“I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is Mine”

The Experiential and the Man/God Relationship

Mordy Oberstein

Often as Jews we attempt to seek ways to distance ourselves from other religions by emphasizing the rigor of Judaism intellectually. Our first association to knowledge, intellectualism, and the mind tends to take a staunchly scientific, hyper-logical, and absolute path. Our approach to problem solving almost by instinct seemingly tends to take a strict mathematical approach, where concepts are talked about absolutely, where we know through unbreakable step by step systematic logical proofs what is true and what is not. 

Is this really the sum of what it means to be Jewish, to have certain proofs and logics bound up within the recesses of our minds? Is Judaism merely a venture in academics, devoid of meaning and beauty? Is knowledge merely an exercise in understanding logics and proofs? Is the end all of the entire human mind proofs and formulas or is rationality more dynamic, more profound, and vastly more subtle? What does it mean to even truly know something?

There is often confusion between understanding and knowing. A person could certainly understand something yet at the same time not incorporate it into his life at all. Understanding is an aloof, distant and disassociated way to perceive a thing. Knowledge on the other hand is intimate. It is a bond between your entire being and that which is known. Knowledge is a deep, infinitely strong and, familiar connection between the knower and that which is known. Furthermore there cannot be knowledge without action. Knowledge grips the person and, like a powerful wave forces his movements to flow with it. Logics and proofs alone are insufficient as they are unable to permeate the soul itself, to elevate one’s life and uplift one’s being. It seems as though there is another part of the mind at play, a part of the mind that senses truth, that knows truth, that perceives what is true and what it means for something to be true. Logics and proofs are necessary, they show how something is true, but they cannot communicate what it means for something to be true, they cannot relate the significance of the reality and as such they cannot create the intimate bond between man and truth. Take for example beauty, beauty is almost incommunicable, yet it is real. It is real because it is the recognition of what the beloved object signifies, what it means, its value and worth. What proof can afford man such an understanding? In his work And From There Shall You Seek Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik relates, “the great non-Jewish philosopher (Anselem of Canterbury) fasted for three consecutive days, praying and beseeching his creator to enlighten him with a valid proof of his existence. Kierkegaard ridiculed him saying “ You fool, does a baby in his father’s arms need proofs or signs that the father exists? Does the person who feels the need to pray to God require philosophical demonstration?”(pg 16, Ktav). Knowledge is not a mental exercise, knowledge is an experience, you know something as Kierkegaard relates because you are connected to it. You are in a sense one with it, knowledge is an act of familiarity, it is an act of cleaving in every sense of the word and from every part on ones being, B’chol Livavcha UviChol Nafshecha, with all of your heart and with all of your being. Knowledge is not a concrete experience – it is a majestic one.

One need not look hard in our Mesora to see that the Jewish experience is far more meaningful than cognitive recognition and concepts. Dovid HaMalech through sefer Tehillim boldly blows any idea of purely aloof intellectualism out of the water. Beyond even the style of his expression with its vivid poetic expressions, his very relationship to God was not conceptual it was actual, it was not theoretic, it was tangible, it was not scholastic, it was personal. How often does Dovid relate to us the intimacy he experienced with God “ My soul He restores, He directs me in paths of righteousness for the sake of His Name. Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death. I will fear no evil for You are with me” (Tehillim 23). “ Only for God my soul waits silently, for my hope comes from Him” (Tehillim 62). “God is your Guardian, God is your Protection at your right hand….God will guard you from all harm. God will guard your soul, your going and coming, from now and forever”. (Tehillim 121). “God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? God is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Tehillim 27). The very relationship between man and God in Judaism is not only relegated to formal proof but intimate experience, it is a relationship not based on understanding alone, but of knowledge, it is not simply a recognition of God’s existence but an awareness of His presence. A Jew knows God not only because he can prove he exists, a Jew knows God because God is present with him. A Jew knows God not only formally, a Jew knows God because they share a deep relationship. In regards to the Mitzvah of the Arbah Minim, of Lulav and Etrog, Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsh states;  “Take these four (species) as standing for all that God offers you as gifts of nature… acknowledge and acclaim that it is God who vouchsafes unto you all that is good in life” (Horeb pg. 131-132, Soncino Press). How can a person view all of their sustenance as coming from God, how can a person with just abstract logical knowledge even be expected to make God as his provider, to appreciate God’s loving-kindness without knowing him out of a relationship, without knowing him in an intimate personal way? 

In fact, I would even question the entire concept that Mitzvah is merely an intellectual prognosis for daily human life. Is Mitzvah/Halacha all but distant, motorized actions, does it not have a more weighty involvement? Is our relationship to Mitzvah an isolated, one-sided, dichotomized, utilitarian phenomenon, simply to benefit us in a practical, ethical, or philosophic way? I am quite aware of the benefit philosophically or ethically of Mitzvah in terms of its benefit to our very daily lives in a pragmatic way. I simply question that this is the fullest extent of Mitzvah, that this is Mitzvah in totum. Such a proposition in my mind lacks a full awareness of  God who has given Mitzvah to us, and neglects to account for any significant form of relationship between man and God. The question is not linear, the question is not only what does Mitzvah do for my persona per se, but how does Mitzvah function in terms of a cognizance of God. That is, if we take Halacha not as its particulars but a sum of its parts, what does it evoke in man? Halacha is like its root meaning, a mehalech, a derech, a way of operating, but it is not just a derech in terms of specific ideas, or a general direction of action and behavioral morals or ideals, it is derech to God; it itself embodies a dynamic in the Man/God relationship. It on its own, without any explanation per se offers man a unique formulation, even be it on a subconscious level as Halacha is a formidable existential force. Halacha by its very constructs forces man into defeat, man the great force of this world is defeated, muted, and herded by God to act, to think, and even to feel according to God’s will not man’s. Halacha is a mehalech into the very dynamic of the Man/God relationship. “Kol Yisroel Yaish LeHem Chelek”, how so, because the Halacha itself bonds man and God in an intimate, unique, and dynamic relationship of human defeat and submissiveness to the Almighty.  In regards to the dynamic of Halacha the Rav writes; “Again Halacha encourages man to pursue greatness etc. …. And again, Halacha will command him to halt and make an about-face” (“Catharsis”, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, pg. 44. Tradition Magazine 17 No. 2, 1978).

I’ve heard a story numerous times, that I suppose must be true, as I have heard it from many various people. Regardless if it is true or not it’s point is still sharp and accurate. The story goes that it was asked of the great Reb Chaim from Brisk that if every emotion that God created is good, what is the benefit in the emotion to be a heretic. Reb Chaim responded, that a person, when learning Tosfos should not trust the great commentators, rather they should question and verify everything the sages say. 

What then is the benefit of the religious emotion, why unlike all others has it become a taboo? Why while the drive to be a heretic has a manner in which it is validated, does the religious emotion not? Is it not one thing to understand something, yet another to live it? How can religious observance be lived if it is not accompanied by a sublime emotional experience? How can one have a state of being if only a specific part of the self is inspired? It is one thing to understand, it is another to be in an existential state. To know God is to experience God.