It is now time to devote a chapter to bring the central role and spiritual function of physical mitzvot into sharper relief. We first step back to look at the views of previous thought systems.

Mitzvot in Classic Jewish Writings

Various classic scholars have provided insight into the question of the role of physical mitzvot within Judaism. Maimonides1 understands mitzvot as a type of springboard designed to aid the masses to overcome their carnality, to free their minds from their bodies towards true spiritual endeavor. That is, the true arena for religious endeavor is indeed the mind. According to Maimonides, man’s highest goal in life is metaphysical speculation. G‑d is Supreme Logic and in the human too, logic reigns supreme. Thus, religious experience, or communication between man and G‑d, is achieved specifically by way of a rational interchange: man’s mind contemplates Divine ideas. It is only as a type of necessary evil as it were, to provide a cure to help get the body out of the way, that mitzvot enter the picture.

Sefer HaChinuch, a classic medieval compilation, generally offers some philosophical insight into the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot collated in the work. Generally, it might be said that Chinuch regards mitzvot as performing a pedagogic, conditioning role2. Man’s heart is influenced by his actions. Accordingly, each mitzvah aims to have a particular positive effect on the person performing it, refining him, elevating him. In this system then, too, mitzvot are not the primary arena for religious endeavor, not man’s ultimate mode for relating to G‑d, rather a vehicle by which to enhance man’s true religious standing.

Chasidic literature, too, stresses the value inherent in refining man through the performance of mitzvot (as discussed in chapter ten. It has been in fact erroneously portrayed as anti-legal, as a system that somewhat disregards the externalities of Judaism, in search of the core.

In fact, there is much in Chasidic theology, however, that serves to establish a most significant religious role for mitzvot (subsequently receiving particular emphasis and focus in the Dirah Betachtonim system). Indeed, a very basic argument from general Chasidic literature aims to emphasize the importance of the strict adherence to the minutae of physical mitzvot.

The Physical Is No Further From G‑d

Let us return once again to the very start, to the prevalent notion that meditation rather than physical mitzvot—activities of the mind rather than of the hand, the abstract rather than the concrete, the transcendent rather than the real—are closer to G‑d. Upon analysis, apart from all we have said till this point, this attitude is based in part on an erroneous extrapolation from what is common in the human world.

A freshman, for example, would attempt to display nothing but his highest intellectual acumen when speaking to a world authority on his subject. An ordinary person would attempt to display nothing but his best behavior in the presence of a saint. Such is the nature of much of our experience: the knowing, not the ignorant, consult meaningfully with the expert; the talented, rather than the mediocre, can collaborate with the truly gifted; the strong, not the feeble, can spar with the mighty; the bright, rather than the dull, can converse with the brilliant; the noble, rather than the ordinary, can approach the sublime. Extrapolating from this, it is assumed that, if anything, for communicating with transcendent G‑d Himself, only man’s most sublime features—only his spiritual faculties—can be of use, whereas his more mundane dimensions must be suppressed and hidden. As it were, if only rungs eight and nine of the ladder are appropriate for communicating with rung ten, it is certainly they that are appropriate for communicating with rung one hundred.

But all of this assumes that man and G‑d are in fact on the same ladder, that G‑d is at the loftier end of the same continuum as man. But as we have seen earlier3, a great divide separates all of man’s faculties, including his heart and mind, from G‑d. It is, as we have seen, even inappropriate to say that G‑d cannot be comprehended by the human mind. G‑d is separated from man by a chasm, a “quantum leap.” Moreover, a great divide separates G‑d Himself from even Divine wisdom, and kindness—that is, from the very “operating systems” of wisdom and kindness. For all specific features and defined entities, however lofty, are meaningless to G‑d Himself as He stands prior to tzimtzum4. It follows, that the notion that man’s mental and emotional endeavors enjoy a natural relationship with G‑d is mistaken. Human capabilities and G‑d are not on the same ladder. Man’s loftiest ideas and most sublime sentiments are incomparably further removed from G‑d than are a child’s intellectual displays from a world authority’s thinking, his most refined behavior is further removed than is a crude person’s behavior from a saint—for indeed, in the latter cases the distance is relative, in the former it is absolute.

