Hasidic Prayer: Divine Unification
What is God?
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The Hasidic movement is an example of a schismatic movement in Judaism that eventually made its way into the mainstream. Despite strong and sometimes violent opposition from its early opponents, now even Orthodox outsiders have trouble telling the difference between Hasidim and non-Hasidic Haredi Jews. They daven in each other’s shuls, study in each other's yeshivot, hang out together, intermarry regularly, and even join up together in political parties in Israel.
One early source of contention that has remained a benign difference until today is the creation of variant customs of prayer. ‘Nusach S’fard’, the name for Sefaradic-oriented order of prayer that the Hasidim adopted early on in their history, is a subtitle found on many covers of the Hasidic Siddur. The subtitle ‘Nusach Ashkenaz’ is found on the printings of the older Ashkenazi Siddur. The two can be found mixed together in almost every Ashkenazi shul in the world.
One relic of this old battle is the insertion of a small and almost unnoticeable sentence in several places in the Siddur. The insertion is found immediately prior to the recital of a blessing preceding the performance of certain commandments. There are a few different versions of this insertion and it is not unusual to find the different versions in different places in the same Siddur. This is probably due to the nuances of printing and the errors and variations that crept in unnoticed when new editions come out. The fairly standard version is as follows: ‘With the intent of the unification of the Holy One, blessed be He and His Shechina, in fear and love to unify the name of yud heh (first two letters of the Tetragrammaton) with vav heh (final two letters), in complete unity in the name of all of Israel’. A common variation of this is: ‘With the intent of the unification of the Holy One blessed be He and His Shechina, through that (which is) hidden and secret, in the name of all of Israel’.
Just to clarify, there is no evidence that the early Hasidic leaders actually wrote out the text for this insertion. All we really know is that they were the first to actually incorporate it into regular davening. We don’t even know if they were in complete agreement over inserting it in. There is very little with which to trace the origins of this insertion. The only semi-authoritative source we have for its origins is a Responsum written around the year 1800 that states that the insertion had been around for about 150 years. That puts it about the year 1650.
For Jewish history buffs, that year should set off an alarm. That was just when the Sabbatean messianic movement was getting going. 1648 was the watershed year which had Shabbtai Zvi coming out in public. The movement was still small around 1650 but it was growing and developing a highly intricate messianic theory and practice based almost entirely on Lurianic Kabbalah. Coming up with something like this would have been par for the course in those heady times. The exile of the Shechina was a powerful theme among the Tzefat Kabbalists and it only grew as Lurianic Kabbalah spread from Tzefat to Europe.
Some version of this insertion was probably in existence during the 17th century. It made its way to Eastern Europe and was taken up by the early Hasidim. They probably saw it as a way to insert a little Lurianic Kabbalah into the traditional rabbinic prayers. It did not go unnoticed by their opponents. One of the early major opposition leaders, Rabbi Yehezkel Landau, wrote a scathing response to this practice in the second half of the 18th century, probably shortly after the practice began. His main criticism was that it was instituting a change in davening that had never been there before. This was always seen as a serious issue in Judaism, in spite of all the changes that have actually taken place. Rabbi Landau was an uncompromising critic of the Hasidic movement and probably saw this change as an indication of the suspicious origins of the Hasidim. While the Responsum of Rabbi Landau makes no mention of any connection with the Sabbateans, there is little question that the suspicion of such a connection was in the air.
In any case, the insertion survived all that and remains in one form or another in most modern printed Siddurim. There have been, and still are, many rabbinic authorities who were strongly against the insertion, but that hasn’t stopped the printing presses from rolling. The question is what does it mean? A second question, which is our primary interest, is what image of God comes out from it?
It’s really a pretty short statement: With the intent of the unification of the Holy One, blessed be He and His Shechina, in fear and love to unify the name of yud heh (first two letters of the Tetragrammaton) with vav heh (final two letters), in complete unity in the name of all of Israel. There is something about unifying the Holy and the Shechina, and a parallel unification of the first two and last two letters of the Tetragrammaton. That’s really all there is to it. We’re going to ignore the second unification and leave that for the Kabbalists to figure out, and concentrate on the first unification.
As mentioned earlier, the idea of the exile of the Shechina was well known since Tzefat days. The unity could only be restored by the thoughts and actions of human beings, who were somehow responsible for the lack of unity to begin with (the fall of Adam and Eve). It was the task of humanity, and specifically the Jews who were commanded in the mitzvot, to repair this damage (this is where the famous concept of Tikkun, or ‘repair’, enters the picture). This insertion before the performance of a mitzvah or before reciting a specific blessing would direct the mind of the person doing the act towards this unification.
