Human Holiness

Our sages said, “Six things were said about man: in regard to three, he is like the ministering angels, and in regard to three, he is like beasts.”
-Babylonian Talmud, Hagiga 16a

This combination of angel and beast is only one of the strange and various combinations forming man. Angel and beast are incompatible contrasts, but in man they are created into a many-faced unity. The combining of the material, bestial body with the angelic, Divine soul, is characteristic of man’s combination of contrasts. Flesh and soul, good and evil, are different names for the same things. Within their existence in man, there is no possibility of clearly defining the relation between them, although each of them has for itself a very clear and defined essentiality.

The same combination occurs in many forms and always in this indefinite way: the highest strivings and desires, and with these – with the same force – bad, bestial wants. Reason on one side, and on the other, imagination and emotion quite independent of each other. And so, many desires of the most various kinds, innumerable wants and wills, simple and strange – all these are found in man.

Thus, we come to the great question: What is man? What is the true essence of this unity of angel and beast, body and soul, reason and emotion, good and bad? Truly, of all these, there is not one that can give a satisfactory definition of man’s real self; only the combination of all these is man – this is the human in him. Man is not an angel, nor is he a beast; he is the combination of both: a man. And he is so with all the many combinations and links of these contradictory facets; there is no place for one of them without the others. Their unification into one creates the true being of the man.

Although it is agreed by everyone that man is complex and that this is characteristic of him, there have been continuous attempts to define this multicolored compound in terms of some simple unity. True, the mere wish to find unity in multiplicity is by no means a negative wish. The basis of every kind of philosophical or scientific thinking is this uniting of many facts into principles. The attempt to find such central points about man is in itself positive, but it involves some danger; for after finding the focal point of man’s being, it is very natural to mistake one point for the whole.

It is not difficult to show that man is a rational creature, in which reason determines much of the nature, behavior, and mind. After accepting the accurate statement that reason is a factor in man’s being, it is very easy to come to the erroneous conclusion that reason is the whole man. indeed, in the first stage, the realization that this is not all of man is still remembered, and there are some details that are not included in this generalization. But afterwards, the habit of thought and the building up of a complete system on one basis only causes one to forget the true nature of things. After a time, such an artificial construction becomes the real man.

This way of thinking is common because it is natural and easily understood, but it must be remembered that it is always untrue. A mistake of this nature was made by Freud. His method, which began with seeing the great importance of sex in our lives, brought him to the conclusion that man is in essence purely sexual, and all other parts are secondary and unimportant. And so Freud built a system in which man, his deeds and thoughts, are merely results of the only basis of spirit: sex. The same happened with Marxism as well. From the acknowledgment of the importance of economic factors within society, there issued the inevitable mistake in ascribing these factors as the sole basis of all human actions – social life, culture, and thought.

Processes of this kind usually end in an artificial construction that is based on one thing and builds within it and of it a whole, complicated figure, which has to represent man. The degree of likeness between such a representation and reality depends on the creator’s talents. If he is talented and consistent, it can be made very like a living man, but there will always be some human part “forgotten” and left behind, without notice. Perhaps this last part is of secondary importance, but there is no possibility of being man without it, so this construction, with all its speculative success, is not the structure of man.

This new, schematic creature is perhaps more perfect than the man known to us, and is always much more logical. Nevertheless, this is not man – he will always lack humanity. And without humanity, the construction remains cold and dry. This is a logical structure of a creature resembling man, which remains, with all its human likeness, a lifeless being, a fabulous monster.

Not only in the realm of secular theories is there some wish to understand man on the basis of only one aspect of his being. There are such mistakes in religious life as well, and their results are parallel to the artificial secular constructions. In Judaism, under the influence of foreign philosophy, a conception of man was frequently erected on the sole basis of reason, which was thought to be the center of man’s world and spiritual being, while other parts of the soul were abandoned and thought unimportant, and sometimes even harmful. Of course, in religious life as well, there were unsatisfactory results. Here also, man as exclusively rational is an artificial creation who cannot live a real religious life, just as the religious man who is only emotional cannot live so.

