Hasidism and the Natural World

The Romantic approach to Hasidism takes metaphysical statements projected onto nature and turns then into aesthetic statements about nature itself. For example, seeing God in all things which is about a mental state of devotion is understood by Romantic readers as meaning that Hasidim appreciated nature. Jay Michaelson has a long analytic article showing that this is not so; Hasidic panentheism does not lead to any appreciation of the natural order. Unfortunately, this was the analytic reading of texts that was sorely lacking in his last book. After this article, I am left with the question:Will Jay relinquish Hasidism since it is not world embracing or will he develop a new Jewish metaphysics?

Hasidism and “Nature”: Negation and Affirmation By Jay Michaelson

As regards the natural world, Hasidic texts offer a range of theological and practical options, from the nature mysticism of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav to panentheistic theologies which depict God as immanent in (and yet concealed by) the natural world.
Would the early Hasidic masters be environmentalists? To ask such a question is, of course, anachronistic, yet to pose this anachronistic question is a useful entry point for exploring more general Hasidic attitudes towards the status not only of the “natural” world as we conceive it today, but the created cosmos as such.
I want to suggest here that we can discern four distinct models of the relationships to what in contemporary parlance – though not to the Hasidim – is known as “nature,”

The Shoemaker: Non-specific immanentism as a form of world-negation

R. Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye quotes a story of the Baal Shem Tov that depicts the mystical hero Enoch as being a shoemaker who “united the Holy one, blessed be He and his Shechinah, by each and every [act of] sewing.” Regardless of the “deed” in question, uniting deed and thought effects a supernal union.

Initially, this view seems to be highly world-affirming, and highly radical. It makes every act important, as in the Hasidic story of the hasid who went to the Maggid of Mezrich not to learn some esoteric aspect of Kabbalah or learned insight into the Torah, but to see “how he tied his shoes.” This story has been used by Buber and others to suggest that the Hasidim were not interested in supernal realms and abstract mysteries but in the existential realms of the day-to-and here-and-now.

And yet, at the same time, the “shoemaker view” includes too much to be of use for environmentalism per se. Shoes or shoelaces are no more and no less useful than forests and rivers; this form of panentheism collapses into an apathy regarding what we today would call the “natural world” as against anything else. Moreover, Hasidic sources are ambivalent as to what, exactly, is meant by the yichudim in the Enoch story. Surely it is not a mindfulness-like attention to the texture of the shoes and the stitches. More likely it is utilizing the material object as a means to attain some spiritual insight or experience. Enoch is holding the shoes, but he is thinking of supernal spheres.
But if any action can be done with devotion, then what matters is that devotion, not the context of the action. Phenomenal features of the natural world, be they forests or parking lots, are unimportant, because all are equally valid gateways to God.

The Tanya: Nondual acosmism as an intermediate, but unsatisfying, position

One of the most pregnant equations in Hasidic quasi-environmental thought is R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s quotation of the Zohar that Elohim is numerically equivalent to Hateva. Yet R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Tanya presents an ontological worldview which essentially holds that everything we think of as yesh (something) is actually ayin (nothing) and that which is ayin is really the only true existent.

However, the Tanya is not purely acosmic, in the sense that it does not deny the reality of the world but envisions yesh as the “body” and ayin as the “soul.” The dichotomies of this aspect of the Tanya may be presented as:
tzimtzum / or (uncontracted light)
gevurah / hesed
elohim / YHVH
hateva/immanent / transcendent
olam/maalim (covering) / ne’elam (that which is covered)
what seems to be yesh / what seems to be ayin
actually ayin / actually Yesh

What is critical to understand is that everything on the left covers what is on the right, but also in some way reveals it. First, there can be no existence without tzimtzum, according to the Tanya, so the left column is not merely the “bad stuff” from which the gnostic wants to get away – the left column is an integral, and real, element of the dialectic of existence. Second, and relatedly, the left column is not “unreal,” although I there is considerable unclarity on this point that leaves room for the possibility that R. Schneur Zalman believes the world is a “dream,” like his Vedantin counterparts. I think we can say, though, that although the tzimtzum is only a condition of the Ultimate, and not the Ultimate itself, it is still a real condition. The world is in a state of tzimtzum
Elohim is a mask, not just a veil, and masks reveal, even as they conceal.

