Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reconciling the Irreconcilable

Rabbi Gil Student has posted an interesting and extremely well-written review of my booklet on shiluach hakein. After some much-appreciated praise of my work, he concludes by saying that he disagrees with my conclusion that the rationalist and mystical approaches to shiluach hakein are irreconcilable:

The upshot is that the Rationalist and Mystical approaches are not mutually exclusive. Mitzvah observance can improve a person’s character and also have metaphysical resonance.


I don't dispute this in theory; there's no reason why a mitzvah can't have more than one function and benefit. But I do dispute it with regard to the specific case of the Zohar's explanation of shiluach hakein. R. Student argues as follows:

While I find his study useful, I am unconvinced by R. Slifkin’s dichotomy. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Yes, one sees the sending away of the mother as an act of compassion and the other as an act of cruelty, but they can both be true. It is, from a bird’s perspective, tragic that her eggs are taken and she is sent away, but it is still a more merciful and compassionate way of taking the eggs.


There are two points to discuss here:

1. Would/ did the Rishonim/ Acharonim have accepted this reconciliation?

2. Can we accept this reconciliation?

Let's begin with the first question. Obviously Rambam and others who rejected kabbalah would not accept the Zohar's mystical explanation of the mitzvah (and I am not sure that Rambam would accept R. Chaim's view that a ta'am for a mitzvah is just a taste, not the reason). Furthermore, R. Student is forced to adopt the mystical position that it is praiseworthy to send away the bird even if one does not want the eggs; but Rambam explicitly writes that the Torah's ideal is that one will leave the nest alone entirely.

R. Student points to Ramban who says that there are mystical reasons for shiluach hakein as well as compassion. But Ramban does not give the specific mystical reason of the Zohar, so this is not relevant. As mentioned earlier, I am not pointing to an inherent conflict between rationalist and mystical explanations of mitzvos across the board, but rather to the specific mystical explanation given by the Zohar.

Clearly some later authorities, such as R. Baruch Epstein, saw the mystical approach as irreconcilable with the rationalist approach: "It is clear that the Torah is only granting an allowance with this, but with someone who does not all want to involve himself, it is certain that he is permitted to simply pass it by. In fact, he is making things even better for the mother and young by leaving them together."

And so on. I think that an analysis of the Rishonim and Acharonim will show that, at least for the most part, they were taking either the rationalist or mystical approach, and rejecting the other.

But is it possible to create a reconciliation, along the lines that R. Student suggests - "It is, from a bird’s perspective, tragic that her eggs are taken and she is sent away, but it is still a more merciful and compassionate way of taking the eggs"?

As appealing as this may be, I'm afraid that it's trying to square a circle. From the mystical perspective that the Zohar's explanation is correct, and the point of the mitzvah is to arouse Divine compassion upon the Jewish People by causing distress to the mother bird, doesn't this mean that there is a correlation between the amount of distress caused and the amount of compassion brought for the nation - and if so, why would one minimize the amount of distress by not having the bird witness you taking her young? Isn't it better for the nation that she is more distressed? And why not be cruel to non-kosher birds and other creatures, in order to have their angels complain and further bring about compassion upon the Jewish People? Wouldn't that be in the spirit of the mitzvah - or at least a good way to improve our national fate?

Conversely, from the rationalist perspective, there's simply no reason to postulate the explanation (and subsequent ramifications) of the Zohar - which is why the Rishonim didn't do so - besides the issue of whether it has any credibility as an authoritative source (as per Chasam Sofer). Furthermore, it goes against the entire worldview of the rationalist approach, as explained in my essay. One earns Divine compassion by being compassionate, not by mechanistic manipulations of angels and God which involve committing precisely the sort of acts that are ordinarily antithetical to Torah values.

We like to think of Judaism as a homogeneous, unified entity. It would certainly make our lives simpler if it were that way. Unfortunately, it's just not the case. But maybe one can take a more positive perspective on this, and conclude that Judaism has developed into a way of life that can offer meaning to very different types of people. (Although in the specific case of shiluach hakein, I can't say that I'm comfortable with the meaning that it offers to mystics!)

54 comments:

  1. How about the “I just do what I’m told” school (maybe there’s a rational reason and maybe there’s a kabbalistic one but I don’t get the big bucks for thinking about it, I just take orders, do what I’m told and trust the commander)

    KT
    Joel Rich

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  2. > I just take orders, do what I’m told and trust the commander

    "Just following orders" has unfortunate implications, no?

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  3. only when the commander is flesh and blood. IMHO at some level, even the most rational amongst us realizes that a leap of faith/trust beyond the rational is required.

    KT
    Joel Rich

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  4. Yes, quite true. I honestly did not understand the explanation Rabbi Student offered on his blog.

    And I agree with you that many Jews find it very hard to believe that there really can be prominent rishonim who had diametrically opposed, irreconcilable ways of looking at the same issue.

