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Feeling Seen

In Tractate Chagigah, the Talmud teaches us to prize experience, not information

Dovid Bashevkin
March 08, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

A few weeks before Hanukkah, Rav Chaim Ilson, a renowned Rosh Yeshiva, was traveling on El Al to Israel. If you’ve ever flown to Israel on El Al, you might know that their security, quite thankfully, can be somewhat ruthless. In addition to the regular security questions—did you pack your own bags, were they with you the whole time, etc.—they ask all sorts of questions to make sure that whoever is flying is who they say they are. I’ve been asked by El Al security what the weekly parsha is, how I know Hebrew so well, and where I studied in Israel. They might as well have a Brachos Bee for all the passengers.

Rav Ilson finally reached the security desk. “What is the next chag?” the security officer asked him. “Pesach,” Rav Ilson responded confidently. “Umm, you mean Hanukkah, no?” she asked, assuming he made an error by forgetting the next Jewish holiday. Rav Ilson, who has the characteristic seriousness of a senior Rosh Yeshiva, clarified in his intense way, “If you don’t bring a korban chagigah, it’s not called a chag!”

This story always made me chuckle—only on El Al will a passenger get into a brief Talmudic discourse with the security team. And this, in fact, is the subject of Tractate Chagigah—the unique characteristic of chag, whereby three times a year the Jewish people brought special sacrifices on their collective journey to Israel. And while there was no Talmudic equivalent of El Al security, this triannual journey illuminates what the inner experience of our journeys are all about.

Three times a year—during the festivals of Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot—the Jewish people traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem and offered three sacrifices. One sacrifice, which, as Rav Ilson correctly responded, was called the korban chagigah, commemorated the festival, or chag. Another sacrifice was called the shalmei simcha, to commemorate the joyousness of the occasion—a festival, after all, calls for some fleishigs! The third sacrifice had a curious name: olas re’iyah, meaning the sacrifice of seeing, and it was brought to commemorate seeing the Temple in Jerusalem. This notion of seeing—and feeling seen—is what characterizes the entire experience. Our journey to Israel is described by the Torah as going to “see the face of God.” The Talmud extrapolates on this commandment: We do not just see God, we need God to see us. “The same way that we come to see,” the Talmud explains, “so, too, we come to be seen.”

But what does it mean to see God, and, even more cryptically, what does it mean to be seen by God? God certainly doesn’t have a body, so is it really necessary to travel to Israel to be seen by the omnipotent Creator?

Feeling seen has animated our modern discourse. “I feel so seen,” we now say when we see a particularly resonant meme or GIF. It’s a strange phrase that has cropped up in our modern internet language. Seen by whom? A poem by Caleb Madison ponders the meaning of this modern idiom:

What does it mean
When I look at the screen
at a show or a meme
and I say “I feel seen”?

“To feel seen,” Madison explains, “is to find comfort in the shared recognition of one’s own experience.”

Feeling seen has become a treasured rarity. Experience has been sacrificed on the altar of information. As Walter Benjamin laments in his work The Storyteller, “experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness.” Writing in 1936, Benjamin was concerned that following the trauma of WWI, people no longer knew how to communicate their experiences. Instead, the rise of modernization, mass media, and industrialization has privileged generic content over the rich interiority of experience. It’s the world we still live in today. Viral tweets, Wikipedia rabbit holes, binge-watching, and WhatsApp messages have shaped the contours of our society into a deluge of information. We now call this world the Information Age.

And underneath the towering behemoth of the unrelenting stream of information is the world of meaningful experiences. “The birth of information theory came with its ruthless sacrifice of meaning—the very quality that gives information its value and its purpose,” writes James Gleick in his comprehensive book Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. Our obsession with information has obscured our appreciation of experience.

Tractate Chagigah is about reclaiming experience as the center of Jewish life. When Rav Huna learned the verse that commands us to be seen and feel seen by God, he began to weep. He read these passages centuries after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when visiting the Temple to be seen by God was no longer possible. How can it be, he wondered, that our Master no longer wants to see us? Another description of the Temple sacrifices brought Rav Huna to tears again. How can it be that our Master once waited for our propitiations and now no longer cares for them? His reaction is worth thinking about for a second. He could have kept scrolling, devouring more information, comforting himself with the overwhelming mounds of Talmudic data that accrued since the Temple’s destruction. Instead, he cried. The loss of one experience could only be replaced by another. In the absence of the experience of presence, Rav Huna is only left to experience and reflect on absence.

The centrality of experience in Tractate Chagigah explains one of the most mysterious detours in the Talmud. Nearly the entire second chapter of Tractate Chagigah is about mysticism. The chapter outlines the context in which one may disclose eroticism and esotericism. Like the content of these subjects, the context of their study must also be intimate. But why discuss this here? It’s a puzzling non sequitur: Visit the Temple three times a year—oh, and also make sure you don’t discuss mysticism in large groups. Why are we talking about this?

Jewish mysticism is called, nistar, meaning “hidden.” The Talmud goes to great lengths to show that such Torah must be hidden. Rav Tzadok of Lublin points out something remarkable:

And that which they call “Hidden Torah” and “Concealed Ideas” it is not because they must be hidden or concealed. Otherwise, it would have been unnecessary for the sages to explicitly instruct that they be hidden. Clearly, from their name alone we would not have understood the obligation to conceal them. Rather, we see, their identification as hidden and concealed is not due to the obligation to hide them—it is their very nature that they are hidden and concealed. Each person must experience them and grasp them. From here we learn that all of the written works throughout the latter generations to explain kabbalah in a readily understandable way do not fall within the category of the concealed matters of the world.