The Beautiful Woman: Specific contemplation as a form of world-affirmation

R. Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye tells a story of a humble man who meditates with great emotional longing on the image of a beautiful woman. Though his motives at first are purely carnal, he eventually separates himself from the corporeal aspects of this longing and unites with God. This story has its echo in the Maggid of Mezrich’s advice on dealing with distracting thoughts: rather than banish them from the mind, the Maggid advises taking the thought to its “root” – a beautiful woman, for example, is the aspect of tiferet.

Nonetheless, I think it is fair to say that the “beautiful woman” view does value the aesthetic qualities of the object of contemplation. Unlike the shoemaker, the hasid in the beautiful woman case is in some ways interested in the actual “structure” of the woman, at least insofar as it leads him to meditate on more sublime matters. This is hardly environmentalism, but it could be a start.

The Song of the Grass: Simple Devotionalism as Ecological Foundation?

Lastly, then, we turn to R. Nachman of Bratzlav. So far, we have seen three distinct Hasidic approaches to the “natural world”: first, that any form can be used for contemplation, a car as well as a cheetah; second, that while the contours of ‘nature’ reveal as well as conceal, they are not those of ‘nature’ in our contemporary sense; and third, that beautiful forms may be better than non-beautiful ones for proper intellection.

R. Nachman has a few isolated, but by now famous in Neo-Hasidic circles, passages in which he rhapsodizes about the beauty of the natural world and the efficacy of using natural settings for meditation: blades of grass sing a song to God, meditation should be done in fields to partake in their beauty, et cetera. (See e.g. Sichot HaRan #98, #144, #227)

If the goal of the shoemaker story was to show that a complete heart, lev shalem, is what is needed to attain the ultimate goal, let us remember that for R. Nachman, ein lev shalem k’lev shavur, there is no pure/complete heart like a broken heart. And for the heart to break, there must be action. There must be an actual giving of money, an actual trip to the rebbe, and above all, an actual cry. This means that the contours of the material world matter essentially for the spiritual world. That a field brings more joy than a basement is relevant, because the emotional journey of the mystic is relevant.

Without the challenges of the outside world, this psychomachia could not take place. There must be something to push against, a challenge to fight against, or else there can be no challenge, and thus no religious value. For R. Nachman, unlike the shoemaker, there must be real difficulties in the actual making of the actual shoes. Correspondingly, R. Nachman will be more willing to use “natural” objects to attain joyfulness.. If it is a shoe, it is a shoe. If it is a beautiful field, it is a beautiful field.

R. Nachman is precisely the Hasidic master who had the least to do with nondualism, panentheism, and immanentism – all of which are popular with neo-Hasidim. Precisely the Hasidic outlier who didn’t see “God in all things” turns out to generate the best religio-mystical foundation for an affirmation of the natural world.

But what today’s popularizers miss is that “seeing God everywhere” does not offer a reason to preserve the trees and streams. At some intermediate level, natural settings are important for spiritual experiences. Yet at an advanced level, seeing God everywhere means that God is also in the parking lots and shopping malls.

As we have seen in actual Hasidic communities, the belief that God is everywhere goes quite well with a total disregard for the material world, and, at the very least, a lot of littering. Focused on a higher beauty, many Hasidim pay little attention to the “lower” forms. Our ecological consciousness must come from elsewhere.
Read the rest here, I excerpted less than half.

