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Flesh And Spirit
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Flesh and Spirit
Written by Asher Ginsburg, aka ‘Ahad Haam’, in 1902.
In the period of our early national existence – the period of the first temple – we find no trace of the conception of a duality of body and soul. Man, as a living and thinking being, is one in all his parts. The Hebrew word Nefesh includes everything, body and soul, and all that belongs to them. The Nefesh, the individual human being, lives as a whole and dies as a whole; nothing survives. This notwithstanding, early Judaism was not perplexed by the problem of life and death. It knew nothing of the despair which begets the materialistic philosophy of the exaltation of the flesh and of sense enjoyment as a refuge from the emptiness of life; nor did it turn its gaze upward to create in Heaven an eternal habitation for the souls of men. It offered eternal life here on earth. This it did by emphasizing the sense of collectivity, by teaching the individual to regard himself not as an isolated unit, with an existence bounded by his own birth and death, but as a part of a larger and more important whole, as a member of the social body. This conception shifts the center of personality not from the body to the spirit, but from the individual to the community; concurrently, the problem of life is transferred from the individual to the social plane. I live for the sake of the perpetuation and the well being of the community to which I belong; I die to make way for others, who will remold the community and save it from stagnation. When the individual loves the community as himself and identifies himself completely with its well being, he has something to live for; he feels his personal hardships less keenly, because he knows the purpose for which he lives and suffers.
But obviously this will hold good only if the community itself lives for some purpose which the individual can regard as justifying every possible sacrifice on his part: Otherwise the old question recurs, but on the plane of the community. I put up with life in order that the community may live; but why does the community exist? What end does it serve, that I must bear my troubles cheerfully for its sake? Thus, having shifted the center of life from the individual to the community, Judaism was compelled to find an answer to the problem of the collective life. It had to endow the life of the community with a purpose sufficiently large and important to sustain the morale of the individual even when his personal life was a burden to him. Hence the community of Israel became a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, destined from the very beginning to be an example to mankind through its Torah.
“In the period of our early national existence – the period of the first temple – we find no trace of the conception of a duality of body and soul. Man, as a living and thinking being, is one in all his parts. The Hebrew word Nefesh includes everything, body and soul, and all that belongs to them.”
This solution of the problem left no room in Judaism for the two extremes views. Man is one and indivisible; all his limbs, his senses, his emotions, his thoughts constitute a single whole. But the existence of the man who is a Jew is not purposeless, because he is a member of the people of Israel who exist for a sublime purpose. And as the community is only the sum of its members, every Israelite is entitled to regard himself as an indispensable link in the chain of his people’s life and as sharing in his people’s imperishability. That is why true asceticism, hatred of the flesh and the desire for its annihilation, is possible only where men, unable to find the purpose of life in this world, are compelled to look for it in another. It is true that in early Jewish life there were Nazarites, who observed certain of the outward practices of asceticism; but this was simply part of the ritual of sacrifice and had nothing to do with hatred of the flesh. It must be remembered that even so un-ascetic a hero as Samson was reckoned a Nazarite.
This attitude to life, which lifts the individual above the love of self and teaches him to find the purpose of his distance in the perpetuation and well being of his community, is regarded by many non-Jewish students of religion as overly materialistic; and on the strength of it they pronounce Judaism inferior, because it does not, like other religions, promise immortal life to everybody and a reward to the righteous after death. There could be no better example of the blindness of prejudice.
In the early period of Jewish history there was a considerable party which took a materialistic view of the national life, in the sense that it had no ideal beyond that of making the State supreme at home, respected abroad, and secure against aggression. This was the aristocratic party; it embraced the entourage of the king, the military leaders, and most of the priests – all those, in a word, who in their individual lives had no experience of the suffering which demands consolation. They attached no importance to the spiritual aspect of the national life, and they were almost always prepared to desert the nation’s spiritual ideals – “to serve other g-ds”- if they thought that there was any political advantage in doing so. The moral idealism of the prophets waged incessant war on this political materialism, until it disappeared automatically with the destruction of the State, But it is entirely wrong to assert, as some modern historians do, that the Prophets were opposed to the state as such, that they regarded its very existence as inconsistent with the spiritual life which was their ideal, and therefore desired its overthrow. This political asceticism, this desire for the annihilation of the physical organism of the national life in order to promote its spiritual progress, is in fact entirely repugnant to the Prophetic attitude. One has only to read those passages of the Prophets in which they rejoice in the victories of the State (in the time of Sennacherib, for example) and bewail its defeats, to see at once how highly they valued the political life, and how fully they realized that national independence was a an essential condition of the attainment of their own ideals. But at the same time they never forgot that it is only by the spirit that life, whether individual or not, can be raised to a higher plane, and that only from the spirit can it derive meaning and purpose; consequently they insisted that the end should not be subordinated to the means, that the body should not be given empire over the spirit. Thus the prophets simply enunciated on the national plane the principle which Judaism had laid down for the individual life: the unity of body and spirit, in the sense explained above.
Hannah Whitaker, Paper Moon (Lunar Eclipse), 2009.
