Since the dawn of his creation, man has been fascinated by the tensions that arise between his mind and body, between the spiritual and the physical, between the immediate and the transcendent. On the one hand, he finds himself operating through a variety of bodily faculties—he sees with his eyes, hears with his ears and absorbs nourishment through his mouth; but on the other, he finds his mind drifting afield, exploring horizons far and wide, his spirit soaring free and far beyond. Similarly, the reality man encounters outside himself appears on the one hand observable, controllable; but at the same time, it persistently defies his grasp, subject to forces, mysterious, unknown. Man finds himself in the here and now, yet hears echoes from an awesome beyond.
It is this dissonance between man’s body and soul, this discord between the physical and the spiritual, which gives rise to the study of metaphysics; it is this friction which fires the mystic; this tense mutuality that forms the stage upon which the drama of religion unfolds. In metaphysical speculation man probes the relationships between the known and the unknown, the real and the ideal, between G‑d, World and Man, searching for answers to the eternal questions: Who is man, body or soul? Why and how does G‑d relate to the world as we know it? Religious man does not merely reflect and inquire; for him the question mark, as it were, becomes an exclamation point: he responds to the spiritual, defines his role in life vis-à-vis the transcendent. And the mystic is veritably obsessed with this dichotomy, soaring up and away from the physical to merge with the spirit, away from the strictures of body and self to dissolve in the transcendent All.
Note, that throughout these enterprises, whether it be casual metaphysical speculation, normative religious activity or intense mystical experience, one thing remains constant: the firm premise that the physical world in which we live is “lower” than the spiritual, that the mind is more lofty than the body, that the finite is restrictive whereas the transcendent is free. The arrow, as it were, points sharply upward.
This book, however, presents a theology that admires the physical, respects the body and aspires for the immanent. Here is a world-outlook that regards specifically that which is most physical and finite as the arena for the greatest religious endeavor and achievement. Not that this weltanschauung is anti-mystical, dismissing the transcendent to the realm of the irrelevant, preferring to deal with hard and fast reality. To the contrary, it is a theology that develops within a mystical framework and indeed draws its sustenance from the entire gamut of mystical concepts, perceptions and experiences. But nevertheless, it insists that true spirituality is to be experienced in the physical, that ultimate transcendence is to be found in the immanent, that the most mystical encounter of all is to be attained in the here and now. According to this revolutionary world-outlook, the metaphysical, religious and mystical arrows point sharply downward.
Accordingly, this system provides unique insight into the central place of the performance of physical mitzvot (religious requirements) in Judaism. For this theology emphasizes that the most important area of the Jew’s religious endeavors, the ultimate vehicle by which he creates a link with his G‑d, is specifically via the performance of physical mitzvot, or even by sleeping or eating when undertaken in order to acquire adequate strength to serve G‑d. It is, claims this world-view, binding straps of hide to the arm and head (tefillin) rather than prayer, consuming fine meals (on Shabbat or Festivals, for example) rather than meditation, wherein lies man’s ultimate connection with the Divine.
Naturally, this appears to be not only in sharp contrast to conventional religious thinking, but philosophically quite implausible. Indeed, a totally new perspective on man, world and G‑d needs to be learned in order to appreciate this world-outlook. The following chapter offers a short synopsis of this system, and later chapters present a more comprehensive overview of this here-and-now oriented weltanschauung, originally expounded by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in thousands of essays and talks.
Few Hebrew terms will be used in this book, but one such term will greatly facilitate our presentation: Dirah Betachtonim. This is the term we will use to refer to this revolutionary world-outlook; since the primary basis for this thought system is the brief Midrashic statement: “G‑d desired to have a Dirah Betachtonim,” that is, “a dwelling place in the lower realms.” It is in particular the thorough processing of this Midrashic statement at the hands of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, extracting every iota of its meaning, that has resulted in the ideas that represent the theological system we shall henceforth refer to as Dirah Betachtonim.