Between Heaven and Earth: The Clash of Theory and Reality in Masekhet Hagigah
 “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign, the Lord” (Exodus 23:17), declares the Torah, instituting the Shalosh Regalim of Sukkot, Pesaḥ, and Shavuot, when Israelites would celebrate in Jerusalem and “appear before the Sovereign, the Lord” in the Temple. Such an awesome encounter provokes multiple questions about our relationship with Hashem. Thus, centered around the topic of the Shalosh Regalim – specifically the encounter with Hashem – Masekhet Hagigah discusses the following questions: Who can be worthy of encountering Hashem? What insights can we glean about our relationship with Hashem? And how do we reconcile attempting to limit divine confrontation to those exhibiting ideal character traits while simultaneously considering the nuanced reality of human imperfection and character inconsistencies?
Who can be Worthy of Encountering Hashem?
Hagigah’s first Mishnah lists the different personalities exempt from the encounter – such as the deaf and mute – which the Talmud later derives from the laws of Hakhel. Yet, the Talmud is still bothered: While the exemption of the deaf – who cannot hear the Torah reading – is logical, for what reason should the mute be exempted (Hagigah 3a)? The Talmud explains that the mutes’ exemption from Hakhel stems from their inability to teach Torah. This answer reveals a profound insight about the nature of talmud Torah. Encountering Hashem through the Temple service or Torah learning often serves as an invigorating educational and growth-oriented experience. Yet, this experience cannot occur in an isolated vacuum. Being privy to divinity – directly or indirectly – entails the responsibility of sharing and educating. Just as Hashem creates and teaches, so too, we should create and teach. Hashem desires us to serve both as the subject and object of education, as a medium through which Torah can flow like water.
The theme of righteousness also appears repeatedly in Hagigah. On 4b, multiple sages quote harsh biblical passages that evoke tears, such as the opening chapter of Isaiah: “That you come to appear before Me – Who asked that of you? Trample My courts” (Isaiah 1:12) and “‘What need have I of all your sacrifices?’ says the Lord. ‘I am sated with burnt offerings of rams’ (ibid v. 11). Thematically, Isaiah’s opening chapter focuses on Hashem’s rejection of the Israelites’ korbanot. Interestingly, Hashem’s reasoning for rejecting korbanot, perhaps the ritual mitzvah par excellence, proceeds from Israel’s deficient merit within the realm of interpersonal mitzvot, as expounded later on: “For behold, the Master, the Lord of hosts, shall take away from Jerusalem and from Judah support and staff, every support of bread, and every support of water; the mighty man, and the man of war; the judge, and the prophet, and the diviner . . .” (Ibid. 3:1-4) In Hagigah’s exposition, each personality within Isaiah’s prophecy possesses expertise in a particular area of Torah: “‘Support’; these are masters of the Bible. ‘Staff’; these are masters of Mishna, such as Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima and his colleagues” (Hagigah 14b). Yet, despite Jerusalem’s citizens’ wealth of Torah, their immoral and untrustworthy business dealings provoke Hashem’s wrath (Ibid.). Seemingly, Hashem refuses to evaluate His relationship with humankind in a vacuum. The halakhic system operates on a holistic level, encompassing both the vertical and horizontal relational planes. To some degree, the validity of ritual practices depends on the performance of interpersonal mitzvot, and vice-versa. Thus, to don one personality while conversing with Hashem, but another while conversing with others, stains the authenticity and validity of the individual’s prayers.
Finally, Hagigah adds another dimension to the interconnectedness of interpersonal and ritual mitzvot – moral conduct that exceeds legalistic halakhic and moral observance – acting lifnim mishurat hadin, beyond the letter of the law. The following story is cited:
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and Rabbi Hiyya were walking along the road. When they arrived at a certain city, they said: “Is there a Torah scholar here whom we can go and greet?” The people of the city said: “There is a Torah scholar here but he is blind.” Rabbi Hiyya said to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi: “You sit here; do not demean your dignified status as Nasi to visit someone beneath your stature. I will go and greet him.” Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi grabbed him and went with him anyways, and together they greeted the blind scholar. When they were leaving him, he said to them: “You greeted one who is seen and does not see; may you be worthy to greet the One Who sees and is not seen” (Ibid. 5b).
For Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, a renowned Torah scholar, remaining behind would not have constituted a violation of any interpersonal or ritual mitzvot. Yet, he acted lifnim mishurat hadin, beyond the letter of the law, by visiting the blind scholar, meriting the blessing of greeting the “One Who sees and is not seen.” Building on Hagigah’s theme of righteousness, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi merits to encounter Hashem not based upon his rigorous observance of interpersonal mitzvot, but rather through a sensitivity to act lifnim mishurat hadin. Similarly, Hazal stress this concept’s importance by shockingly attributing the Temple’s destruction to Jews who “insisted narrowly on strict Torah law, and didn’t judge beyond the letter of the law” (Bava Metzia 30b). Adherence to Torah law only constitutes a portion of a Jew’s duty. In-between periods of black and white exist grey areas specific and unique to each individual and situation. Those moments force the individual to act proactively and decisively, guided by the spirit of the law.
Humanity: Subjects or Objects
The blind scholar’s blessing alludes to another central theme in Hagigah: seeing or being seen. Depending on its punctuation, the word yirah assumes different meanings. When punctuated with a tzeireh, it becomes yera’e: “to be seen.” However, when punctuated with a hirik, it becomes yireh: “to see”. This grammatical distinction changes the entire meaning of the encounter with Hashem. Does man appear before Hashem as a passive object? Or, is he a proactive subject who actively seeks out Hashem’s presence? Throughout Hagigah’s progression, Hillel and Shammai continue to explore this topic and its related themes. One such debate centers around whether Hashem began creation with the heavens, the angelic celestial realm, or with the earth, humanity’s domain (Hagigah 12a). Each position reflects a philosophy behind Hashem’s intent in creation and on humanity’s purpose. According to Hillel, who holds the latter, Hashem created the world with emphasis on humanity and the physical, worldly realm. In contrast, Shammai believes that the physical world assumes secondary importance in relation to the afterlife and Hashem’s heavenly kingdom. In a similar debate, the two schools discuss the relative merits of the hagigah and olah korbanot. Shammai prefers the olah, as it goes up entirely to Hashem, reflecting the conception that humanity exists to serve Hashem. In distinction, Hillel prefers the hagigah, of which both Hashem and man partake. In this conception, humanity’s service should benefit both themselves and Hashem (Ibid. 6a).
Hagigah enters the debate. Explicating on the ambiguity of the word yirah, the Talmud expounds, “In the same manner that one comes to be see, so too he comes to be seen” (Hagigah 2a). In relational terms, if Shammai portrays humanity as Hashem’s servants, and Hillel portrays Hashem as humanity’s aid, then Hagigah’s new formulation conceives of Hashem and humankind as entering a partnership. In this worldview, humanity actively seeks Hashem, growing and rejoicing in His presence, while at the same time assuming the role of a passive observer. Reish Lakish joins the debate, advancing a fourth position. In regards to the world’s creation, Reish Lakish teaches that Hashem created the heavens before the earth, but implemented the earth before the heavens (Ibid. 12a). Here, Reish Lakish differentiates between the idealistic and pragmatic. Ideally, the spiritual realm exists as the highest, most coveted plane of existence. Yet pragmatically, humanity resides in a physical world. Previously a gladiator, perhaps Reish Lakish is best suited to possess this worldview. To reach great heights in the spiritual realm, it is imperative to recognize the reality and importance of the physical realm as a necessary beginning and stepping-stone upwards.
Just like Reish Lakish, Hagigah discusses the integration of idealism and pragmatism. After devoting much text to developing the ideal personality required to encounter Hashem, Hagigah turns its focus to the complexities and intricacies of the practical world. In reality, few people maintain complete consistency and commitment and human beings are inherently imperfect, resisting placement into neat boxes. Thus, Hagigah tackles this tension, discussing personalities or situations which transcend labels. The heretical character of Aher strongly personifies this tension. Aher, previously known as Elisha ben Avuya, entered Pardes, a place of metaphorical closeness to Hashem, with four fellow scholars (Tosafot to Hagigah 14b). While Aher’s experience caused him to become a heretic, he still retained his Torah knowledge.