    I think in the olden days the average Jew was more isolated (no Internet, radio, poor methods of transportation) and only heard one side of the story.

    Nowadays, every type of Jew lives next to every other type and so many books are available in the vernacular and so many more Jews are educated.

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  5. I am curious about a much more basic issue that you bring up in your response, specifically the rejection of kabbalah by the Rambam. While on the one hand, that the Rambam was not a believer in the contemporary (for him) predecessors of Lurianic kabbalah seems obvious, I don't know how we can extrapolate his views forward in time to current theology. The Rambam was a firm believer in certain Aristotelian ideas of the natural sciences, but I have no doubt that he would reject these ideas in light of modern science. Likewise, he is a strong proponent of the centrality of knowledge of God (theology...no?) as religious commandment. In our modern era, in which theology seems largely to have been tossed aside by much of orthodoxy, it is actually the proponents of kabbalistic theology who most place knowledge of God in a position of importance. Perhaps it is that feeling of shared goal that made the Rambam so important to the Lubavitcher Rebbe? I certainly wouldn't claim that the Rambam would accept the particulars of any system of kabbalistic thought. Still, it seems improbable that we can claim with certainty that in the face of modernity, the Rambam's theology would be as rationalistic as it was then.

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  6. >I just take orders, do what I’m told and trust the commander

    Good for them, but people engaged in thought and debate about it are not in that school.

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  7. I found it odd that you asked seemingly hypothetical critical questions about this mitzvah when the answers are fairly obvious.


    Q: "From the mystical perspective that the Zohar's explanation is correct, and the point of the mitzvah is to arouse Divine compassion upon the Jewish People by causing distress to the mother bird, doesn't this mean that there is a correlation between the amount of distress caused and the amount of compassion brought for the nation"

    A. No, it does not mean that at all. The general concept is that if you make an opening the size of the eye of a needle, Hashem will make an opening large enough for caravans to go through. All that is needed, and preferred, is the opening of a needle. It would would be wrong and against the original intent of simonim and segulot to suggest that putting more in, so-to-speak, results in getting more out. Not counting kavana of course.


    Q: - and if so, why would one minimize the amount of distress by not having the bird witness you taking her young? Isn't it better for the nation that she is more distressed?

    A: No, of-course not! If we have zero compassion why would Hashem have compassion for us? The suffering of the bird is required, and the compassion of the Jewish people are required.

    Q: And why not be cruel to non-kosher birds and other creatures, in order to have their angels complain and further bring about compassion upon the Jewish People? Wouldn't that be in the spirit of the mitzvah - or at least a good way to improve our national fate?"

    A: There is not enough holiness in non-kosher animals for us to raise the sparks into holiness with. You might as well argue regarding kashrut, that if by eating the animals we raise them to a higher purpose, then shouldn't we start eating the most unkosher of things to raise those as well? Clearly that is not the system advocated by the Zohar.

    However, I have to wonder if the Zohar isn't itself talking about a time when we are short on food in general, and so we should go out of our way to get eggs from nests. And is perhaps not talking about a time when food and mercy from Hashem are already plentiful.

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  8. > only when the commander is flesh and blood. IMHO at some level, even the most rational amongst us realizes that a leap of faith/trust beyond the rational is required.

    If I understand you correctly, you are saying that when it comes to religion, at a certain point even the rationalists need to take a leap of faith, therefore the person with emunah peshutah is justified in surrendering his judgment and blindly following the Divine Will.

    Two points:

    1. No one that I know of has had Hashem visit them and explain exactly what He wants of them. They instead rely on interpretations of what Hashem wrote in tanach as passed through the mesora and/or understood by rabbanim. The carriers of the mesorah and the interpreters of Divine Will are flesh and blood, therefore even by your reasoning their dictates should not be blindly accepted.

    I know the issue at hand, shiluach hakein, is dictated by Hashem and R’ Slifikin was only addressing the reasons for the mitzvah, not whether one should do it. But there are numerous places where the plain words of the chumash are directly contradicted by TSBP, which is passed through and interpreted by flesh-and-blood people. Therefore even accepting what the chumash says at face value can be considered at the very least accepting an interpretation passed through flesh-and-blood people.

    2. You cannot advocate surrendering one’s judgment to what one thinks is the Divine Will and at the same time hold religiously-motivated people responsible for their actions. If you would condemn the likes of Thomas de Torquemada or modern Islamic terrorists for their religiously-motivated horrors, then you must demand that people take responsibility for their actions and NOT blindly follow anything or anyone.

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  9. Re: "Just following orders" has unfortunate implications, no?

    That's a little mean-spirited, don't you think?

    Kabbalat ol malchut shamayim is not something the Mystics came up with. It is in the Talmud, and _I'm pretty sure - the Bible.