These constructions, the basis of which is reason or emotion, are not typical of religious life; they are only secular forms in a religious philosophy. But there are also, in religious life, parallel endeavors that are really typical. It is known that man is a combination that includes angel and beast, and religion strives to tame the inner beast and to bring it nearer to the angelic element in him. From this correct educational wish there came, in some inner evolutionary way, a quite different wish: to make of man an angel.

The fulfillment of this wish was not possible, of course, because man is by nature not an angel. But in time, something much worse occurred – this pseudo-educational wish to make an angel of man became more than that: an assumption that man is already an angel. All other non-angelic facets of man’s nature were therefore thought to be mere transient and unimportant defects, which, with some strength of will, everyone could conquer and change into angelic perfections.

Of course, no one had ever defined things so; it was never said openly that man is an angel, with some bad parts that could be removed by a conditioned education. But even without saying it, such a thought influences a large world of thinking, albeit on a somewhat unconscious level. It is reflected in the way the Jew is perceived as one who wants only to study the Bible and whose life is wholly spent in doing good, praying, and studying. It could not be ignored that a Jew also had a body, and therefore certain wishes and desires – but these were considered of no value; man’s will and wishes were not his real wishes, and man’s thoughts were but foolish and unworthy ones. All that was of any importance was directly related to religion; everything else was considered superfluous.

In many books that reflect the understanding of generations, it was implicit that a Jew could not have any real interests in this world. His object of love was supposed to be doing good deeds. Wishes and desires, eyes seeing the world and hands feeling it – all these did not exist in that angelic perfection called a Jew. Of course, it does not mean that Jews in any period, even in the darkest of the Middle Ages, did not live in our world, did not love, hate, and think about other subjects. But all these facts were “formally” unknown. For religious Jewry, man remained forever an angel.

Many generations have wanted to make an angel of man. These experiments, although they did not succeed (there being no satisfactory way of doing so), were successful in pretending that man is by nature an angel. Such an opinion, held in reverence by generations, is worth some thought: Man is really comprised of beast and angel, and the angelic part is the more important one. But must this belief lead to the conclusion that man has to be changed into an angel? The essence of man’s being is in just this combining of angel and beast. When this combination is destroyed, man ceases to be human; he becomes some other sort of humanoid – but surely not man!

Converting man into an angel does not mean any exaltation for him. If God had wanted man to become an angel and to do everything as such, He would simply have created more angels. But His wish was to create man. “We shall make man in our form and image,” and not, “make an angel in our form.”

Of course, a man must not stay forever in the same meaningless stare of angel-beast; man must try to become better. But whatever the manner of his exaltation, it must not be by forcing man. to the angelic. Because man’s way – that in which he has to go – is a special way for him alone. Forcing man into a life of mere learning and doing good deeds cannot create an angel; it can, at best, only move him toward being what he has to be. The religious man of today is not a perfect religious man. Orthodox religion pretends that man is only made for prayer and devotion, and therefore a religious man who has another attitude cannot identify himself with his religion. He feels that his religion is manifested only in that part of him that is concerned with learning and praying. The man who is praying is not: a whole man, but only part of a man. Perhaps this part is the better part, but it is not man.

A man cannot enter into such a closed circle of angelic religion. A perfect man has within himself a whole world – heaven and earth, the highest and the lowest -and is not compressed in the little space of such doubtful religion. Such a man cannot pray wholeheartedly, because the synagogue is too narrow for containing all his inner world. Making man an angel is creating a dry, petty, and partial being.

A good example of this dryness and constraint can be found in many books on morals written during certain periods. These books, which are masterpieces in themselves, lack the elements of true humanism. The greatness of these books is lost because the average man, full of every human feeling, cannot relate such books to his life; they often do not even hint at certain moral questions. You could study a classic book on morals and not find anything about love, social relations, work, physical life, etc. True, these books are good books, but they are good only for that part of man engaged in religious issues. These books are textbooks for angels; they cannot teach people. It was this contraction of religion into purely religious problems that caused the freezing of every human emotion and led to conservatism and, to some extent, self-deception and hypocrisy, for, if all religious subjects were so detached from everyday life, they would become merely frozen conservative forms that did not have any true meaning for anyone.