All of Hagigah’s possible stances advanced in response to Aher lay upon a spectrum, ranging from complete rejection to acceptance. Generally, Hazal leaned towards the former tendency. Of the four sages who entered, only one returned unscathed. Of the others, Aher became a heretic, one went insane, and another died. Within the story, the general populace rejects Aher, reflecting the aforementioned opinion that rabbinic credibility stems from a holistic virtuousness. On a general level, the Aher dilemma represents a nuanced, uncertain situation with potential for both good and bad. Hazal’s position represents a risk-averse approach, an unwillingness to gamble for rewards in light of potential loss.
Risk-aversion actualizes itself in retreat and hiding from the source of uncertainty. Translated into Hebrew, the word “hidden” comes from the root g.n.z. which appears in other places in Hagigah. For example, the Talmud describes the story of a child who dies while expounding Ezekiel’s esoteric merkavah prophecy (Ibid. 13a). Consistent with their previous response, the sages propose to hide (lignoz) the Book of Ezekiel, a risk-averse position. Yet, the sages are not alone in their conduct. The Talmud explains that even Hashem acts, so to speak, with risk-aversion. For, after considering how the wicked might abuse the original light that was created, Hashem conceals the light, dubbing it the “hidden light” (or haganuz) (Ibid.12a).
On the other hand, Hagigah presents stances that hover around risk-neutral and even risk-seeking areas. For Rabbi Meir, Aher’s former student, a turn towards heresy could not justify abandoning Aher. Despite social pressure from others, and even Aher himself, Rabbi Meir continues to follow Aher, hoping to glean teachings from his vast repositories of Torah knowledge. Aptly described as one who “found a pomegranate; ate the inside and threw away the peel” (Ibid. 15b), Rabbi Meir believed in the possibility of exclusive contact with Aher’s positive traits. The ability to confront risk and uncertainty requires a level of self-confidence in one’s ability to reject the bad and benefit from the good. Similarly, in the case of the child who studied Ezekiel’s vision of the merkavah, a dissenting rabbi questions his fellow sages’ confidence in their ability to encounter divinity through His texts, exclaiming, “If he [the child] was a sage, we are all sages!” (Ibid. 13a)
In addition to complexity of human personalities, Hagigah also considers the psychological and emotional nature of people. Amei ha’aretz, ignoramuses, characterized by their lack of Torah knowledge, presented a huge problem during the Temple pilgrimage. Entering Hashem’s Temple, an immensely holy place, requires a high level of prudence in regards to purity of body and possessions. Amei ha’aretz, who are unlikely to be well-versed in, or careful regarding these laws, present a tumah liability. Ideally, simply banning amei ha’aretz from entering the Temple would fix the problem. However, doing so would open up the possibility of enmity, as Rabbi Yossi explained, “For what reason are all people, i.e., even amei ha’aretz, trusted with regard to the purity of their wine and oil that they bring to the Temple for sacrificial purposes throughout the year? Why is the status of these items not investigated to determine that they were prepared with the necessary regard for ritual purity? In order to avoid schisms among the people, so that each and every individual should not go off and build a private altar for himself and burn a red heifer for himself” (Ibid. 22a). As in previous dilemmas, Hagigah presents multiple options for dealing with amei ha’aretz. Here, Rabbi Yossi allows their entrance to the Temple in certain situations, acknowledging the values of cohesion, community, and pragmatism. The value of pragmatism comes into complete force towards Hagaigah’s close. After fleshing out multiple debates discussing the nuances and tension between avoiding enmity but also tumah, Hagigah debates the maximum distance from which amei ha-aretz can be trusted to bring ovens to Jerusalem without rendering them tamei. The following conclusion is related:
A tanna taught in a baraita: They are deemed credible even with regard to large earthenware vessels for sacrificial food, and not only small ones. And why did the Sages exhibit so much leniency, waiving their regular decrees of impurity within Jerusalem for large vessels and all the way to Modi’in for small vessels? Because there is a principle that potters’ kilns may not be made in Jerusalem, in order to preserve the quality of the air in the city. It is therefore necessary to bring in earthenware vessels from outside the city, and consequently the Sages were lenient concerning such utensils (Hagigah 26a).
