Monday, October 1, 2018

Duties of the Heart

From One Hundred Great Jewish Books by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman. Page 62.
Duties of the Heart
(ca. 1080)

Bachya ibn Pakuda (ca. second half of the eleventh century)
"I examined human behavior throughout history as recorded in books, and I found that, except for the more motivated and ascetic among them, most people were far removed from these types of mitzvot [commandments] and had to be encouraged and instructed in them. That goes all the more so for the majority of the people in our generation who scoff at most of the physical commandments, let alone the duties of the heart."
It is commonplace today to castigate ourselves for falling short of the virtue we attribute to generations past. In the Jewish case, we suppose that not so long ago, people customarily observe Shabbat, kept kosher, and lead lives that were, in general, ritually and morally superior to our own. The culprit is said to be "the times," infected with every ignoble vice from rampant individualism to downright hedonism. It was never like that "back then," we claim, believing that people didn't lock their doors, children played in safety, and everybody was nice to each other.

But the existence of a great number of people who fall short of the responsibilities is nothing new. Take the 11th century, for example, when Bachya ibn Pakuda, a Spanish Jew about whom we know very little, wrote Duties of the Heart. He penned it in Arabic, and it was translated into Hebrew in 1161. Bachya thought it human nature to ignore a particular type of virtue: duties of the heart, as opposed to duties of the body. Not that the people he observed were overly punctilious about the latter, either, but the former were hardly observed at all. Duties of the heart "seemed somehow abandoned [. . . ] a field left fallow.

The Hebrew word lev (heart) can mean several things. In the Bible, it denotes the mind, the seat of reason.
Eventually, it came to mean the place of emotion. For Bachya, it has yet a third meaning, a dimension we might call human interiority, the point of spiritual connectedness beyond both fought and feeling. Duties of the Heart is a book on Jewish spirituality.

By duties of the body, Bachya means physical commandments, like eating unleavened bread on Passover and hearing the sound of the shofar on the New Year. But he also includes as physical the giving of charity, which we might more readily associate with the heart - we even call it "heartfelt giving." Not so for Bachya. Duties of the heart, he contends, have nothing to do with emotional responses like loving a stranger and showing compassion for the homeless. These emotive states may just be the necessary condition for further physical acts (such as reaching into your pocket and giving the charity). The "heart" is something much deeper: it is the spiritual state of the soul.

Duties of the heart are neither actions nor feelings - they are contemplative and mystical, such as "believing the world has a creator who created it from nothing, and who is incomparable; accepting His oneness [. . . ] reflecting on His marvelous creations which serve as signs of His presence, trusting Him, [and] surrendering yourself to Him [. . . ] all of which are unapparent from the outside. Duties of the heart are not our outer behavior (which can be seen) but our inner soul life (which cannot be seen.) To be sure, they cover attitudes toward other human beings as well, not just toward God: the refusal to carry a grudge, for example, or to desire revenge. These, too, are duties of the heart, says Bachya, because whatever negative behavior they may prompt (such as the wish for revenge), they are signs of what we might call soul-sickness. With Duties of the Heart, he sought to nurture the soul lest of fall prey to soul-sickness.

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