“All Things Unto Me Are Spiritual”: Worship Through Corporeality in Hasidism & Mormonism (Part 1)

An important thread running through Mormonism is the religious significance often attached to secular acts. Part one will explore this phenomenon in light of similar traditions in Judaism, while part two will add managerial perspectives and its connection to eternal progression. Worlds Without End is pleased to welcome back Allen Hansen, who co-authored this piece with Walker Wright. Allen is originally from Israel, but is currently studying journalism at Utah State. He blogs at Calba Savua’s Orchard and Adventures in N-Town.

A central teaching of Hasidic thought is that of worship through corporeality. Without getting too technical, this doctrine meant that mundane acts can be sanctified and transformed, thereby influencing for the better cosmic processes in the divine. A verse commonly quoted was from Proverbs 3:6: “In all thy ways know him.” That is, everything one does can become an act of worship. It was said of one Hasidic master that “he did not travel to the Maggid of Mezherych’s house to hear him expound Torah, but to see how he took off his shoes and how he tied his shoelaces.” This same Hasidic master also decried mere preaching. The goal, instead, is to “be Torah.”[1] Each and every action should be in such harmony with the sacred revelations of God that the act itself embodies them. “Worship through corporeality,” writes Norman Lamm, “brought into the domain of religious significance the entire range of human activity…”[2]

One of the major sources for this doctrine was the Enoch lore circulating in the medieval era. The influential kabbalist Rabbi Isaac of Acre (1250-1340) was troubled by the Bible’s laconic description of Enoch and his heavenly ascent. The reasons for Elijah’s ascension were fairly clear from the biblical text, but the Enoch passages were entirely cryptic. R. Isaac turned to his teacher for help:

He said that he received a tradition that Enoch was an ushkaf, that is, he sewed together shoes, and with every incision and incision that he made using the stitching awl he blessed God with a whole heart and perfect intent, extending the blessing to the emanated Metatron.  Never did he forget during even so much as a single incision to bless, but would always do so, until because of so much love he was not, for God took him and he merited being called Metatron and his virtue is very great indeed.[3]

God in Kabbalistic thought is represented by a series of emanations—the ten sephirot—each with its own unique names and attributes. The emanated Metatron was considered to be Malchut, the tenth and lowest sephirah. This Metatron is distinct from Enoch the created Metatron, who is merely given that title. While the quote from R. Isaac is a clear theurgical statement, he does introduce such pietistic elements as emotion and devotion.

Living before the commandments were given to Moses, Enoch loved God and served him whole heartedly by focusing his love and intents on God even during such a mundane and menial act as sewing together shoes. His act of blessing caused power and vitality to flow downwards to the lowest sephirah and unite the lower and upper worlds. Because of this great love Enoch had for God, he was taken up and exalted. Abstract emotion and devotion without accompanying acts do not suffice to cause a change in the world. The opposite also holds true. Acts without the proper devotion and emotion are sterile at best. They simply do not live up to their full potential. “The redemption of the world occurs not through heroic acts by superhuman saints but through the daily activities of a lowly tradesman.”[4]

This story was frequently utilized by the 16th-century kabbalists of Safed in their theoretical discussions of Kabbalah and its pietism receded into the background. Even so, it still exerted an influence on the monistic idea that profane, mundane and menial acts carried within them the potential for holiness. “The same holds true for the wells dug by the patriarchs, and R. Isaac Luria wrote that their intentions corresponded to those for donning phylacteries.”[5]

The Hasidic hagiography entitled Praises of the Besht includes the story of how the Besht (Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, 1699-1760) trembled when he saw a hose-maker on his way to prayers.  Inviting him over, the Besht questioned the hose-maker about his daily activities. During the course of the interview, the man is shown to be simple, hardworking, honest, full of integrity, and devout. In both trade and devotion, a contemporary counterpart to Enoch the Shoemaker:

The Besht said to him, “What do you do very early in the morning?”
He said: “I make stockings at that time as well.”
He asked him: “How do you recite the Psalms?”
He said to him: “I repeat what I can say by heart.”
The Besht said about him that he is the foundation of the synagogue until the coming of the Messiah.