It was not until the period of the second temple that political asceticism found expression in the life of the Jewish State. The Essenes had no antipathy to the physical life so far as the individual was concerned; but on the national plane, in relation to the state, their attitude was precisely that of an ascetic. These spiritually minded men saw that from the spiritually point of view, the Jewish state was going from bad to worse. Its rulers, like those of the first kingdom, worshipped only material power; its men of vision were wasting there energies in a vain struggle to arrest the corruption of the body politic, already in the grip of relentless enemies, and to breath into it the spirit of true Judaism. In this situation the Essenes gave up the political life in despair, turned there backs on its incurable corruption, and withdrew into the wilderness, there to live out their individual lives in purity and holiness. In there hermit-seclusion, their antipathy to the state became more and more intense, and when the state was at its last gasp, hovering between life and death, some of them made no attempt to conceal there satisfaction.
However, the political asceticism of the Essenes had not much influence on the general trend of thought. It was not to them, but to the Pharisees, that the people looked for instruction and leadership, and the Pharisees represented the prophetic conception of Judaism, with its unification of body and spirit. So far, from turning away from the life and ostracizing the state, they stuck to there post in the thick of the fray, and made every possible effort to save the state from moral degeneration and to shape its conformity with the spirit of Judaism. It was clear to them that a spirit without a body could have no reality, and that the spirit of Judaism could not develop and fulfill itself without concrete expression of in a political organism. Hence, the Pharisees were always fighting on two fronts: against the political materialists within the state, and side-by-side with them against the external enemy for the preservation of the state.
It was only at the last moment, when the imminent destruction of the political organism was beyond all shadow of doubt, that the internal difference of ideals inevitably led to a split. The political materialists, for whom the preservation of the state meant everything, had no further interest in life, and fell fighting desperately among the ruins they loved; but the Pharisees remembered even in this hour of agony that they cared for the State only for the sake of the national spirit which was embodied in the state and needed its help. It could not occur to them to suppose that the end of the State meant the end of the nation and of all that made life worth living: On the contrary, it was for them imperatively necessary to find some temporary means of preserving the nation and its spirit without the political organism, until is should please the Almighty to restore his people to their land and freedom. So the alliance was broken: The political zealots remained worked in hand on the walls of Jerusalem, and the Pharisees, Torah in hand, went to Yavneh.
” That is why true asceticism, hatred of the flesh and the desire for its annihilation, is possible only where men, unable to find the purpose of life in this world, are compelled to look for it in another.”
The work of the Pharisees bore fruit; they succeeded in creating a sort of shadow body politic with no roots in solid earth. Within this shadowy framework the Hebrew national spirit has lived its own distinctive life for two thousand years. The ghetto organization, the foundations of which were laid in the period immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem, is a miracle without parallel in human history. Its root conception is that the purpose of life is spiritual perfection, but that the spirit needs a body to serve as an instrument. Until the nation could once again find a local habitation for its spirit in one complete and independent political organism, the Pharisees thought it necessary to provide an artificial stop gap. There method was that of concentration in a number of small and scattered communities, all built to the same pattern, all living one type of life, and all united, despite geography, by consciousness of their common origin, by devotion to a single ideal, and with a hope of complete reunion in the future.
This artificial structure, built at a time when the Messianic age was still expected to dawn at any moment, was originally intended to serve only for a brief period. It has endured far too long; now it is in a state of advanced decay, with cracks and fissures everywhere.
So once again spiritually minded Jews have revived the political asceticism of the Essenes. They see their people exiled and dispersed, with no hope of a return to its former estate; they see the ghetto organization, which offered at least some semblance of a concrete national life, in process of dissolution. In their despair they renounce the physical element of the national life, and regard the spiritual element as its sole foundation. For them the Jewish people is a spirit without a body, The spirit is not only the purpose of life, but the whole of life; the body is not only subordinate to the spirit, it is a dangerous enemy, which ties the spirit and prevents it from entering into its kingdom.
As might have been expected, the reaction against this extreme theory has produced an equally extreme theory on the opposite side, and there has been a recrudescence of that political materialism which sees the physical organism- the Jewish State – as the be all and end all of Jewish life. This development is still too recent to have run its full course; but if history is any guide, we are entitled to believe that neither of these two extreme theories truly reflects the spirit of our people. Both, we may believe, will disappear, and make way for the only view that really has its roots in Judaism: the view which was that of the prophets in the first Jewish State and of the Pharisees in the second. If, as we hope, there is to be a third, its fundamental principle, on the national as on the individual plane, will be neither the ascendancy of the body over spirit, nor the suppression of the body for the spirit’s sake, but the uplifting of they body by the spirit.
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Asher Ginsburg AKA Ahad Haam was born in Svira, Ukraine, on August 18th 1856. He received a strictly pious education and was forbidden from learning the Russian alphabet, as it was believed that it might lead him to heresy. Upon moving to Tel-Aviv, he became known as the secular Rabbi, commonly referred to as Ahad Ha’am, a Hebrew pseudonym he adopted which means one of the people. Ginsburg was considered the father of the cultural Zionist movement, which charged itself with solving the question of Judaism, as opposed to the Jewish question. He spoke out openly against Herzl and other political Zionists. He was also a regular contributor to Ha’Shiloah, and was widely acclaimed. He died on January 27th, 1927, in Tel-Aviv.
A photograph of Asher Ginsburg.