Jewish mysticsm, in other words, is not information—it is experience. So long as it remains on the page, explains Rav Tzadok, it is not the actual mystical tradition. Because mysticism by its very nature must be experienced, felt, and seen. Experiential resonance, in this formulation, is not a byproduct of mystical ideas—it is their purpose.

Four entered the orchard of mystical experience, the Talmud recounts, and only one—Rebbe Akiva—left in peace. One of the other rabbis died, another rabbi went insane, the third rabbi, known throughout the Talmud as Acher, meaning The Other, became a heretic. Acher’s heresy is a legendary tale, famously retold in Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf. He hears a heavenly voice that says, “All of my children may return except Acher.” This is the danger of experiential religion. If your very experiential interiority is a window to spirituality, what will you hear if your insides are corrupt? Acher overhears children studying Torah, each word they say he interprets as further condemnation of his life. Acher is convinced he is hopeless. He projects his personal cynicism and pessimistic fatalism onto his standing with God. If I don’t feel seen, God must not see me. It is a mistake that I have made in my own life.

During my tumultuous 20s, I did not feel seen by God. Every potential entrance seemed to scream back at me, “Return, my children—except you, Dovid Bashevkin.” When experience becomes the sole arbiter of our religious engagement, when we feel cast aside, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we are no longer wanted. Like the satanic strategy presented in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, “Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.” This was Acher’s mistake. Acher’s loss of faith in God was intertwined with the loss of faith in himself. We project our inner cynicism and personal volatility onto the enduring optimism of God. If I feel distant inside, God must be distant as well. If we don’t tend to our personal sense of self, our own spiritual self-care, then the very glasses through which we peer through to experience God will present a warped image of our own spiritual standing. Only Rebbe Akiva understood the secret of experiential revelation. Of the four rabbis who enter the orchard, only Rebbe Akiva is identified by his name. He entered with an understanding of self, a name, and with that he could leave in peace.

Despite its dangers, real religious transformation resides in experience. Information can help guide, educate, and inform, but the essence of our religious lives emerges from our individual and collective experience. The experiences that harbor our religious vitality need not be soaring travels to remote monasteries—religious experience unfolds even in the mundane. Most people associate religious experience with voices from heaven, sublime moments of clarity and unity. John Dewey, in his book A Common Faith, paints a different picture. “There is reason to suppose that, in some degree of intensity,” Dewey writes about religious experiences, “they occur so frequently that they may be regarded as normal manifestations that take place at certain rhythmic points in the movement of experience.” Dewey calls this a consummatory experience. Two people may climb the same mountain; one leaves tired and exhausted, the other leaves invigorated. A mere experience just happens in life, a consummatory experience begins with the conviction that spiritual revelation can occur through experience itself. As one scholar describes the consummatory experience of a mountain hike:

Despite all of the inner and outer challenges, the triumphant end was held firmly in sight, even if half-buried beneath all of her doubts and worries, from the very start. This promise of victory following her physical and emotional strain, all the while surrounded by the beauties of the natural landscape, grants the entire day a kind of unity, one felt every step on the way up.

Acher entered the orchard defeated. Rebbe Akiva entered the orchard with the promise of victory every step of the way up. Acher means The Other, he did not feel seen. His life felt remote, empty, and uncared. Rebbe Akiva could see and that allowed him to feel seen.

There is a legend told about Tractate Chagigah that dates back to the 14th century. There was a student who spent his entire lifetime studying Tractate Chagigah. Over and over again, until he knew the entire tractate flawlessly. It was the only tractate he knew. He passed away alone in his home, where he spent his lifetime studying. Initially, no one came to the funeral except one woman, who was uncontrollably sobbing. People began to notice this woman. Why was she so sad? This must have been a very important person who passed away, the townsfolk reasoned. The entire town gathered and made the departed scholar an honorable funeral. The woman continued to weep. When the funeral was finally over, they turned to her and asked, “What is your name?” “My name is Chagigah,” she said.

It’s an incredibly moving story, and it has been told in different forms for centuries. Someone even wrote a song about it. I don’t think it is a coincidence that this story is told about Tractate Chagigah. If Tractate Chagigah teaches us anything it is the revelatory power of experience itself. How a lone student who pores over a text each day of his life can create an experience so real, so enduring, so transformative, that it is embodied as a person. In the Information Age, we tend to look at data, books, websites, Wikipedia pages—information—as the most enduring and real parts of our lives. Experiences can be seen as fleeting and temporal. Tractate Chagigah reverses the hierarchy of information over experience and reminds that experience itself is the most powerful repository for spiritual revelation. It’s not a phase, it’s the material of life itself.

Tractate Chagigah concludes Seder Moed, the first full collection of tractates in the Babylonian Talmud. And it feels like an appropriate time to reflect on the Daf Yomi journey so far, especially for people like myself who are plodding along for the first time. Studying Daf Yomi—one page of Talmud a day—feels like borrowing money from the Mafia: If you miss a day, the Daf debts accrue quickly. Most of my learning I do very late at night and very quickly. The information I have acquired through this process, if I am being honest with myself, is negligible. A page a day of Talmud is not the way to accumulate information. But it has been a transformative experience. Quiet moments, family asleep, whispers of Talmud. Even if you don’t remember much, it is enough to change your life. You start to mark days with the Daf, months with the tractate. Daily Torah study becomes the experience that one writer described as the “shared faith-based metronome, the pacemaker that takes us back to our youth and remains oscillating and firing through the trials and tribulations of daily life.” A daily routine of study transforms each page of Talmud from a source of information into a prism to reflect on your own life, self, and values. Before long, the Daf itself, like the legend of Tractate Chagigah, becomes a friend. An experience reified into a friendship. And no matter how late or how tired or how scrambled my brain may be, I see each Daf and each Daf sees me.

הדרן עלך מסכת חגיגה והדרך עלן
הדרן עלך סדר מועד והדרך עלן

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.

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