conversation, reported it to the authorities. Rabbi Judah, who had praised the Romans, was given official honor. Rabbi Yossei, who was silent, was sent into exile. Rabbi Shimon, who had so castigated the achievements of the Romans, was sentenced to death.

It is fascinating, apart from the historical significance of the account, to overhear the two great rabbis, Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Shimon, who so often disagreed on matters of Halachah, this time debating a question of political and moral values.

In the broadest sense, the opinions they expressed were consistent with all we know about these two personalities. But what, specifically, was the argument between them on this occasion? Rabbi Judah was a politically sensitive individual, and there can be no doubt that he was fully aware of Rabbi Shimon's truth, that behind the remarkable technological achievements of the Romans--feats of construction that are no less awe-inspiring today, in retrospect--lay moral bankruptcy. And Rabbi Shimon, in turn, knew that what Rabbi Judah said was true. What then divided them?

There are many possible ways of putting it. Amongst them, we will pursue just one line of thought. Namely, that Rabbi Judah looked at the facts, and Rabbi Shimon looked at the intentions that lay behind them.

For Rabbi Judah, a fact, an achievement, could be impressive in its own right. For Rabbi Shimon the question was always, "To what end was this intended?" If it is a corrupt or self-centered one, then I refuse to be impressed. Because no evaluation of human creations can be made without a consideration of the purpose for which they were meant.

It is an argument which in other forms can be heard often today. There are those who argue, for example, that something can be considered a great work of art, even if it is morally objectionable, because it should be considered in itself and without reference to any wider context. And there are others who say, to the contrary, that the moral context must be considered before we can pronounce any judgment at all.

But does the argument between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Shimon have anything to do with mysticism? In a superficial sense we could say that Rabbi Judah looked at the concrete, physical facts, while Rabbi Shimon looked instead at the realm of thought and intention. To this extent Rabbi Shimon is interested in the intangible, while Rabbi Judah focuses on the reality that is grasped by the physical senses.

But we must go deeper. What in general is the mystical vision? It is that reality lies deeper than the appearances presented to our senses. To express it in a way that is at least roughly true of the Jewish mystical tradition: the physical world conceals more than it reveals. Beneath all appearances lies the reality of the Infinite, the Ein Sof, that can neither be perceived nor described.

Chabad philosophy, in particular, stresses the analogy between the way the world came into being and the way--in human psychology--in which an action develops out of thought and emotion. There is a sequence by which the glimmer of a thought is developed into a fully-fledged idea, is invested with emotion, and eventually turns into decision and action. Only the final stage of the process--the behavior--is seen by others. But its essential meaning lies way back, in the first flash of thought which set the process in motion.

So, too, on a cosmic scale. The world, as we see it, is only the last stage of the process (hishtalshelut), and is, in this respect, like a human action (olam ha'asiyah). But if we were to travel backwards and inwards we would reach further towards the originating reality (asiyah, yetzirah, beriah, atzilut); perhaps back even beyond the first thought, to the personality that conceived it, and which is of course infinitely wider than any specific intention into which it is directed (Ein Sof).

If this analogy is to be taken in any way seriously, then a mystical vision that looks beyond the surface reality of the world must look beyond the surface reality of human behavior as well. It is not enough to look at the final outcome. The real meaning lies in the intention.

And so it happens that a deeply esoteric view of the nature of G‑d and the universe may carry with it quite simple implications for the way we interpret human behavior. While Rabbi Judah is content to look upon the glittering surface of Roman achievements, Rabbi Shimon's restlessly searching mind takes him beyond, to the less than impressive intentions and qualities of the soul which set the civilization on its course. The mystic became a political radical.

Action and Intention

But politics is a large and abstract subject, even if at times the expression of an opinion can endanger one's life. Is the difference between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Shimon one that has more practical consequences still?