Tsippi Kauffman, in her monograph on worship through corporeality, has observed that the majority of the hose-maker’s activities took place outside of the synagogue.[7]  It is precisely this paradoxical situation that earns him the greatest praise. Raising the realm of the profane to that of the sacred reveals the true essence of worship and hints at the monism which will prevail with the advent of the Messiah.[8]

Reflecting on the centrality of this Enoch tradition to Hasidism, Martin Buber remarked that “man exerts influence on the eternal, and that this is not done by any special works, but by the intention with which he does all his works. It is the teaching of the hallowing of the everyday.”[9] By using Enoch as its blueprint, Hasidism spread not only among the poor, illiterate masses, but among wealthy merchants as well. Indeed, they were among its staunchest supporters. “By invoking the Hasidic concept of worship through corporeality… the Seer [of Lublin] reassured busy merchants in his audience that they could transform business trips into paths to holiness.” In the Seer’s own words, “When a merchant travels on business, he should say to himself: “I am traveling for business so that I will have money to serve God by paying for my sons’ tuition, so that my sons will be Talmudic scholars, engaging in Torah and mizvot for the sake of Heaven; and so that I can marry my daughters to Talmudic scholars, and sanctify the Sabbath, and give charity.”…And in this way, he connects his business to God.”[10]

Enoch the shoemaker served as a blueprint not only for Hasidism, but for the Mussar movement as well. The Lithuanian R. Israel Salanter (1810-1883) sought to transform the Jewish world around him which he felt had become entirely immersed in ritual and outward trappings at the expense of true devotion to God and man. The vehicle for his projected revival was exacting, psychological application of ethics (mussar) to all spheres of life:

The Mussar movement fought against a broken and fragmentary Judaism, against a narrow-minded and limited Judaism. It demands a consistent Judaism, a Judaism that is wide in scope and broad in vision. Half-measures do not suffice in observing the Torah. Keeping well-known commandments and warnings alone will not do. The entire framework must be perfected and expanded to encompass the Torah in all of its commandments and warnings, be they those between God and man; between man and man; between man and himself; and between man and the entire world around him.[11]

For example, according to the Mussar movement, impatience and severity in judging others is on the same legal and moral footing as theft.[12] R. Israel saw in the pursuit of ethical perfection a communal effort, and as an initial step, sought to establish among the Jewish upper and middle classes groups for the study and application of mussar. This segment of society was well-educated, affluent, and thoroughly involved in community affairs.

In R. Israel’s analysis of the Enoch tale, theurgical and theosophical elements are entirely discarded in favor of ethics:

This does not mean that when Enoch sewed together shoes he was cleaving to supernal thoughts. The law forbids it, for how can he be occupied with something else when he is employed on behalf of other people? Rather, the essence of his unifications was the concern that each and every stitch would be good and strong in order for people to benefit from the shoes. Thus he cleaved to the attribute of his maker who bestows his beneficence on all, and this is how he performed unifications, desiring nothing other than to cleave to the attributes of his maker.[13]

In the words of his modern biographer, “When there was a conflict between God-centered piety or kindness toward one’s fellowman, R. Israel preferred the latter, even when it meant sacrificing the former.”[14] Enoch’s ascension came as the result of his intense devotion to benefiting and bettering his fellow man. This was the true essence of God’s own character, so doing even a menial task to the utmost of one’s ability in order to help others is, indeed, the highest form of imitatio Dei. Doing one’s job well even takes precedence over studying lofty theological matters.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the preeminent Jewish mystic and thinker of the20th century, combined elements from Hasidism and Mussar into his own thought, which provides perhaps the clearest expression of Jewish monism:

For Rabbi Kook the essence of Judaism, which flows from Jewish monotheism, is the passion to overcome separatism, the severance of man from God, of man from man, of man from nature. It is the passion to perfect the world through man’s awareness of his links to all else in existence. It is the rejection of the alleged antagonism between the material and the spiritual…It is the rejection of every parochialism that seeks to build man’s spiritual home and his structure of values by taking to itself a fragment of life and ignoring the rest. “The Jewish outlook,” said Rabbi Kook, “is the vision of the holiness of all existence.”[15]