    When religion is stripped of any elements that are not understood it is a lot easier to accept. It has also lost all meaning.

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  10. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that when it comes to religion, at a certain point even the rationalists need to take a leap of faith, therefore the person with emunah peshutah is justified in surrendering his judgment and blindly following the Divine Will.

    -----------------
    yes on the reisha, no on the seifa-just that at his level he takes the same kind of leap of faith, it's just a matter of degree.

    KT
    Joel Rich

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  11. 1. No one that I know of has had Hashem visit them and explain exactly what He wants of them. They instead rely on interpretations of what Hashem wrote in tanach as passed through the mesora and/or understood by rabbanim. The carriers of the mesorah and the interpreters of Divine Will are flesh and blood, therefore even by your reasoning their dictates should not be blindly accepted
    --------------------------
    Disagree- they are accepting what they understand to be the command of the commander as communicated by subcommanders on whom the commander has told him to rely.
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  12. If I understand you
    2. You cannot advocate surrendering one’s judgment to what one thinks is the Divine Will and at the same time hold religiously-motivated people responsible for their actions. If you would condemn the likes of Thomas de Torquemada or modern Islamic terrorists for their religiously-motivated horrors, then you must demand that people take responsibility for their actions and NOT blindly follow anything or anyone.
    ============================
    Disagree-in our system we believe they should have realized that they were not following HKB"H's dictates as we know them to be and that is what they are held accountable for.

    KT
    Joel Rich

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  13. Tevye: When religion is stripped of any elements that are not understood it is a lot easier to accept. It has also lost all meaning.

    So, religion's meaning is based on incomprehensibility?

    The more ignorant the Jew, the more meaningful he finds Judaism?

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  14. > When religion is stripped of any elements that are not understood it is a lot easier to accept. It has also lost all meaning.

    Religion (or Judaism, anyway) is about trying to do what Hashem wants us to do. I would think that the better one understands what Hashem wants and why He wants it, the better one’s religious observance will be.

    Your premise seems to be that to be meaningful, religion must be mysterious. Why? For most things, greater knowledge increases one’s appreciation. Is religion like a magic show, where knowing how the trick is done takes away from one’s sense of awe? Even at a magic show, a fellow magician who knows how the tricks are done has an understanding of the skill involved and can enjoy the show on deeper level than the average audience member who is simply mystified by the magician’s slight-of-hand.

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  15. >Your premise seems to be that to be meaningful, religion must be mysterious. Why?

    Maybe you meant to reflect this title, but I'm reminded of John Toland's "Christianity Not Mysterious" (1696). He didn't mean "Not mysterious, and true."

    Mystery and religion go together. It's possible to do religion rationally, but it's hard. Religion by its very nature lends itself to enthusiasm and emotion, which are best fed by mystery.

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  16. > Disagree- they are accepting what they understand to be the command of the commander as communicated by subcommanders on whom the commander has told him to rely.

    But that’s exactly my point. Hashem doesn’t visit each of us personally and tell us to listen to the rabbonim. Instead we are relying on the rabbonim’s interpretation to know Hashem’s will – INCLUDING the idea that we should listen to the rabbonim. In fact, if I remember correctly, the pashut peshat of the pasuk that’s used to show Hashem wants us to listen to the rabbonim in fact says nothing of the sort, and is instead part of an anecdote about a specific case.

    > Disagree-in our system we believe they should have realized that they were not following HKB"H's dictates as we know them to be and that is what they are held accountable for.

    Wait, only OJs are allowed to play the “I was just following Divine Will” card? That hardly seems fair! It’s special pleading – we OJs know we’re right, so it’s okay if we blindly follow the Torah. The Catholics and Muslims, on the other hand, are mistaken about their scriptures being the word of God and should realize that OJs are the sole knowers of Divine Will, so they are to be held accountable when they blindly follow the priest’s or imam’s interpretation of the Bible or the Koran.

    Either everyone gets to blindly follow what they think is the Divine Will, or no one does.

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  17. I thoroughly agree with you, R. Slifkin. The two viewpoints are contradictory and irreconcilable.

    They lead to completely different halachic outcomes: (A) Roam the wilderness looking for the nests (Rabbi Chaim Vital) vs (B) the goal is to leave the nest completely alone (RALBAG)!

    Moreover, not only is the “Taam Hamitzvah” different according to the two views, but the actual “Masseh Hamitzvah” is different. The rationalist says it is an act of compassion while the kabbalist says it is an act of cruelty. According to the shita that “Mitzvos Tzreichos Kavanah” you would need to make a “T’nai” to fulfill both views!

    I usually find R. Student to be highly astute, but I think he’s way off base here.

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  18. Can I please request that everyone commenting on this blog please use spelled out words (SOW) and put in parenthesis after the first instance of SOW what the roshai taivos (initials) one will use later on stand for, so that we can all follow the discussion, and not just Orthodox Jews (OJ) but also Modern Orthodox Jews (MOJ), Inquiring Jews (IJ) or Jews who can't figure out roshei taivos (JWCFORT).