It is. We find these two rabbis arguing about what, on the face of it, is a quite unrelated and seemingly trivial issue. As it happens, the passage in question has quite wide implications for the laws of Shabbat in general. But in its original formulation it reads as follows:

Rabbi Judah says: No articles may be dragged along the ground except a wagon, because it only presses the earth down... Rabbi Shimon says: A man may drag along a bed, stool or bench across the ground, provided he had no intention of making a furrow. (Mishnah and Talmud, Betzah 23b; Tosefta, Betzah chapter 2; Talmud, Shabbat 29b and elsewhere)

This is the specific case. The general rule over which they disagree is:

Rabbi Judah maintains that an unintentional act is forbidden; but Rabbi Shimon holds that an unintentional act is permitted. (Talmud, Betzah ibid.)

The question is this: someone does something on Shabbat which is, in itself, permitted--like dragging a chair along the earth. All he intends to do is to move the chair. But while he is doing so he may be making a furrow in the ground. And making a furrow is forbidden on Shabbat, either as a subsidiary case of building or of plowing, two of the categories of forbidden labor.

In fact this kind of case is quite common nowadays. For example: we open a refrigerator on Shabbat to take out some food. It may happen that the cooling mechanism is not operative at the moment when we open the door, but the sudden in-rush of warm air causes it to start up. We did not intend to start the motor. All we intended to do was to take out the food. Nonetheless, the consequence was, in fact, that the motor started. And to start a motor is certainly to transgress the Shabbat.

What is the law in such cases? Is the act permitted because in itself it is innocent? Or is it forbidden because it may have consequences that are forbidden? Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Shimon disagree. But by now it should be apparent that their disagreement is--strangely enough--of exactly the same form as their difference of opinion on the Romans.

For Rabbi Judah looks at the facts. And Rabbi Shimon looks at the intentions. At the end of the day, argues Rabbi Judah, the person who dragged the chair made a furrow, and that is forbidden. But, counters Rabbi Shimon, he did not intend to make the furrow, and what counts is his intention. The law, on this question, follows Rabbi Shimon.

And so we have traced, in a direct line, an orientation of thought that has moved from mysticism to politics to the laws of Shabbat. And it has made a difference.

Rabbi Shimon did not merely, because of his mysticism, think of Shabbat in terms of an extra dimension of depth: that it was not just a day of rest, but a day in which the spiritual rifts in Creation were healed. The Shechinah (Divine Presence) came temporarily out of its exile, and peace reigned in the Heavenly orders. He also gave practical rulings that followed from his premises; they differed from those of Rabbi Judah and they were taken up as law.

The Unity of Israel

So far we have traced a particular facet of mysticism through its practical implications, in political attitudes, and in the laws of Shabbat. But for our final study of the attitudes of Rabbi Shimon in contrast with those of Rabbi Judah, we shall consider a far more dramatic case, a situation of acute moral dilemma. And to understand what lies behind it we must once again reconsider the mystical viewpoint.

For the mystic, what counts as reality is the inherent presence of the Infinite behind all the scattered phenomena of the world as we see it. But how can we have a conception of this invisible presence which gives life to everything and yet can never be seen? Yet there is an analogy: the relation of the human soul to the body.

We know that, in relation to ourselves, we present only a mere surface of our personality to the world. No one can see into ourselves as we can. What is this "self" or soul, the "I" that we refer to when we talk in the first person?

We know it is not the body: our bodies change constantly, yet we remain the same person. It is not even our personality; that too may change. Though I may act and feel differently than I once did, I have not ceased to be me. To this self we give the name of "soul." It is the most mysterious of all phenomena. Despite attempts to identify it with the brain, it remains elusive and indefinable. Yet it is more familiar to us than anything else: through it we see the world and react to it as an individual quite distinct from anyone else.

The soul may hide its face even from its possessor. From Freud we learned to call this phenomenon the unconscious. That is, we may have motives that we hide even from our own conscious minds.

But this was known long ago to the Jewish mystics. It is just that they took a somewhat different view of what it was like: it was a G‑dly soul. Deep down, without knowing it, every Jew longs to keep the Torah and come close to G‑d with a love that burns like fire. The mystical task is to take a journey into the interior of the self, and rescue that love from its hiddenness.

The soul is infinite and intangible, yet in some way it inhabits the finite and tangible body. A paradox, certainly, but one with which we live. So, too, G‑d, the Soul of the world, infinite and unperceivable though He is, inhabits the world, limited and physical though it is.

