Tuesday, May 28, 2013

God vs. Mechanics

In the previous post, I critiqued Eytan Kobre's nasty screed by the simple technique of cutting-and-pasting the entire article and switching a few phrases. (Alas, some people did not realize that I had done that, and were wondering at my unusually verbose and haughty style!) Satire can be a cheap way of writing, and sometimes facile in its comparisons and contrasts. However, in this case, I decided that his points were really much more applicable to the charedi community than to the Zionist enterprise.

In this post, however, I am inspired by a comment made by somebody called "Kevin from Chicago" to single out a paragraph of Mr. Kobre's article for detailed examination. I think that it sheds much light on why charedim approach the notion of Torah study vs. military service very different from those following in the legacy of the rationalist Rishonim. Here is the paragraph:
Welcome to Jewish reality — also known as reality, period — where spiritual causes bring about material effects, both positive and negative; where the “action” all takes place in the spiritual realms, with the ensuing this-worldly results, substantive as they seem to the human eye, being mere afterthoughts. Our deeds, ours alone, activate spiritual forces on high that, in turn, determine the course of human affairs. 
This is not a description of "Jewish reality." It is is a superb description of the mystical Jewish approach to reality, but it does not describe the rationalist Jewish approach to reality. Aside from the fact that the rationalist approach views the physical universe and the laws of nature as being very real and valuable, rather than an illusory deception that exists to enable free will, there is also a substantial difference with regard to the function of our deeds.

As I have written previously, there is a difference between the rationalist and non-rationalist/ mystical approaches to Judaism with regard to avodas Hashem, the service of God. Rationalists understand the purpose of mitzvos, and religious life in general, as furthering intellectual and moral goals for the individual and society. The action all takes place in this world, and the this-worldly results are no mere afterthought, but are the straightforward result and purpose.

Mystics agree that mitzvos provide intellectual and moral benefits, but see their primary function as performing mechanistic manipulations of spiritual or celestial forces in the celestial realm. For example, the mystical approach views shiluach hakein not as an act of compassion designed to perfect our character, but rather as an act of cruelty designed to manipulate angels, and in turn to manipulate God (unfortunately there's no better word for it) into being good to us.

When it comes to Torah, this difference does not just play out with regard to the essential effect of learning Torah, as discussed in a previous post. It also plays out with regard to how the effect is perceived as being actualized. Allow me to explain.

The mystical approach, based on the innovative view of R. Chaim of Volozhin, is that learning Torah creates all kinds of spiritual worlds and forces. As Mr. Kobre writes, "Our deeds, ours alone, activate spiritual forces on high that, in turn, determine the course of human affairs." Learning Torah effects a mechanistic manipulation of spiritual forces, in which God doesn't really play an active role. The consequence of this way of thinking is that learning Torah automatically provides a defensive shield for the nation, and kollel is automatically a good thing. After all, one is learning Torah, and Torah activates spiritual forces.

With the rationalist approach, on the other hand, mitzvos are performed and Torah is learned not to manipulate forces, but rather in order to fulfill God's directives regarding how to better mankind. Accordingly, there is no automatic assumption that learning Torah, while always increasing one's knowledge, is necessarily always a good thing. It depends on whether it is a fulfillment of God's will, in order to better mankind. And the Torah itself, and Chazal made it clear that certain other values play a role - such as sharing the military burden, and supporting one's family. Learning Torah is not bettering mankind when it is selfish and demands the extensive financial and military support of the rest of society, especially when there are no services or even basic gratitude offered in return.

It's not clear whether Chazal (and which of Chazal) should be described as being closer to rationalists or mystics, or indeed if these terms are at all applicable to the worldview of Chazal. But I would suggest that in this aspect, Chazal are closer to the rationalist view. The few scattered statements in Chazal about Torah providing protection do not mean it in the mystical sense of mechanistically activating spiritual forces. Rather, they mean it in the sense of it providing a merit in God's eyes. (I can't, as yet, conclusively prove this, but I'm working on it; and I certainly think that this is how many Rishonim, who had no concept of mechanistically engineering spiritual forces, understood Chazal.) And learning Torah only provides a merit if it's the right thing to do!

Welcome to the rationalist Jewish approach to reality. Unlike Mr. Kobre, I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to claim that my school of thought is the only one that has ever existed! My believing it to be correct does not require me to believe that all great people have always felt similarly. Other people are free to follow different schools of thought - as long as they are not claiming that theirs is the only Jewish approach, and making the rest of society foot the bill.