    Thanks!

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  19. In fact, if I remember correctly, the pashut peshat of the pasuk that’s used to show Hashem wants us to listen to the rabbonim in fact says nothing of the sort, and is instead part of an anecdote about a specific case.
    =====================
    It's actually about the sanhedrin, the chinuch extrapolates it to leaders of every generation.
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  20. Either everyone gets to blindly follow what they think is the Divine Will, or no one does.
    ================
    I think that ends our discussion on that point.
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  21. So, religion's meaning is based on incomprehensibility?

    The more ignorant the Jew, the more meaningful he finds Judaism?


    Religion (or Judaism, anyway) is about trying to do what Hashem wants us to do. I would think that the better one understands what Hashem wants and why He wants it, the better one’s religious observance will be.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the better one understands Hashem's will, the better we can fulfill it. But it is Hashem's will we're trying to understand. A Being who far transcends our limited understanding. This doesn't mean we shouldn't try, we should, we must. If we try we'll grow tremendously in our understanding. On the other hand, we will never fully grasp it. And so a big part of Judaism or any 'faith' is kabbalat ol.

    If we choose to observe only those commandments that we would observe anyway, without Judaism, then we aren't practicing Judaism at all.

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  22. Not to belabor the point, I don't think "mystery" accurately defines "what religion is". However, I think it does play some role. Not in and of itself, but simply because religion is the finite human being attempting to touch the infinite....

    I'm not invoking Einstein to prove my point, (in fact he goes on to say that he is not religious) but it's a good quote:

    "The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is. "

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  23. Here's how I view this mitzvah: One day recently, my 6 year old son wanted to go bike-riding with me. We went, but not before my 3-year-old twin sons saw us going and wanted to go too. They wouldn't have been able to keep up with us, so we left without them. They cried and were mad at me when I got back home.

    My wife said I should have sent them in the house while I left with my son, so they wouldn't have seen us go. (They would have still known we were gone, but they wouldn't have seen us leave without them.) The mitzvah of shluach hakein illustrates this principle.

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  24. "and if so, why would one minimize the amount of distress by not having the bird witness you taking her young? Isn't it better for the nation that she is more distressed? And why not be cruel to non-kosher birds and other creatures, in order to have their angels complain and further bring about compassion upon the Jewish People? Wouldn't that be in the spirit of the mitzvah - or at least a good way to improve our national fate?"

    surely no one suggests the last, wouldn't it be tzaar baalei chaim by all definitions - surely this tells us that the question is off-track (otherwise you are merely asking a question about the mystical shita and rejecting it, not proving it's imcompatible with the rationalist one). I assume that the idea is that one needs to cause some cruelty, but that at the same time one is taught to do so in as compassionate way as possible, to minimize the cruelty. When you need the eggs, it can surely do both, teach compassion and arouse god's mercy. And even when you don't, and are going out of the way to send the mother bird away regardless of the need for eggs, only in order to arouse god's compassion ("the mystical approach") still do so in as compassionate a way as possible. maybe it's not the most compelling resolution, but i fail to see why it's not logical.

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  25. previous comment by "mem"

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  26. Joel Rich:
    > It's actually about the sanhedrin,

    Thank you for the clarification. I’m afraid that my years in yeshiva left me knowing far more about how to deliver a get and divide a talis than tanach or the mekorim for halachos.

    > the chinuch extrapolates it to leaders of every generation.

    That extrapolation is exactly what I’m talking about.

    Tevye:
    > But it is Hashem's will we're trying to understand. A Being who far transcends our limited understanding.

    Yes, fine, it’s probably true that we can’t fully understand Hashem's will. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the statement that you made: “When religion is stripped of any elements that are not understood it … has also lost all meaning,” which implies that to be meaningful, religion must be mysterious. That we probably can’t understand it has nothing to do with whether it would lose all meaning if we could understand it.

    > If we choose to observe only those commandments that we would observe anyway, without Judaism, then we aren't practicing Judaism at all.

    Also true, and also completely beside the point. We’re not talking about restricting practice to those things we understand, but about being able to fully understand all of our practices (and whether they would be meaningful if we did).

    > The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious.

    Which would be relevant if we were discussing whether mystery could give religion meaning, but we’re not. We’re discussing whether the lack of mystery removes all (not some, not an aspect of, but all) meaning.

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  27. We’re talking about the statement that you made: “When religion is stripped of any elements that are not understood it … has also lost all meaning,” which implies that to be meaningful, religion must be mysterious. That we probably can’t understand it has nothing to do with whether it would lose all meaning if we could understand it.


