“Looking for a Havvayah” A Genealogy of “Experience” on the High Holy Days

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Avinoam J. Stillman

Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are times when many Jews search out religious experiences, whether by attending lengthy services at their local shul or by making pilgrimages to holy sites in Ukraine. Perhaps the founding myth of Yom-Kippur-as-experience is the tale of Franz Rosenzweigs decision to attend services on the Day of Atonement, on the brink of converting to Christianity. As Nahum Glatzer put it succinctly, “The experience of this day was the origin of his radical return to Judaism.” While the majority of synagogue goers are not contemplating apostasy, many are hoping for some sort of transformative experience.

Yet for most of Jewish history, these holidays were not primarily seen as opportunities for religious experience. Rather, Jews prayed so as to participate in the yearly coronation of the Creator, and to attain atonement for their sins and blessings for the coming year. The soul-searching process of teshuvah, subjective as it may have been, was meant to have objective metaphysical results. However, ask a contemporary Jew what they’re looking for in a Yom Kippur service, and you’re liable to hear the reply “I’m looking for a havvayah” (חויה), employing the Hebrew term for “experience.”

Haym Soloveitchik evokes a related phenomenon in his seminal essay “Rupture and Reconstruction.” Soloveitchik bemoans that, after attending High Holidays services at a haredi yeshivah in Bnei Brak in 1959, “I realized that there was introspection, self-ascent, even moments of self-transcendence, but there was no fear in the thronged student body … The ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are now Holy Days, but they are not Yamim Noraim—Days of Awe or, more accurately Days of Dread, as they have been traditionally called.” The dread of these days, their cosmic significance, has been replaced by an introspective spirituality, perhaps angsty, but certainly not terrified. Somehow, for many modern Jews, the penitential goals of Tishrei seem involve intense experiences, not a fear of the outcome of God’s judgment. One way to start untangling this conundrum is to ask how “experience” came to its current prominence in Western religious life.

Criticism of the concept of “religious experience” is a commonplace of contemporary study of religion. The primacy of “experience,” as scholars like Wayne Proudfoot have argued, is an artifact of nineteenth century Romanticism. German Protestant philosophers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher aimed to discover an essential core of religion that could withstand biblical criticism, scientific empiricism, and unsettling encounters with non-Christian cultures. They settled on subjective experience as such an inviolable core; who could impugn an entirely inner experience?

The paramount example of this type of subjectivism is William James’s monumental 1903 psychological study of religion, simply titled The Varieties of Religious Experience. In this light, the search for a “religious experience” on the High Holidays could be seen as merely a modern manifestation of subjective religion, one which disregards the metaphysical import of the days in classical Judaism. Yet, unless we are to entirely delegitimize modern iterations of religion, it behooves us to examine “experience” not merely as an apologetic term, but as an expression of real religious impulses. In our Jewish context, a brief genealogy of the Hebrew word “havvayah” is in order, and can flesh out the relationship between experience and the traditional awestruck process of teshuvah.

The word havvayah, commonly translated as “experience,” was coined in 1910, with the publication of the first part of A.D. Gordon’s socialist Zionist philosophical work Man and Nature in the journal of the Po’el Ha-Tzair (Young Laborer). Hebrew was not alone in coming late to an independent word for “experience”; in many other non-European languages, such as Japanese, words for experience were wholly absent until the nineteenth century. However, unlike the many modern Hebrew words coined for recent technological inventions, havvayah was not intended to fill a practical linguistic need.

Rather, havvayah forms a central piece of Gordon’s philosophical project. Gordon grew up in the traditionally observant Jewish world of Eastern Europe, and by all accounts he did not abandon Orthodox praxis until he left Russia in middle age to join the kibbutz of Degania. As one of the more important figures of the “Second Aliyah,” the wave of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to the Land of Israel in the first decades of the twentieth century, Gordon both valorized and participated in the agricultural labor of the socialist Zionist pioneers. His attempt to create a spiritual basis for the kibbutz ethos has thus often been referred to as a “religion of labor,” one which drew both on Kabbalah and Hasidism and on Zionist ideology.

In Man and Nature, composed on the kibbutz, Gordon analyzes the interaction between the human subject and the world of nature. He compares a person in nature to a fish in water; without even being aware of it, the presence of nature around the subject grants her vitality. However, people in the modern world have become like fish out of water; people feel a distance, a “tear” between themselves and nature. The reason for this alienation is their reliance solely on what Gordon terms “consciousness,” meaning self-conscious, analytical discrimination of external objects, to the detriment of “life,” the holistic connection between subject and object:

[A person] comprehends all that they comprehend through the medium of consciousness only by the power of life, and the division of consciousness from life is like removing the soul of consciousness.

