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Attachment or proximity to God? Reflections on two models of religiosity

By Yaakov Mascetti*

The fervor or passion of a man for God is traditionally exemplified in the Torah by the uncompromising behavior of Pinchas in the book of Numbers:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’” (Num. 25:10-12)

Faced with the sexual degradation of the People of Israel with the Moabite women at Shittim, one man takes the law into his hands and without asking for justice, protesting or working his way through the legal system, simply kills two individuals whom he takes as those who bear out the essence of this collective sin. Pinchas thus takes a spear in his hand and stabs an Israelite and his Moabite partner “through the belly” – in the words of Rashi, Pinchas directs the spear through the male genitalia of the Israelite and the feminine genitalia of the Moabite woman, turning the murder into a symbolic act, one which could leave no doubt whether he had acted thus “gratuitously or not.” So Pinchas’ act is not merely one of extreme religious fervor, and of extra-legal behavior – what he does here is to signal to those who have lapsed into a religiously sexual cult, that this kind of proximity with God is not acceptable within the Jewish framework of monotheistic transcendentalism.

The tension here is, therefore, between two models – one of attachment and the other based on a proximity.

These days there is much talk about “devekut” or attachment to God, mostly due to a series of simplifications and misunderstandings regarding the Chassidic tradition on the acquisition of a meditational state of proximity of the chassid to God. Pinchas provides a clear-cut antithesis to the sexually-manifested attachment to the cult of Baal Peor:

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshiped that god. Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and the LORD was incensed with Israel. (Num. 25:1-3)

The Hebrew term for this attachment is “va-yitzamed” – the Babylonian Talmud in the Treatise of Sanhedrin 64a uses the verb “to attach” or “le-hatzmid” as part of a discussion of the idea of devekut – “you, who held fast to the Lord your God, are all alive today [Deut. 4:4] – attached like two dates glued one to the other”. Within the lexical mindset of the Talmud, this kind of attachment reminds the Gemara of another discussion on the status of a container whose lid is hermetically sealed to the rest of the container and must therefore be considered as an integral part of it.

This is the ritual: When a person dies in a tent, whoever enters the tent and whoever is in the tent shall be unclean seven days; and every open vessel, with no lid fastened down [אֲשֶׁ֛ר אֵין־צָמִ֥יד פָּתִ֖יל עָלָ֑יו] shall be unclean. (Num. 19:14-15).

So there are really two models, in the eyes of this portion of the Gemara, for the individual to establish a connection with the Divine: there is the “two dates” model, where each part maintains its uniqueness even in a state of attachments; and there is the hermetically sealed model, the “tzamid patil”, where the two sides are to be considered as the same whole.

In the linguistically oriented mindset of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, the word “patil” in Numbers 19:15 points to “badal” or separation:

“…for the essence of this sealing is not merely indicative of a state of attachment, but mostly of an isolation from the rest.”

When this attachment is acquired in order to attain a state of sealing, and accomplishes the unification of the two side into one thing, according to Hirsch, the new unity is not merely an example of perfect union but rather of isolation from a contextual reality characterized by individualities, complex composites. Of course the Gemara brings in Sanhedrin also another understanding of “tzamid” – the more commonly known term for a bracelet. The faith of a person in God is, in this counter-example, worn as a decorative element and not as a sign of attachment.

So: is there one specific model which the Jewish rabbinical tradition wishes to support and teach the reader? And what is the Torah proposing one should do in order to feel as sense of attachment to the Divine? Pinchas stabs the Israelite and his Moabite partner as they exemplify physically the desire for a state of attachment to the divine – and he stabs them through the genitalia, symbolizing, one could argue, that sexually manifested attachment to God is not sanctionable within a Jewish framework. Pinchas is, in this sense, a fervent iconoclast, one who elides the physical betokening of a unity with God. Rather than a state of attachment, one should probably yearn for a state of tension in which each individuality maintains its uniqueness, and where a perfect unity like that of the “tzamid patil” cannot be attained, or should be seen as a dangerous attachment of the human being to God.

*Yaakov Mascetti (PhD) teaches at Bar Ilan University.