    I didn't mean to say that it would lose all meaning if we really understood it. On the contrary, if we had REAL comprehension of the mitzvos our observance would probably be infinitely better. That would entail our minds growing/developing to the point where we could actually grasp Divine will, it would be amazing. But the reality today is that our limited minds simply cannot grasp Hashem's will. We can try to shoehorn a mitzvah into our mind's comprehension but then we lose the mitzvah and our left only with our pre-conceived notions. That's what I meant by my statement.



    > We’re not talking about restricting practice to those things we understand, but about being able to fully understand all of our practices (and whether they would be meaningful if we did).

    Understanding the mitzvos that we do - to the extent that we can - is certainly very important. It cannot, however, be the basis of our observance. And therefore when a mitzvah comes along that we cannot understand we perform it with the same enthusiasm as the ones we can.


    > We’re discussing whether the lack of mystery removes all (not some, not an aspect of, but all) meaning.

    I don't think "mystery" in and of itself is what gives religion meaning. But it is a necessary byproduct of a discipline that endeavors to connect a person with Hashem. To a small child, an adult is mysterious, there is so large a gap between them that it must follow that there is much to the adult that the child cannot understand. Kal v'chomer when we're looking at the relationship between a created being and it's Creator.

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  28. They lead to completely different halachic outcomes: (A) Roam the wilderness looking for the nests (Rabbi Chaim Vital) vs (B) the goal is to leave the nest completely alone (RALBAG)!

    Just curious, I do not know the answer to this. Has the first approach actually been taken halacha l'ma'aseh by Gedolei Yisroel? I know that there are many kabbalistic concepts that do not translate (even to the mekubalim) into actual practice. They are a deeper layer of meaning to the mitzvah but do not change the halachah. If I'm not mistaken, the Science of Torah discusses this issue somewhat.

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  29. We like to think of Judaism as a homogeneous, unified entity. It would certainly make our lives simpler if it were that way. Unfortunately, it's just not the case.

    Gevald! This from the author of Science of Torah?

    I'm no match for you, R' Slifkin, but isn't that a bit of oversimplification?

    If we were to compare Torah to a human body, made up of a great many disparate elements, yet coming together to form a unified structure, wouldn't that be valid?

    You have found an implied contradiction in the different approaches to the ta'am of a certain mitzvah. But the Talmud is replete with outright contradictions, otherwise known as machlokot. And it is axiomatic to Torah study that eilu v'eilu divrei Elokim Chaim.

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  30. "One earns Divine compassion by being compassionate, not by mechanistic manipulations of angels and God which involve committing precisely the sort of acts that are ordinarily antithetical to Torah values."

    This reminded me of what we say after reciting the akeida:

    "Master of the Universe! Just as Abraham our father suppressed his compassion for his only son to do Your will with a whole heart, so may Your compassion suppress Your wrath against us, and may Your mercy prevail over Your attributes of strict justice."

    Wouldn't this suggest that suppressing ones compassion has the ability to gain compassion from G-d, or even that doing something that is ordinarily antithetical to Torah values is appropriate in some types of Mitzvahs.

    I got this from Nusach Ari, so maybe the other siddurs don't say this, but wouldn't the story of the akeida demonstrate that it is certainly possible for this formulation to occur?

    -Daniel

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  31. "We like to think of Judaism as a homogeneous, unified entity. It would certainly make our lives simpler if it were that way. Unfortunately, it's just not the case."

    Gevald! This from the author of Science of Torah?


    No, that books was written by Nosson Slifkin. Different guy. My cousin's cousin.

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  32. Wouldn't this suggest that suppressing ones compassion has the ability to gain compassion from G-d, or even that doing something that is ordinarily antithetical to Torah values is appropriate in some types of Mitzvahs.

    No! It suggests that sometimes, it is necessary to suppress one's compassion, for various ends, such as a nisayon. Not that this is the way to earn divine compassion.

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  33. "No! It suggests that sometimes, it is necessary to suppress one's compassion, for various ends, such as a nisayon. Not that this is the way to earn divine compassion."

    But why couldn't shiluach hakein be one of those special cases that for the particular end, the bird's angel complaining to G-d resulting in G-d's compassion on the Jewish people? Or do you think it would only apply to a nisayon and not a mitzvah?

    -Daniel

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  34. R' Slifkin,

    I don't agree with everything you write but you do come across as someone who is intellectually honest.

    Some of the points you make about mysticism vs. rationalism make a lot of sense but sometimes it seems like you're stretching it. That mystical ideas are nuanced, that things that seem contradictory can co-exist when we're dealing with a 'deeper dimension'. One of the books that explain this the best (in English)is the Science of Torah.

    Have you parted ways with you cousin's cousin?

