Which kind of religious observance or experience is primary, the national, or the personal? Likewise, is the observance of the Law primary, despite the fact that it may take on a mechanical form, or the developing of deep religious feelings, buttressed by esoteric teachings?
Clearly, the dominant form of Jewish worship since the destruction of the second Beit haMiqdash has been personal, as the national cultic centre had been destroyed. And Judaism’s emphasis on laws, while not denying the role of religious experiences and concomitant emotions, clearly puts more weight on observance of the Law. But how are we to reconcile this attitude with the commandment to create a sancturay, as stated in Parshat Teruma וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתֹוכָם׃ – let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them (Shemot 25:8)?
When G”d commanded that a sanctuary be built so that He will dwell among the people, did He not put the national observance above the personal one? The very architecture of the Beit haMiqdash aroused awe in the visitor, was it not about instilling emotions in the heart of the worshipper?
The same question can be asked regarding the esoteric teachings, the mystical traditions. If the spiritual effect of mystical action is of greatest importance, does it not follow that we should turn to the mystical tradition even at the expense of the exoteric Law? Concretely, if prayer is, for example, about bringing Sefirotic unity in the Heavens above, as evident by the numerous לשם יחוד statements before the fulfillment of certain mitzvot, does not the effective exercise of such “unification actions” supersede, for example, the need to pray at appointed times and to recite particular passages in a particular order and without interruption? [Do note that the recitation of לשם יחוד statements is not uncontroversial. They are just about totally absent from the Western Ashkenaz (jeckische) siddur, and no less a rabbinic authority than Rav Ye’hezqel Landau, “Noda’ biYhuda,” vigorously opposed its recitation.]
Similarly, in the Maimonidean teachings, the study of metaphysics and natural philosophy are the greatest human achievements, which lead to fearing and lonving G”d. Maimonides explains many mitsvot according to their philosophical or ethical contributions to the spiritual growth of the individual and the well being and orderliness of society.
Taken to an extreme, one could conclude that once one has understood the effect of mitzvot, one need not be bothered with them anymore, for the main thing is to philosophize.
Sensing this danger, Maimonides warns the reader that:
וַאֲנִי אוֹמֵר שְׁאֵין רָאוּי לְהִטַּיַּל בַּפַּרְדֵּס, אֵלָא מִי שֶׁנִּתְמַלָּא כְּרֵסוֹ לֶחֶם וּבָשָׂר; וְלֶחֶם וּבָשָׂר זֶה, הוּא לֵידַע בֵּאוּר הָאָסוּר וְהַמֻּתָּר וְכַיּוֹצֶא בָּהֶן מִשְּׁאָר הַמִּצְווֹת. וְאַף עַל פִּי שֶׁדְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ, דָּבָר קָטָן קָרְאוּ אוֹתָם חֲכָמִים, שֶׁהֲרֵי אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים דָּבָר גָּדוֹל מַעֲשֵׂה מֶרְכָּבָה, וְדָבָר קָטָן הֲוָיָה דְּאַבַּיֵּי וְרָבָא; אַף עַל פִּי כֵן, רְאוּיִין הֶן לְהַקְדִּימָן: שְׁהֶן מְיַשְּׁבִין דַּעְתּוֹ שֶׁלָּאָדָם תְּחִלָּה, וְעוֹד שְׁהֶן הַטּוֹבָה הַגְּדוֹלָה שֶׁהִשְׁפִּיעַ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְיִשּׁוּב הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, כְּדֵי לִנְחֹל חַיֵּי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא.
And I say that one isn’t worthy of wandering in the Pardes unless he has first filled his belly with “bread and water.” The “bread and water” is the knowledge of the prohibited and the permissible and similar things from among the other mitzvot. Even though these [exoteric] things were called a “minor matter” by our Sages, for our Sages said that “a major thing” is the Account of the Chariot [which Maimonides explains, is the study of metaphysics –AF], and the “minor matter” comprises the discussions between Abaye and Rava [in the Talmud –AF], even so, one should study them first, for they settle the mind first, and because they are the great goodness which the Holy One, blessed be He, granted [us] to develop civilization in the Present World, so as to [make the practitioners] inherit the World to Come. (Hil. Yesode haTorah 4:21)
Likewise, the Lurianic doctrine of the extracting of Divine Sparks in all that G”d put at our disposition does not extend to prohibited matters. It was only the rare antinomian movement, like the followers of false messiah Shabtai Zvi, which advocated seeking Divine Sparks to elevate from out of the prohibited, too.
While the ba’alei ma’hshava surely pay lip service to the supremacy of personal observance, ultimately, one must grapple with the question of how the nomen (the Law) relates to the even higher, deeper meanings of observance, and, in the context of the mitsva of building a sanctuary to G”d, how the national obligations relate to the individual obligations.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the account of the building of the Mishkan and of the temple service that is to be performed there, essentally contained in the second half of the book of Shemot and all of Vayiqra, concludes with Parshat Be’huqotai, which begins with the words: אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם׃ – “If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them …” Essentially, the Torah teaches that despite all the effort that went into building the Mishkan, despite the importance of national piety and observance, it does not, and cannot substitute for personal observance and personal piety.
Indeed, while we are accustomed to call the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem the Batei Miqdash, and the Tabernacle in the desert that preceded them, Mishkan, the Torah uses the terms Miqdash and Mishkan differently, though not interchangeably, as in the following verse:
וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתֹוכָם׃
The word וְשָׁכַנְתִּי has the same root as Mishkan, and signifies dwelling. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the word Miqdash has a dual connotation. On the one hand, it dennotes the sanctuary, which the Nation of Israel was to build, however, more importantly, it relates to the question of whether we sanctify our lives through personal observance and piety, for the national dimension is one that is superimposed upon the personal dimension, and the Sanctuary, the Miqdash, can only become a true dwelling of the Divine Presence, a Mishkan, through our personal observance and engagement.
In retrospect, that is also what Maimonides stressed as the relationship between the esoteric and the exoteric: the esoteric can only lead to greatness when it is superimposed upon the exoteric observance, which has independent value, as can be seen from his statement that the exoteric isn’t there only to develop an orderly, peaceful society, but to make the observant righteous inherit the World to Come.
May we, too, establish in us and through our lives the foundation upon which the esoteric and the national religious [no pun on any stream of Orthodox Judaism intended] dimensions of Judaism may flourish, that we make our lives lives of Miqdash, sanctified through personal and communal piety and observance, which will merit to become Mishkan.