That is to say, life—especially in its human form—is … the foundation for all human comprehension, not just a particular aspect of being, but a particular aspect of comprehension.

“Life” is not just a way of being—as opposed to death, or non-being—but is also an “aspect of comprehension.” That is, there is no such thing as consciousness which is detached from the lived world. The material which consciousness processes and analyzes has to emerge from vitality. The modern predicament is the disjunction between consciousness and life. However, Gordon finds the term “life” insufficient as a description of the ideal state of human being and thinking in the world:

This term [life] doesn’t supply precisely what is necessary: On the one hand, it is usually used to indicate different forms or states of life (social, national life, eternal life, temporal life, physical life, spiritual life, etc.) and it is difficult to constrict it precisely to its cosmic-human indication; on the other hand, it is not a small problem that life [ḥayyim, (חיים)] is in the plural form and that its form resembles the plural adjective. So, with no other option, I will allow myself to innovate a term in the form havvayah (חויה), on the [grammatical] model of “being” [havaya, הויה].

“Life,” with its range of social and conceptual applications, is too broad a term; Gordon is only discussing the word life’s “cosmic-human” indication, that is, the human state of being in the world. Furthermore, for stylistic and grammatical reasons, Gordon feels it necessary to invent a new word. Therefore, Gordon takes the word “being,” havayah, as a grammatical example, and combines it with the word “life,” ḥayyim, and to form havvayah. In English, I might translate havvayah not as experience, but as “living-and-being.” Boaz Huss, in his The Mystification of the Kabbalah and the Myth of Jewish Mysticism, claims that “the concept ḥavvaya is a translation of the German concept Erlebnis, which filled a central role in the concepts of neo-Romanticism in the beginning of the twentieth century.” While there is certainly some overlap between the terms—“erlebnis” could be translated hyperliterally as “living-through-ness”—I will attempt show in what follows that Gordon’s term is no mere translation of German neo-Romanticism into Hebrew, but is rather an original concept which draws on kabbalistic sources in a Zionist context.

The remainder of the lengthy chapter in which Gordon coined havvayah, entitled “Havvayah as the Vessel of Comprehension,” expands expressively on the characteristics and metonyms of havvayah and consciousness. Essentially, however, havvayah is “the faculty which interfaces between being and consciousness.” The alienation of the modern person, exemplified by the overly intellectual Jew, can be overcome by reengaging with havvayah, which for Gordon meant, practically, a life of physical labor. Agricultural labor, the epitome of a creative engagement with nature that does not merely objectify but participates in nature, actualizes havvayah. Thus, Gordon’s concept provides the justification for the kibbutz ethos. One assumes that the relationship was reciprocal: Gordon’s life on the kibbutz deepened his familiarity with physical labor, and led him to conceptualize the relief from alienation it granted him.

Gordon’s concept reflects socialist Zionist rhetoric concerning the creation of a “new Hebrew,” one engaged in productive labor, as opposed to stereotypical Jewish involvement in non-productive, monetary ventures. However, it would be simplistic to reduce havvayah to an anti-Diasporic catchphrase; Gordon’s linguistic innovation draws on methods and concepts found in kabbalistic and Hasidic literature. The very portmanteau of havvayah plays on kabbalistic traditions of wordplay and the meditative combination of the letters of various divine names (tsirufim). Given Gordon’s pantheism, it would be conceivable to construe both “life” and “being” as names of Gordon’s God, which he combines to gain another linguistic hold on divinity. The resemblance of havvayah—the letters ḤVVYH—to the Tetragrammaton, Y-H-V-H, further emphasizes Gordon’s kabbalistic method. Furthermore, Gordon uses the terms tzimtzum and hitpashtut, or contraction and expansion, to describe, respectively, consciousness and ḥavvaya.

These terms originate in the Lurianic Kabbalah, in which Eyn Sof, the transcendent, infinite Divine, is said to “contract” itself in order to “make room” for creation. A state of full expansion of God’s infinity would leave no room for existence. Therefore, tzimtzum of God’s infinite expanse is necessary for creation in all its particularity. Similarly, Gordon remarks that havvayah is not independently a basis for acts of will, emotion, or any personal agency, as it is too broad a summation of the mode of being in the world. The function of discriminating, analytic consciousness is thus to “contract” havvayah, and to enable individuality. Consciousness is both necessary and positive, when appropriately balanced with “living-and-being.”

