Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Rationalist Vs. Mystical Judaism

Early on in the days of this website, I had a post defining rationalism, which is linked on the right. However, since many readers have joined since then, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss it again - this time in a little more detail, and to contrast it with its opposite. My goal with this description is to leave the definition of rationalism sufficiently vague to include both medieval rationalists and contemporary rationalists; in a future post, I plan to spell out the differences between the two. Note that my use of the word "rationalism" is not identical to the dictionary definition, but I feel that my definition (adapted from that of Rabbi Dr. David Berger) is more useful in a Jewish context. Note too that I am using the antonym of "mystic"; it's not ideal, but it's the best I could come up with. And remember that these represent two ends of the spectrum, but there is a vast range of possibilities in between.

The differences between rationalists and non-rationalists fall into three categories:

• KNOWLEDGE

Rationalists
believe that knowledge is legitimately obtained by man via his reasoning and senses, and should preferably be based upon evidence/reason rather than faith, especially for far-fetched claims.

Mystics are skeptical of the ability of the human mind to arrive at truths, and prefer to base knowledge on revelation, or – for those who are not worthy of revelation – on faith in those who do experience revelation.

• NATURE

Rationalists
value a naturalistic rather than supernatural interpretation of events, and perceive a consistent natural order over history - past, present and future. They tend to minimize the number of supernatural entities and forces.

Mystics prefer miracles, and believe them to be especially dominant in ancient history and the future messianic era. They tend to maximize the number of supernatural entities and forces.

• THE SERVICE OF GOD

Rationalists understand the purpose of mitzvos, and one’s religious life in general, primarily (or solely) as furthering intellectual/moral goals for the individual and society.

Mystics
see mitzvos as primarily performing mechanistic manipulations of spiritual or celestial forces, with their reasons being either to accomplish this or ultimately incomprehensible.

38 comments:

  1. Rationalists believe that knowledge is legitimately obtained by man via his reasoning and senses, and should preferably be based upon evidence/reason rather than faith, especially for far-fetched claims.

    How do rationalists deal with miracles and revelation? Will the try to explain them away in naturalistic terms and only concede it is a miracle if there is not other choice (e.g. splitting of the sea, Mt. Sinai)?

    And if so, why? If G-d is capable of performing miracles and has in fact done so, why seek to minimize the amount of times He did so?

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  2. Are you familiar with Rabbi David Hartman's comparisons of the approaches of the Rambam and Ramban (in A Living Covenant)? He pretty much lines them up in the two categories you presented. Fascinating stuff.

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  3. It seems that in your description of the function of mitzvos you miss an essential point, one that rationalists and mystics presumably agree on. That the main purpose of mitzvos is to fulfill G-d's will. Ashe kidishanu vitzivanu.

    Moreover, "primarily performing mechanistic manipulations" seems an unkind description of a very rich mystical tradition. While - as the name of your website suggests - you are clearly in t he Rationalist camp, I don't think you present the mystical point of view accurately, or at least in context.

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  4. Tevye - In the first part of The Challenge Of Creation I explain why the rationalist Rishonim were opposed to miracles.

    Dave - Thanks for the reference, I'll check it out. Ramban was not a typical mystic, he had a strong rationalist side.

    Tevye II - I was speaking about what mitzvos accomplish, not what our motivations should be.

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  5. I must admit, I am quite surprised at your reading of mysticism in Judaism and am curious where you got it from. My guess is you have extremely limited exposure to the central texts in this school of thought.

    I feel you have missed a central point for the mystics. That being that they do not deny the physical world and the rules that govern it, (and this includes the cognitive capacities of man) rather they view the physical itself to be secondary to and governed by higher spiritual principles.

    The mystics contend, not that the human mind cannot arrive at correct understanding of the natural world, but rather that that is not complete knowledge. To understand only the natural is not to understand the full picture. It is true for them that understanding of spiritual reality is beyond simple discursive analysis and requires revelation, however, the mystics would contend that ones cognitive faculties must be perfected before this can happen.