It is told that once the Rabbi of Kotzk asked one of his pupils to tell him what he thinks of while praying, The man began to tell the Rabbi about his thoughts during prayers – a very learned lecture about the unity of God in the higher world and in our world. The Rabbi, who was a volcano og God-seeking and truth-seeking, and one of the greatest teachers in those subjects, could not suppress his anger any longer and cried: “And where is your stomach?” – meaning: “Where is your own prosaic self in all this high philosophy? Where are you in this strange, cold, distant and impersonal exaltation?”

In Chasidism we can find many sayings criticizing the conversion of man into an angel and ignoring the other, non-devotional facets of man. Of course, Chasidism is a strictly religious movement, but the way of Chasidism was not to ignore those facets of man’s being, but to sublimate them into a higher state. Chasidism itself was a protest against the conventional frozen religion, and that is why we can find in it so much life. Every problem of those times can be found in Chasidic books, and dealt with in a plain, straightforward way.

This multiformity is very typical of Judaism, and in most classic books we can see plainly both life and humanity. In the dark Middle Ages (which did not exist in the Jewish nation at all), in that strangulation of every Jewish attempt to live normal human lives, we find a classic moral book, Sefer Chasidim, which is full of deep piety and also full of life. Almost every facet of human existence – the inner problems as well as all sorts of social problems – is thoroughly examined. It is all very pious, but it is a live and human piety that touches the soul of a whole man.

So, too, does the Talmud. In “the sea of the Talmud” (as it is called by some) all can be found: far-fetched and very abstract legal forms of thought, lively, fanciful fables, advice about commerce and agriculture, medical treatments, popular proverbs. There is not – even in the most legal or circumlocutionary pages – a dry or “nonhuman” paragraph in the Talmud. The personalities there are always human, people of whose lives we know the most intimate and prosaic details. We know about their quarrels and sins as we know about their great qualities, and they are so close to us because they were fully men, because the Talmud is a human book.

To an even greater degree do we find it so in the Bible. Every verse in the Bible is so full of life and humanity that one can say the Bible is a complete picture of man. Studying the Bible we find that all of it – the stories and the religious commandments – are equally intended for a living people, full of wishes and desires, for the average man who is liable to sin, showing him the way to repentance and re-elevation.

Just the collection of the various books of the Bible is a demonstration in itself of full humanity. He who does not understand this essentiality of the Bible will never understand why it contains a book like Ecclesiastes, which stems so unsuitable to the general character of the Bible. But man, who is not perfectly angelic, has within himself the same questions, doubts, and skepticism that are contained in the book of Ecclesiastes. These “heretic” questions are not ignored, and the entire book remains in the Bible.

The true Jewish way is that of human exaltation. From the Pentateuch to the Last Prophets, from the Talmud to the great rabbis of Chasidism, there is an attempt to deal with a whole man, a man in whom part of the wholeness is his being combined of body and soul, bad and good. All the duties of Judaism are for a man, a physical and restricted creature. And for this reason there are also certain laws that are only for the satisfaction of the bestial desires of man. That is not negative in any sense because, since man is imperfect, there must be a real relation to sin. “You must stoop to him if you want to elevate him.”

This way is not a necessary evil but an ideal way in itself. In a more general sense, the aim of man is not to do holy duties and to be an angel on earth. Man’s task is to “reveal God’s being in the lower world” – and this is done by elevating the base and low elements and exalting them. The lowest elements in the world are, essentially and originally, of the highest sources, because only very holy and great souls can enliven mean creations, and the task of man is to bring these souls back to their exalted origin.

And so man has not to elevate his soul, because it is already high without man’s efforts; his task is to elevate his body, his intellect, his desires. The human being is to give all his essence to God, but not by elevating his mind to higher subjects and converting his desires into a desire for God. The real way is higher: to find God in all these thoughts and desires, to he a whole man – but to a higher degree.