“And he was frightened, and he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’.” (Bereshit 28:17)
ויירא ויאמר מה נורא המקום הזה אין זה כי אם בית אלהים וזה שער השמים
Being religious is fraught with danger. People are often pulled in directions where they can easily break their necks. To be religious is to allow your neshama (soul) to surpass your body, taking it to places where it cannot dwell and may self-destruct.
In Plato’s Phaedo, the metaphor used to describe the relationship of the soul to the body is that of a person locked in prison. (2) Platonic philosophy aims at liberating a person from their body, which is a prison. Only in that way can they achieve self-perfection. For Aristotle, although ethics and politics are serious issues, the essence of a person – the very activity that is distinctly human – is intellectual contemplation of eternal truth. The highest human achievement lies in the privacy of a person’s thoughts. Its content has no practical human benefit. The most exalted human being is the philosopher, who must be free of the body’s demands, because they interfere with contemplation.
In Judaism, this is not what life is all about. According to biblical thought, the body is not perceived as being in conflict with the soul. It is not an obstacle, but a most welcome companion. Otherwise, what is the purpose of the body? Just to be a nuisance that one would be better off without? Jewish thought holds that it can’t be God’s intention to create the human body simply to deliberately frustrate man. True, the body may sometimes pose challenges, but ultimately this is to allow the complete human being, not just the soul, to grow. The purpose of human beings is not to dwell in Heaven and contemplate, but to act with their bodies and bring Heaven down to the material domain in order to transform the world into a better place. The meaning of life is to be effectively realized by bringing about the interpenetration of the soul and the body.
A Combined Effort
The mind of a human – the custodian of all spiritual and ethical values – is, on its own, incapable of action. On the other hand, all the forces and energy in the body are intrinsically indifferent to ethical or spiritual concepts. Only in a combined effort of mind and body can they build the world. Everything that people do must be able to permeate their thoughts, and everything that people think must find a way into their bodies (Heschel). While this might very well lead to disaster, it can also bring a person to an exalted state of life. This is the task and challenge for which we were created.
Knowledge alone is never a cause for action. Western civilization has mistakenly believed that it is possible to educate the body by reasoning with it. So it continued speaking to the mind, but never really reached the body. This has led to disastrous consequences. Many philosophers have delivered themselves into the hands of evil as a result.
The distinction between body and soul is similar to a difference in organic functioning; it does not reflect the radical dualism that is implicit in Plato’s prison metaphor.
Mysterium Tremendum Et Fascinans
Perhaps the most acute case of a man nearly losing his body while being religious is that of Ya’akov falling asleep and dreaming of a ladder on which angels ascend and descend. (3) The top of the ladder reaches Heaven, and God stands over it. The great German Lutheran thinker, Rudolf Otto (1869–1937), called this experience “numinous”, “a non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” (4) It consists of a mysterium tremendum et fascinans – an awe-inspiring and fascinating mystery; an altogether otherworldly experience of an objective presence that generates wonder, fear, and dependence, but also enormous spiritual vitality.
This, says Otto, is what Ya’akov experiences when he falls asleep and has his dream. There is no greater religious moment than this. It is an unprecedented encounter with God. But it is also extremely dangerous. The experience is so overwhelming that Ya’akov runs the risk of losing his body. The dream carries him to Heaven, a place where his body cannot dwell. It is paralyzed and nearly eliminated.
Just before his soul leaves his body, against all expectations and as if through a miracle, Ya’akov wakes up. His reaction is most telling: “Behold, God is in this place and I did not know it.” (5) This is an instant of ultimate crisis. It is tremendous to have a religious moment, but what happens when it is impossible to handle? What am I going to do in the real world with this flash of intense unparalleled revelation?
The Need for the Mundane
The biggest problem is not with the moment itself, but with how to keep it alive and take it with me throughout the rest of my life, in a way that is beneficial. And if I can’t, what then is the purpose of this moment? Not only will it fade into oblivion, but it will be a trauma that will haunt me for the rest of my life! It can easily turn into madness. Ya’akov’s religious experience leaves him without solid ground under his feet. Plato and Aristotle would have been delighted, but Ya’akov is scared to death. It is all meaningless unless I can translate this into the mundane.