    I think it is poorly phrased and unclear to say that mystics 'prefer miracles'. Again, a focus on spiritual realms and the rules that govern both them and the lower physical realm is for mystics a matter of correct priorities, not preference. When the Ramban identifies a category of miracles called נסים נסתרים it's not out of a fetish for miracles but instead comes from a cosmology that includes more than just the physical and views man as a being that that bridges both the physical and the spiritual.

    Finally, although there is strong theurgical element in the mystical view of mitzvot, it again does not exclude the moral/intellectual side. It is a question of focus.

    In short the mystic view may emphasize the spiritual but that is only because as they see it, it is a matter of בכלל מאתים, מנה .

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  6. I did not claim that mystics deny the physical world or the rules that govern it. Nor did I say that they deny the intellectual/moral side of mitzvos.

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  7. 1. The Jewish mysticism I have studied does not look like the one you describe. It is easy to knock if if all it is is a simplistic "mechanistic manipulation".

    2. Rationalists agree that some mitzvos - chukim - have no rational explanation. And mystics agree as to the rationale that the Torah provides for some mitzvos. There is however a deeper layer of meaning, what the Kabbalah calls the 'neshama' of Torah. That the Torah has many layers is no innovation of mysticism. It is all over the Gemara and informs many (most?) of the halachos we follow.

    It seems to me that the great Torah scholars did not 'fit' into either of the 'boxes' you squeeze them into.

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  8. Tevye, first of all, did you read the part where I wrote that these are two extremes and there is a large range in between?

    Second of all, Rambam held that ALL mitzvos have a rational explanation, even chukkim.

    The idea of mitzvos having an effect in spiritual worlds, sefiros, etc. is unique to mystics and does not (to my knowledge) appear in Chazal.

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  9. R. Slifkin - I really think you need a different name for your antonym - say "anti-rationalists," or my preference, "revelationists." What really drives this debate over the first two points is really taking a wider or narrower view of revelation - what was revealed, and how often new revelation takes place. A revelationist would say that with the revelation of the Torah, we were explained how (in exact detail) the world was created, all the details about reality necessary to determine the Halakhot in the Gemara, etc. whereas a rationalist would limit revelation in the face of new scientific information that contradicts both a literal reading of Bereshit and "facts" articulated in the Gemara. Similarly, a rationalist would say that nevu'a stopped when the Gemara said it stopped, and after that there has been no revelation (I'm using a robust notion of revelation here, of course; some would argue that God is revealed in nature every single day, but that's obviously not what I'm referring to) whereas a "revelationist" would say that through their extensive study of Torah the gedolim are endowed with the Holy Ghost (sorry I couldn't resist) and receive a continuous revelation that informs them of the best decision regarding all matters of any importance. Finally, revelationists hold that the body of literature that falls under the category "Kabbalistic" and specific important works, such as the Zohar, the Ari's teachings, the Yetzira, Bahir, etc. (and if you're a Hasid, the teachings of your particular rebbe(s)) are as much TMS as Aseret Hadibrot, and if an explanation of the purpose of a particular mitzva, or all mitzvot, is given in these works, it is as immutable a fact as any other piece of revelation; whereas a Rationalist would regard these works as Torah literature just like (as an example) your books, and can be disregarded in favor of a more compelling approach - and being modern rationalists, who among us (including all the revelationists) finds a mystical approach to ta'amei hamitzvot more compelling than a more naturalistic explanation?

    However, mysticism itself does not really relate to the matters at hand, except (maybe) the third, regarding ta'amei hamitzvot - but is that issue really one that has occupied your books (or your struggles) so much, as opposed to the other two? Indeed, there are plenty of anti-supernaturalistic mystics out there (for example, you have Arthur Green's attempt at a new vision of Jewish theology) which would not disagree with the main thrust of the rationalism you're exploring on this website (indeed, they'd take it a whole lot further than you're taking it!)

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  10. That's an intriguing idea! I need to give it thought. My first thoughts are that, yes, the third component is very important. Also, I'm not sure that "revelationist" cuts to the heart of the topic of nature vs. miracle, but then again, nor does "mystic." So maybe non-rationalist is best?

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  11. A possible third position which takes both extremes: The "rational mystic".

