* * *

The False Dichotomy of the Spiritual and the Social

The discourse to which we now turn concerns the commandment to “love your fellow as yourself,”1 and more specifically, Hillel’s famous teaching: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the entirety of the Torah, and the rest is commentary.”2 This discourse exists in several different transcripts, and may have been delivered orally by both R. Schneur Zalman and by R. Menachem Mendel, with only slight variations.3 Of all the different versions, the one published in Derech Mitzvotechah is the most developed, displaying the classically lucid characteristics of that work.4

"On One Foot" Hillel and the Convert, Shoshannah Brombacher, 2008
"On One Foot" Hillel and the Convert, Shoshannah Brombacher, 2008

In his classical commentary to the Talmud, Rashi offers two possible interpretations of Hillel’s statement. The first renders it an allegorical reference to the obligation to fulfill G‑d’s will: “Your friend… this refers to the Holy One, blessed be He. Do not transgress His word, for it is hateful to you when your friend transgresses your will.” Rather than the interpersonal contract that the literal reading highlights, this allegorical explanation places G‑d at the center of ethical and religious life. This provides an adequate explanation of how Hillel’s teaching comprises “the entirety of the Torah,” but only by circumventing the social component suggested by a literal reading.

Rashi’s second explanation is that Hillel is indeed referring “to your literal friend.” But this social contract, he is forced to acknowledge, only comprises the “majority of the commandments,” which are indeed precepts concerning things that we should not do to others. Yet there are many other commandments—relating to religious rituals, attitudes, prayer, and the like—which Rashi acknowledges have nothing to do with Hillel’s teaching.5

At the outset of the present discourse R. Menachem Mendel highlights the difficulty of preserving the literal form of all elements of Hillel’s teaching, precisely because it emphasizes the centrality of the social, or the interpersonal, to all the commandments, even those that are religiously, personally, and privately orientated: “This is all very well regarding commandments that concern the relationship between man and his fellow. But what is there to say about commandments concerning the relationship between man and G‑d?”6

The central argument of this discourse is that this question actually represents a false dichotomy. There is no difference between the civil and the religious, between interhuman contract and the contract between G‑d and man, between the social and the spiritual. These are categories that we intuitively assume to be utterly distinct, but which are in-fact integral parts of a single whole.7

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Divine Singularity, Human Intersociality, and the Sacralization of Spirituality

The central tension between the utter singularity of G‑d and our direct experience of the fractured multiplicity of the created realm, has already been noted above. In the present discourse, the concern to overcome this tension is expanded beyond the private realm of personal dedication to G‑d, and enshrined as the ultimate purpose of the cosmos as a whole. While the previous discussion focused on the kabbalistic motifs of tzimtzum and reshimu, the present one focuses on the motifs of tohu and tikun, which respectively embody chaotic multiplicity and unified harmony. It is the latter that constitutes the ultimate telos of the cosmos, and which must first be realized in human society.

The ideal state of unified harmony is not merely something that we must seek to realize, but even now is the subliminal foundation upon which all the diversities of reality stand. This is illustrated by the analogy of the human body, whose apparently distinct limbs and organs actually function in harmony, as unified parts of a single person. The body is not simply a collection of parts, but an integral system in which each element is rendered complete only as a component of the greater whole. This model is applied first to the Jewish nation, and then to the entire cosmos.

Following Lurianic sources, “all of Israel are fundamentally the single body of the soul of Adam (adam ha-rishon, the first man)…” Accordingly, we should not simply see ourselves as individuals, but as intimately bound with all the other “limbs” of the nation.8 In a particularly strong formulation, R. Menachem Mendel explains that “every person is composed of all the souls of Israel… and if this is so, within you is the other too.” Being in harmony with others, accordingly, is the condition by which we preserve our own integrity as individuals.9

