Seder and the Body-Soul Experience

Sermon Notes 26/03/13 - Pesach 5773

Near the start of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi’s Kuzari (1:11), the king of the Khazars asks his rabbinical interlocutor why God introduced Himself at Mount Sinai as architect of the Exodus rather than creator of the world:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. (Shemot 20:2)

The rabbi (ibid. 12) answers that an experiential attestation (the recipients of the revelation had seen God’s hand in Egypt) is more powerful than an intellectual proof, which can be subject to refutation.  This principle is important in understanding the role of the Seder and its unique combination of ideas, rituals and experience.

Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Chaver, a second-generation disciple of the Vilna Gaon, reminds his readers throughout his ‘Yad Mitzrayim’ Haggadah commentary that the concepts explored and promoted by the Seder – that God controls nature, that He can choose at any moment to overturn the natural order and that He intervened in Egypt to free the Israelites from bondage, thereby precipitating their independent nationhood – are the very core of Jewish belief.

But, following the Kuzari, these ideas must seem real and not remain merely in the realm of the intellect.  This objective may explain the Haggadah’s requirement that:

Even if we were all sages, all erudite, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, we would remain obliged to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt... (Haggadah, s.v. ‘Avadim Hayyinu’)

This is illustrated by the story of the five Roman-era rabbis:

It once happened that Rabbi Eli’ezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi El’azar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining [at Seder] in Beney Berak.  They were telling the story of the exodus from Egypt all that night until their disciples came and said to them, ‘our teachers, the time for the morning Shema has arrived’. (ibid. s.v. ‘Ma’aseh B’Rebbi Eli’ezer’)

The Seder is not simply about acquiring information or even ideas, but about experiencing them in ‘real’ time and space.  It is unlikely that the rabbis discovered any new information in the story, yet they discussed and relived the old tale until daybreak.

This serves as a paradigm for all of Jewish life – Judaism certainly demands of its adherents that they understand and internalise a number of profound beliefs, yet it also requires us to actualise these beliefs within our very physical, human world.

In a fascinating essay, Professor Eliezer Berkovits discusses the function of mitzvah observance.  He insists that:

Since man is neither only soul nor only body, but both joined together, both these constituent elements must be related to God, each in a manner adequate to its own nature.  On the level of the soul, the relationship is spiritual and conscious, but it cannot be expressed in action; on the level of the body, the relationship has to become “materialized” in action.

These two expressions of the religious life are not meant to exist parallel to each other as the religion of the soul and as that of the body.  The mitzvah is the union of the two...  In its ideal form, the mitzvah is a deed; and, like all true deeds, it is of the spirit and of the body at the same time. (Law and Morality in Jewish Tradition, reprinted in Eliezer Berkovits, Essential Essays on Judaism)

Berkovits uses this typology to launch a stinging attack on Kant’s idealisation of the separation of mind and body in religious life (citation from Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason):

It is comparatively easy to serve God as a spirit; the challenge is to serve him in the wholeness of man’s earth-bound, and yet soul-indwelt, humanity.  Immanuel Kant once wrote: “The true [moral] service of God is... invisible, i.e., it is the service of the heart, in spirit and in truth, and it may consist... only of intention.”’  This, indeed, is the noble formula for the historic bankruptcy of all “natural,” as well as “spiritual,” religions.  The invisible service of God is the prerogative of invisible creatures.  When man adopts such service for himself, he makes the dualism of his nature itself a religion.  He will expect Gesinnung (sentiment) and noble intentions of the soul, and will readily forgive the profanity of the body; he will have God “in his heart” and some devil directing his actions.  He will serve God on the Sabbath and himself the rest of the week...

Contrary to Kant, Judaism teaches that man’s “true service of God” must be human.  It should be invisible, as man’s soul is invisible; and it should be visible, too, because man is visible.  It must be “service of the heart, in spirit and in truth” as well as of the body.  It must be service through the mitzva, the deed in which man’s spiritual and material nature have unified.  It is a much higher service than that of the spirit alone. It is the religion of the whole man. (ibid.)

Seder, the annual membership ceremony of the Jewish people, exemplifies this harmonistic approach and recommends it as a model for all ritual throughout the year.