While allowing amei ha’aretz to bring ovens from Jerusalem poses dangers of tumah, Hazal possessed no other option, as the concern of pollution prevented the production of these ovens in Jerusalem. Thus, despite all these stringencies and importance of avoiding tumah, Hazal, allow for leniency due to pragmatic concerns.
Despite Hagigah’s focus upon obsolete rituals and customs, the philosophical underpinnings of its debates and tensions carry immense relevance for the present day. Thus, from Hagigah’s main theme–the encounter with Hashem–stems two general tensions: theory versus reality, and humanity’s status as either objects or subjects. Theoretically, only those of the highest halakhic, ethical, and intellectual caliber should receive permission to encounter Hashem at the Temple on the Shalosh Regalim. In reality, however, Hazal accounted for multiple variables. First, they considered the variable of complex personalities–such as Aher – who possessed both positive and negative qualities. The Aher debate revolves around a cost-benefit analysis of a situation’s potential outcomes. Second, they considered the negative externalities related to limiting Temple access. In our case, these externalities assumed the form of schisms and rebellion within the Jewish people. Third, at times, logistics and pragmatics required non-ideal solutions, as noted in the case of the Modi’in ovens.
Similarly, any socio-organizational group undergoes these tensions. Preferably, any group should comprise only the utmost qualified candidates. Realistically, however, most candidates contain a complex package of talents, attitudes, and behaviors. Thus, it behooves the institution to engage in cost-benefit analysis and determine the extent of their risk-aversion. However, risk-aversion–extending from perfectionism and fear of loss–must bend to the specific logistic and pragmatic concerns of the situation. Any institution must acknowledge and factor its limited quantity of time, options, and resources in decision making. Additionally, in communal settings, the variable of enmity and division looms. Being overly selective and elitist may lead to backlash and eventually schisms within the community.
Humanity’s cosmic standing divides Shammai and Hillel throughout Hagigah. Beginning with the punctuation of the word yirah, Hagigah debates whether divine experiences, such as the encounter and Torah learning, should be an end in itself–a divine demand–or as a means towards an invigorating, growth-oriented experience. Hagigah ultimately presents the experience as encompassing both elements, with the caveat that it includes an obligation to spread the inspiration. Similarly, Shammai and Hillel struggle with the tension between physical reality and spiritual loftiness. Shammai believes that the physical reality of olam ha-zeh simply pulls us from the spiritual heights of olam ha-bah. Hillel, however, acknowledges Hashem’s creation of olam ha-zeh and its physicality. Thus, physicality, to some degree, must contain purpose and meaning. Reish Lakish attempts to synthesize both opinions: presenting the spiritual olam ha-bah as the goal, but acknowledges the reality of olam ha-zeh and its practical importance in reaching olam ha-bah.
These important issues inform hashkafic attitudes in modernity. The motivation behind Torah U’Mitzvot in specific, or any actions in general, depend upon these two philosophies. Either deeds should be performed purely out of a sense of obligation, as articulated by Kant’s Categorical Imperative, or for personal refinement and elevation as well, categorized as a Virtue Ethics approach. Similarly, the role of physicality serves as an important topic. The importance of non-Torah U’Mitzvot activities, such as secular studies, occupations, political involvement, athletics, and arts revolve around these worldviews. Either they serve as distractions at best, or dangers at worst, of which we should avoid on our path of serving Hashem. Or, perhaps Hashem intended for us to seek His presence within the entirety of our existence: between both the spiritual and physical realms.
Natan Oliff is a sophomore at the University of Maryland studying computer science
 I would like to thank R. Yehoshua Weisberg, R. Jon Kelsen, Max Gruber, & Sam Finkel for helping me work through the masekhet and develop some of these themes and ideas.
 Unless noted, all translations from Gemara are from Steinsaltz and all translations from Tanakh are from JPS.
 As commanded in the Torah (Devarim 31:10-12), the Jews were commanded to commence a public Torah reading called Hakhel every seven years.