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  35. It could be that the issue of whether the two approaches are mutually exclusive or not is rooted in the authenticity of kabbalah - either it was written with ruach hakodesh and therefore essentially has the status of divrei Chazal, or it was not written with ruach hakodesh, and therefore we - post-modern achronim - can ask educated questions on it, humbly at least. (Making conclusions is another thing.) Or a third possibility: Some of it was written with ruach hakodesh, and therefore we should be cautious and not argue with it (unless there are differing opinions, in which case we could choose one over the other, unless one has been more widely accepted).

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  36. "(unless there are differing opinions, in which case we could choose one over the other, unless one has been more widely accepted)."

    Totally missing the point of studying mysticism and paradoxes.

    In the language of the gemora.. two contradict each other until a third comes to reconcile the two.

    Not everything that is worth knowing is a true/false question.

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  37. Ameteur. I don't see how that's totally missing the point. You are right that a third opinion can reconcile two others (similar to Rebbe Yishmael's last of his 13 hermeneutic principles, but in this case we're not dealing with a pasuk). However, it is an obvious fact of logic - a third can be machria.

    Secondly, you are right about true/false questions - however, it is alluded to in my words ("one *could* choose one over the other", that is, if one wishes to...implying that if one does not wish to, multiple opinions could be worth considering). Thanks for your points.

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  38. "Ameteur. I don't see how that's totally missing the point."

    One of the foundation principles in studying mysticsm is the concept of a paradox.

    Some mystical schools leave the paradox as it is, and just let your mind enjoy the paradox.

    Modern Jewish mysticsm has a basic paradox at its outset (tzimzum) and attempts to resolve it. Part of the resolving process is with more paradoxes, where a third new insight comes and finally allows you to resolve the issues.

    By picking one answer or the other you are deciding that mysticism is not for you. For the mystics (Such as Rav Kook), the approach would that both are true. In other words, if you decided that it must be a yes/no answer, then you have already decided that the Kabalah is false.

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  39. I find that R' Gil's review doesn't get to the heart of the matter. Is there a mitzvah or any benefit to sending away the mother bird if one has no interest in the offspring? According to the Zohar, there is; according to the Ramban, Rambam, and the evident understanding of the torah and talmud, there is no mitzvah - but an aveirah (baal tashchit) or an objectionable trait (cruelty, indifference, or believing in magical acts). These two points of view are irreconcilable. It is odd that people who think of themselves as rational would allow some story published in 13th century Spain to override normal feelings and proper behavior.

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  40. Mr. Aharon,

    Thank you for restating the superficial observation that started this whole discussion. Some see contradictions. Others - with more sophisticated understanding - concede that there may be a more nuanced approach. No one so far has mocked the others opinions.

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  41. It is odd that people who think of themselves as rational would allow some story published in 13th century Spain to override normal feelings and proper behavior.

    @Y. Aharon – and anyone else who can explain –

    Forgive my ignorance, but can you please explain to me why the Zohar/Kaballah, which is now and over the centuries was widely accepted by Orthodoxy as a legitimate part of our mesorah as the mystical and “deeper” part of Torah She’ba’al Peh is referred to by some as “some story published in 13th century Spain”? If I ask boys in Orthodox yeshivos who wrote the Zohar or Kaballah they will tell me it was written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. If there was a controversy about Kaballah in the 13th century, how is it that it became so acceptable whereby it’s claims have become a part of the knowledge and practices of mainstream Orthodoxy for centuries?

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  42. That's true, if you ask yeshivah boys, they will say it was written by RASHBI. However, if you ask those who have studied the topic without religious bias, they will say that it was largely written in the 13th century. (This is based on various anachronisms etc.) This was also the view of Rav Yaakov Emden and Chasam Sofer.

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  43. "However, if you ask those who have studied the topic without religious bias, they will say that it was largely written in the 13th century."

    What would they say about Chazal? About Torah She'ba'al Peh? About the fact that we don't eat meat and milk together? About the existence of G-d?

    "This was also the view of Rav Yaakov Emden and Chasam Sofer"

    Just to be clear, do you consider them to be authoritative? Do you accept their rulings in other areas (such as secular education or chadash assur min hatorah)? Or do you just rely on them when they happen to agree with those "without a religious bias"?

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  44. G3 said "1. No one that I know of has had Hashem visit them and explain exactly what He wants of them. They instead rely on interpretations of what Hashem wrote in tanach as passed through the mesora and/or understood by rabbanim. The carriers of the mesorah and the interpreters of Divine Will are flesh and blood, therefore even by your reasoning their dictates should not be blindly accepted."

    Who told you G-d wrote the Torah and Tanach? Did G-d allow humans to be trusted to transmit the texts faithfully? If you have a problem trusting the bearers of the oral law you should have the same problem with the written law. I believe Ibn Ezra makes this argument, perhaps in the introduction to his commentary on Chumash.