Just as the mystic, inwardly, tries to move ever closer to the roots of his soul, so, outwardly, he tries always to fathom the Infinite who gives life to the world.

But this is more than just an analogy. In several dazzling passages in the Tanya, the classic statement of Chabad thought, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi spells out the reality behind the comparison. It is not simply that the soul in its relation to the body is like G‑d in His relation to the world, but that every G‑dly soul is literally a part of G‑d. Man, at his most spiritual level, does more than relate to G‑d: he contains part of the reality of G‑d.

But G‑d, as Maimonides lays down as one of the principles of the Jewish faith, is One and indivisible. How then can many souls each be a part of something that cannot be split or analyzed into parts? The truth is, at the deepest level, the entire community of Jewish souls is a single unity, standing in relation to one another as do the limbs of the body--many parts but a single entity. (See Tanya, especially chapter 2)

This again is no mere abstract doctrine. It has the most radical implications for our feelings and behavior.

The Torah says, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). No doubt this is easier said than done. But there are cases where love flows easily and naturally for most people: for instance, the love of a parent for his child. He loves his child because he stands in a special relationship to him; the parent has brought the child into being.

The radical conclusion of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's mysticism is that, at the level of soul, every Jew is related to every other with complete identity. Between each Jew is a bond closer even than the closest we can speak of in non-mystical terminology, the bond between parent and child. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself"--because he is yourself. If we could attain this level of perception, then that love would flow unforced and without limits.

But how do we get there? This, too, is obvious. When we think of human beings as bodies, then certainly each is separate and distinct. It is only when we relate to ourselves and others at the level of the soul, can we begin to sense the unity. And hence the task of the mystic--and, in truth, the task of Judaism as a whole--is to move from body to soul; from reactions prompted by ordinary physical stimuli to those wholly spiritual in character and motivation. (Tanya, chapter 32)

The result? A profound emphasis on the love of every Jew--an emphasis that flows not simply from an emotion of benevolence but from a new way of viewing our identity and that of our fellow.

And at the same time, a simultaneous stress on two things that might, in any other context, seem incompatible: the infinite worth of the individual and the literal unity of the whole Jewish people. The individual, because he is a part of G‑d and every fragment of infinity is infinite. The community, because, at the level of soul, there are no divisions that set person against person and create ultimate loneliness.

If Israel Lacked One Person

These are revolutionary ideas. Certainly, they are implicit in the Torah. But it takes a special cast of mind to uncover them. As we read through the early rabbinic literature we find that no one, to my knowledge, expounds this view so strongly as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Consider the following passage, not attributed explicitly to him, but taken from the work that bears his name, the Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:

And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6)--this teaches that they are like a single body, a single soul. And thus it says: And who is like Your people Israel, a nation one in the earth (II Samuel 7:23; I Chronicles 17:21). If one of them sins, they are all punished, as it is said: Did not Achan the son of Zerach commit a trespass concerning the devoted thing, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And that man perished not alone in his iniquity (Joshua 22:20). If one of them is smitten, they all feel pain. (Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, to Exodus 19:6; edn. Epstein/Melamed p. 139)

A single body, a single soul. The proof? That when Achan, an individual, sinned, the entire nation suffered a defeat at Ai after their previous conquest of Jericho (see Joshua chapter 7). The corollary? That no Jew can be indifferent to the fate of others, for it is his fate, too.

The most famous image in which this was expressed belongs, also, to Rabbi Shimon:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: It is to be compared to people who were in a boat, and one of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath himself. His companions said to him: Why are you doing this? He replied: What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under myself? They replied: But you will flood the boat for us all (Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus 4:6).

The two sides of unity: an individual cannot harm himself without harming the whole of Israel; an individual cannot be content with self-perfection, ignoring the fate of the community.

The passage continues with what seems to be merely further proof of this idea, taken from the book of Job. In fact, it does more. It tells us something of the psychology of isolation:

And thus too did Job argue: "And if it be indeed that I have erred, then my error remains with myself" (Job 19:4). But his companions said to him: "When he adds to his sin, he attaches rebellion to us" (Job 34:37)--you attach your iniquities to us (Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus ibid.).

