Religious Devotion and Normality

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What is the relationship between religious devotion and normality? As one increases in observance, how should this affect their “normal” human emotions? Perhaps the truly pious are those whose total devotion to God leads to the eradication of their senses and reason. As will be demonstrated below, such was the approach taken by some rabbis of the past generations. Not so Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

Writing in his notebooks, Rav Kook addresses the balance between religious greatness and normality. He cites the example of Moses, prophet par excellence, whose prophecy was characterized by the Sages in the Talmud as having been experienced through a “speculum that shines”, or clear lens. Additionally, in contradistinction to other prophets, Moses prophesied while fully conscious and in control of his physical and mental faculties.

Rav Kook writes (Shemoneh Kevatzim 1:397):

כשם שנבואתו של משה מצטיינת היא מפני זוהר האספקלריא המאירה שלה, שאין הגוף וכחותיו מתבטלים, כך לפי הערך של האורה העליונה הזורחת בנפש, אין השכל האנושי והרגשות האנושיות החיות מתבטלים.

Moses’ prophecy was distinguished by the shining radiance of its lens, such that his body and its faculties were not obliterated [as he prophesied]. Likewise, in accordance with the degree of supernal light shining within the soul, neither the human intellect nor the living human emotions are obliterated.

Rav Kook calls attention to the correlation between the unique quality of Moses’ prophecy and the maintaining of his human faculties while prophesying. His prophecy serves as a model for other forms of spiritual connection: the greater the “supernal light shining within the soul”, the stronger the expression of the human intellect and emotions.

Rav Kook’s claim — that elevated religious and spiritual activity corresponds with the preservation of human emotion and thinking — may be further accentuated by the contrast with stories told of other Lithuanian rabbinic figures of his generation. While Rav Kook championed “normal” human emotions, this was not necessarily commonplace.

Writing at the Seforim Blog, Marc B. Shapiro has collected numerous examples taken from ḥaredi hagiographic literature praising prominent rabbinic figures for negating normal emotional relationships, even amongst their family members. Amongst other phenomena, these works cite as praiseworthy an absorbtion in Torah study such that one not know the names of one’s own children or study partner. The Ḥafetz Ḥaim is described as having had “no material friendships with anyone,” since “the heart should be so filled with the love of God as to leave no room in it for any other loves.” And this is specified as a quality of the spiritual elite! Similarly, an admiring story is told about Rabbi Elḥanan Wasserman’s tremendous focus upon his Torah study, such that when he received word of the birth of a son, he continued learning “as though nothing had occurred”. [1]

In summary, Rav Kook teaches that the prophecy of Moses, characterized both by a unique degree of clarity and the maintenance of his faculties, serves as a model for other expressions of religiosity. While certain Lithuanian rabbis have been celebrated for the emotional disconnect generated by their devotion to Torah study, Rav Kook stresses that heightened religious observance should lead to a strengthening of one’s human emotions and reason, not their stifling.

[1] Introduction to Kovetz Shiurim pt. 1

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2 thoughts on “Religious Devotion and Normality

  1. Shmuel! Very interesting study! It’s also hard for me to understand that H”S, who gave us the institution of marriage, would want us to deny the feelings inherent in that marriage. In fact, our divekus to our spouse is a model for our divekus to HaKodesh Baruch Hu! However, what do you make of the teaching that says that Moshe Rabenu divorced his wife because he needed to be constantly available for navuah?

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    1. Hi Shaul! You raise a very good question on Rav Kook’s reading of Moshe. His need to separate from his wife is certainly the other side of the coin, which at first glance does not seem to reconcile with what Rav Kook is saying. Perhaps it is possible to read Moshe’s lack of availability for family life as a consequence of his overwhelming leadership responsibilities and need to always “be on call”, although the traditional reading does not connect his celibacy with his constant state of prophesy.

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