Holiness and Community:
Teachings of Ma’or va-Shemesh on Parashat Kedoshim
Rabbi Nehemia Polen, Ph.D.
Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman ha-Levi Epstein of Cracow (c. 1751-1823) was one of the early masters of Hasidism in Poland. A disciple of Rabbi Elimelekh of Lyzhansk and the Seer of Lublin, his Ma’or va-Shemesh is a fundamental work which encapsulates the core ideas of Hasidism’s classical period. This masterpiece of hasidic thought is perhaps the only hasidic work to be printed in entirety in some standard editions of the Pentateuch with commentaries (Mikra’ot Gedolot).
I. The Hasidic Movement
Hasidism traces its origins to Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (d. 1760), known as the Baal Shem Tov, a uniquely gifted mystical teacher and healer, endowed with paranormal abilities which he used for the benefit of the Jewish community as a whole. The main innovations of Hasidism of the Baal Shem Tov are attitudinal and experiential. These include:
- A focus on Divine immanence, the teaching that the entire universe is permeated with the indwelling Presence of the Divine, that "no place is void of Him." This leads to the desired state of devekut, or communion with God. Devekut is especially valued in prayer, which is often marked by ecstatic fervor.
- A robust embrace of this world as God’s arena, neither fearing the physical world nor being entrapped by it.
- A posture of boldness and fearlessness, of assertive self-confidence. This is a consequence of the hasidic emphasis on the omnipresence of the Divine. Since God is everywhere, evil is ultimately an illusion, and there is nothing to fear but God.
- An emphasis on joy. In the verbal domain, this expresses itself in a love of wordplays and bon mots, which convey suppleness, surprise, and flexibility, and which may become the vehicles of illumination.
- Belief in the uniqueness and sacredness of each individual. This is related to the need to for each person to personalize his/her service of God, to develop one’s own religious signature and spiritual style.
- Love of God, Torah and the Jewish people. This inseparable triad finds its most powerful embodiment in the hasidic zaddik, the leader who takes responsibility for the entire community, uniting, guiding and inspiring it. Like Moses and the other biblical prophets, the zaddik stands in the breach between God and community, mediating between the two, bringing his Hasidim closer to the Divine by their association with him. Hasidim believe that the zaddik confers efficacious blessing by his word and holiness by his proximity. But the deepest locus of the sacred is not the zaddik alone, nor the hasidic community, but the bond between them which enriches them all.
While the Baal Shem Tov will always be viewed as Hasidism’s founder, it was Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezhirech (d. 1772), with his combination of dazzling charismatic power, depth of traditional Talmudic learning, and astute organizational ability, who shaped Hasidism into a formidable movement which spread rapidly beyond the confines of its Podolian and Ukrainian origins, and soon conquered almost all of the Eastern European Jewish world.
The disciples of the Maggid of Mezhirech each staked out a certain territory, spiritual as well as geographical, within the Jewish world. Rabbi Elimelekh of Lyzhansk (1717-1787), for example, was instrumental in bringing Hasidism to southeastern Poland and Galicia. It is said that when Rabbi Elimelekh passed away, he bequeathed his eyes to the Rabbi Jacob Isaac, the Seer of Lublin (1745-1815), his power of speech to the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Apter Rav (1748-1825), his mind to Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov (1745-1815) and his heart to Rabbi Israel of Kozienice (1737-1814). This tradition suggests how one great early hasidic master engendered both a geographical dispersion and a spiritual diversification of the message of Hasidism.
Students of Hasidism frequently mark the year 1815 as a watershed moment in the history of the movement. This is largely due to the fact that so many of the early disciples of the Maggid of Mezhirech died in or around that year. Some scholars went so far as to portray the period after 1815 as one of decline, marked by routinization of charisma and dissipation of fervor. Recent studies have corrected this simplistic assessment, however. While it is true that the years after 1815 saw the movement spread and consolidate, to the point that it eventually became the dominant mode of religious affiliation for Eastern European Jews, Hasidism continued to produce energetic, intellectually creative and spiritually illuminated leaders throughout the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries. Polish Hasidism in particular displays a quality of unbounded spiritual vitality and intellectual creativity during its entire history, not least in the first part of the nineteenth century.