Job, sunk in the miseries of loss and despair, suffers a profound crisis of faith. When others try to comfort him, Job, like the man who makes the hole in the boat, replies that it is none of their concern. But they insist; his fate is theirs, and they too will be held guilty.

This text is more than an example; it is a diagnosis. Depression, anxiety, melancholy, self-absorption and self-pity--these are both symptoms and causes of a loss of religious vision. Rabbi Shimon seems to suggest that, if only Job would see that at the deepest level of self he is not an isolated individual, then he would not have lapsed into nihilism, would have been able to survive his acute personal tragedy, and would have avoided his religious crisis.

It is a point made again with added emphasis in Tanya (chapter 26), and stands at the furthest extreme from the philosophies of existential individualism that have dominated the intellectual life of the twentieth century. The lonely man, experiencing the angst of isolation and making his private choices in a world bereft of meaning: this archetype, admired by Sartre, Heidegger and others, is for Rabbi Shimon spiritually empty.

But as we said before, in Jewish mysticism the very emphasis on the community is at the same time an insistence on the infinite worth of the individual. This again is in opposition to other ideologies of our time, such as Marx and others, which exalt collectivity at the expense of the individual. The clearest statement in which both ideas are brought together is in Rabbi Shimon's description of the giving of the Torah:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: From where do we learn that if a single person had been missing from Israel, the Divine Presence would not have appeared to them? Because it is written: For on the third day, the L-rd will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:11; Midrash Rabbah, Deuteronomy 7:8; see also Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael to Exodus 19:11).

If one person is missing, then the whole community is incomplete and its full coming-together with the Divine Presence is impossible. It is an idea that was to be taken up with great force by later mysticism, in particular by the ARI--Rabbi Isaac Luria--by the Baal Shem Tov and the Chassidic movement.

May One be Sacrificed for the Many?

The general implication follows immediately: love of fellow-man, active concern for the welfare of others, a refusal to tolerate isolationism, an equal refusal to sanction attitudes that lead to the dismissal of any individual as unworthy--the complex of approaches that have become the hallmark of Chassidism.

But we shall focus upon a specific implication, to show yet again that mysticism has practical applications that would not follow from other ways of thinking about Judaism. Again, the protagonists are Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Shimon. And this time the subject at issue is one of agonizing moral choice.

The Jews in Israel suffered severe persecutions at the hands of the Romans. Not only was the Temple destroyed, but in the aftermath there occurred the chilling events at Masada, when the Zealots decided to take their own lives rather than be killed by their enemies. Less than a century later, in the reprisals following the failure of the Bar Kochba uprising, persecution became a savage reality once more. Many of the greatest rabbis in Jewish history, Rabbi Akiva the most famous of them all, went to their deaths as martyrs rather than give up their public teaching of Torah. It is against this backdrop that the following ruling, contained in the Tosefta, can be understood:

A company of men is confronted by non-Jews. They say: Give us one of your number whom we will kill; if you do not, we will kill all of you. Even though all of them will be killed, let them not deliver a single Jewish soul into their hands. (Tosefta, Terumot 7:23)

An almost impossible dilemma. We are to imagine what was much more than a hypothetical possibility. A group of Jews is travelling on a journey (the Jerusalem Talmud (Terumot 8:4) in its citation of the Tosefta, adds the words "who were travelling on the road") when they are set upon by heathens intent upon blood. They issue an ultimatum: either hand one of yourselves over or we will kill everyone of you. The halachic ruling is simple, stark and uncompromising. There can be no compliance with their request. To hand over an innocent Jew to death is unforgivable in any circumstance. Even if they must all die as a result of their refusal, at least they will not have shared in the guilt.

In the whole rabbinic literature from then to the final codification, this particular ruling was never challenged, never the subject of argument. It gives us awe-inspiring insight into the supreme moral inflexibility of courage that the Halachah categorically demands.

However, there were cases--and again be aware that we are speaking about historical reality, not a theoretical discussion--that were similar in kind yet more complex in their ramifications. What happened when the situation was not an isolated one of meaningless violence, but an official one involving, say, the Roman authorities seeking someone regarded as a political subversive and who took refuge in a township?

