One of the great problems any religious person must struggle with is whether or not it is actually possible to be religious. What, after all, is the essence of genuine religiosity? It is no doubt cognizance of the fact that one lives in the presence of God and feels and acts accordingly. To do so, however, is nearly impossible. Abraham Joshua Heschel once made the profound observation: “Religion depends upon what man does with his ultimate embarrassment.” (1)
What lies at the root of all religions is the awareness that it is extremely hard to live up to the awesomeness of the moment. Our ultimate concern should be to grasp, emotionally and intellectually, that we are the contemporaries of God, and to experience this in the most elevated way. But for the majority of us it is an impossible mission. How could man ever encounter the Divine otherness? It is the fundamental task of religion to guide us through this almost desperate situation. Paradoxically, admitting the near futility of this task and responding to it in a responsible way is what should make it a genuine religious experience.
How can one live in God’s presence and not feel inadequate? Live in the shadow of greatness and not sense it? Be part of the great miracle of existence and ignore it? Yet, who among us feels ashamed? We have become so insensitive that we are not even embarrassed by our lack of embarrassment. This turns the religious lives of millions, including our own, almost into a farce.
We may sincerely convince ourselves that we are religious while in fact we are guilty of self-deception. For religious Jews this may be an even greater problem than for those who follow other religions. Judaism’s constant demand that Jews follow Halacha may give the impression that the Jewish religion depends solely on the need to “observe,” to carefully perform all of Halacha with its seemingly obsessive requirement to follow all its rituals and laws down to the minutiae. How often do religious Jews believe they are religious because they are observant? This is one of the major pitfalls of Jewish observant life. In truth, Halacha is not to be “observed,” but rather experienced as a way to deal with one’s lifelong existential uneasiness of living in the presence of God. It is a response to our question of how to live with spiritual anxiety.
A remarkable feature of Halacha is that it often asks us to act as if we are deeply unnerved by living in the presence of God while in reality we aren’t. This begs the question whether such an act can be authentic instead of downright hypocritical. It is here that Judaism is not completely comfortable with its own demands. Should it ask the Jew to act as if he is embarrassed and therefore do as if he is filled with the deepest religious feelings, or should it ask the Jew to act according to his real feelings and not pretend? Judaism is fully aware that whichever road it suggests, there will be a heavy price to pay. The Jew may feel hypocritical, or he may not even be aware that he lost his dream since there is nothing that reminds him of it.
In a notable discussion (Shabbat 21a) between the great mishnaic schools of Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel, the question is posed whether it is better to light all eight candles of the menorah on the first day of Chanukah, or on the last one. Beit Shamai suggests that one should light all eight on the first day, subtracting a candle every subsequent day until only one is lit on the eighth day. Beit Hillel’s opinion is that we should light only one candle on the first day and slowly build up to eight lights on the eighth day. What is this conflict all about?
We suggest that the disagreement between these two schools is rooted in the question of whether the religious personality should express his religious commitment through those acts when they honestly reflect where he stands at the present hour, or when they reflect where he would like to be in the future. Is Judaism better served by making us act as if we are on a level of high spirituality while in fact we are not, or does it prefer that we express our religious feelings ba’asher hu sham, “there where he is” (Bereshit 21:17), reflecting our often middle-of-the-road religious condition?
Beit Shamai’s suggestion that one should light all eight candles on the first night is, for the most part, an honest expression of our feelings. We are more excited on the first day than we are on the last. For most of us, the notion of novelty is felt at the start, never at the end. Hence, eight lights on the first day. But such excitement comes with a price. It does not endure. As with the intensity of the sexual act, which wears off after a moment when not accompanied by the binding of souls—referred to in the Latin phrase Post coitum omne animal triste est, “After intercourse every animal is sad”—so it is with all religious acts that, when experienced solely as novelty and excitement, lose their impact in the long run. It is therefore logical that on the second day only seven lights be lit and on the last day only one. The excitement slowly dissipates. It is Beit Shamai’s conviction that however superficial the quality of the deed may be, we should not put on a show and pretend that we are more than what we are. Such an approach is thoroughly honest but simultaneously lacks a dream and vision of what could be.