Around the year 1800 the phenomenon of hereditary leadership and dynastic succession began to emerge in Ukrainian Hasidism; it became common for a son or son-in-law to assume the master’s seat and his following upon his death. In Poland, however, lineal succession did not take hold until much later, and the hereditary principle never triumphed completely. In Polish Hasidism it often happened that a charismatic disciple attracted hasidim of an aging or deceased master, and set out to found his own school. This pattern led to a certain contentiousness, as groups vied with each other for disciples and influence. By the fourth generation of the movement, for example, Polish Hasidism was riven by a split between the followers of the Seer of Lublin on the one hand, and an upstart group of young rebels led by Rabbi Yaakov Isaac of Pshyshche, known as the Yehudi, on the other hand. The school of the Seer was perceived as representing an older, more popular brand of Hasidism which emphasized miracle working, and which appealed to the masses on the basis of unconditional acceptance and love. The way of the Yehudi, in contrast, emphasized intellectual acuity and excellence in talmudic studies, and had a somewhat elitist image.
II. Characteristics of Ma’or va-Shemesh
In this atmosphere of spiritual intensity, highly charged energies, and substantial conflict, Rabbi Kalonymos Epstein’s Ma’or va-Shemesh (published postumously in 1842) emerges as a balanced and non-partisan presentation of Hasidism and its key elements. It retains the spritiual intensity and fervor of the early period, but also reflects the maturity appropriate for a movement which now enjoyed widespread allegiance. While enthusiastically embracing the centrality of the zaddik, there is no hint of elitism. The zaddik is farther along on the path than the hasid, but he too is not perfect, and Rabbi Epstein emphasizes time and again that true spiritual power lies with the community as a whole. Displaying great humility and generosity of spirit, he cites a wide range of teachers and colleagues from many schools, and transmits oral traditions going back as far as the Baal Shem Tov.
The writing in Ma’or va-Shemesh is clear and well structured. In it one can find accessible expositions of Hasidism’s basic concepts, as well as fresh exegetical insights and challenging theological ideas. In the totality of its imaginative reach, originality and power, it compares favorably with the very best works Hasidism has produced.
A spirit of grace pervades Ma’or va-Shemesh. One typical statement is the observation that the truly compassionate person “does not wish to harm any creature.” Tzedakah should be given with love and thankfulness to God; in fact, writes Rabbi Epstein, the truly charitable person looks forward with genuine anticipation for opportunities “to feed the poor, clothe the naked, dower brides, and arrange weddings for orphans.” Humility is evident in a teaching which states that the servant of God must be careful not to observe others’ deficiencies; “one must not consider himself wise enough to have ‘figured out’ another person and his ways.” There is much tenderness in the author’s commitment to family life. At one point he says, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every man would have the privilege to live one hundred years with his first wife and not need to marry another…” In a teaching on the Song at the Sea in Exodus, he states that the prophetess Miriam attained the highest state of spiritual realization, a place of radical egalitarianism wherein all hierarchies disappear; at that moment, Miriam reached a higher level than Moses himself.
A central theme of Ma’or va-Shemesh is the bond between master and disciples, between zaddik and hasidim. But equally important is the value of dibbuk haverim—the camaraderie and friendship of peers which ideally characterizes the hasidic community. Rabbi Epstein returns to this theme time and again. Pilgrimage to the zaddik is important primarily because it provides an opportunity to learn from and listen to fellow seekers on the path; each person provides a unique perspective, and each is inspired by the self-sacrifice and devotion of the other. “The gathering of hasidim in friendship causes a Divine revelation of absolute compassion.”
