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"Catharsis" (2): Sanctity and the Body - Elevating Physical Existence

Rav Reuven Ziegler
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In the second half of "Catharsis," Rav Soloveitchik divides our "total existential experience" into four realms - aesthetic-hedonic, emotional, intellectual, and moral-religious - and shows how the principle of catharsis applies to each. This section of the essay is particularly fascinating not only since we can directly apply it to our daily lives, but because the Rav provides powerful examples in each area. The themes developed here recur throughout the Rav's writings, testifying to the central place they occupy in his thought. Because of the importance of these ideas, I would like to treat at length each area delineated by the Rav, building on his discussions both in "Catharsis" and in other essays. We will begin this week by exploring the nature of catharsis in the first area of human experience, namely, that of physical existence. [Apart from "Catharsis," the main source for our examination of this theme is "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," pp. 207-217. This motif also figures in "Halakhic Man" and "The Lonely Man of Faith."]




In this area, encompassing our physical drives and bodily pleasures, the need for catharsis is clear and asserts itself more frequently than in any other realm. Here, catharsis consists of withdrawal from an external temptation, or, stated differently, in restraining and channeling one's inner desire.

"The stronger the grip of the physiological drive is felt by man, the more intoxicating and bewildering the prospect of hedonic gratification, the greater the redemptive capacity of the dialectical catharsis - of the movement of recoil." (p. 45)


This is beautifully illustrated in a midrash quoted by the Rav:

"It often happens that a man takes a wife when he is thirty or forty years of age. When, after going to great expense, he wishes to associate with her, she says to him, 'I have seen a rose-red speck [of menstrual blood].' He immediately recoils. What made him keep away from her? Was there an iron fence, did a serpent bite him, did a scorpion sting him? Only the words of the Torah, which are as soft as a bed of lilies...

"A dish of meat is placed before a man and he is told that some forbidden fat has fallen into it. He withdraws his hand from the food. What stopped him from tasting it? Did a serpent bite him? Did a scorpion sting him? Only the words of the Torah, which are as soft as a bed of lilies." (Midrash Rabba on Shir Ha-shirim 7:3)


The identification of kedusha with restraint of man's primal drives has a long history. For example, the Rambam (like the above midrash) groups together the laws of forbidden sexual unions and forbidden foods in his "Sefer Kedusha" (The Book of Holiness). [Rav Soloveitchik groups a third drive with these two - the desire for acquisition, which must similarly be restrained and sanctified.] What separates man from the beast is whether he controls his drives or whether they control him. In this sense, the Torah's restrictions in these areas actually give him freedom - he is not a slave to his passions, but rather their master. I believe this is part of what is meant in the following celebrated maxim:

"Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi ... 'And the writing was the writing of God engraved upon the tablets' (Shemot 32:16) - do not read 'engraved' (charut) but rather 'freedom' (cherut), for no man is truly free except he who engages in the study of Torah." (Avot 6:2)


This type of understanding can lead to an ascetic approach which negates the value of man's physical existence, considering it a hindrance to his spiritual pursuits. Such a position, indeed, has been espoused by some Jewish thinkers (most prominently by the Rambam in his Guide of the Perplexed). Rav Soloveitchik, however, takes the opposite approach. The act of withdrawal purifies and redeems man's natural urges, endowing them with sanctity and allowing them to serve as means for spiritual growth.


According to the Rav, God does not desire that man live an otherworldly ascetic existence, nor does He wish for man to adopt an ethereal and abstract spirituality. Rather, God wants man to lead a full and enjoyable natural life. However, he must instill it with meaning and direction, thus grounding his spirituality in his concrete life. For example, if unrestrained and unredeemed, the sexual act can be brutish and dehumanizing. Man succumbs to a frenzy of primitive passions and treats his sexual partners as things, as mere means to fulfill his desire. However, within the framework of marriage (and at the permitted times), sexuality becomes something beautiful and sacred. Hedged in by prohibitions, it turns into an act conforming to God's will. Between husband and wife, it expresses love and commitment (which are also desired by God). Furthermore, it actually becomes a vehicle for fulfilling mitzvot, such as procreation ("peru u-revu") and the obligation of conjugal relations (onah). Thus, one's physical life becomes the fountainhead of kedusha.