This “collapse of sacred distance” is, according to Terryl Givens, “one of the hallmarks of Mormonism, and of Joseph Smith in particular…Joseph insistently refused to recognize the distinctness of those categories that were typical in traditional Christianity, the sense that there is an earthly and a heavenly, a bodily and a spiritual… Every time that we think we have found an example of what we think is a dichotomy, Joseph collapses it into one.”[16] We are told by Joseph that not only is God the Father embodied, but “was once a man as we are, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!”[17] Both the spirit and body become “the soul of man” in Joseph’s hands.[18] Spirit itself is no longer seen as an immaterial substance, but a “more fine or pure” matter that “can only be discerned by purer eyes.”[19] The gathering of the latter-day Israel was literal as was the establishment of Zion, its model being the translated City of Enoch. It was made clear that “all things unto [the Lord] are spiritual,” with no “temporal” law ever being given.[20] As a covenant people, the Mormons felt they were duty bound to the toil and sweat of Zion-building. The need to find the divine in the mundane surely increased as the Mormons headed West and established an isolated, theocratic government. As historian Matthew Bowman has noted, Brigham Young “bound even more closely than had Joseph Smith the Mormons’ sense of themselves as a covenanted people, specially chosen by God, to the practical work of building a community on earth. The distance between the sacred and secular on the trail was vanishingly small. The captains of the companies routinely celebrated the Lord’s Supper as they prepared decisions about when to move and what trail to take.”[21] President Young saw the “work of building up Zion” as “a practical work” and “not a mere theory.”[22] The saints were “not going to wait for angels, or for Enoch and his company to come and build up Zion, but we are going to build it.”[23]

Young often spoke of “present salvation” brought on by the constant presence of the Spirit: 

It is present salvation and the present influence of the Holy Ghost that we need every day to keep us on saving groundI preach, comparatively, but little about the eternities and Gods, and their wonderful works in eternity; and do not tell who first made them, nor how they were made; for I know nothing about that. Life is for us, and it is for us to receive it today, and not wait for the millennium.[24]

If the divine as an abstraction was on its deathbed with the teachings of Joseph Smith, it met its ultimate demise under the reign of Brigham Young. “In the mind of God,” said Young, “there is no such a thing as dividing spiritual from temporal, or temporal from spiritual; for they are one in the Lord.”[25] Only to “those who understand the principles of life and salvation, the Priesthood, the oracles of truth and the gifts and callings of God to the children of men” is “there no difference in spiritual and temporal labors—all are one.”[26] The sacred tasks could range from “preaching, praying, laboring with my hands for an honorable support; whether I am in the field, mechanic’s shop, or following mercantile business, or wherever duty calls, I am serving God as much in one place as another; and so it is with all, each in his place, turn and time.”[27]

With this outlook, Brigham declared that his mission was “to teach [the saints] with regard to their every-day lives…My desire is to teach the people what they should do now, and let the millennium take care of itself.”[28] For Young, reducing the Gospel “to the present time, circumstances and condition of the people” was the way in which God’s people should live it.[29] The “law of God,” in his view, was the system “best to live by, and the best to die by; it is the best for doing business; it is the best for making farms, for building cities and temples” and would bring “present security and peace.”[30] Recalling a conversation with a “gentleman,” who didn’t think the Mormons seemed “very religious,” Young explained,

That is a mistake, we are the most religious people on the face of the earth. We do not allow ourselves to go into a field to plough without taking our religion with us; we do not go into an office, behind the counter to deal out goods, into a counting house with the books, or anywhere to attend to or transact any business without taking our religion with us. If we are railroading or on a pleasure trip our God and our religion must be with us.[31]

The Mormon religion “incorporates every act and word of man,” preached Young. “No man should go to merchandising unless he does it in God; no man should go to farming or any other business unless he does it in the Lord…Our work, our everyday labor, our whole lives are within the scope of our religion. This is what we believe and what we try to practice.”[32]

This cosmological monism can be seen in other late 19th-century Mormon publications. The October 1897 Millennial Star talked of a Mormon Indian colony on the Malad River in Box-Elder County, where the local aborigines were being urged to dig an irrigation ditch. With the Elder’s upcoming absence in a meeting, one of the locals was asked to conduct. When the Elder asked what the subject would be, the aborigine replied (in one of the best examples of Mormonism’s own “worship through corporeality”), “O, me preach ‘em heap water ditch, water ditch!”:

The Lamanite had partaken of the spirit and genius of Mormonism. “Water ditch” and water baptism are both vital principles of that religion. The redemption of the soul, the body and the home of man is its purpose…The redemption of the earth, and its restoration to a paradisiacal state, will be brought about in part by the blessing and power of God, and in part by the labors and sacrifices of its inhabitants, under the light of the Gospel and the direction of the authorized servants of God. The Lamanite who had grasped the need of a water ditch by means of which to redeem a portion of the earth’s surface that was a desert had grasped a vital principle of the Gospel of Christ.[33]

Here, the digging of an irrigation ditch is in a sense raised to the same level as baptism, a salvific ordinance. It was a way of maintaining the “present salvation” Young had taught. An 1878 issue of Millennial Star chastised missionaries who “pass through the world as in a dream, beholding strange things as in a panoramic vision, and coming back from their tour through continents, forget what their eyes have gazed upon and the sounds that have only just entered their ears.” It encourages them to visit “manufactories and other places of interest…not for mere curiosity and pastime, but for the purpose of learning something that can be utilized and made valuable at home… They should mark well every useful object, scheme or invention; learn the modus operandi of every important industry or enterprise; garner up every principle and thought learned or conceived by contact with the world; and in all their ramblings and sojournings, investigations and sight-seeings, remember Zion and its interests. Every truth is of God.”[34] By becoming an “inventive people” who “adopt anything which is elevating and progressive that can be learned from others,” the Mormons will be able to reach “into the field of thought and the eternal storehouse of intelligence for ideas original to the world, which, embodied in practice, will tend to lead earth to heaven and make this planet similar to the higher spheres.”[35] Furthermore, the Millennial Star reported, “The Religion of the Latter-day Saints touches every act of their lives. Or at least it should influence them in all that they do…“Mormonism” enters into the whole being, nature, thoughts, sayings and acts of its adherents.”[36]

The literal work of the “marvelous work and a wonder” became a way in which Mormons not only sanctified themselves, but married the earthly and heavenly realms. Industriousness was a kind of holiness, endowing daily labors with an invigorating richness and sacred status. It was, in every sense of the phrase, worship through corporeality.


1. Meshullam Phoebus ha-Levi Heller, Sefer Seder ha-Dorot mi-Talmidei ha-Besht (Lvov,  1880), [Hebrew] 46.

2. Norman Lamm, The Religious Thought of Hasidism: Text and Commentary (New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1999), 323.

3. R. Isaac of Acre, Meirat Einaim, 47. See chapter 4 of Moshe Idel’s The Angelic World – Apotheosis and Theophany (Tel-Aviv:  Miskal, 2008) [Hebrew].

4. S. Daniel Breslauer, Creating a Judaism Without Religion: A Postmodern Jewish Possibility (Lanham: University Press of America, 2001), 98-99.

5. Moshe Idel, The Angelic World, 118-119. The quote is found only in a work by the Sabbatean prophet, Nathan of Gaza. Yet, as Idel has argued, it is likely authentic, there being nothing particularly Sabbatean about it.

6. Jerome R. Mintz and Dan Ben-Amos, In Praise of Baal Shem Tov (Shivhei Ha-Besht): The Earliest Collection of Legends About the Founder of Hasidism (Lanham: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1976), 110-112.

7. Tsippi Kauffman, In All Your Ways Know Him: The Concept of God and Avodah Be-Gashmiyut In the Early Stages of Hasidism (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2009), [Hebrew] 275-276.

8. “Rabbi Hanokh said: “The other nations too believe that there are two worlds. They too say: ‘In the other world.’ There difference is this: They think that the two are separate and severed, but Israel professes that the two worlds are essentially one and shall in fact become one.”” (Martin Buber, The Way of Man: According to the Teaching of Hasidism. Wallingford: Pendle Hill, 1960, 39-40).

9. Martin Buber, Hasidism (New York: Philosophical Library, 1948), 71.

10. Glenn Dynner, Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 115.

11. Dov Katz, Tnuat ha-Musar: Toldoteihah, Isheihah, ve-Shitoteihah,  Vol. 1, (Tel-Aviv: Hotzaat Bitan ha-Sefer, 1945), [Hebrew] 62.

