The following article is the first in the series “Navigating Excessive Spirituality”.
The goal of the mystic is to reach a state of devekut. The experience can be described as the state of an intimate spiritual closeness to God, up to the point of being lost in communion with the Almighty.
The notion of devekut comes from the biblical verse: “For if you will diligently keep all these commandments, which I command you, to love the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to hold fast (u-le-dovka) to Him” (Deuteronomy 11:22).
The term devekut is often rendered in English as ‘cleaving’. Alas, using an English term that is not part of common speech hardly clarifies the experience being described. This is especially so considering the dictionary definition of the word ‘cleave’ – the term carries two very different meanings. ‘Cleave’ can mean to adhere, stick, cling, or it can mean to split, sever, divide.
Surprisingly, the versatile English word might indeed be appropriate since the mystic seeks to cling to God, while separating the spiritual self from the physical body. Moreover, perhaps the hazy meaning of the English word is indicative of the challenges inherit in seeking an adequate description of an ineffable experience.
Hasidic tales of devekut may therefore provide the best access to understanding the state of devekut.
As a movement rooted in Jewish mystical tradition, Hasidism values devekut. There is not one, solitary path to devekut. Hasidic masters counseled different paths depending on their own inclinations and how they understood the needs and capabilities of their constituents.
One favoured path has been devekut through prayer. Indeed, some hasidic masters and their disciples are best remembered for their intense devekut such that they were able to block out any sense of the world around them while enveloped in prayer. The hasidic schools associated with Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin (1738-1792) and his disciple Rabbi Uri of Strelisk (1757-1826) are noted for striving and achieving extreme states of devekut.
Hasidic tales recall the devekut of Rabbi Shlomo and Rabbi Uri, and these tales – gnarly though they may sound to the modern ear – offer us a window onto the state of devekut. One collector of hasidic tales, Dov Ehrman (1860-1944), recounted two devekut stories from this school. Ehrman frequented the homes of hasidic masters in Hungary and Galicia, and from these visits he collected his tales. In 1905 he published his second volume of such tales, entitled Devarim Areivim (pleasant matters), which included these tales.
Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin (1738-1792) once complained that the Messiah was tarrying, before cryptically adding: “I have no fear from any human being, except for the crooked Cossack.” Indeed, it came to pass that during a pogrom a lame Cossack, aimed his rifle through the window of the synagogue and shot Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin.
According to Ehrman’s account, it was on Shabbat and Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin was praying the silent amida when he was murdered. The Hasidim who were present were also in the middle of praying the silent amida. Like their master, they too were absorbed in prayer, detached from their surroundings and oblivious to what was transpiring around them. They did not see, nor hear anything. It was only once they finished praying that they found their rabbi lying on the ground in a pool of blood.
Rabbi Voftzi Lemberger, also known as Rabbi Zev, was one of Rabbi Uri’s disciples. Details of this character are not provided, but it is likely that this Rabbi Binyanim Zev Schoenblum of Lemberg who was known as Reb Vovchi. Voftzi and Vovchi hardly sound different. Reb Vovchi authored Imrei Kadosh – a collection of tales about Rabbi Uri of Strelisk, first printed in Lemberg in 1870.
According to Ehrman’s tale, Rabbi Voftzi had his own prayer service in a room that was in the centre of town near the market. Rabbi Voftzi and his fellow Strelisk Hasidim would pray ecstatically, uninhibited and with great clamour. Anyone passing by – during the day or at night – could not help but here the din that came from the shtibl.
When the town mayor was once walking through the market, he heard the tumult. He asked for an explanation for the ruckus, and was told that the noise came from the Hasidim praying fervently. The mayor dispatched an official order that the Hasidim should find an alternate location in a secluded and private area, far from the public square, in order not to disturb the peace.
The order was written in German – the official language of the Austrian Empire that ruled the region of historic Poland known as Galicia. Alas, the Hasidim could not read the order, nor did they care to find out what it said. They continued their boisterous services unperturbed, as before.
When the mayor once again passed through the area, he heard the rumpus and realised that his order had been ignored. Together with the police, he entered the building in order to take the Torah scroll because that is what he had warned them that he would do if the racket continued.
When the mayor and police entered the room, Rabbi Zev and his Hasidim were in the middle of praying. Wrapped in their prayer shawls and totally absorbed by their devekut-filled prayer, they did not see the mayor and his party approach the ark. Indeed, not one of the Hasidim noticed that the police had entered and taken the Torah scroll.
It was only when it came time to take the scroll for Torah reading, that they opened the ark and discovered … it was empty!