Although he does not state it explicitly, it seems that Rav Soloveitchik perceives the "yetzer ha-ra," commonly translated as the "evil impulse," to be identical with man's natural biological drives. These in themselves are neutral and necessary for survival, and can be turned to good or evil. If one gives in to them without recognizing any restraints or exercizing any selectivity, they drag him down to, at best, a coarse and animalistic existence. At worst, in a relentless quest for gratification of his ever-increasing desires, man can become criminal and depraved, almost satanic. On the other hand, if one exercises control over these natural urges, they can be a force for good.


This approach is firmly rooted in talmudic sources. For example, an aggadic passage in Yoma (69b) recounts that once the sages managed to imprison the yetzer ha-ra. Three days later, however, they searched for a freshly-laid egg and could not find one in the entire Land of Israel. The sages realized that if they would not free the yetzer ha-ra at once, the world would be destroyed. This approach is also articulated in a midrash explaining why on the first five days of creation God beheld His works and "saw that they were good," while on the sixth day "God saw ALL that He had created, and behold, it was VERY good" (Bereishit 1:31):

"'Very good' (tov me'od) - this refers to the yetzer ha-ra, for without it, one would not build a house, marry, beget children, or engage in business." (Bereishit Rabba 9:7)


The gemara (Berakhot 54a) teaches that the commandment to "love the Lord your God with your WHOLE heart (be-KHOL levavkha)" (Devarim 6:5) refers to "your two impulses: the good impulse and the evil impulse." It seems to me that the most plausible way to understand this gemara is along the lines suggested above - you must serve God through both your spiritual and physical impulses. The necessity of this approach and its attendant dangers are highlighted in the following aggadic passage:

"One's 'yetzer' ... should be pushed away with his left hand and brought near with his right." (Sota 47a, Sanhedrin 107b)




Rav Soloveitchik takes the Sages' approach a step further by stating that not only are man's natural urges necessary for his survival but, as mentioned above, they themselves can be a source of sanctity. In fact, the Halakha insists that man's spirituality be based precisely on his physical existence and that it penetrate every aspect of that existence. Large portions of "Halakhic Man" and "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham" polemicize against the type of spirituality which ignores or denies man's natural life. [In chapter 8 of "Halakhic Man," the Rav offers two major reasons for rejecting such an approach: 1) man cannot free himself of his physicality, and a doctribased on the desire to do so is inherently false; 2) such an approach would be confined to a small elite, rendering religion an esoteric and undemocratic affair.] Halakhic religiosity is focused on this world; as opposed to those who pine for the purity of the World-to-Come, the Halakha abhors death, assigning anything connected to it to the realm of impurity (see "Halakhic Man," pp. 31-37).


As the Rav points out in "Halakhic Man" (p. 51), Halakha is a realistic doctrine which takes literally the statement, "God saw all that He had created, and behold, it was very good." It affirms the value and dignity of man's physical existence by giving it direction and meaning. What Halakha opposes is boundlessness and non-directedness, the darkness of untrammeled bestial drives, but not physicality per se. To the contrary, man must serve God with all the powers at his disposal, starting with his body.


This is why, for example, so many mitzvot revolve around the meal.

"Eating, the animalistic function upon which man's life depends, was refined by the Halakha into a form of religious worship and an act of high morality."

("U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," henceforth UVM, p. 208)


"Eating is the act of realizing the idea of kedusha, which means sanctifying both the body and the spirit. If a person eats in the appropriate manner, in accordance with the demands of Halakha, then he is eating before God, serving Him by means of this 'despicable' function, and cleaving to Him." (ibid., p. 212; note: quotations from UVM are my translations)


Not only are there restrictions on what we may eat (kashrut), and not only are we obligated to pronounce blessings before and after eating, but many of the most sublime mitzvot are fulfilled through the consumption of food - e.g. eating kodshim (offerings), matza, kiddush, rejoicing on festivals, etc. These are not mysterious symbolic rituals, like Catholic communion, but real acts of eating which one enjoys and which satisfy his hunger. In fact, if one eats in a manner which does not please him, such as if he is already full and is now merely stuffing himself (akhila gassa), it is questionable whether he has fulfilled these mitzvot.