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  45. Michapeset, I attempted to avoid the issue of whether the Zohar can be considered a medieval pseudographic work by using the phrase "some story published in 13th century Spain". By this I meant the specific rationale given for shiluach haken by Moshe De Leon, the publisher of the Zohar. In other words, while I could accept that much of the Zohar is taken from an esoteric oral traditon to which R' De Leon was privy, some of it appears to be his own innovation. I would place the bird angel story among the latter. My justification for such an attitude is that his rationale doesn't jibe with the implications of the halachot involving the restrictions placed on the activation of the shiluach haken mitzvah. Even if that passage of the Zohar was based on ancient kabbalistic tradition, it should not override the exoteric halachic tradition.

    As to the larger but side issue of the general acceptance of the Zohar as an authoritative work, I would mention the very difficult circumstances of European Jewry during and after its publication. When life appears to be irrational and the future appears to be bleak, there is a tendency to seek non-rational escape routes. Mystical speculations are one such avenue. Once leading figures accept the authenticity and authority of a work, that carries momentum. In any case, the acceptance of a literary work by generations is no guarantee of its authenticity - witness the status of the sacred works of other religions.

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  46. Y. Aharon - Moshe Idel, a Professor at Hebrew U, wrote the following in his book Kabbalah: New Perspectives (Yale Univ press 1989): "What greater testimony can we have than that of Avraham Ibn Daud (Raavad), the Ramban, Rabbi Yosef Karo and the Vilna Gaon? If Kabbalah went against the grain of Rabbinic tradition, they would have clearly seen it. Yet all of them were convinced that kabbala was a true interpretation of Judaism, and a tradition that was totally consonant with Talmud and Midrash. As scientific investigators we are not required to believe their testimony. Yet, we may not ignore it."

    Rashbi taught what he received from his teachers. During this time as well, he received Divine Inspiration (ruach hakodesh) and merited the revelation of Elijah the prophet. 70 years after his death, his disciples wrote down his main teachings, forming the main body of the Zohar. These writings were distinguished from the chabura kadmaah (1st edition) which was committed to writing by Rashbi himself. Cf. Zohar 3:219b. See Kisey Melekh, Intro to Tikuney Zohar, s.v. be'aggada (p. 14); sichot haran 278.

    The final edition of the zohar was apparantly written by Rabbi Abba, see R. David Luria, Kadmut Sefer HaZohar 5:2. The Zohar consisted of volumes of notes in manuscript form which were hidden away in a vault and not uncovered until the 13th century. After limited circulation in the 1270s and 80s, these notes came into the hands of R. Moshe de Leon who finally edited and published them in the 1290s. (The Zohar itself provides a clue for this long period of conceaelment stating that it should be revealed in preparation for the final redemption, 1200 years after the destruction of the 2nd Temple. Since the Temple was destroyed in the year 70, this would mean that the Zohar was meant to be revealed in 1270; Zohar 2:9b; cf. Shem HaGeolim, Sefarim, Zayin 8.)

    The sections of the Zohar that are from Rabbi Shimon himself are described as "the First Mishna," (see Chabura Kadmaa mentioned in Zohar III, p. 219a. See also Zohar II, 123b; vol. III, 296b; Shabbat33b). The remainder of the Zohar, like the Talmud, was the product of generations of masters and their disciples. Early sources state that the composition of the Zohar extended over the period of Rashbi, his disciples and their disciples who recorded many of the teachings passed on orally from Rabbi Shimon to his close associates and disciples (see R. Abraham Zaccuti, Sefer Yuchassin, ed. Philipowski, s.v. R. Shimon ben Yochai, p. 45a; cited by R. Abraham Azulai, ad loc. cit.; see also R. Yechiel Heilperin, Seder Hadorot, s.v. R. Shimon ben Yochai.) Thus its authorship spanned several generations. This view is substantiated by the Zohar itself, as stated in Idra Zuta (Zohar III p. 287b).

    The original written texts comprising the Zohar were concealed for many centuries, although its present form, following the order of the weekly Torah portions, is of a much later date, most likely from the period of the Geonim, and there are some interpolations from these late editors (see R. Abraham Galanti, disciple of R. Moshe Cordovero, commentary on Zohar I, 168a, in Or Hachamah, Bereishit, p. 159b. Note R. Shalom Buzaglio, Mikdash Melech on Zohar III, 247a, s.v. vedibura kadma'ah. Cf. also R. Abraham ben R. Eliyahu, Rav Pe'alim, s.v. Zohar; and R. David Luria, Kadmut Sefer HaZohar, sect. III and IV). This explains why names of sages who lived several generations after Rashbi also appear in the Zohar. They became revealed only in the thirteenth century and were published by one of the leading kabbalists living in Spain, Rabbi Moshe de Leon. 

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  47. @ Y. Aharon - Thank you for your response.

    My only question is, you wrote:
    Once leading figures accept the authenticity and authority of a work, that carries momentum. In any case, the acceptance of a literary work by generations is no guarantee of its authenticity - witness the status of the sacred works of other religions.