Here, two new factors enter the equation. The first: the person sought is not just anyone; they know precisely whom they want. The burden of choosing does not fall upon the Jewish community. Second: on a scale, with such opponents as the Roman legions, and with whole townships at stake, there enters into the equation the question of the survival of the Jewish people as a whole. Already bereft of its Temple and its political independence, might some compromise be made to ensure that the entire nation not die as martyrs?

Now the moral issue becomes almost paralyzing. Legions surround a town and insist that a specific individual be handed over, and if not the entire town will be massacred. The mind is numbed by such a choice. Again we should pause to reflect that the rabbis did not recoil from this dilemma, concluding as they might have that any decision in such a circumstance would be wrong and that there is nothing that can be said. Instead, they brought to bear on it the same intellectual rigor and moral strength that they employed on every other issue, great or small.

This is the argument that ensued:

Rabbi Judah said: When are these words intended to apply? When he [the man sought] is inside and they [the Jewish community] are outside. But if he is inside and they are inside, since he would be killed and they would be killed, let them give him to them and let them not all be slain. And thus it is written: "And the woman came to all the people in her wisdom" (II Samuel 20:22)--which means she said to them: Since he would be killed and you would be killed, give him to them and you should not all be slain.

Rabbi Shimon said: This is what it means. She said to them: "Anyone rebelling against the kingship of the house of David is deserving of death." (Tosefta, Terumot, ibid.; Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 94:9)

This is a difficult passage, and needs to be understood in stages.

What was Rabbi Judah doing in the course of his cryptic remarks? He was, in fact, responding to the dilemma in the way in which a Jew is bound to do in cases where there is not already a clear-cut ruling in existence. He searched the Torah for a case that might serve as a precedent and give guidance in the present instance.

He found it in an episode that occurred during the reign of King David. There was an insurrection against the king:

And there happened to be there a worthless man whose name was Sheva ben Bichri, a Benjaminite; and he blew the shofar and said: We have no part in David, neither have we inheritance in the son of Yishai: every man to his tents, O Israel. (II Samuel 20:1)

Under the leadership of Yo'av, David's troops pursued Sheva, who eventually took refuge in the town of Avel. Yo'av's troops surrounded the town and were about to destroy it. A woman of the town conducted negotiations with Yo'av, who made it clear that the town would be spared if they would hand Sheva over to them. She reported the ultimatum to the townspeople. They agreed to the request, and Sheva met a bloody end. It is from this passage that Rabbi Judah quotes.

Now here, on the face of it, was a precedent for some limited degree of compromise. The choice was the same: either hand over an individual or all die. And, in fact, they handed him over. What was the basis of their decision? Rabbi Judah proceeds to reconstruct the argument that must have taken place, and the reasoning that the woman used to persuade her townspeople to hand over Sheva.

She must have argued thus, he says: Either way Sheva will be killed. If he is handed over he will be killed. If the whole town is destroyed, he will be killed. The situation is hopeless. We cannot possibly survive the besieging troops outside the city walls. Therefore: since he will die in any case, rather let us not all die as well. For we would not thereby save him.

Having arrived at this point, Rabbi Judah proceeds to his conclusion. If the Jewish community is "outside"--that is, they are not completely surrounded, they have some chance either of escaping or of defending themselves against total annihilation - then no compromise must be made. A Jewish soul must never be handed over if there is some alternative.

But if the community is "inside" with no means of escape, then--since they will all die anyway, and the wanted man with them--then rather they should hand him over than that they should all die.

This is a sober and sensitive response to the crisis. It dictates that the handing-over should be done only if there is absolutely no alternative. And it produced a compromise for extreme situations, which, would ensure that whole communities of Jews should not die at the hands of the enemy.

So far Rabbi Judah. But not so Rabbi Shimon. He rejects the analogy and with it the compromise. How, he says, can one cite a precedent from the case of Sheva ben Bichri? Sheva rebelled against the authority of a lawfully appointed king of Israel. And in Jewish law such insurrection warranted the death penalty. The people of Avel were correct in handling him over. And there was no need for calculations or fine moral distinctions.