Beit Hillel, on the other hand, believes that if we do not inspire man with his potential and give him a taste of what could be, he will not even strive to achieve higher goals. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” (2) According to Beit Hillel, we should start with only one light on the first day since it is only one step in the right direction. We need to warm up and slowly strengthen our souls till we reach the fullness of the festival on the last day. We start with one light since this reflects the condition of our soul at the beginning of Chanukah. It has to grow until it bursts with spiritual depth on the eighth day. The lighting of the menorah should be a transforming act, one that can take place only when it is accompanied by an inner experience that touches the deepest dimensions of our souls, step by step. True, we may not feel this way, but we have to awaken and educate ourselves towards this goal. The last day should be the greatest day. We should act as if, so that one day we may reach this spiritual level. We taste the future in the present.
Novelty is often just a brand new form of mediocrity, while excellence is rooted in the old but revitalized on a higher plain. It is not the honest mediocrity of today that we need, but an exalted dream of tomorrow.
It is between these two positions that Judaism operates—a balancing act, as in the case of a tightrope walker. It is a difficult position to be in. Most of the time, it requires a compromise. Sometimes Jewish law will opt for a realistic understanding of the here and now; other times it will choose the dream. It is not always clear why Halacha will decide a certain way in one case and a different way on another occasion. The problem is that at the end it may not satisfy anyone. But what seems to move Judaism is the realistic understanding that one cannot have one’s cake and eat it too. Beit Shamai will sometimes have to agree that there is a need to go for the dream, and Beit Hillel will on occasion have to go by the facts on the ground. Such differences are even found in the Torah, and among other sages and later authorities. (See, for example, the Torah’s toleration of slavery [Shemot 21:1-6] and the complete rejection of this institution as the ultimate dream to which it seems to aspire [Vayikra 25:55]. See, also, Eruvin 65a concerning prayer, and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, 98:2). Judaism cannot survive by opting for only one of these ideals. It would be suicidal.
Most interesting is the fact that there is one opinion in the Talmud (Yevamot 14a) that says Beit Shamai continued to follow its own view even after the Halacha was decided in accordance with Beit Hillel. According to this opinion, it seems that Beit Shamai continued to light eight candles on the first day of Chanukah although everyone else followed the opinion of Beit Hillel. (3) This makes us wonder. Tradition tells us that Halacha will only follow Beit Shamai once the messianic times will have begun. There is, however, no source for this in the Talmud. (The first source for this is a statement by the Arizal, which is quoted by the Malbim in Torah Ohr, Bamidbar 19:2.) Could it mean that exceptional souls might possibly follow the views of Beit Shamai even today? No two souls are the same. It is this fact that makes religious life a far from easy task. Even if man knows that religion is his response to his ultimate embarrassment, he will still not know how to act. Should he be honest so as not to pretend, or should he pretend so that one day he will be honest, and true to his dream?
(1) Who is man? (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1965), p. 112.
(2) Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto,” Men and Women and Other Poems, (Orion Publishing Group, Ltd., 1993)
(3) See Shabbat 21a, where the story is told that some people followed the custom of Beit Shamai on Chanukah long after a Divine voice instructed that the Halacha required following the opinion of Beit Hillel (Eruvin 13b). Interesting is the observation by the Biur Halacha, in Mishne Berura, Orach Chayim 671:2, that the Halacha is only according to Beit Hillel when it lays down the strict Halacha, not in the case of mehadrin min hamehadrin (the beautification of the Halacha), beyond its basic requirements of one light each day of Chanukah. Biur Halacha cautions that this should not be done in practice. Our essay, however, argues that such practice may be an actual option.