The Hidden Holiness of Nature

by Avi Bieler

As discussed last week, I hope this blog will demonstrate the value of chussidus to the world of “modern Orthodoxy” (quick aside, every stream of thinking involves dangers. The purpose of this blog is not to suggest that modernity is inferior. I just assume most of our readership comes from this block and may be interested in examining it).  Some believe that chussidus is incompatible with modern religious thought, but the primary assumption of both is in fact the same. Namely, that G-dliness exists outside of the realm of revealed torah.

The Sfas Emes (R. Yehuda Aryeh Leib) offers a brilliant idea demonstrating the value of the natural world while answering a simple question. He asks why some rabbis wanted the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) removed from the canon of scripture. “This makes no sense; the purpose of Kohelet is to belittle all of the actions of this world and to encourage you to only busy yourself with torah and mitzvoth”. It’s a frum book! Why worry about its inclusion? The Sfas Emes answers that Kohelet could convince people that G-d has abandoned the natural world making us abandon our duty “to work to find torah concepts in every place”.  There is more to theology than the study of texts. We must also study and elevate nature by finding the divine hidden within it. This is in stark contrast to Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nachmani’s explanation that Kohelet might lead people to think that studying the revealed torah (Tanach, Talmud etc.) is “hevel” (nothingness).

R. Leib bases his opinion on a mishna in tractate Avot that states “With 10 utterances (Mamarot) the world was created”.  The 10 utterances play a significant role in Jewish mysticism representing the holiness hidden within nature as opposed to the 10 statements (Dibrot) which represent the holiness clearly revealed to humanity (the teachings of the torah).  G-d scattered the 10 utterances throughout nature in order that we may strive to reveal them.

The Sfas Emes finishes the piece thusly, “Every year there is individual work to be done until the ‘land is full of knowledge’.  That is to say until everything is [understood as being] completely torah”.  Fittingly, the Sfas Emes worked a regular job and frequently espoused the value of the 6 days of work that come before Shabbat.

From the point of view of religious modernity it is easy to view the world outside of the gemara page as holy. Unfortunately, there also exists a dangerous trap. To put it in Descartesian terms, modern religious people can easily confuse the primary (G-d) and secondary (nature) causes. The study of science and philosophy must be about G-d and not just about academic achievement. The Kutzker rebbe once said about the yeshiva bound religious scholars of his day “The chussid fears G-d while the misnagged fears the shulchan aruch”. When the textbook takes the place of G-d, the religion has fundamentally changed for the worse. It is important to educate people from a young age that there is not “torah and science”, but revealed torah (the traditional Jewish canon) and hidden torah (science and philosophy). This fits in perfectly with the practice of modernity, we just need to update (downdate?) our terminology to remind us.

Until next week (R. Nachman’s conception of the relationship between torah study and prayer) raise a glass and sing a niggun!

The passage of the Sfas Emes can be found in his commentary on parshat Emor in the section from תרנ”ו



Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus

2 responses to “The Hidden Holiness of Nature

  1. Ya'akov

    What about the other major pillars in modern orthodoxy? Namely, Zionism and increased interaction between genders.
    If you simply focus on the secular education issue then you would say that MO was created by the Rav Saadia, the Rambam or the Gra.

  2. avibieler

    Thanks for reading!
    Let me note that I’m writing a series of entries about this topic (every Thursday), which will not just focus on finding G-d in all things.

    While Zionism and Egalitarianism (I wonder if you didn’t use that word on purpose…) are great they aren’t inherently religious. The principle concept of religion is belief in a deity or deities. For instance an atheist can be both a Zionist and support Egalitarianism. MO takes the step of incorporating this within a religious framework, which is all well and good, but unfortunately many people tack on humanism and then stop there. I think anyone who considers themselves to be Jewish and Orthodox must try to incorporate torah study (both halachic and theologic) and G-d into their day-to-day lives. I’m not here to attack MO, I just think it could be enhanced if people tried to incorporate lessons from other sects into their lives (I might include sects on the left as well, but thats not the point of this blog).
    As for the last paragraph of yours in the blog I wrote the week before this one I discuss that point. I don’t really believe in the newness of “modern orthodoxy”, but you should read that one and comment there.

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