Maimonides already identified intersociality as a defining element of human nature. But he principally ascribed this to necessity—man’s survival depending on complex agricultural, economic, and political processes, which are only viable through the collaboration of many individuals.10 From a more mystical perspective, intersociality does not merely belong to the external realm of utilitarian practice. Intersociality is a soul thing, an essential component of man’s inner world, and it derives from the unity and harmony that divine illumination engenders. Again invoking Lurianic themes, R. Menachem Mendel explains that this is the very reason that G‑d called man ‘adam’; it is shorthand for adamah le-elyon, which means ‘analogous to the supernal.’ The essentially social character of man is “drawn from the cosmic aspect of supernal man (adam de-le’eilah)…” and “supernal man is synonymous with the divine name ‘mah’ as it resides in tikun so that the ten attributes (eser sefirot) should be composed of one another…”11

This passage draws a direct line from the intersocial to the cosmic and the divine. ‘Mah’ is a configuration of the four letter name of G‑d that specifically signifies the overt revelation of divinity rather than its concealed presence. Tikun and tohu are the respectively harmonious and chaotic blueprints of cosmic reality. Tikun is a realm of collaboration, such “that kindness shall encompass discipline, and discipline [shall encompass] kindness, etc.” conducively communicating the all-encompassing singularity of divine revelation (‘mah’). Tohu, on the other hand, is the exact inversion of that paradigm: the ten attributes do not act in concert, but assert themselves independently and exclusively, obscuring the essential integrity of divinity with an opaque veil of divisiveness. Divine revelation, it transpires, is essentially dependent on harmonious collaboration.12

Returning to the human realm, this line of thinking leads us to the conclusion that if spiritual practices and experiences do not stand on an interpersonal foundation then they are not sacred either. It is for this reason, R. Menachem Mendel explains, that the commandment “to love your fellow as yourself” is indeed central to every aspect of the Torah, including those commandments that seem to be entirely spiritual, religious, personal, and private in nature. This is exemplified by the advice rooted in Lurianic teachings and enshrined in Jewish law,13 that in preparation for prayer you accept the commandment “to love your fellow,” because “it is impossible to achieve such ascent unless one is complete and healthy, that is, comprised of all the souls… Then one ascends favorably before G‑d, [becoming encompassed] in divine wisdom, which encompasses all the souls, literally as one.”14

It is not simply that every spiritual advance we make as individuals impacts all of society and the cosmos as a whole. It is that we ourselves are incomplete as individuals so long as we separate ourselves from any element of society. We cannot align ourselves with G‑d unless our shared plurality is made to reflect the all-encompassing harmony of divine singularity. It is consequently intersocial harmony that emerges as the defining characteristic of sacred spirituality.15

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Self-Knowledge, Empathy, and the Concealing Veil of Love

The above discussion presents us with an innovative reconceptualization of the degree to which the social and the spiritual, the public and the private, are intertwined. It is the overt revelation of all-encompassing divinity that provides the fundamental basis of social integrity. It is social integrity that provides the fundamental basis for us to ascend as individuals before G‑d, wherein all souls are encompassed as one.

Yet, the second half of this discourse, as it is presented in Derech Mitzvotechah, takes all this one step further. We now move from a model of spiritual and social interdependence to a model of socially dynamic spirituality. Here R. Menachem Mendel does not only describe G‑d as the basis for interpersonal and cosmic harmony, but as an active participant in cosmic society. Similarly, interpersonal harmony is not merely the basis for spiritual and religious activity, but is itself the most effective vehicle to the sacred telos of all existence.

As in the earlier part of the discourse, this additional teaching is presented by R. Menachem Mendel as a further analysis of Hillel’s statement, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the entirety of the Torah.” Notably, Hillel reformulated the positive commandment “to love your fellow as yourself” in distinctly negative terms. This led some commentators to conclude that he was indeed interpreting the biblical formulation to refer only to negative commandments, such as “do not murder” and “do not steal,” rather than as a positive injunction to do good to one’s fellow.16 In the present discourse, however, the distinctly negative formulation is not interpreted as a limitation on the scope of Hillel’s teaching, but rather as an incisive indication of what it really means to love another individual.