    Knowledge: Believes that phenomena such as prophecy & ruach ha'kodesh exist but are governed by laws of the physical universe - though we have yet to discover such laws.

    Nature: Believes that nothing is "beyond nature". So-called "supernatural" existences are examples of unusual or extraordinary natural phenomena.

    Service of G-d: Believes that mitzvot involve dynamics not readily seen or understood, but that these dynamics are in theory empirical and will one day be borne out by science.

    Rationalists and mystics both tend to loathe this position - rationalists because "spiritual realities" by definition can't be proven by science, and mystics because spiritual realities by definition can't be proven by "science." Thoughts on this?

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  12. I agree with david meir with some tweaks:
    Knowledge: Believes that phenomena such as prophecy & ruach ha'kodesh exist but are governed by laws of the physical universe - though we have yet to discover such laws. And that knowledge of 'all' can be grasped by man with the correct training of mind and 'spirit'

    Nature: Believes that nothing is "beyond nature". So-called "supernatural" existences are examples of unusual or extraordinary natural phenomena or the natural consequences of trends of thought/intention in large groups.

    Service of G-d: Believes that mitzvot involve some dynamics not readily seen or understood, but that these dynamics are empirical and all will one day be borne out by science or philosophy as many parts already have been.

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  13. It's a great book in general, but the Rambam vs Ramban issue is discussed in chapter 10, "Two Competing Covenantal Paradigms."

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  14. I have to agree with Jon.

    I intended to write a comment suggesting that instead of "mystic" you use the term "revelation", as based on your words, that is the person you are describing. A person who's only basis of "true" knowledge is that which is revealed via extra-natural beings.

    As I was reading your description, I had to think to myself that while the "rationalist" is not the strict dictionary definition, it does have some resemblance. However, "mystic" seems to have little connection to what position you give them, other than as a plausible stereotype which does not conform with people I know.

    Another most likely more accurate term here, might be "charedi" but I don't know enough about charedi society to comment on that fully.


    I would also argue that Ramban is your typical "Mystic", not a "mystic with a strong rationalist side." However, Ramban would not be your typical "revelationist". Another term instead of revelationist, might be "super-naturalist"

    However, the term mystic, really has more to do with self knowledge and inner soul seeking within the context of a greater world view. A mystic's approach to Mitzvot, is not just some mechanical process, but rather an inner search for the relationship to the divine and His creation, which views the mystic as a helper in some cosmic event. But this is a personal thing, not a mechanical thing. (As a form of bad analogy: One could argue that saying "I love you" is a mechanical process which makes a person happy and feel consoled. However, the truth is that this only works if there is a relationship between the person speaking and listening, in which those words have meaning. But if an enemy or a stranger says that, it would not have the same effect, and thus it is not a mechanical process.)

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  15. "The idea of mitzvos having an effect in spiritual worlds, sefiros, etc. is unique to mystics and does not (to my knowledge) appear in Chazal."

    That really depends on how you translate the aggadata referring to the multiple heavens and the pillars they stand on, and the purpose of that aggadata in that particular section of the Talmud.

    It also depends on how one translates "olam habah" within Chazal.

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  16. And that knowledge of 'all' can be grasped by man with the correct training of mind and 'spirit'
    =================
    what is "all"? IIUC even the Rambam thought there were things man would never fully understand.
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  17. With regard to the service of God , there is no rationalist/mystic dichomy. This is because Mystics cannot give reasons for mitzvos. Instead, they can only give reasons for us to do mitzvos. Mystical “reasons” for mitzvos are given by theurgical statements in the form of “If you do X, Y will occur.” These types of statement may make us want to do X, in order to accomplish Y, but they do not give us any reason why God made the world with these rules. The opposite could easily be true. Thus, the “reasons” given by mystics are not reasons for mitzvos, but effects of mitzvos. The mystic has only moved the question from why we should do X, to why does X have such an effect. The mystic is then faced with the real issue of what is the reason for the command to do X. If the mystic believes that God has reasons for giving particular commands, he must accept Rationalistic reasons for mitzvos. Indeed, the Ramban adopts such an approach. Furthermore, the Haredi educational system, which is certainly influenced by the mystical approach, implicitly adopts the rationalistic approach, by including the Sefer Hachinuch in the curriculum.