Moreover, upon reflection it can be seen that man’s lower and higher faculties are in fact, inherently, equidistant from G‑d. Where two arenas exist as totally detached frames of references, the highs and lows in one arena are meaningless in the other. By way of analogy, to a deaf person, there is no difference between particularly pleasing and uplifting harmony, or particularly dissonant and irritating cacophony. An outstanding musical symphony and particularly unpleasant noise will elicit precisely the same response—the same lack of response. Unlike the hard of hearing, the deaf have no access to the world of sound at all, their exclusion is not relative but absolute, excluded by an unnegotiable chasm; hence, the intense differences the hearing discern and insist on affirming in the world of sound, not only lose their prominence with regard to the deaf, but lose their values altogether. Similarly (though in reverse), since man is removed from G‑d by an absolute chasm, since G‑d operates on an “operating system” which has no relationship, no channels of discourse with man’s “operating system,” the human’s loftier side and mundane side are equidistant from G‑d—they are equally irrelevant and meaningless.

But if man, by his very nature, has no faculties which relate meaningfully to G‑d—does this mean that all religious activities lose their inherent value? If man is separated from G‑d as the deaf are from sound, if man’s lofty side elicits the same response in G‑d as does his mundane side—zero—then what is the value of religious endeavor on his part?

Chasidut maintains that, indeed, it is solely the fact that G‑d’s inscrutable Will calls for a certain form of behavior that imbues this behavior with significance. If not for G‑d’s command, no form of human behavior would, in fact, be meaningful at all to Him5.

It follows, then, that though the criteria of the human frame of reference judge prayer and meditation more lofty and spiritual than physical mitzvot, there is no such preference in terms of G‑d. Prima facie—if not for G‑d’s command—both are equally meaningless; if G‑d chooses, he can will either, and thereby imbue His desired choice with meaning.

The analogy of the deaf, used differently, further elucidates our position in relation to mitzvot.

A deaf person enters your room where an audio system is blaring out of control. You motion to him to improve it. He goes over, studies the dial and turns it—all the way up! He argues that he’s fixed the stereo—the dial looks better this way! From his unfortunate point of view he cannot discern the values and preferences at the other side of the chasm. So his attempts to bring satisfaction to the hearing, using the criteria of vision available to him, result in the precise reverse.

Nevertheless, the deaf are in truth able to satisfy the criteria of those fortunate to have access to the world of sound. The hearing can prescribe to them how to act. If the instructions are followed correctly, the deaf will perform in a way that is of value to the world of sound.

In similar fashion, though man’s activities cannot relate to G‑d along the terms of his own frame of reference, they can be of value to G‑d along lines plotted out by Him, on terms man can never apprehend.

This insight, in turn, reinforces the notion that we ought not assert that physical mitzvot are inherently inferior to prayer or meditation. Since G‑d’s instructions are our only clue to meaningful communication with Him, if G‑d declares that physical mitzvot are meaningful to Him, we must acquiesce, as we have no faculties with which to make an alternative assessment. Indeed, if we insist upon offering G‑d a prayer when He has requested wearing woolen strings (tzitzit), we might be acting no more appropriately than the deaf person who turns the stereo all the way up.

In sum, in light of general Chasidic teachings we dismiss the a-priori inferiority of physical mitzvot and set them on an inherently equal footing with man’s spiritual activities as possible candidates for G‑d’s instructions. But these insights themselves do not yet ascribe positive qualities specific to physical mitzvot. We now return to Dirah Betachtonim where, in a final fleshing out of the basic ideas of the Dirah Betachtonim system, we elaborate upon the dimension of physical mitzvot which in fact justifies and warrants their predominance within Judaism.

Physical Mitzvot and the Essence of G‑d

As amply dwelt upon in previous chapters, in addition to the notion that physical mitzvot uniquely express the infinity of G‑d and the “infinity” of man’s connection with Him (manifestations), more importantly, it is in particular they that provide an avenue to the Essence of G‑d; whereas prayer and meditation, as lofty as they may seem, give expression only to manifestations of man and similarly relate merely to manifestations of G‑d, but do not touch the essence, the être, of man or the Essence of G‑d.