III. Ma’or va-Shemesh on Parashat Kedoshim—First Teaching
It is in this context that we turn to the Ma’or va-Shemesh on Parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19-20), which takes up the theme of the importance of community in the spiritual life. Rabbi Epstein begins his discourse by quoting Lev. 19:1-2, “And the Eternal spoke unto Moses, saying, Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, You shall be holy: for I the Eternal your God am holy.” Focusing on the words Speak unto all the congregation …, Rashi comments, “[The emphasis on all the congregation] teaches us that this section was proclaimed in full assembly because most of the fundamentals of the Torah are dependent on it.” On the words You shall be holy Rashi comments, “You shall keep yourself apart ….” Rabbi Epstein poses the question, What is the significance of knowing that this section was proclaimed in full assembly? Isn’t it likely that most mitzvot that apply to all of Israel were proclaimed in full assembly? He continues:
Maimonides writes in Hilkhot De’ot (6:1) that “If a Jew lives in place of corrupt habits and bad customs, he must run away from that place. He must go from place to place, from country to country, until he arrives at a place of Torah, of virtuous habits and good customs. That is where he should settle. And if he does not find any appropriate location, he must live in isolation in wildernesses and woodlands, in order to escape bad habits and wicked people.”
Now it’s true that in order to save oneself from bad habits and a culture of corruption, one must indeed run away to backwoods and to separate from the masses. But [on the other hand,] the only way to rise to a state of holiness is to attach oneself to men of spiritual distinction, true servants of God, joining with them in their sacred service of prayer and Torah study. The most important rule about mitzvot is to perform them in community, with other seekers of God. Then you will be able to attain supernal holiness. The more people that gather together to engage in Divine service, the more the supernal holiness comes to rest upon them, as the sages of the Mishnah teach, “The formula of blessing corresponds to the number of assembled.” (Berakhot 49b) This is because supernal holiness is attained in proportion to the number of the people. “In the multitude of people is the King’s glory.” (Prov. 14:28)
But if the person wants to separate himself from the community, isolating himself and praying alone… it will be impossible for him to attain supernal holiness. Not only that, but by isolating himself and leaving the community he may deviate from the Torah’s main principles; as the Talmud teaches, a scholar who studies in isolation loses his wisdom (Berakhot 63b). This is because it is impossible for any creature to live in isolation. Only God—who is singular and unique--can do so. That is why a person must join together with other servants of God, forming one community devoted to sacred work.
This, then, is the meaning of the verse, “And the Eternal spoke unto Moses, saying, Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel …, ” as Rashi comments, “This section was proclaimed in full assembly. ….” What this means is that the topic of this very section—the quest for holiness—must be “in full assembly,” that is, within community. For it is impossible for a person to achieve holiness unless he first joins a community devoted to sacred service. [As Rashi continues,] “because most of the fundamentals of the Torah are dependent on it”—referring to communal prayer and similar activities. The verse then continues, “You shall be holy,” meaning, as Rashi explains, “You shall keep yourself apart.” Now since we were commanded in this section to be holy, a person might get the wrong idea, thinking that the way to achieve holiness is by means of isolation and separation from the community. That is why Rashi wisely arranged his comments in the sequence he chose, first telling us “This section was proclaimed in full assembly” to indicate that holiness can only be achieved in a community of God-seekers. Only later does Rashi tell us that there may be times when in order to avoid obstacles to Divine service, one might need isolation.
This interpretation is supported by the Midrash Rabbah (Leviticus Rabbah 24:9) which states, “One might think that the words You shall be holy might be taken to imply that your holiness is to be equal to Mine (God’s); so Scripture plainly states, for I the Eternal your God am holy; that is to say, My holiness is superior to yours.” What the Midrash means by the suggestion of equating our holiness to that of God is just this, that the person might wish to be like God—isolating himself and being alone, hoping to attain supernal holiness in that way. So Scripture continues, “for I the Eternal your God am holy; that is to say, My holiness is superior to yours.” That is, only God, who is singular and unique, can be alone, but if a human wishes to attract Divine holiness upon himself, he can only do so by joining in community, to serve Him with one consent (cf. Zephania 3:9).