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  18. "what is "all"? IIUC even the Rambam thought there were things man would never fully understand."

    Forget the Rambam - even today's scientists (as well as scientists throughout the ages) say that there are things that man cannot fully understand.

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  19. Rationalists accept faith based claims!? they only "prefer" evidence?

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  20. Is there any rational reason to be an orthodox Jew nowadays? Haven't the academics disproven all of the evidence for God, and Matan Torah?
    Can we prove that God must exist, must be one, must be incorporeal etc? Can we at least provide compelling evidence for it?

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  21. "Rationalists believe that knowledge is legitimately obtained by man via his reasoning and senses, and should preferably be based upon evidence/reason rather than faith, especially for far-fetched claims."

    Yet the "rationalists" accept extremely far fetched claims (such as the claim that 1.5-3 million people fled Egypt with overt miracles, when the Egyptian population could only have a few million people in TOTAL at that time, or that Israel conquered the land of Canaan in any way similar to the depiction in Joshua when this is simply disproved by archeology) in order to cling on to the believe in the exodus and TMS on pure faith that not only is not corroborated by any evidence but plainly contradicts much of it. The rationalist approach can only take you so far before blind faith must assume priority in order to remain theologically Jewish ( or at least to accept the Jewish claims of the Exodus, TMS and conquering of Canaan, which are pillars of Orthodox Jewish faith.

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  22. Would you be comfortable with a mystic defining "rationalism"? (the converse of what you did)

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  23. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I'm slightly surprised regarding your classification of revelation. Isn't a reliance on revelation and miracles one of the rational basises of Orthodox Judaism?

    I realize that the argument of tradition is not a "proof," but it's one of the decent arguments for the authetencity of what happened in Egypt and Mt. Sinai 3,300 years ago. It's actually integral to our religion.

    Incidentally, Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein has pointed out (probably based on others) that one cannot be an agnostic in practice. One has to live his life one way or another. One does not live in limbo. If someone doesn't keep Shabbos, he has effectively decided to live as if God did not command Jews to observe the seventh day of the week as "shabbos laShem."

    Hence, if a Jew has several life paths open to him, it is not "irrational to choose to observe the Torah liestyle based on a tradition of revelation and miracles.

    (Moreover, it is not irrational for a person who observes a chassidic rebbe performing miracles to conclude that of the various paths in life, he will choose the one taught by the chassidic rebbe.)

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  24. According to your defintion of the mystic school of thought, it seems to me that mystics should be considered rationalists in the category of knowledge, as they would, presumebly, hold that empirical knowledge is only obtainable through complete recognition and comprehension of the subject matter beyond a shadow of a dougb, a purely rationalist view.

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  25. I'm not sure it's accurate to say rationalists think mitzvot are for ethical improvement, while mystics think they are for abstract manipulation of divine forces. For example, in Breslov Chassidut -- which if you've read Rebbe Nachman's work is quite mystical -- there is a big emphasis on correcting negative character traits, and the purpose of Judaism in general is seen as achieving perfect emuna/bitachon, which is more or less equivalent to eliminating all negative character traits, because when you see everything as coming from Hashem, then you don't get angry, impatient, etc.

    For that matter, I don't see why a belief in a weak version of divine providence would be any more rationalist than a belief that there are no coincidences. After all, if "all is foreseen, yet free will is granted," G-d could have intended from the beginning all the happenings which to us seem like coincidences. Furthermore, there's nothing inherently mystical or anti-rational about the idea that G-d intervenes continually (though without miracles exactly) to ensure that each thing that happens to a person is for their ultimate spiritual good -- what they need at that moment to remind them to grow ethically/spiritually. G-d has the capacity to do so, and it is consistent with R' Akiva's statement that everything G-d does he does for the good. So what's so mystical about it?

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  26. 1. I think that it is misleading to say 'mechanistic manipulations of spiritual or celestial forces' which might sound like we are talking about independent forces, with their own bechirah.

    The spiritual forces in our mystical tradition are completely under Hashem's control. They act and react only because He is making them do so (more precisely - He acts through them).

