Our thoughts now turn to the nature of the human worshiper as he appears in Dirah Betachtonim, existentially as well as in behavior. We will look at both the unusual character of the mystical experience, as well as at the place of asceticism in this system. As in earlier chapters, we shall proceed from a short review of earlier Jewish writings and subsequently return to Dirah Betachtonim. But first, a general description of the mystic.

The Mystic

The very term mysticism conjures up notions of mystery. The aim of the mystic is for that which is mysterious and beyond—beyond the tangible, beyond that which can be seen or heard, beyond the grasp of the human senses.

The ordinary religious individual is, of course, also concerned in no small measure with the spiritual and supernatural: he prays to G‑d, worships Him, follows His dictates. But the mystic goes further. He aims to peel away the mirage of this world and connect to the true underlying reality. All he sees and comes into contact with in our reality he regards as but a representation of something higher, something greater, something transcendent. And it is union that he seeks with that transcendence.

Those self-same metaphysical problems that trouble the theologian, such as the compatibility of the spiritual and the physical, of the one and the many, of G‑d and reality, of mind and body, concern the mystic too. But whereas the theologian approaches these issues logically, mentally, the mystic approaches them emotionally, existentially. The theologian is interested in conceptual resolutions of these dichotomies; the mystic lives these tensions, seeking to resolve them in the bottomless depths of his soul, in his union with the metaphysical depths of his surrounding reality.

The mystic is often a tragic figure, torn by the tensions between body and soul, between the physical and the spiritual. He is tormented by his bodily chains that tie him down to this meager reality; he is drawn to the intangible, he longs for the sublime, for the ideal. He wishes to free himself, to soar far and beyond. The world around him is a dark, abysmal place. His soul sores and soars, trying to escape its worldly prison.

In practice, the mystic is often an ascetic, choosing a life of self-denial. Grudgingly, sparingly, he makes concessions to his body—in his view it is exceedingly vexing that the body makes any demands at all! The more he can free himself from the clutch of its requirements, so much the better.

The Oved / Mysticism and Asceticism in Chasidut

Chasidut is clearly a system that advocates mystical experience. It aims to orient man to the spiritual, attributing paramount significance to intense direct experience with the spiritual. Chasidut is also clearly ascetic in that it encourages man to transcend his everyday bodily needs and move closer to G‑d.

Let us note three particular aspects of classic Chasidic mysticism and asceticism and subsequently return to see these same three issues as they occur in Dirah Betachtonim.


First, asceticism, or more generally, the behavior advocated by Chasidut in relation to the body. In the Chabad Chasidic lexicon two terms are in use in discussing man’s position vis-à-vis his body and the physical world: it’kafya, bending or subduing, and it’hapcha, overturning or transforming. There are two levels of effort, two possible spiritual states, which man might experience in relation to his body and his material environment. First, a state of perpetual struggle, in the endeavor to keep his physical side out of the way so that it does not interfere with his spirituality; and second, a state where the physical is transformed, becoming itself a vehicle for spiritual endeavor.

At the outset, in striving to spiritually regulate the body, to conquer its carnal desires and religious indifference, and similarly to transcend the world around oneself with its distractions and religious apathy, one must engage in a very real conflict. Man is born with a body that requires food, drink and sleep and craves close attention; he finds himself naturally attracted to the material rewards of his surrounds. In order to develop his spirituality and ultimately give it free reign, he must confront this body, this mundane world, wrestle with it, fight it, curb it, suppress its drives and wants. This ascetic state of mind and behavior is referred to as it’kafya, bending or subduing, the body.

Eventually, after many years of striving and struggling and if graced by G‑d, man may totally vanquish his foe, totally subdue and even transform his body and natural tendencies. He may reach a state where his body no longer desires anything material, where his mind no longer cares for anything mundane or worldly; his total personality—his mind, interests, emotions, creative energies and drives—and all his bodily resources, not to mention his behavior, have become totally sublimated, transformed, oriented solely towards G‑d. The battle is won, the foe subdued, chained and set to work for the master. The term used to designate this state of behavior, mind and attitude is it’hapcha, overturning or transforming.

