One of the primary areas in daily life where I strive for piety is in my eating choices. Jewish tradition is rich with wisdom pertinent to our greatest moral problems related to food consumption today: hunger, just labor practices, treatment of animals, fair trade, environmental impact, and access to healthy food options. I have become more interested in exploring the degree to which the lifestyles advised in Chassidic thought can assist the moral life choices of one seeking to eat and consume more justly.
There is a complex relationship to the material world in various strands of Chassidic thought. On the one hand, the chassid (individual striving for a pious life of service) should seek to transcend materialism while on the other hand, he is charged with elevating the material. Can these two approaches be reconciled? What are the spiritual practices associated with each?
A certain type of chassid attempts to belittle and to transcend the concrete and the mundane. Most starkly, there is a concept of bitul yesh where one seeks to negate one’s very being. In moving from being to nothingness, one transcends physical reality and physical concerns. One achieves this state via Derekh HaChassidut, the pious asceticism of disowning materialism, through deveikut, a radical clinging to God and, according to some, necessitating a breaking free from gashmiut (materialism).
Many Chassidic thinkers understand the human being to be composed of two components: nefesh behemit (the animalistic soul) and nefesh Elokit (the Godly, spiritual soul). This duality seems to imply an existential rejection of a unified self that integrates the physical with the spiritual. One ultimately seeks hafshatat hagashmiut (removing materialism) through prayer to reach the Divine core in (or beyond) the self. Hafshatat Hamachshava, where one transcends even the mind, is also a desired goal. The value for this whole process can be called Hishtavut (equanimity), where all values connected to this world are seen as vain and empty. This is achieved via Histalkut (“withdrawal” from physical thinking and concerns); from this perspective, the chassid clearly denounces all ties to the physical world and sees it as impure, valueless, and an impediment to actualization and avodat Hashem (serving of God).
Simultaneously, a certain type of chassid seeks to use and elevate the mundane concrete earthly world. This is called avodah b’gashmiut, and means that one serves God through the body, seeking the Divine in the physical. This is a way to illuminate the mundane and the intentions associated with it. While deveikut is generally understood as transcendence of physicality, one might see deveykut b’otiot (a clinging to God through the Divine letters) as an engagement with the physical. Along these lines of thinking, Chassidic thinkers have, in fact, argued that God can only be seen in a finite form, in a levush (clothed form), and so we need the concrete to perceive and connect to God. This is a radical shift from the common understanding of G-d as incorporeal (formless).
So there is a contradiction, as I see it, in the different strands of Chassidic thought. Should one seek to actualize the soul and the soul’s service by embracing materialism or should one disown it completely? The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidut, sought to embrace and to elevate the physical world, though it seems that he lived quite ascetically. Much has changed where chassidim today speak of the vanities of the material world; however, many seem to enjoy fine cuisine, cigarettes, and technology along with the rest of Western culture.
Back to my eating choices, how can I sacrifice to transcend pleasurable materialism while spiritually elevating the physical wants I choose to embrace? Thus the religious social justice problem: Why should one seeking to be pious care about another’s mundane pain if one also dismisses physical realities? Professor Rachel Elior offers one answer to this problem: “The suffering of the material world was replaced by an optimism derived from the recognition that there is more to existence than meets the eye and that shared social and spiritual responsibility can ease the confrontation with reality.” This tension between helping others in physicality and asceticism (“confrontation with reality” as Elior calls it) is eased by a spiritual view of the world that includes the physical but also transcends it. By taking responsibility for our existence and for others we can access the deeper spiritual truths hidden within the physical. Further, Elior argues for the egalitarian pathos of Chassidut: “The idea that every individual is a sanctuary for the divine essence that fills the universe with its glory accords equal value to all members of the community and all modes of worship by virtue of the radical claim that ‘God wants to be served in all modes…God can be served in everything.’” Martin Buber famously argued that “Hasidism is kabbalah that has become ethos.” Living piously, at its best, is about transforming every encounter into an ethical embrace.
The tension between the physical and spiritual can be resolved by a responsibility to the other. Elior suggests that “Hasidism linked the mystical ascent to the higher worlds with social responsibility in the material universe and saw the significance of the physical world only in the divine animation that sustains it. In doing so, Hasidism proposed a new relationship between the spiritual and material. The perpetual transition from nothingness to being is reflected in the figure of the tzadik (righteous one), who attaches himself to the higher worlds and channels spiritual and physical abundance to his followers.” Some have interpreted this as a form of quietism (indirect activism), that by being metzamtzem (retracting oneself from the world) G-d’s overflowing goodness will pour over upon other humans. This quietism must be transformed to an activism.
Avodah b’gashmiut means that we serve God through both our bodies and those of others. Collective service is a value, and one seeking piety thus must care about one’s fellow. Even for those who strive to reject physicality, there is spiritual value in purifying ourselves through the physical ways we must engage in the world and through helping others attain their physical needs. Ultimately to be a chassid is to do chesed and to be a tzadik is to do tzedakah (righteous acts). One of the main ways that we serve in life is with our bodies via what we consume. We can seek a spiritual existence transcending beyond mundane materialism while still prioritizing the physical needs of others. As Rav Dessler once said: “The physical needs of the other are my spiritual needs.” May we learn to elevate and be elevated through the physical and the spiritual in the coming year!
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life at the UCLA Hillel, and a 6th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.