In his work on Gordon’s kabbalistic sources, Avraham Shapira also points out the essential parallel between Gordon’s binary of havvayah and consciousness and the paired kabbalistic sefirot of ḥokhmah and binah. In kabbalistic literature, and particularly in the Hasidic thought of the Maggid of Mezerich, these sefirot are conceived of as related forms of intellect. The first of the pair, ḥokhmah, is understood as a singularity, an undifferentiated “point” that contains all information, prior to any division or differentiation. Binah is the “circle,” the cognitive faculty that processes, elaborates, and analyzes the “point,” the raw data of ḥokhmah. The ineffable, vital havvayah is thus reminiscent of ḥokhmah, in that it contains within it the potentiality of all thought. Discursive consciousness fulfills the discriminating role of binah, which the Zohar describes as the origin of all judgements. Just as in the Zohar the sefirot of hokhmah and binah are called abba and imma, father and mother, the “two companions who do not separate,” for Gordon there is no consciousness without havvayah, nor havvayah without consciousness.

The kabbalistic correlates of Gordon’s concepts are as important for understanding his thought as are his Western philosophical influences. His kabbalistic sources attenuate what might otherwise be a purely Romantic exaltation of experience, or a crudely Zionist denigration of analytic thought. Rather, havvayah complements and enables healthy human consciousness. Gordon’s conception of havvayah is not synonymous with “experience” in the modern sense, either as it is employed colloquially by Hebrew speakers or by scholars of religion.

There are two main meanings of the term “experience”: the first is “having experience” and the second is “having an experience.” The former refers to the sum of events lived through, and the wisdom accrued thereby. Religiously, this is the type of “experience” hopefully attained by someone who studies in a beit midrash for years, or spends much of their time doing acts of charity or counseling those in pain. The latter is a momentary state of lived reality, of exceptional perception. This is the type of “religious experience” attained by people dancing ecstatically, or who have a sudden epiphany of God while observing the beauty of nature. Gordon’s havvayah is neither of these. Rather than being a specific series of events or a singular and fleeting “peak” experience, havvayah is the raw substrate of consciousness. It is the simple “living and being” which provides the platform for abstract thought, but which we are all too liable to forget.

What might this all mean for Jews looking for a havvayah over the high holy days? Gordon claims that many of us are blind to the basic facts of our existence. This alienation from physicality was already noticeable in the nineteenth century; even more so, kal va-homer in the increasingly disembodied digital world. I don’t know whether Gordon would agree with me here, but it seems to me that deeper awareness of our living-and-being in the world goes along with deeper humility about our finite human lives. The process of teshuvah would then be an attempt to get back in touch with havvayah, with our embeddedness in the world.

In contrast to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, for whom teshuvah means a return to our Divine source, Gordonian teshuvah means discarding the abstractions which cause us to forget how fragile and human we are. The High Holy Days allow not just for an experience of Divinity, but for a havvayah of humanity. That is why, for Gordon, the paradigm of the return to havvayah is re-engagement with physical labor, not psychic reverie. For us, the physicality of fasting might paradoxically fill a parallel role, to the degree that it allows us to inhabit our bodies more sensitively.

God comes into the story when we correlate Gordon’s havvayah with the words of the piyyut—to pick just one of myriad examples in the liturgy—which declares that we are “like matter in the hands of the Maker.” Awareness of the limits of our physicality is an opening for awareness of God. Finally, looking for a High Holy Days havvayah need not be a search for a fleeting experience, even for an experience of embodiment. Gordon did not mean to discard thought in favor of a brute, human havvayah, but rather to recalibrate the relationship of our consciousnesses to our lives. The havvayah of Tishrei provides primal spiritual matter to digest and process throughout the year. Whether crowding together with thousands of Hasidim in Uman, or sitting stiffly on benches of a Young Israel, true havvayah can reaffirm our physicality and dependence on God, and lay a foundation for the intellectual and professional labors of the coming year.

Avinoam Stillman
Avinoam J. Stillman is a doctoral candidate at Freie Universität Berlin and a Research Associate in the research group “Patterns of Knowledge Circulation: The Transmission and Reception of Jewish Esoteric Knowledge in Manuscripts and Print in Early Modern East-Central Europe.” He completed his Master’s degree in Jewish Thought at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, his Bachelor’s degree in Religion at Columbia University, and has studied Torah in various batei midrash, including Yeshivat Otniel.