December 16, 2004
Kabbalist Theory of Everything
"Derech Hashem -- The Way of God" by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Feldheim, 1997).
Quietly studying a page of the Talmud on a crowded plane, the great Orthodox teacher and thinker Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was interrupted by a passenger in the next seat.
"Pardon me. What is that you are studying?" the man asked.
Soloveitchik explained the nature of the Talmud, and that he was a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University.
The man was incredulous. "Do you mean that people spend their entire lives thinking about religion?" he asked. "Why, I thought that all of religion could be succinctly summarized as 'Do unto others what you would have them do unto you'!"
Soloveitchik resisted the temptation to put the fellow in his place. Instead, he inquired about his co-traveler's profession. Pulling himself up proudly in his seat, the man responded: "Now I," he said, with lots of stress on that first-person singular, "am an astrophysicist."
After pondering that for a moment, Soloveitchik retorted, "Strange. Do you mean there are people who spend their entire lives studying distant galaxies? I thought it could all be summed up simply: 'Twinkle, twinkle little star....'"
Reductionist views of just about anything usually come up lacking. On the other hand, an abundance of information can be a burden, not a blessing. Most of us shunt factoids into our brains the same way we relocate things to the garage. The more stuff we throw in, the worse the clutter gets. We wind up with intellectual chaos, not clarity. What we need, says the author of "Derech Hashem," is a framework within which to store ideas in a way that makes sense. In a tightly reasoned, trim volume, he set out to give us the "Organized Living" of Jewish life: a single-volume philosophy of Judaism that covers both theory and everyday practice.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto died at the age of 39, or just shy of the age some people believe is appropriate to begin studying kabbalah. In his short lifetime, he became not only one of the most important contributors to kabbalistic thought, but authored perhaps the most popular and enduring work on Jewish ethical and character development, Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Just).
Luzzatto systematically addresses many of the questions serious Jews entertain, and many they have not thought of. Why did a perfect God create the world if it couldn't get Him anything He didn't already have? Goodness is part of His nature. He created a world in order to bestow the greatest good, which lies within Him. The recipient -- man -- would labor in this world to slowly change his essential self so he would be able to encounter this good in the next world.
What is the role of the Jewish people? God first offered His wisdom multiple times to a world in which there was no distinction between Jew and non-Jew. Rebuffed as many times as He attempted, He nurtured the offspring of a single righteous Abraham so they would carry His message long enough to eventually bring it to the rest of the world, and eventually produce the Perfected Community.
What is the importance of the soul? Not as the vital force, not as the residence of our memories and aspirations, and not even as the source of our intellect. Instead, he describes it as a kind of interface with the Higher Worlds -- so constructed as to allow us to have a direct impact upon them.
Why does God place such a high premium on Torah study? He wished to create one avenue of connection to Him that maximizes the spiritual charge a human being can process.
What happens in the afterlife? (Read. I won't spoil this one with a summary.)
Above all, "Derech Hashem" makes the case for what may very well have been the single most important idea in sustaining Jewish life through centuries of persecution: the huge value of every mitzvah performed by each ordinary individual. "It is one of the fundamentals of our faith that when an individual performs any good deed, he elevates not only himself, but the entire cosmos."
In "Derech Hashem," he shows how and why. This message alone, if properly understood, could prevent the defection of thousands of young Jews coveting the spiritual significance they are convinced exists only in Eastern disciplines.
"Derech Hashem" is kabbalah at its best. Like so many other authentic masters of kabbalah, Luzzatto found a way to distill the esoteric for consumption by the ordinary. We who live in a time (and a city) in which so much ersatz kabbalah abounds have an added incentive to inoculate ourselves against the phony by studying the real.
A word of warning: The author wrote for an audience that fully accepted his opening premises about God and Revelation. He tries to explain to the believer, not to convince the agnostic. For those who feel connected to the God of Israel and are looking for a new way to fit all the pieces together -- especially one that stresses the inner spirituality of it all -- there is no more important work than "Derech Hashem."
"Derech Hashem" is abailable at 613 The Mitzvah Store or www.feldheim.com.
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