Now it’hapcha is of course the level attained by saints. The average person, even after a lifetime of endeavor, finds himself still locked in conflict. Time after time, despite his greatest efforts, the body and its wants assert themselves, requiring him to continuously sustain his vigilant struggle. It’hapcha, the fundamental transformation of the body, remains an ideal, unattainable to the average individual.

Indeed, the average individual must regard it’hapcha as out of bounds. He dare not view his body as something religiously positive, as something that can be sublimated—for his bodily desires, temptations and diversions are indeed a formidable foe to his spirituality. He must continually, relentlessly, vie with his body as with an enemy, fighting it, containing it, repressing its wants, in a perpetual attempt to overcome and subdue it. Thus, according to Chasidut, herein, in subduing, fighting with his body, is the arena for worship for the average individual. As a great Chasidic mentor would say time and again to his students, “How precious it is to G‑d when a Jew breaks himself!”

To quote the Chasidic classic Tanya:

. . . therefore no person should feel dejected, nor should his heart be exceedingly sad, even if he will be this way all his days, engaged in this war, for perhaps he was created for this and this is his service, to subdue the sitra achara perpetually1.

The first point in brief: the relationship of the average individual with his body in earlier Chasidic teachings is one of constant struggle and antipathy—“the strength of the body is the weakness of the soul2.” Sublimating the body is reserved for the rare saintly exception.

The Mystic’s Reality

Upon reflection, it will become clear that we are already aware of objective corollaries in the outside world to the subjective categories of it’kafya and it’hapcha, subduing and transforming, respectively. As amply discussed in previous chapters, in the objective world too, Chasidut maintains that relationships with G‑d exist on two levels—the Lower Unity and the Supernal Unity. As we have seen, on a first and lower level, the world is something distinct from G‑d, and at this level relationships with G‑d subsist in that reality is subdued, not in conflict with G‑d, but respectful to and in accord with Him. And on a second and higher level, reality is G‑d. It’kafya, the struggle of the worshiper to ensure that his body does not hinder, but respects his endeavors in serving G‑d, corresponds to the Lower Unity—occurring in the usual human frame of reference with its inherent diversions from and indifference to G‑d, where there is not ontological oneness but at best harmony between a world and G‑d that are ontologically distinct. It’hapcha, on the other hand, is achieved by saintly individuals who succeed in transforming their bodies and personalities into vehicles for the Divine, or, in other words, who succeed to tune in to the all-pervasive Supernal Unity where all, no matter how seemingly indifferent to G‑d, is inherently nothing but G‑d. To them, arms and legs, emotions and thoughts, ambitions and goals are all aught but the foundational “light.”

And much as subjective it’hapcha, the transforming of the body, remains beyond the average individual, he similarly cannot hope to reach that level at which objective reality around him loses its independence and merges with G‑d. His focus must remain set, rather, upon raising his reality to the point where it—as something distinct from G‑d—is in the highest possible accord with G‑d: the Lower Unity, not the Supernal Unity.

To summarize the first and second points: In general Chasidic literature, both in himself as in the objective world outside of himself, the average person cannot aspire for transformation, for ontological oneness with G‑d, but must suffice with, at most, the control of something distinct from G‑d.

The Mystic’s Striving

The third point concerns less the relationship with the body and external world than the mystic’s internal orientation—his driving force, his life’s striving, the longing of his soul. As generally portrayed, the mystic aims to free himself—to shed layer after layer of superficial encumbrances, to remove all “static” interfering with true unlimited expansiveness—and reach the fluid, abstract, all-embracing, expansive All. He seeks to dissolve into and merge with the ultimate Nothing that precedes and transcends our tangible, restrictive, finite reality.

The three points we have seen concerning mysticism in earlier Chasidic writings: 1. For the average person it’kafya is the norm; it’hapcha but an ideal; 2. The oneness in objective reality for the average person is a behavioral one (the Lower Unity), rather than an ontological one3. The mystic’s existential aim is for the Nothing.

The Dirah Betachtonim Mystic

Once again, in Dirah Betachtonim all three matters are fundamentally different.