IV. Discussion and Summary of First Teaching
Rabbi Epstein emphasizes the importance of community for religious growth by his reading of the initial verses of Parashat Kedoshim along with the comments of Midrash and Rashi. His presentation is boldly creative; the sources he cites actually intend to highlight the centrality of the content of this section, which closely parallels the Ten Commandments (honoring parents, Sabbath observance, prohibition of idolatry, etc.). Instead, Rabbi Epstein underscores the procedural aspect of collective instruction to the assembly of Israel. For Ma’or va-Shemesh, the main point is that the people were gathered together—and that is what channeled holiness upon them. Similarly, the theme of “separation,” which in the early sources refers to avoidance of incestuous relationships and other prohibitions, now addresses the role of solitude in the spiritual life—a role that Rabbi Epstein calls into question. While he does make passing reference to the need to isolate oneself from negative influences (a central concern for Maimonides and other writers), he emphasizes the positive, stressing that nothing is more important than joining a community of fellow seekers on the spiritual path.
V. Second Teaching
In Ma’or va-Shemesh, Rabbi Epstein presents several successive expositions of Lev. 19:1-2. It may be assumed that the varying treatments were written in different years, but since the individual sections are not dated, we do not know for sure. In any event, as we find them arranged in our printed text, there are three alternate approaches, which, while clearly sharing some thematic elements, yield three perspectives on the basic topic: the nature of holiness and how to achieve it.
The second teaching in this series begins with a variation of the by now familiar theme of the importance of community, but it soon takes a surprising and significant turn.
More on the verse “And the Eternal spoke unto Moses, saying, Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, You shall be holy: for I the Eternal your God am holy.” We find in Midrash Rabbah, “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: ‘Go and say to Israel: My children! As I am separate, so you be separate; as I am holy, so you be holy.’” (Vayikra Rabbah 24:4) Now this Midrash is quite astonishing. First of all we know that God does not ask of us the unattainable, and how is it possible to be as holy as God? And how is it possible for the entire community to be separate, especially to be as separate as God?
The simple explanation may be as follows. The pathways to service of God are many, but the main mode of service is that of love, so that one may achieve devekut—communion with God. Now there are people who think that the mode of service which leads to devekut is that of solitude, isolating oneself in a secluded room to study Torah, never speaking to anyone and never showing one’s face to anyone. But this is not really the case; it may happen that a person may seclude himself for years on end, not speaking to people, yet not attaining truth at all.
I once heard the following interpretation from the great master, the eminent Rabbi Elimelekh of Lyzhansk of blessed memory, on the verse “If a man enters a hiding place, do I not see him?-- says the Lord.” (Jer. 23:24). Rabbi Elimelekh interpreted the verse to mean that if a man isolates himself in a special, secluded location, thinking that he is engaging in the most essential sacred service, God replies, “I do not see him.” That is, God, so to speak, says that even I—God—take no notice of such a person. Rather, the very basis of sacred service is joining together with virtuous, upright Jews; by this means, learning from their good deeds, one comes to serve God in truth.
[There is, however, a proper mode of isolation.] What is important is isolation [hitbodedut] in one’s thought. This involves thinking constantly of God’s grandeur. Even if you are with a large group of people, you should focus your thoughts constantly on God. As Rabbi Bachya Ibn Paquda writes in Hovot ha-Levavot, Sha’ar ha-Perishut, the main idea of detachment [perishut] is as follows: if you are in a house full of people, to be able to contemplate yourself as if all alone, in an empty house. This means that your thoughts are so focused on the blessed Creator that you are almost unaware of the presence of other people. This is especially important at times of prayer. A person must achieve such an intense level of devekut that he is unaware of any being, only God. This is what hitbodedut, isolation, really means. And when conversing with people of less than lofty spiritual stature, one’s soul should not become entangled. Your thoughts should remain detached, focusing on the grandeur of God.
This, then is why Parashat Kedoshim was proclaimed in full assembly, “to all the congregation of the children of Israel”; and why we are commanded You shall be holy, interpreted to mean, you shall be perushim—separate, isolated. This means that even when you are gathered together in a holy assembly, each person should still be an individual unto himself. You must bind and focus your thought on the blessed Creator as if you were all alone. Just as Rabbi Bachya said, you must be capable of being in a house full of people as if no one else were there.
Returning to the Midrash cited above: God commands us, “As I am separate, so you be separate; as I am holy, so you be holy.” What the Midrash means is, just as God is omnipresent in the world—present everywhere and absent nowhere--and yet is detached from all corporeality, so should we be as well. Even in a large group of people, one must remain separate, communing with God, not getting entangled in the corporeality of others. Then you will be holy.