Not so with the Romans. They are not the lawfully appointed kings of Israel. They are an occupying tyrannical power, who have destroyed the Temple, taken away our statehood, killed our sages and teachers, and threatened those who publicly maintained the institutions of Torah. Nothing could be less akin to the rule of David.

Thus, the analogy fails. And with it disappears the slightest grounds for ever collaborating with the requests of the enemy. Never is there an adequate reason to betray a soul of Israel and hand him over to death--even if a whole town must become martyrs to the cause of Jewish integrity. For Rabbi Shimon there can be no justified compromise.

Here is idealism of a truly awesome order. And it is in character. For we have already seen that Rabbi Shimon himself placed his life in danger by refusing to silence his feelings about the Roman conquerors.

The Practical Implication of Infinity

Yet there is a question that calls out for an answer. Let us concede with Rabbi Shimon that no analogy could be drawn from the case of Sheva ben Bichri. Yet surely Rabbi Judah's argument, even shorn of its Biblical support, remains valid. If the wanted man will die, whether he be handed over or not, then rather let the community survive by delivering him up. For they will achieve nothing by their refusal. Is the logic of this point not unanswerable?

Only now do we begin to reach a full sense of the practical implications of infinity. Finitude is quantifiable, infinity is not.

If human life is very precious, and yet still finite in its value, then there is a difference between one man dying and many. And this difference makes it sometimes--in extremis--justifiable to sacrifice the one for the sake of the many. To be sure, Rabbi Judah did not accept this line of thinking in many cases: where the community might escape or fight back, or where the request was for anyone, not for a named enemy of the besieging power. But he did accept it in one case. And this is the crux. For it implies that the death of many is worse than the death of one. And this implies that life is quantifiable.

Again, let us be clear that Rabbi Judah does not hold any of the doctrines, antithetical to the whole of Judaism, which hold that life is quantifiable against other things: suffering, or the happiness of others, or any other principle that would allow a life to be expendable under certain conditions. That is not his intention. Life cannot be measured against anything else. But it can, in the last analysis, be measured against other lives.

Rabbi Shimon, as we have already seen, believes that each individual life is literally infinite. If one soul had been missing, the Israelites could not have received the Torah, could not have received the Divine Presence. And infinity cannot be quantified. Infinity times one and infinity times one hundred are the same.

So devastating is the loss of a single life that the enormity is infinite. And as between the death of one and the death of many there can be no calculations. This total refusal to enter into any quantification where "one Jewish soul" is concerned is the strict consequence of taking infinity with absolute seriousness. No other point of view could have justified Rabbi Shimon's conclusion. Nothing less than . . . his mysticism of the Jewish soul.

Sometimes carrying a mystical vision through into real situations demands courage of a supernatural order. Such was Rabbi Shimon's way. Yet sometimes just such a vision is closer to ultimate human realities than the more worldly, accommodating one of Rabbi Judah. Moments of truth like this are thankfully rare. Yet it is our painful duty to recall that in this century, under the shadow of death of the Holocaust, the question was raised again, in yet more bitter terms. Jews were asked to collaborate with the Nazis in deciding which of their brothers should live and which should be handed over to death. The facts and the rabbinic responses are on record (see Irving J. Rosenbaum, The Holocaust and Halakhah, KTAV 1976, pp 24-31), and they should be read to gain a full sense of the tragic consequences of ever agreeing to collaborate with murderers, of ever moving away from the position of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

An Old Man's Lesson

Our purpose was to show that mysticism makes a difference; that infinity has practical implications. And to do so we have followed the footsteps of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai through politics, the laws of Shabbat, attitudes towards the individual and the community, and finally an extreme crisis in moral decision-making. In each case Rabbi Shimon's vision did make a difference, and he was faithful to the inferences to be drawn from his original perception.

We have met a man whose idealism and uncompromising character seem almost impossible to approach. Is it possible to live by the standards of Rabbi Shimon?

On one point, at least, the Talmud asks just this question: on the issue of how to compromise between the demands of learning Torah day and night, and the necessity of working for a livelihood. By now we will already have guessed what Rabbi Shimon's response would be: no compromise. Learn Torah. He had no time for the solution of his contemporary, Rabbi Ishmael--that learning Torah should be combined with a worldly occupation--nor even for that of Rabbi Judah, that the two should be combined but that study should take first place. The Talmud records the sad but resigned verdict of Abaye: "Many followed the advice of Rabbi Ishmael and it has worked well; others have followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and it has not been successful." (Talmud, Berachot 35b).