Asceticism and the Mystic’s Reality

As for the first point, in the Dirah Betachtonim system the mystic is not primarily an ascetic. Indeed, he is quite content to eat, drink and proceed with the usual dictates of the human body. Put somewhat differently, the Dirah Betachtonim mystic is involved with it’hapcha right from the outset, as for him the body is immediately regarded as a vehicle for the Divine. But this requires further elaboration.

We are already well aware of the second relevant change in Dirah Betachtonim, that is, the differing attitude of this system to the Unity of objective reality. As we have seen, Dirah Betachtonim achieves the unification of both the Lower and the Supernal Unity, maintaining that ultimate unity can be found even, or especially, in the uninterpreted human frame of reference; for the physical world with its apparent materiality, finitude and indifference to G‑dliness is indeed one with the Essence of G‑d. Thus, unlike in earlier writings, in Dirah Betachtonim the mystic’s interests lie from the very start in the ontological unity with G‑d.

It follows (we return to the first point), that in this system, asceticism, the renouncing of the body and physical world, has no central place. If the Essence of G‑d is to be found in the physical itself, there is no point in repressing and subduing one’s bodily dictates—rather recognize them for the G‑dliness they are. From the Dirah Betachtonim perspective, G‑dliness is not antithetical to the physical, necessitating the overcoming of the body and the physical world as a prerequisite for mystical union; rather, the ultimate mystical union occurs specifically in the physical body itself as in the very physicality of the objective world.

True, the mystic—devoted to the G‑dliness in the universe not to the gratification of his bodily senses—must not be blinded by the physical, his relationship with the physical must not be one of indulgence, an enterprise humans all too naturally seek. But ideal mysticism itself, maintains Dirah Betachtonim, is to be found specifically in the physical body. Thus, the mystic must of course overcome the a-priori carnality of his body, and similarly strip away the superficial illusory layers of the objective world around him, searching for the inherent G‑dliness. But once he learns to transcend all that hides G‑dliness, once the final layer of the mirage is stripped away and the Divine Essence becomes his objective—he paradoxically returns to the material world, the physical, both in himself and in objective reality, becoming the true arena for union with G‑d. Not because the physical serves as a springboard for the spiritual, nor because he learns to find some redeeming feature, some transcendent dimension in the physical—no, physicality itself, qua physicality, provides him with the ultimate mystical encounter. For from the Dirah Betachtonim perspective, more physical, more finite, amounts to less “tainted” by Divine manifestations and meaning—greater purity and more of the character of essence.

(In fact, through this approach, the transformation of the mystic’s material self will be more complete. For the Dirah Betachtonim mystic does not reject and discard the carnal body itself and its natural tendencies, considering them beyond redemption, rescuing solely the body’s latent spiritual potential. To the contrary, for him the totality of a very material body itself comes to bespeak the Essence of G‑d.)

Moreover, once aware of the Dirah Betachtonim perspective that the physical world itself is G‑dly, the mystic’s approach at the very outset, even before having put his physical self through the painstaking struggle and purification of it’kafya, need not be one of antipathy to the physical. For from this vantage point, unlike the way it appears in Chasidut generally, the body is primarily not an enemy, but a friend. True, a friend to be handled with care, but a friend nonetheless. In this system, man’s aim in confronting his physical self is not to first subdue an enemy nor to then conquer it totally, but to gradually train the body to be its true self.

Thus, both it’kafya and it’hapcha are redefined in Dirah Betachtonim. As noted, with regard to it’kafya, the body is primarily not an enemy to be subdued and repressed but a friend to be handled with care. And even it’hapcha has a categorically different meaning; it does not connote an enemy conquered and chained, but rather a friend taught to show his true colors.

And therefore, it’hapcha, transforming the body, is not a dangerous course, set on the distant horizon as an ideal, approachable for but a select few. It is rather at the forefront, predominant; setting the tone for the striving of the average individual, even whilst he is yet at the initial stage of it’kafya. Nor, in fact, is it’kafya, the subduing of the body, the overriding notion of the average man’s relationship with his body; it may be a method, but not a goal. In Dirah Betachtonim the body and G‑dliness are not mutually exclusive—to the contrary, the ultimate communion is in the physical body itself.3

The Mystic’s Striving

We note once again that in Dirah Betachtonim, the realization of the G‑dliness in man’s body and the world around him does not come about by discovering some hitherto unnoticed hue beneath the surface, but rather by achieving that the very physical, because it is physical, should shine with its many colors. More appropriately, not shine at all. “Shine” and “colors” are appropriate metaphors for the yardstick of meaning and qualities—of manifestations—not of essence. The physical, precisely because it is spiritually colorless, even opaque, as it were, manifests the innermost, secluded Divine recess, the Essence of G‑d.