How could the Shechina, which is God’s presence in the world, be exiled or separated from God? This is not such a difficult concept given all that we already know about the dual nature of God. The Glory/Logos/Sefirot/Shechina is God’s presence but is not quite God. It is not a creation, according to the mystics, but it still isn’t the Creator/Unknowable One/En Sof/God. The two are distinct even though they are one. One aspect is unknowable and the other is knowable. Because we are in exile, both physically and spiritually, the Shechina is also in exile and cannot truly be one with God.
There is a second aspect of this separation that used to be subtly hinted and now is almost completely suppressed. This is the idea that the two aspects of God correspond to male and female. The words that are frequently used to allude to the Shechina make this gender association fairly obvious. The Shechina is referred to as a bride in the poems/songs of the Ari. The song Lecha Dodi, which came out of Tzefat and is sung in honor of welcoming the Shabbat Queen, is frequently interpreted as alluding to the female Shechina.
Lurianic Kabbalah is quite open about the male/female aspects of God. Two of the ‘faces’ of God are called Abba (Father) and Imma (Mother). Modern rabbinic authorities who are aware of these allusions are not exactly excited about them. They cannot remove them entirely because they are there in the original texts. So they tend to emphasize that we no longer really understand these allusions and we must assume that they mean something incredibly deep that has nothing to do with any male or female aspects of God. This is generally how this whole idea of the Shechina being separated from the Holy One is dealt with. It is treated as something to be recited but not really understood.
There are three common reactions to this attempt at obscuring something that cannot be eliminated from the tradition. The first approach is to go along with the authorities and just recite the insertion by rote, despite the fact that this defeats the original intention of including the insertion to begin with. The second approach is to not say the insertion since it either cannot be understood or it presents an idea that is objectionable. The third is to attempt to understand it at face value. The third approach is the only one that can hope to give us another image of God.
There are many interpretations of what the relationship of the Shechina to God actually is. One approach is to interpret the Shechina as God’s will in creation as creation unfolds. This is not necessarily the same as God’s original will in creating existence. Things have gone off course and the Shechina is God’s representative ‘on the ground’ who deals with things as they happen, even if the ‘will’ that is expressed by the Shechina does not fit so well with the original plan. This is simply the way things have to be under the circumstances. The intention of this insertion is that the mitzvah or blessing that is about to be performed should do whatever it can to unify the ‘under the circumstances’ will of God with the original will of God. There should not be any difference between them. This is something that only we, as the wild card in the great scheme of creation, can affect. Unification is the goal – we must make it happen.
Perceiving the Image
What does this Shechina/will have anything to do with a female image? How does the original will reflect a male? Before attempting to answer these questions it must be noted that this Kabbalistic male/female image of God seems to have been unique in Judaism. There is no previous hint of such a gender allusion in the long list of pre-Kabbalistic sources. But this image was powerful and obviously hit home with a good deal of the Jews, as reflected in the popularity of Kabbalah. A female aspect of God was long in coming, but it resonated in the minds of many Jews.
Back in medieval times and all the way through the end of the 19th century, women were commonly understood as subservient to men – running the home and bringing up the children, but not making the heavy decisions. Women had to take a lot of abuse, both physical and emotional. They had to deal with situations in which they didn’t have all that much control. They had to accept things as they were and just work with them. The role of the woman was to keep things going under whatever circumstances she had deal with. It wasn’t easy, but such was the fate of half the human race.
The female Shechina image was of a woman who has to deal with a somewhat uncontrollable household and make the best of it. She had to adjust her will according to the doings of those she watches over. In a sense, she is in a form of exile – exile from the true will of her husband, who wants things to happen according to a set plan. Her will does not really match up with that of her husband at any given moment, even though on an overall level it does. In this regard, the Shechina is not unified with the Holy One – she has to act according to the situation as it is in reality and not as it should be in some divine plan. This is the image of the female Shechina. She runs the world in her own way, but she is subservient to a higher will in the big picture.
The insertion itself has largely gone the way of most mystical oriented prayer – people just recite it without making any attempt to understand it. Perhaps it is better this way. If people understood it they would probably reject it altogether. Does this male/female image have a constructive role in the Judaism of the future?
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