12. “One that bears a grudge against his neighbor…is also culpable of theft.” (Cited in Immanuel Etkes, “Rabbi Israel Salanter and His Psychology of Mussar,” in Jewish Spirituality: From the Sixteenth-Century Revival to the Present, ed. Arthur Green. New York: Crossroad, 1987, 235).

13. Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, Michtav me-Eliyahu, Vol. 1, (1955): [Hebrew] 34.

14. Etkes, Rabbi Israel Salanter, 219.

15. Ben Zion Bokser, Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, Lights of Holiness, the Moral Principles, Essays, Letters and Poems (New York: Paulist Press, Inc., 1978), 26.

16. Terryl Givens, The Mormons, PBS Interview: http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/givens.html

17. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Provo: Deseret Book, 1938), 345.

18. See Revelation, 27–28 December 1832 [D&C 88:1–126], fnt #9: http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-27-28-december-1832-dc-881-126?dm=image-and-text&zm=zoom-inner&tm=expanded&p=3&s=undefined&sm=none

19. Doctrine & Covenants 131:7

20. Revelation, September 1830–A [D&C 29]: http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-september-1830-a-dc-29?dm=image-and-text&zm=zoom-inner&tm=expanded&p=4&s=undefined&sm=none

21. Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (New York: Random House, 2012), 102.

22. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9, 284: http://jod.mrm.org/9/282

23. Ibid.

24. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 8, 124: http://jod.mrm.org/8/121

25. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 11, 18: http://jod.mrm.org/11/12

26. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, 260: http://jod.mrm.org/13/260

27. Ibid.

28. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 12, 228: http://jod.mrm.org/12/226

29. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 10, 1: http://jod.mrm.org/10/1

30. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, 241: http://jod.mrm.org/13/233

31. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 14, 118: http://jod.mrm.org/14/114

32. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, 60: http://jod.mrm.org/13/56. This apparently did not apply to lawyers: “We do not want them, we have no use for them.”

33. “A Practical Religion,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 43:59 (Oct. 28, 1897): 679.

34. “Practical Religion and Useful Knowledge,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 13:40 (April 1, 1878): 199.

35. Ibid.

36. “Religion and Business,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 14:40 (April 8, 1878): 214.


“All Things Unto Me Are Spiritual”: Worship Through Corporeality in Hasidism & Mormonism (Part 1) — 7 Comments

  1. Pingback: One Eternal Whole: Worship and Corporeality | Difficult Run

  2. Wow! Magnificent post, guys! Excellent analysis of both the Jewish and Mormon sides of this equation. The Jewish comparison seems particularly appropriate given that Mormons see themselves as an Israelite restoration.

    I especially liked this quote from Rabbi Isaac: “This does not mean that when Enoch sewed together shoes he was cleaving to supernal thoughts. The law forbids it, for how can he be occupied with something else when he is employed on behalf of other people? Rather, the essence of his unifications was the concern that each and every stitch would be good and strong in order for people to benefit from the shoes. Thus he cleaved to the attribute of his maker who bestows his beneficence on all, and this is how he performed unifications, desiring nothing other than to cleave to the attributes of his maker.”

  3. Glad you liked it! It was inspired by a comment Allen made on a blog post I had written based on David Wallace’s commencement speech “This Is Water” (http://theslowhunch.blogspot.com/2013/05/holy-water.html):

    “This reinvention of the sacred is more or less what Hasidism means by worship through corporeality. Mundane acts can be sanctified and transformed, thereby influencing for the better cosmic processes in the divine. A verse commonly quoted was from Proverbs, “In all thy ways know him.” That is, everything you do can become an act of worship. One of the examples often cited was the tradition of Enoch the Shoemaker, whose focus on the world of the divine whilst engaged in his work led to his eventual deification. However, Martin Buber paraphrased another Hasidic teaching which more fully resembles the ideals of Zion. “But if I am ‘for myself—if I do not participate with others, if I do not join with them— ‘what am I?’ Then everything in the way of good works which I have wrought alone is less than nothing in the eyes of God, who is the source of all good.” As one Jewish scholar has noted, collective effort can mend a broken world.”

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