Thus, in this system the mystic must in fact strive not to be lured and ensnared by the romance of the abstract, by the shimmer of the transcendent. For the transcendent Love and Wisdom of G‑d, even His expansive Infinity, are valuable merely in terms of metaphysical meaning, not in terms of essence. They are merely attributes of G‑d, merely manifestations that emerge from the Essence. Similarly in terms of the mystic’s person: intellectual and emotional apprehension of G‑d or transcendental experience represent merely the attributes, the manifestations of his soul finding religious expression and meaning in merging with transcendent spiritual spheres. The mystic hereby experiences, rather than is G‑d.

The Dirah Betachtonim mystic strives, rather, for the unenhanced Essence of G‑d, beyond all Divine manifestations and qualities—to be found, paradoxically, specifically in the physical. His aim is for the nakedness of being, untainted by superimposed meaning and significance, however sublime. Existentially, he strives not for experience, nor to be anything, merely to be. Thereby, he merges with the Ultimate Being.

Thus, the Dirah Betachtonim mystic differs on the third account, too, from his conventional counterpart—his orientation, the nature and direction of his striving. This mystic strives not for Nothing, but for Something4. He wishes not to dissolve, but to be. The conventional mystic is troubled by the hard and fast nature of reality, by restrictions, by definitions. He seeks therefore to rise above and dissolve into the vast expansiveness in which there are no restrictions, hence the Nothing. But this emphasis on expansive nothingness retains its validity only when concerned with metaphysical meaning and significance, when concerned with merely the continuum of manifestations of G‑d. From that perspective the mystic naturally finds the infinite superior to the finite, the expansive far more desirable than the restrictive. But all manifestations, including the infinite expansiveness of G‑d (the pre-tzimtzum “light”), derive from a Source, from the Essence of G‑d. And it is this Essence, the Ultimate Something, for which the Dirah Betachtonim mystic strives: the hard and fast core of G‑d, the restrictive, non-illuminating Essence, the Being—that manifests itself, in fact, in the “hardness and fastness,” in the restrictiveness and spiritual darkness of the physical and finite world of his body.

(Put in other words, the Dirah Betachtonim mystic transcends the a-priori “somethingness” of this reality—its restrictive finitude, indifference and self-substantiality—referred to in the literature as “the created something.” But he transcends also the Nothing, the expansive infinity, which is merely a manifestation of G‑d. He strives for the Essence of G‑d, the very being of all reality—referred to as “the true Something.” And this Something he finds manifest in the “somethingness” of the physical rather than in the “Nothingness” of the abstract and transcendent.)

We conclude this chapter with words the Rebbe once wrote to a symposium on mysticism which at first might seem unsuited for the occasion:

. . . One of the aspects of Chabad is to reveal and expound the esoteric aspects of the Torah and Mitzvot so that they can be comprehended by the three intellectual faculties… and reduced to rational categories, down to the actual performance of the Mitzvot, showing how, in the final analysis, G‑d can be “comprehended” better by action (the performance of Mitzvot) than by meditation...

...gaining an ever growing measure of true freedom through the everyday experience of Torah and Mitzvot with emphasis on actual deed...5

By this point in our discussion we appreciate that this emphasis on actual deed can be fitting indeed for a forum on mysticism. For from the vantage point of the Rebbe’s Dirah Betachtonim weltanschauung, the essence of mysticism itself, the very quest for true spiritual freedom, is not vying with a hostile world, a tragic yearning to escape its physical prison, but finding union in the here and now. The ultimate mystical ideal is merging with a world which is co-essential with G‑d: ordinary being one with the Being of G‑d; the a-priori something one with the ultimate Something.