The unspoken assumption here seems to be that empathy is the ultimate test of love, and that the ultimate test of empathy lies in how a person deals with the real faults of their beloved. Conversely, it is the violation of empathy, expressed in the intrusive and judgmental exposure of our faults, that we each experience as most hateful and most hurtful. To “love your fellow as yourself,” therefore, is to see their faults with the same benevolence and sensitivity as you see your own. Following Hillel’s formulation, this means not to “do to your friend” the very thing that would be most “hateful to you,” exposing their faults to the violent scrutiny of the contemptuous other.17

R. Menachem Mendel elaborates on the way we see our own faults, and on the way we react when they are exposed by others, at some length:

It’s not that you don’t know your own faults at all. On the contrary, you are able to see and understand the depth of your depravity more than another person can. For the other can only see with his eyes, but you can see into your heart. Rather… your fault does not intrude on your consciousness to the degree that it disturbs you, and [on this count] it as if you do not see it at all. For due to the great love, with which you love yourself very much, all your iniquities that you know of in your mind are veiled in encompassing love, so that your knowledge shall not be drawn forth to disturb you emotionally…

You do not see your own faults because they are submerged and effaced in overwhelming love… But when another points out your fault and comprehends it, you becomes greatly angered, though you know yourself that it is true. This is because your anger is not due to the essential depravity that is falsely imagined by your friend, for you know that it is true, but rather [you are angered] due to your friend’s knowledge… being intrusive and disturbing… You are angry at your friend for the exposure, that he exposed your fault from the concealing veil of love.

This is [the meaning of Hillel’s statement] “what is hateful to you,” i.e. this exposure, “do not do to your friend,” i.e. do not see his faults and inequities as intrusive and significant—whether they are worldly matters, things that come between one man and his friend, whether they are heavenly matters—rather your love for him should be so great that it veils the inequities and does not allow them to come from knowledge to disturb you emotionally… ‘mighty waters cannot extinguish [the love]’ etc.18

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Social Integrity, Cosmic Repair, and the Suspension of Divine Judgment

On my reading, the above passage is not only descriptive, but also prescriptive. The correct way to deal with personal faults, whether social or religious, is from a place of loving self-knowledge, rather than a place of emotional disturbance and anxiety. When dealing with the faults of another, a similar principle must be applied. It is not that we should overlook or ignore other people’s faults. But rather than reacting to them with intrusive emotion and rejection we should embrace the flawed other with the same love and empathy that healthy individuals extend to their own flawed selves.19

True love, in other words, is nothing less than the empathetic obliteration of all sense of otherness, the unveiling of the singular soul of Adam, collective man.20 In the continuation of this passage, R. Menachem Mendel explains that by eradicating the schisms within society we also eradicate the cosmic schism separating the transcendent holiness of G‑d from the indwelling of G‑d within the world:

Therefore this [commandment] constitutes ‘the entirety of the Torah.’ For through the inter-encompassment of the souls of Israel with one another—such that they become literally one, as if they are one single unit—this causes a wondrous thing above, which is the foundation and telos of the entirety of the Torah; that is, the unification of divine transcendence (qudsha brikh hu) and its indwelling (shekhinteh); its indwelling being the lower mother, the matron, the source of the souls of Israel…21

To love your fellow as yourself, in other words, is to overcome what we described earlier as the central tension between the utter singularity of G‑d, on the one hand, and our direct experience of the fractured multiplicity of the created realm, on the other. As a simple singularity, unconstrained and indefinable, G‑d transcends the multiplicity of creation. As the spirit and substance of all the multiplicity of creation, G‑d also dwells within creation, and more specifically, within the myriad souls of the Jewish nation. These two facets of divine being—identified respectively as divine transcendence (qudsha brikh hu) and its indwelling (shekhinteh)—represent the traumatic bifurcation of the divine self that lies at the very foundation of creation, and which in many kabbalistic texts is associated with the Torah’s account of the separation of Eve from Adam.22

The undoing of this bifurcation is the foundation and telos of all the commandments of the Torah. But this is achieved most saliently through the loving unification of all the souls of Israel, since they most directly embody the indwelling of G‑d within the multiplicity of creation. It is in overcoming that multiplicity with mutual love, seeing themselves as a single whole, that the indwelling of G‑d is itself repaired and reunified. To the degree that Israel is harmoniously transparent to the utter singularity of G‑d, so divine transcendence is openly unified with its indwelling in creation.