But it is precisely this that gives us a measure of reassurance. For it seems that Rabbi Shimon was censured by Heaven for being too other-worldly after his long seclusion in the cave, hidden from everyday life and its problems. He was, records the Talmud, sent back to the cave for another twelve months to learn the lesson (Talmud, Shabbat 33b). In the end, it seems, he was not too mystical, but rather not mystical enough. For he had yet to learn the infinite significance of ordinary things and of ordinary people: that the fire of the love of G‑d can be seen in the face of each Jew, when one has learned to see into the soul.

Rabbi Shimon was eventually taught this lesson by an ordinary Jew. And perhaps it was the deepest message of all. This is what happened when Rabbi Shimon and his son finally emerged from their seclusion:

On the eve of Shabbat, before sunset, they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. "What are they for?" they asked him. "They are in honor of the Shabbat. " "But," they asked, "surely one should be sufficient?" He replied, "One is for the command of `Remember' and one is for the command of 'Observe. "'

Then Rabbi Shimon said to his son: "See how precious are the commandments to Israel." And their minds were set at rest. (Talmud, Shabbat 33b)


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or to join his e‑mail list, please visit www.rabbisacks.org.
From To Touch the Divine (Kehot 1999)
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Will Borici Vancouver, BC May 19, 2017

Excellent points, in great part, but one argument concerns me here.

Rabbi Sacks appears to deduce that the practical implication of infinity, in light of the context laid out in the essay, is a utilitarianistic approach to life. Utilitarianism is pragmatic in extremis, as the good Rabbi clearly remarks, but it immediately reduces Judaism to a yet another morally-relativistic doctrine.

In other words, the practical implication of infinity, according to Rabbi Sacks, appears to preclude crucial elements of the Divine, such as miracles that should happen in extreme dilemmas, whereby utilitarianism would be redundant. Such miracles, for the sake of argument, would have saved both the wanted man and the rest of the confined community faced with the dilemma of handing him over, thus resolving the dilemma with the help of the Infinite.

While I agree and uphold rationalistic approaches to our daily lives (e.g. RaMBaM-style), care should be taken to not forgo principles of faith. Reply

arthur yanoff May 18, 2017

Rabbi Sacks brings up a very difficult issue regarding a work of art. there is a dichotomy between the intrinsic value of a painting and its moral character. there are great paintings which we can call questionable in relation to their subject matter, however the inner value,the depth of the artist's temperament is of a quality that is a variance with the so called moral implications of the subject. on the other hand a very moral subject conceived by a lesser artist that is largely sentimental ,lacking in artistic integrity can't reach the level of the more controversial work. it is a difficult problem. in the end, behavior transcends art. our actions. chessed and more chessed. Reply

Rabbi USA May 17, 2017

In the simplest of levels mysticism shapes our worldview hence our actions visa-vie those who perform actions without motivation. Reply

Anonymous High Falls , NY January 27, 2016

Good article Reply

Nomzamo Bhebhe Johannesburg July 12, 2015

Very enlightening. Feels like I was tossed about by waves until I learned to swim and be at one and peace with the water.☺☺ Reply

Mordecai Schwartz Brentwood, CA May 9, 2015

In the context of the infinite value of a single jewish life, and of the Jewish people as a single entity, I would have wanted to see a full discussion of the Rabbinic decision not to redeem a kidnapped Jew for more than his 'actual' value (to limit further kidnappings).
Reply

Chavah Kwiatkowska Latvia October 23, 2013

Thank you very much for this deep and informative article. Reply

David Medford, MA April 27, 2013

To Daniel That may be why Rabbi Shimon had to spend 12 years AND an additional 12 months in a cave... After all, Hashem did not annul the Romans' decree against him, and he had to go into hiding twice (the second time explicitly at Hashem's command!) and wait for 13 years in total to emerge from his exile. A lesson there to be learnt, probably, too. Reply

