Friday, May 06, 2022

Our Divisive Search for Holiness


It is both the cause of exceptional inspiration and nasty dispute. The commandment at the beginning of our parsha, kedoshim tehiyu - you shall be holy - touches the soul but confuses the intellect. Our potential for holiness is enthralling, but what exactly is holiness? The lack of clarity opens the door for multiple interpretations, and every commentary seems to have an alternate explanation of what you shall be holy means. Some see holiness as a radical, otherworldly pursuit. The Ramban connects holiness to asceticism, and says this commandment asks us to exercise personal restraint and diminish physical pleasure in general. Others argue that holiness begins in the heart and is based on one’s ambitions and attitudes. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says it exhorts us to “strive and endeavor to reach the highest degree of human moral perfection.” The Meshech Chochmah sees holiness as the act of devotion, for “the very definition of ‘holy’ is to give something over to a higher realm, and (in this case) it is that one devotes themself completely to the service of God.” The Rashbam has a simple, no-frills definition of holiness: Keep all the commandments listed in the coming parsha, and you will be holy. You simply need to follow the mitzvot carefully, and that is holy enough. No need for extra piety or practices.
IDF soldiers stand at attention in front of the graves of IDF soldiers buried at
Mt. Herzl, Israel's national military cemetery. (April 14, 2010)
While these interpretations sit together nicely on the same page of our chumashim, they have been the cause of much upheaval throughout history. Religious passion very often leads to religious battles, and the open-ended nature of the commandment you shall be holy invites dispute.
A prime example of this is the Musar controversy of the late 19th and early 20th century, which divided communities and destroyed friendships. One of the leading yeshivot in Lithuanian Jewry, the Slabodka Yeshiva, split during the controversy. Some of the episodes in this battle were particularly shocking. In 1904 and 1905, (which were years of revolution in Russia), an anti-Musar student pulled a gun on a rabbi of the Slabodka yeshiva, and another group of students gathered all the Yeshiva’s Musar books and tossed them into the sewage filled latrines.
At first glance, this controversy seems extremely strange. The Musar movement was dedicated to ethical and spiritual growth. How could something so innocuous start a battle that lasted over 30 years?
The Musar movement began with an intellectual giant, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who was concerned by what he saw as a lack of character in the Jewish community. Rabbi Yisroel would explain the importance of Musar by recounting an incident that occurred to him one Yom Kippur eve. In the synagogue that night, he saw a man reciting the Al Chet prayer. (Al Chet is a list of every possible sin, some quite remote, written to ensure that everyone's confession on Yom Kippur is thorough.) The man was praying with incredible intensity and had tears rolling down his cheeks. Rabbi Yisroel approached the man, hoping to join him in this moving prayer. But when Rabbi Yisroel came near, the man violently pushed him away! As Rabbi Yisroel would put it, the man was crying about sins he never committed, but had no idea what Yom Kippur was all about.
To fill this communal gap in moral and spiritual development, Rabbi Yisroel began to advocate for the study of Musar; books of Musar had been part of rabbinic literature for centuries but were often neglected. Rabbi Yisroel also felt that the study of Musar was not enough, because dry, intellectual study would not bring about change. So, he created immersive techniques. He instituted separate “Musar houses,” where everyone was devoted to Musar, and where there were intense, inspirational talks on the topic. People were encouraged to undertake a serious self-examination and engage in self-criticism. There were additional techniques that were unusual, such as discussing death, repeating specific phrases over and over, and intentionally becoming emotional during the study of Musar. Taken together, these techniques would engage a person on a deeper level and help them transform themselves. (Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg argues that many decades before Freud, Rabbi Yisroel understood the importance of the human unconscious, which does not readily respond to reason alone.)
The opposition to Musar had two primary themes. First, there was opposition to perceived extremism in the Musar movement. The most famous statement of Musar’s opponents was a public letter by 9 prominent Lithuanian rabbis, which was published on May 10, 1897. In it, the rabbis criticized Musar methods as phony and artificial; it was mere religious theater, which enabled otherwise ignorant students who excelled at Musar methods to be considered role models. They also criticized the method of repeating phrases, deriding the way it was done “with great and terrible cries, with a grief filled, bitter voice, in a sad melody, accompanied by weird and strange movements.”
In other letters, critics took aim at Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horwitz, the founder of the Novardok Yeshiva. Rabbi Yosef Yozel was a well-known Musar personality, who had abandoned his home and business to study with Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. When Rabbi Yosef Yozel’s wife passed away, he left his children with relatives, and enclosed himself in a room. His meals were passed in through two windows, one for meat and the other for milk; he did not leave the room for nearly two years. The yeshiva Rabbi Yosef Yozel later established reflected his personality and included strange and extreme practices as well. Students at Novardok shared all belongings in common; they would intentionally act strangely, such as wearing clothing inside out, or making bizarre requests in stores, to invite the insults of others. Critics of Musar wrote dismissively of “the one with windows”; the strange behavior associated with Musar, and the Novardok Yeshiva in particular, was unacceptable to them.
The other concern with the Musar movement is that it considered Musar more important than Torah. For many in Lithuanian Jewry, the tradition of pure Torah study, Torah lishmah, was the very essence of Judaism. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains that this concern motivated the opposition of his grandfather and great grandfather to Musar. Rabbi Soloveitchik writes that “one must not waste time on spiritual self-appraisal, on probing introspections, and on the picking away at the ‘sense’ of sin. Such a psychic analysis brings man neither to fear nor to love of God, nor, most fundamental of all, to the knowledge and cognition of the Torah….Man's entire psychic being must be committed to the regime of the cognition of halakhah…” To Rabbi Soloveitchik, Musar was rejected because it replaced Torah at the center of Jewish practice.
These two camps, for and against Musar, were searching for the correct path to holiness. And this highlights how divisive the commandment of you shall be holy can be. Is holiness simply following the Torah, or does it require extreme and extraordinary behavior? Is holiness found in embracing halakhah, or changing one’s inner outlook? Both sides in the Musar controversy pursued holiness; but at the same time, their passion for holiness led to intense anger and debate.
As the Jewish world gets more diverse, there is a need for a different approach to holiness. We need to learn how to be connoisseurs of holiness, rather than critics. When confronting those with a different viewpoint than our own, we need to take a moment to appreciate their idealism and passion before criticizing them and stretch our souls to recognize goodness wherever it may be. Perhaps this is why the commandment you shall be holy is so vague; there will be 70 faces to holiness, and it is our obligation to cherish all of them.
This past week on Yom Hazikaron, I was thinking of an anecdote that reflects what authentic appreciation of holiness is. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva world in Israel for much of the 20th century. When a student asked his permission to take a short leave from the Yeshiva in Jerusalem to travel up north to pray at the “graves of the righteous,” Rabbi Auerbach told the student that he didn’t need to travel to visit holy graves; the student could cross the road and go to Mount Herzl, the military cemetery of the IDF, where there are the graves of holy soldiers who gave their lives to protect the people of Israel.
This insight is particularly powerful because even those of us in the religious-Zionist community would probably turn first to visit the graves of great rabbis to pray. Yet Rabbi Shlomo Zalman knew otherwise; he appreciated holiness wherever it may be. And it is certainly found at the graves of holy soldiers on Mount Herzl.

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