What makes this model of the cosmic society so profoundly dynamic is that empathetic obliteration of otherness between people extends to G‑d as well. Through mutual love and cosmic repair, the collective soul of Israel is no longer seen as distinct from the divine self. In R. Menachem Mendel’s words: “When the souls of Israel are inter-encompassed and become unified… G‑d is unified with Israel… and supernal man [i.e. G‑d] does not see his own faults, and forgives the sins of Israel… as it is written ‘He did not gaze at the iniquity of Jacob’ (Numbers 23:21)… ‘He saw iniquity but did not contemplate it’ (Job 11:11)…” Though G‑d knows Israel's faults, that knowledge is now experienced as self-knowledge, and as such is veiled in empathetic love, rather than expressed in emotional judgement.23

* * *

One People: From the Particular to the Universal

The discussion in Derech Mitzvotechah places specific emphasis on the souls of Israel. But the fact that their collective interinclusion is primarily identified with the soul of Adam, the father of all humanity, implies that intersocial harmony must ultimately extend to all of mankind. Moreover, while the souls of Israel are upheld as the most salient expressions of divinity within the world, their mission is undeniably universal—to reveal G‑d’s presence throughout all of creation, and to encompass the entire cosmos in harmonious unity.

As documented in a recent study by Shaul Magid, what remains implicit in the present text is explicated in an earlier iteration of this teaching found in Kedushat Levi, by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, a contemporary and colleague of R. Schneur Zalman. While less developed in terms of its psychological, sociological, and cosmological theorization of what it means to love the other, this earlier iteration is notable for its emphasis that Hillel’s statement was made in reply to a convert; a non Jew who sought to understand the covenantal Torah and thereby enter the Jewish fold.

R. Levi Yitzchak interprets the demand made by the convert—“teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot”—as a quest for the unifying core of all the Torah’s commandments: “The convert said, ‘I wish to convert, to understand that even the interpersonal commandments are encompassed in the unity of the Creator… Then I shall apprehend that even their rational laws (mishpatim)’ cannot be known and have no natural reason.” Hillel’s response—“what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow”—points to a principle of equivalence among people rooted in the fundamental belief that “one G‑d created us, we are all from one quarry.”

Most striking are the conclusions that R. Levi Yitzchak draws: “Accordingly, even the reason for the interpersonal commandments is due to the unity of the creator… and also in [following] the decrees of the states and the laws of the land, man must serve the one G‑d and understand that He is singular and unique. For this reason the peoples must transform into one people, and in us shall be fulfilled [the vision of the prophets]: then peoples shall be transformed into the people of G‑d,24 and many peoples shall go and say to the house of Jacob let us go together in the light of G‑d, and we shall go in His ways25 infinitely.”26

Here, the sacred service of divine unification is extended beyond the interpersonal laws prescribed by the Torah to include good citizenship and laws legislated by the state. Moreover, the principle of intersocial harmony is explicitly extended to all peoples; progressing together in the way of G‑d, they must ultimately be united as one people.27

* * *

In our earlier discussion of Likutei Torah, an intertextual model of the cosmos emerged. In the present discussion of Derech Mitzvotechah, a corresponding intersocial model unfolds. Just as the creative process can be read as the self-referential textualization of divinity, so can it be read as the socialization of divinity; a process by which G‑d builds a facade of multiplicity and otherness, precisely in order that it should be overcome. The macrocosmic schism between divine transcendence and its indwelling in creation is embodied in our microcosmic experience as individuated selves. And to repair the schisms of society is to achieve the ultimate telos of all reality. G‑d is affirmed in society to the degree that society is transparent to, and thus effaced within, the divine source of social integrity.

Equally important is the point made earlier, that if spiritual practices and experiences do not stand on an interpersonal foundation then they are not sacred either. The sacredness of personal spirituality is only affirmed to the degree that it effaces the cosmic boundary that separates the other from the experience of the individual. As individuated selves we are incomplete and disempowered, reflecting the self-destructive anarchy of tohu rather than the sacred unity of tikun. To overcome individuation is not to be diminished but to be enlarged, expanding our sense of self beyond physical constriction and corporeal intuition. The empathetic overcoming of otherness brings all individuals to their ultimate completion in the composite singularity of the divine self, which itself constitutes the cosmic society.