Put somewhat differently, more profoundly as well as more radically, “spiritual” religious activities are in a very subtle sense almost an insult to G‑d. For they seem to ignore the fact that G‑d is greater than humans absolutely, as they focus on areas in which man and G‑d share. The types of difference between the worshiper and He who is worshipped that are at the fore during such forms of worship, as well as the modes of communication between the worshiper and the Worshipped that are involved, are not unique to the man-G‑d relationship. Take prayer for example. This experience highlights that, unlike man, G‑d is “Great, Powerful and Awesome,” and that man is the mere beneficiary of all good that emanates from G‑d the provider. But amongst human beings too there are differences in terms of greatness, power and awe, as well as benefactor-recipient relationships. Similarly with regard to the mode of communication involved, forms of praise similar to prayer can be utilized in communication even amongst humans, as was, for example, the case with serfs and monarchs of old. Moreover, similar forms of expression, such as passionate, humble or poetic statements, may be suitable in relation to awesome natural wonders or aesthetically overwhelming scenes. Neither the character of the highlighted differences nor the communication experience is uniquely man-G‑d oriented.

Thus, these forms of worship are in a subtle sense almost an affront to G‑d6. For communicating with G‑d (only) on wavelengths that are appropriate for non-Divine beings regards Him, by implication, as belonging within the same framework.

More profoundly, it is true that once existence is a fact, there is a continuum of character and quality, ranging, for example, from the lowly to the great, or from the powerless to the mighty. “Spiritual” forms of worship occur along this continuum. Man at the lower end of the continuum of greatness, power and awe communicates with G‑d who is at its apex. But this means that here is communication within the frame of reference of the existing, addressing qualities of things that exist—concerned with manifestations of existence—whilst the fact that things exist is taken for granted. This is in fact the reason why this experience can be enjoyed by even two non-Divine entities, two created beings: the experience is not created-Creator oriented, as it addresses issues that arise once existence is a fact.

Here lies the difficulty in confining man’s communication with G‑d through a spiritual medium. G‑d is implicitly experienced as within the framework of the existing, whereas the deepest mystery of all, the deepest Divinity of all—the plane unique to G‑d that stands outside this frame of reference, i.e. essence, being—is overlooked. It is forgotten here that G‑d straddles reality’s non-existence and existence, that G‑d is the Master of being, that He called all into being (catered for the being of all)—including the frame of reference, existence itself. Relating to G‑d’s qualities, however sublime, with heart and mind via prayer and meditation is a rejection, as it were, of the Being of G‑d that lies beyond.

But worship through physical mitzvot is different. Unlike the mind and heart, the hands, or moreover pieces of leather (tefillin), are not vehicles one would naturally choose for prayerful expression or for other forms of devotional experience. Nor are they appealing to the Love or Wisdom of G‑d. No emotional quality, no logical idea, is expressed by mere hands or hide. Or, in other words, within the frame of reference of the rational, emotional and devotional these are totally unresponsive, meaningless, zero. Indeed, even the humility felt in prayer before the greatness, power and awesomeness of G‑d is not applicable here, as that too is experiential, meaningless in the world of indifferent, hard and fast objects. Thus, when the worshiper does in fact take a piece of leather in his hand proposing to make it a vehicle for communicating with G‑d—no intellectual, emotional or other religiously meaningful channels are available. But yet, even this religiously opaque object is part of G‑d’s world. In which way? Its being, and nothing else. Its being was catered for by G‑d, it partakes in the Divine Being, and moreover, its very spiritual indifference represents transparency to and oneness with its core, the in-itself of the Divine Being. Hence, when the worshiper attempts to make a connection with G‑d—it occurs on the wavelength of Being.

The introduction of physical entities into worship, then, forces the worshiper beyond the continuum, beyond the frame of reference of qualities or features, to that plane unique to G‑d—to the mystery of existence itself. Here, as it were, the very frame itself communicates with G‑d: essence to Essence. In the absence of meaning and significance man is brought before the Essence of G‑d.

True, then, as it appeared at the very outset, leather, wool or food appear uninspiring; certainly, an initial evaluation of Judaism may find it bogged down with minutiae and restrictions—but it is specifically the dark, finite, restrictive nature of physical mitzvot, maintains Dirah Betachtonim, that frees worship of the qualities that color existence, enabling man’s essence as well as the essence of the physical objects involved to be bare of coverings, superimpositions and taintings, and be at one with the Essence of G‑d, as it stands uncompromised beyond His most sublime qualities.