While his mind and soul are still in Heaven, Ya’akov does the only right thing to do: he looks to the ground and picks up a stone. He wants to find the mundane, because it is there that life takes place. And unless he can apply his experience in a practical way, all of these heavenly events will have been in vain.
“And Ya’akov rose up early in the morning and took the stone that he had placed under his head and set it up as a memorial stone and poured oil on top of it. . . . Ya’akov made a vow. ‘If God will be with me’, he said, ‘if He will protect me on the journey that I am taking . . . then I will dedicate myself totally to God. Let this stone, which I have set up as a memorial, become a house of God. Of all that You give me, I will set aside a tenth to You’.” (6)
The Financial Act
Not only does Ya’akov root his heavenly experience in the mundane by taking a stone to sanctify it with a physical substance, but more importantly, he links it to a mundane financial act. He translates it into ma’aser, promising that he will tithe all his physical possessions. He “de-religionizes” his experience, understanding that being religious cannot mean withdrawing from this world. It must mean engaging with this world and giving it religious and heavenly meaning. He knows that his episode with the ladder is a slippery slope on which one can easily break one’s neck. To redeem this experience, it must be established in a specific space – in a physical act, in the ordinary – not by night, but only by day when human beings are awake.
What Ya’akov does is most remarkable. He introduces one of the great foundations of Halacha: To give a religious moment an ongoing effect, it must be translated into the tangible, the mundane. It must establish patterns of bodily reactions and conduct, which testify to an acute corporeal awareness of a reality beyond body. To achieve an authentic state of religiosity, there must be an element of everydayness, of the commonplace, which often includes what others may call trivialities. There must be a finite act through which one perceives the infinite (Heschel). Every trifle is infused with divinity.
Rather than ignore the body, Halacha draws a person’s attention to its complexities. Halacha tells man not to fall victim to grandiose dreams. There are limits to human existence, and it is exactly this fact that makes life a challenge and a joy. The body places man firmly in a world where he cannot survive if he doesn’t act. Man’s view of the relationship between his body and soul reflects his attitude toward dependence on the outer world – is it embarrassing, or is it uplifting?
Dreams and Unfulfilled Halacha
It is most telling that in the Torah, the world of dreams comes to an end with Sefer Bereshit, the book in which almost everybody experiences dreams: Avraham, Ya’akov, and Yosef dream, and even Avimelech, Lavan, and Pharaoh, too. But once the Torah is given, there are no more dreams. It is as if the Torah teaches us that mitzvot take the place of dreams. A dream is an expression of an illusory world. It represents dimensions of Heaven, where the impossible can happen – where time doesn’t play a role, where man is passive and things happen to him that are beyond his actual capability. Dreams that take place as a religious experience transform man’s world into a utopia for which there is no foundation, and those dreams have no chance of ever being actualized. They are unworldly and therefore dangerous. They are deaf and invulnerable to the cries of the real world.
But people need to dream. Dreams allow a person to be insane for a few moments. There’s a need for it, but it cannot be the foundation of their life. We must dream in order to demand of ourselves the impossible, so that it becomes conceivable, even if only once. But it must have a link to reality. Once it is totally disconnected, it loses its purpose.
Dreams are also moments of anticipation – “I have a dream!” – and one way in which people can make their dreams come true is by acting as if it is already taking place. Halachic requirements are often frozen dreams. They make people do things they are not yet ready to do. They are still spiritually beyond him. An example of this is lighting the Chanuka menora for eight days. We are required to add another candle every night and light it. It is as if we are ascending in spirituality throughout those eight days, with the last night being the most intense and powerful one. In fact, though, it is the first night that excites most people. To the average person, the new is more exhilarating. So the Jew is asked to act as if in a dream: light the candles as though you are becoming more and more excited with each day, so that one day you may really feel that the last candle is the most electrifying one.
We are not asked to dream the inconceivable. We are asked to dream what is actually achievable. It is the Halacha that rescues us from unrealistic dreams, substituting them with those that are viable. Mount Sinai and the giving of the law replaced impossible dreams with those that are within our grasp.
(1) This essay was originally published in Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2018), chap. 20.
(2) Plato, Phaedo, 81e. See also the introduction in Plato’s Phaedo, trans. Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 1998), 3.
(3) Bereshit 28:11–12.
(4) Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (NY: Oxford University Press, 1958), 10-11.
(5) Bereshit 28:16.
(6) Bereshit 28:18-22.