Furthermore, as the Rav points out, the Halakha turns eating into "an act of high morality." First of all, it is forbidden to eat stolen food, and any mitzva utilizing it is disqualified. Secondly, in all halakhic feasts (e.g. eating kodshim, the seder, a se'udat mitzva, etc.) one must invite the needy and unfortunate to dine along with him. As the Rambam so memorably puts it,

"When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he must feed the stranger, orphan, widow, and other unfortunates who are destitute. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is not engaging in the rejoicing of a mitzva but rather in the rejoicing of his belly." (Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:18)


Inviting the poor is not extrinsic to the mitzva of rejoicing but rather is part of its very fulfillment. This is not only an act of charity, but, more importantly, an expression of community, fellowship and concern. Your own enjoyment should not be complete if others are alone and suffering. [This thought should give us all pause when planning weddings, bar mitzvas, and the like.]




Having purified our aesthetic-hedonic experience, what is the nature of our enjoyment? The Rav writes:

"The Halakha commands man to enjoy the splendor and beauty of creation to a degree no less than that of the sybarite. However, the pleasure of the man of Halakha is refined, bounded-in and purified... The Halakha never forbade man the pleasures of this world nor did it demand of him asceticism and self-torture... [But] the Halakha does despise the chaos of hedone ... Halakha distances man from madness and the hysteria of desire. Halakhic enjoyment lacks overintensity, overstimulation and drunkenness of the senses. However, it possesses the beauty of gentility and the aesthetic splendor of life. When man enjoys the world in accordance with the view of the Halakha, his enjoyment is modest and refined, lacking the mania of sexual desire and the frenzy of gluttony."

(UVM, pp. 207-208)


Halakha's belief that physical life can be sanctified stands in stark contrast to the dualistic approach of Western (i.e. Greek and Christian) thought. The latter "despaired metaphysically and morally of man's natural side and devoted itself to his spiritual-intellectual side" (UVM, p. 207). It created an unbridgeable gap between the physical and the spiritual. While the Torah declared, "And you shall eat before the Lord your God, in the place where He will choose to establish His Name, the tithes of your new grain and wine and oil, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks, so that you may learn to revere the Lord your God always" (Devarim 14:23), Greek thought would not be able to fathom such a command:

"The animal eats; man thinks and cognizes the spiritual, general and ideal. The intellect, not the stomach, approaches God. 'And you shall eat before God' - is there anything more self-contradictory? [But Judaism says:] Nevertheless!" (UVM, p. 208)


In Judaism, the Rav teaches, all spirituality is based on the real, the concrete, the physical. Anything holy must have a defined time and place (see his essay "Sacred and Profane"). In response to those who mock Halakha's "excessive" attention to physical life, the Rav proudly and unabashedly declares:

"Indeed, the Halakha is the law of the body. But this is where you find its greatness; by sanctifying the physical, it creates a unified psychosomatic individual who serves his Creator with both his spirit and his body and elevates the animal [in him] to the heights of eternity." (UVM, p. 215)


Next week we will discuss the catharsis of the second realm of human experience, namely, the world of emotions.



1. Natural Man and Spiritual Man: see Rav Soloveitchik's essay "Confrontation."

 2. Jewish vs. Greek View of Eating: see UVM, pp. 211-212, where the Rav contrasts the Jewish se'uda with the Greek symposium.

3. Sanctification of Physical Life: this theme is examined by Chaim Navon, "'Ve-hinei Tov Me'od' - Ha'ala'at Ha-guf Be-mishnat Ha-grid Soloveitchik," Alon Shevut 149 (Nisan 5757), pp. 131-147.


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