    2. Without getting into mysticism we can see different functions (or consequences) of mitzvos. Shabbat, for example, is a symbol of the creation of the universe by Hashem. It also commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. It serves as a sign between Hashem and Israel. It is a gift of rest and tranquility to the Jewish people. And more.

    3. That there were some Torah greats who placed significantly less emphasis on mysticism is indisputable. They they would fit into the definition of "rationalism" that you present I find hard to believe.

    Twisting the meaning of Rishonim to better fit one's own hashkafic viewpoint is something that people like bashing chareidim for, is it not?

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  27. Yehudah,

    I don't think he meant that it is not 'rational', I think he meant not 'rationalist'. He's not accusing them of acting irrationally, he's just pointing out that they don't fit into the rationalist school of thought.

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  28. which might sound like we are talking about independent forces, with their own bechirah.

    Why on earth might it sound like that?! If I talk about manipulating the force of electromagnetism, does it sound like I am saying that electromagnetism has its own bechirah?!

    They they would fit into the definition of "rationalism" that you present I find hard to believe.

    Twisting the meaning of Rishonim to better fit one's own hashkafic viewpoint is something that people like bashing chareidim for, is it not?


    The fact that you personally find something hard to believe does not mean that I am twisting their words. This is especially true in light of your very first comment on this thread, which shows that you lack even basic understanding of the rationalist worldview. Please, if you want to enter into this discussion (and especially if you want to toss out accusations about people "twisting the words of the Rishonim"), familiarize yourself with the basic ideas first.

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  29. Rabbi Slifkin, I think it would be helpful to the discussion here if you would share your sources for your description of the 'mystic' perspective. I and your readers are well aware of your sources for your view of rationalism which you freely share. I feel that this discussion is limping towards irresolution. If we could agree on some sources that express the 'mystic' or revelationist perspective we may be able to move things beyond people expressing personal views which then devolve into personal attacks.

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  30. R' Slifkin,

    For my edification, I would be interested in knowing where and when in Jewish history does your definition of "rationalism" (acknowledging as you point out that it is an extreme on the spectrum) concede that miracles and revelation in their simplest sense did indeed take place.

    Would I be correct in naming the red sea and Har Sinai, respectively, as examples?

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  31. To Tevye and others - please see my comments policy at http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2010/02/new-comments-policy.html (now linked on the right). If you have any questions/ objections, please email me.

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  32. "My goal with this description is to leave the definition of rationalism sufficiently vague to include both medieval rationalists and contemporary rationalists; in a future post, I plan to spell out the differences between the two. "

    Did you ever do this?

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  33. For a full treatment of this issue from classical standpoint please see this link

    http://holy-brother.blogspot.com/2012/02/machlokes-lshem-shamayim.html

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  34. Rabbi Sifkin, according to the rationalist view, what is the source to the well known and accepted rule that after chasimas hatalmud, the halacha cannot be disputed?

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    Replies
    1. http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2011/06/4g.html

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    2. Absolutely true, I have seen that Chinuch before. Question is what requires you to abide by those standards?

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  35. You have failed to respond to this basic question. Why is it that, that one must follow chasimas hatalmud, under which halachic category does this fall? In addition why does the mishna have the final say? Why can't me or you say we disagree with the mishna's interpretation. So there's really no difference between your definition of Judaism vs. everyone else's. You just draw the "line" after the amoraic period, while others do so at some later points.

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  36. Another point I take issue with. You seem not to like the idea of mystical clouds protecting torah scolars. Yet you agree that to some degree a person can MERIT a salvation. To which I challenge you how in your rationalist view this would play out. Suppose I merit getting a high paying job for a mitzvah I performed. This would have to mean that in the event that this mitzvah was not done, I would not be awarded this job. So if we would let "nature" take it's course the latter would dictate otherwise. So which natural event CHANGED that fact? How did the initial interview take place. What made the potential employer decide to meet me?? Somehow, at some point you will have to agree that g-d popped an idea into his head that helped him make that choice. Something mystical will have had to take place here. So again, there is essentially no difference between the ways of thinking. There is always gonna be a mystical side to things. Who's to say how far it goes?

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