    The problem with this statement is, that in Judaism, that becomes a dangerous path. Once we start questioning the authenticity of one accepted work, it seems to open the door to questioning other accepted works as well. We accept that the Gemara is authentic, and the Mishnah is authentic, and the Megilos are authentic, etc.

    In addition, there is the point which TRL brought up which shows certain authorities accepting the Zohar as authentic at the time that it was written, and thereafter. Why would those authorities not have questioned the Zohar/Kaballah's authenticity if it was indeed questionable?

    And to play devil's advocate:

    @TRL - If the Zohar/Kabalah is an authentic part of Judaism, why is it not mentioned in other texts (Mishnah, Gemara, etc) that there even EXISTS a "secret" body of Jewish knowledge which is not meant for the masses, but only for elder scholars worthy of learning it, etc.?

    And if the generations get "smaller" (i.e., less lofty) as time goes on, one would think that instead of the Kabalah being revealed to later, less lofty generations, it would have been widely studied by the earlier "more lofty" generations, and then permenantly "lost" or "hidden" from the later, and lowlier generations. This whole process seems to have been reversed with it then ONLY being revealed to later generations, while earlier generations made no mention of it, as if they didn't know it existed.

    Another question - prophecy had already ended by the time of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. How then could he have prophetically been taught Kaballah by Eliyahu Hanavi? Do we not usually call such claims to be that of a "Navi Sheker"? Especially when no one authenticated it until 1,000 years after it was supposedly written, at which point it was miraculously "discovered" by someone who never had his contemporary scholars review the original manuscripts he claims to have discovered from a hidden vault. It all sounds rather suspect.

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  48. TRL:
    This explanation does not answer many of the difficulties with the discovered Zohar. For example, having back and forth discussions, or forward citations, from people who did not live at the same time is evidence of forgery.

    Michapeset, and TRL, If you would like, you can read through Shadal's Vikuach al Chochmat haKabbalah which discusses many of these difficulties. I've translated much of it here.

    kt,
    josh

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  49. TRL, I hadn't intended to enter into a discussion of the Zohar, nor am I qualified to make pronouncements on its authenticity. However, this is a blog called 'Rationalist Judaism' and it is fitting for me to attempt to express a rational, even if inexpert, view on the subject. Your presentation of the presumed history of the Zohar writings is detailed yet fails to address some leading problems. R' Josh Waxman has already noted the issue of alleged conversations between talmudic personalities who were not contemporary. I wish to add that your assumption that R' Moshe de Leon merely edited some ancient notes or manuscripts stemming largely from R' Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) suffers from the problem of language. According to scholars of Aramaic, the Aramaic of the Zohar is a synthetic language that was never actually spoken in talmudic times. The very idea of esoteric wisdom (sod) being put into writing by talmudic sages instead of relying on strictly oral transmission to worthy students is somewhat odd. In any case, the experts claim that the style of writing strongly suggests either a literary creation by a Medieval writer (who may have used some available kabbalistic material), or an extensive rewrite of earlier manuscripts by someone who was not that familiar with spoken Aramaic. Someone here already mentioned one anachronism, the term Esnoga, which is Portugese/Catalan? for synagogue, and not Aramaic.

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  50. Thank you Rabbi Waxman, I will read it.

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  51. One earns Divine compassion by being compassionate, not by mechanistic manipulations of angels and God which involve committing precisely the sort of acts that are ordinarily antithetical to Torah values.

    So how about the opinion in the Gemara (Nedarim 10a) that says some tzaddikim would become nezirim just so that they could bring a korban chatas? Isn't slitting the throat of a domesticated animal for no real reason more painful than having a bird lose its chicks?

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  53. Professor Moshe Idel has written about the controversial Abraham Abulafia who managed a profound synthesis of the Guide of the Perplexed and Sefer Yetsirah (as interpreted by the Hasidei Ashkenaz).

    Abulafia knew he was projecting his own system, which deemed Hebrew to be the divine language of creation and not a conventional language as held by the Rambam) onto the Guide.

    However, Abulafia points to one very interesting section of the Guide which supports techniques appropriated by the kabbalists:

    Wonderful... is the intimation aroused through the use of a certain term whose letters are identical with those of another term; solely the order of the letters is changed; and between the two terms there is in no way an etymological connection or a community of meaning... Through this method very strange things appear, which are likewise secrets... If you carefully examine each passage in your mind, they will become clear to you - after your attention has been aroused - from the gist of what has been set forth here (2:43, Pines p.392-3).

    Indeed Maimonides seems to be giving a directive to employ this technique elsewhere as he has done (cf. 3:2, Pines p.417-22). Unlike others Abulafia never claims Maimonides to be a hidden kabbalist, he respects the great eagle too much and he wants his own project to be taken seriously, yet here he has come close.

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