VI. Summary and Discussion of Second Teaching.
Rabbi Epstein begins with a powerful teaching from his own master, Rabbi Elimelekh of Lyzhansk, which again underscores the need for spiritual fellowship. But then the piece changes direction. While the company of others is necessary for growth, it is also true that one must cultivate the ability to be alone with God—even in a group. Here we see the importance of interiority, of fostering an inner life of attentiveness to God’s presence. A sublime interior life requires the ability to focus on God alone, communing with Him to the exclusion of all else, even the presence of other people.
VII. Third Teaching.
In this piece Rabbi Epstein presents a teaching from the Great Maggid of Mezhirech (whom he calls the “Maggid of Rovno”). He writes:
Another explanation of You shall be holy. The Midrash comments on this verse: “One might think that we are commanded to be as holy as God; so the verse continues, for I the Eternal your God am holy—My holiness is above [superior to] yours.”
In my youth I heard an interpretation of this in the name of the eminent teacher, our master, Rabbi Ber of Rovno [= the Maggid of Mezhirech]. He parses the words of the Midrash in the following way: “My holiness above—is yours.” That is, God’s holiness is dependent on ours, so to speak. The children of Israel, by means of their good deeds, bring about holiness above in heaven, as it were.
VIII. Summary and Discussion of Third Teaching.
This bold interpretation of the Maggid of Mezhirech gives the midrashic teaching quite a radical turn. While our Midrash text desires to preserve the superiority of God to humans, the Maggid’s reading reverses the point completely. Now it is God who depends on us, on our deeds, for His own holiness. This “augmentation theology” is a key feature of the Kabbalah, with roots in classic Rabbinic sources. In the Kabbalah, the realm of the Sefirot—the Ten Divine Manifestations—is uniquely sensitive to human actions, and awaits human initiative. As the Zohar teaches, “Arousal above corresponds to arousal below.”
After presenting the words of the Maggid, Rabbi Epstein proceeds with his own elaboration. He notes that God and His Wisdom are “the soul of all the worlds,” meaning that they give vitality, direction and energy to all being. By contemplating the wisdom in the creation, a person can reach the state of Divine Wisdom, thereby becoming a channel for holiness and blessing. Such a person can inspire others to worship God with greater enthusiasm and insight, and this gives God great pleasure. So our good deeds and holy thoughts can unite the entire cosmos just as they can uplift and inspire our human community. Even the highest heavenly realms feel the positive effects of the holiness which results. This is what a true zaddik, the person devoted to holiness and wisdom, can accomplish.
IX. Concluding Remarks.
Taken together, the three teachings of Ma’or va-Shemesh on the theme of holiness provide a multidimensional and comprehensive perspective on this topic. The first teaching highlights the blessing bestowed by a holy community on each individual. The second teaching elaborates on this, underscoring the dangers of trying to achieve holiness in isolation. Yet this teaching also introduces a countermotif, the need to cultivate one’s personal relationship with God. A rich interior spiritual life requires the ability to commune with God alone, even if one is surrounded by other people. The third teaching explores the role of the saintly individual. The person devoted to sanctity and wisdom actually augments the cosmic fund of holiness, thereby channeling blessing to his human community and giving nachas—pleasure and satisfaction—to God Himself.
The first two teachings are primarily concerned with the spiritual growth of the individual. We all need community and the inspirational example of fellow seekers on the path of holiness. It is also true that an intense spiritual life requires a personal interior space where one can be alone with God, even in a group.
The third teaching goes beyond the first two by reminding us of the cosmic implications of our quest for holiness. When we concentrate on the sacred and on wisdom, we truly become partners with God, both giving and receiving blessing, uniting heaven and earth. The dichotomy of individual versus community is transcended by the person whose life of action and contemplation brings all dimensions of reality together. This is the highest calling to which a human being can aspire.
In this sequence of Ma’or va-Shemesh passages, Rabbi Epstein has taken us on a rich journey of Torah exploration which exemplifies the very virtues of which he speaks. As Ecclesiastes said long ago, “The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious.” (Eccl. 10:12)