11 responses to “Hasidism and the Natural World

  1. “…leaves room for the possibility that R. Schneur Zalman believes the world is a “dream,” like his Vedantin counterparts. ”

    The answer to this question is found in the Alter Rebbe’s actions. Did he act as if this world was a dream, or did he act as a servant of the Ribono Shel Olam, impeccably following and explicating the Halakha? He was, after all, the author of what we today call Shulkhan Arukh Ha-Rav.

  2. Swami Vivekananda and Aurobindo as welt as most Vendata teachers led active lives of following the ritual laws raising disciples, and building institutes.
    Your argument is like of of those old time popular books on mysticism. Since mysticism is unethical antinomian and passive then the Alter Rebbe cannot be a mystic, or in alternate books if he was a mystic then he could not have kept Torah uMizvot or been a community leader.

  3. I still dont get it
    Considering life as a dream as metaphysics does not mean passivity. Ramhal says life is a dream explicitly in Kela”h

  4. Life may be a dream, but that doesn’t absolve us of acting, speaking and thinking correctly. The Alter Rebbe and RaMKha”L got that, and so do the Vedantists.

    (This may take us off the “Natural World” topic of the post. Do you want to go there?)

    Michaelson writes:

    “First, I want to set aside non-Hasidic responses to this question, e.g., halachot like bal tachshit, the wide range of religious-aesthetic appreciation of nature in Psalms and elsewhere, ambivalent statements about admiring trees in Pirkei Avot, and the like. ”

    He sees halakhic responses as being non-Hasidic. Do you see how he misses the point?

    • I think you are polemically over-reading him. He did a nice job of explicating the Hasidic text. It is similar to a discussion of Sufism that starts off by bracketing out the Shaariah. It does not mean that the Sufi did not keep it and that he was not living a life of shaariah. The article would just show that a given sufi text does not become a universalist ecological pantheism. But with widespread Romantic misreadings of Hasidut, Sufism, and Vendata- Jay was a nice corrective. In fact, Jay serves as a small critique of Art Green’s finding ecology in Hasidism. If you polemic is that he is not frum in your definition or there is a mizvah to attack all who are non-orthodox, then I understand. There are lots of books on the kabbalah or Hasidut of a given rabbi that brackets out his halakhah for an exposition of their thought. In 3k words – one does not kitchen sink everything.

  5. I’m familiar with Ramchal’s K’lach Pitchei Chochma and the only place I remember him speaking about dreams is when cites the fact that the Sephirot can be envisioned, and that they assume dream-like properties when they do. Where does he say teh world itself is a dream?

    • I was just making the point that use of the dream metaphor for metaphysics does not preclude activism. Do you have a translation of the passage handy?If you do, can you post it with the Hebrew.

  6. I don’t have the source at the moment, but it was once mentioned to me that the Israel Salanter once said that Enoch’s intention in sewing the shoes was to make the best pair of shoes possible. I thought this was a very interesting contrast to the usual Hasidic/mystical interpretations given to this anecdote and, in our context, could perhaps be seen as reflecting an interest in the quality or “actuality” of things in regards to nature and society…

  7. So, i got a source for R. Israel Salanter…alas it is not a very good one…The idea is phrased here quite conservatively but it is still interesting…

    Reb Shmuel Salant once told Reb Shabsai a Torah insight that he had heard many years before from his close friend and colleague, Rav Yisrael Shalanter. Rav Yisrael had explained that the divine thoughts that Chanoch put into each stitch of the shoes he sewed were not spiritual meditations. Rather, they were Chanoch’s simple and straightforward intentions that the job he did would be performed properly. He prayed that each and every stitch would be sewn to the best of his ability so that the person who would eventually buy such footwear would receive shoes that were made to last, shoes that were worth every bit of the money they cost. “And Chanoch walked with God” (Bereshis 5:24) means that Chanoch walked according to the Halachah, and made an honest living.

    (In Every Generation, 102)


  8. I posted a detailed critical response to Michaelson’s piece here if anyone’s interested:

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