Kolyah Pasadena , CA April 5, 2011

To the Unity of Israel? Perhaps you have never been to the Knesset when it is in session? A Unity of Dis-Unity I would suggest as a better thought there. Maybe even a Chaotic Harmony, or the Randomness of Order? Chaos = The Macrocosm of an infinite # of patterns of Order.
Order = The Microcosm of a finite view of Chaos.
Both determined by the perspective of the observer. There is the spiritual Israel, the gov't of The State of Israel, the people in the the land of Israel, and the Israel of the heart which any man, woman or child on earth can attain. But you are quite right; to G-d there is but One Israel, HIS. With much Luv my brothers and sisters Reply

Phillip Zezulak Bloomingdale, IL December 6, 2010

Sod Meaning of Deut. 30 11-14 You have explained the Torah from the Pshat level very well, but from the Sod or esoteric level, Moses is definitely not telling you the whole story. Moses walked with G-d and G-d was with him. The Angel of the Lord brought great holiness to Moses. He didn't have to go far, because the Angel of the Lord was already there. May the Angel of the Lord always be with me and shine his holy light on my heart and on my mouth so that all of my thoughts, actions, and words are pleasing to G-d. Reply

Anonymous May 2, 2010

Beautiful! Well written! Thanks for the insight Reply

Anonymous winnipeg, canada August 30, 2009

remember and observe I have missed the final point about the two bundles of myrtle. One is for Remember and one is for Observe. How does that fit in with Study Torah and have an Occupation ? Reply

Will Borici Vancouver, BC May 19, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

It's an allegorical reference to the "infinitude" resonating from even the ordinary man (cf. Tanya's concept 'beinon') ; an instrument to conclude the essay. Reply

Hindy Rosenberg miami, fl May 13, 2009

What a Beautiful Article! Thank you so much for this thought-provoking and fascinating work. Although I have studied the Tanya all my life, I neve understood Ahavat Yisrorel until I learned it here. (where else- but Chabad.org?) Reply

Elie R. Levy Sao Pauilo, Brazil May 23, 2008

The Practical Implications of Infinity Indeed a very deep and thoughtfull study on the unsuspected connection between day to day objectivity and mysticism.

In relation to the situation referred to the sacrifice/ surrender to an outside power of an identified subject within a community who challenged ithat authority, should it not be case for that person to surrender itself voluntarily, in order not to put the whole community at the risk of being anihilated. That act would be as valid in asserting the unity of the People of Israel as the other way around without mentioning the merit of self sacrifice ( Metzirat Nefesh) Reply

Eric S. Kingston North Hollywood, CA May 17, 2006

Rabbi Shimon & his son You wrote: "For he had yet to learn the infinite significance of ordinary things and of ordinary people: that the fire of the love of G-d can be seen in the face of each Jew, when one has learned to see into the soul."

Yet all that time, in that cave, alone with his beloved son, I am sure Rabbi Shimon saw that "fire of the love of G-d" in his sons face everyday. He may have needed to see it in all others, but the essence, and intention, was already there. Reply

Anonymous London, UK August 3, 2005

Sudden Flash of Insight into Infinity B"H
Having met the Chief Rabbi I was fascinated by this article.
I occasionally have sudden flashes of insight that gives me, for a millisecond an overview of the universe. However it is over so quickly that I can't verbalise what I felt. Is this common? Is it part of Jewish tradition that this type of happens? Where can I find out more about this phenomenon? Although I am Shabbos observant, keep kosher give charity and pray every day I don't learn enough and don't consider myself particularly religious so I don't understand why I'm being given this insight.
Reply

daniel ziskin boulder, co USA February 2, 2005

infinite value Dear Rabbi Sacks,

Your essay entitled "The Practical Implications of Infinity" was very profound. I am impressed by the Jewish concept that life is infinitely valuable. The concept I find troubling is that many people believe that a Jewish life is infinitely valuable, while other people's lives are somewhat less important. Can that possibly be true. Aren't we all created b'tselem elokim?

Furthermore, I don't understand why the lives of all beings in creation aren't considered sacred and infinitely precious. The laws of koshrut seem to imply that the lives of cattle are also worthy of extreme care. Reply