 Man as a co-creator with Hashem, similar to the idea I mentioned above, is a central idea in R’ Joseph Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man: “Halakhic man is a man who longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original. The study of Torah, by definition, means gleaning new, creative insights from the Torah (ḥiddushei Torah) . . . The notion of ḥiddush, of creative interpretation, is not limited solely to the theoretical domain but extends as well into the practical domain, into the real world. The most fervent desire of halakhic man is to behold the replenishment of the deficiency of creation, when the real world will conform to the ideal world.” See Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, transl. by Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia, 1983), 99.
 The comparison of Torah to water appears multiple times throughout the works of Hazal. For example, “And Rabbi Ḥanina bar Idi said: Why are matters of Torah likened to water, as it is written: ‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, come for water’ (Isaiah 55:1)? This verse comes to tell you: Just as water leaves a high place and flows to a low place, so too, Torah matters are retained only by one whose spirit is lowly, i.e., a humble person” (Taanit 7a).
 This theme also appears in regards to fasting during the Haftorah on Yom Kippur, where the people claim merit due to their fasting. Yet, Hashem explains that fasting only serves as the means to the end of fostering righteousness and destroying wickedness (Isaiah 58:1-14). It also appears very poignantly in the first Mishnah of the second chapter of Taanit: “The eldest member of the community says to the congregation statements of reproof, for example: Our brothers, it is not stated with regard to the people of Nineveh: And God saw their sackcloth and their fasting. Rather, the verse says: ‘And God saw their deeds, they had turned from their evil way’ (Jonah 3:10). And in the Prophets it says: ‘And rend your hearts and not your garments, and return to the Lord your God’ (Joel 2:13)” (Taanit 15a).
 Ramban firmly believed that Halakhah could only delineate specific behavioral guidelines for a portion of one’s life, and it could be quite possible to be a completely observant Jew yet still be act as a scoundrel (Naval Birshut HaTorah): “ … And the matter is [that] the Torah prohibited sexual transgressions and forbidden foods, and permitted sexual relations between husband and wife and the eating of meat and [the drinking of] wine. If so, a desirous person will find a place to be lecherous with his wife or his many wives, or to be among the guzzlers of wine and the gluttons of meat. He will speak as he pleases about all the vulgarities, the prohibition of which is not mentioned in the Torah. And behold, he would be a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah. Therefore, Scripture came, after it specified the prohibitions that it completely forbade, and commanded a more general [rule] – that we should be separated from [indulgence of] those things that are permissible” (Ramban to Leviticus 19:2). This position is only feasible based on the assumption that Torah and Halakha have a certain spirit or level of holiness that lies behind the mitzvot.
 “Loss-Aversion,” as termed by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, seems to dominate human cognition and decision making. According to their “Prospect Theory,” given an equal probability of either gaining or losing and equal amounts of money, most people will refuse to take the gamble, as potential loss inherently holds more weight and overshadows the possible gains. Thus, humans prefer safety and certainty in the face of double-edged risks and gambles. For more on this topic, see Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
 In Halakhic Man, R. Soloveitchik strongly advances the position that Halakhah, in contradistinction to most religions and faiths, places a supreme importance on this world and life. See Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man.
 Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, in his article “The Implications of a Jewish Virtue Ethic,” provides an explanation of this topic: “Yeshayahu Leibowitz argues that the proper motivation for conduct according to Jewish law most closely resembles the Kantian ethic. Of course, Kant saw autonomous human reason as the source for determining our duty, while a Jewish Kantian sees the Divine command as the source. Nevertheless, the common denominator is that both value a particular motivation for behaving morally, namely the performance of one’s duty. However, according to a Jewish virtue ethic, the cultivation of a benevolent personality reflects the fulfillment of a Divine directive. If so, one who successfully develops the trait of benevolence will want to give charity or comfort a mourner irrespective of the specific Mizvah to do so. A person’s need to constantly struggle against inclination in order to adhere to these mizvot would indicate that such a person has not adequately fulfilled imitatio Dei.” For further explanation, see Yitzchak Blau, “The Implications of a Jewish Virtue Ethic,” The Torah u-Madda Journal 9 (2000): 19-41.