52 comments:

  1. It may well be the case that Mr. Kobre is incapable of writing anything better than snidery to defend his cause (Or, to be more accurate, to belittle people that see things differently than he does.). I'm quite sure that your capabilities go beyond that, which is why I much preferred this post to its predecessor.

    Moishe Potemkin

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  2. That paragraph puzzled me, too. Sure, much happens on a spiritual plane, but the physical is a pre-requisite: you have to build the Sukkah, you have to take the lulav and esrog in hand, you have to rid yourself of chametz. You have to wear the tefillin. Just musing about them is not enough. Similarly, you have to defend yourself against those who seek to kill you. You have to work (is the mitzvah to rest on Shabbos not connected to the idea of working on the other six days? שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד, וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל-מְלַאכְתֶּך Can't have the spiritual without the physical to base it on.

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  3. First off, excellent, beautifully articulated post!

    "Our deeds, ours alone, activate spiritual forces on high that, in turn, determine the course of human affairs."

    Leaving aside for the moment the terribly haughty and exclusivist "ours alone" dogma (another unfortunately pervasive view), this statement brings to mind a certain dictionary definition:

    "The power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces"

    Give up? ... Just Google "magic definition".

    So R. Slifkin, as sporting as it is of you to say that the rationalist view isn't the only legitimate traditional Jewish view, that there is indeed room for the mystical approach, I'm not entirely sure. Given the fact that the mystical camp holds a world view so jarringly close to "magic", I think an excellent case can be made that such an approach to Torah is in fact highly questionable!

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  4. The pure haughtiness of Kobre's statement is enough to turn any thinking person off to Judaism. One can say they sincerely believe what Kobre says and as a belief, like any other, he'd be entitled to it. But to state empirically that this mystical view, for which there is zero corroborating evidence, is "reality" is just plain embarrassing.

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  5. If by "mystical" you mean "Kabbalistic", and by "Kabbalistic", you mean "Lurianic", this post demonstrates a complete lack of familiarity with the basic Lurianic texts. If the Etz Haim, Leshem, or Rashash do not appeal to you, fine. But dont attack an approach to Judaism you do not understand based on a paragraph by Eytan Kobre, who, to the best of my knowledge is as ignorant of the subject matter as you are.

    At the same time, you come very close to eliminating divine providence from the "Rationalist" camp. (Indeed, a bona fide rationalist would probably deny any sort of providence.) Divine Providence, according to the Rambam, is a function of one's intellectual refinement with Torah serving as the primary means toward refinement. Assume for a moment that what goes on in haredi kollelim constitutes Talmud Torah. Is it too far a stretch to say that Torah learning leads to greater divine providence on Earth?

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  6. Very well-crafted exposition of mystical vs rational approach, thank you.

    You wrote: "...as long as they are not claiming that theirs is the only Jewish approach.."

    There's the rub: The Haredi view always seems (to me) saturated with superciliousness, deligitimizing all others. The rationalist camp seems (to me) willing to acknowledge others.

    We're not playing on a level field.

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  7. While the terms certainly do not apply exactly as today, for more on which of CHaZaL were "Rationalists" or "Mystics", see A.J. Heschel's "Torah Min HaShamayim B'Aspaklaria Shel HaDorot", translated quite excellently into English by Gordon Tucker as "Heavenly Torah As Refracted Through The Generations".

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  8. The closest you can get to the hareidi paradigm in the talmud is Brachot 35b - the debate between R' Yishmael and Bar Yochai. It would appear that Abaye sided with R' Yishmael, however stating that Bar Yochai's way doesn't work. Even if they were trying to be like Bar Yochai, it would appear that the work that is being done for them is actually done by non-Jews and not other Jews based on the verses that are quoted in that gemara.

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  9. I don't understand what the argument is about here--wouldn't everyone, rationalist and non-rationalist alike, agree that our physical actions here have far-reaching effects? For example, the Rambam in the beginning of Hilchos Ta'aniyos says that when a tragedy strikes, the first thing to do is to examine our actions: ודבר זה, דרך מדרכי התשובה הוא: שבזמן שתבוא צרה ויזעקו לה ויריעו, יידעו הכול שבגלל מעשיהם הרעים הרע להן
    (Even though scientifically there shouldn't be any connection between a plague of locusts or drought and some transgressions I've committed.)

    Also, mystics would agree that the main purpose of creation would be the performance of mitzvos in this world--otherwise, Hashem would have sufficed with the spiritual worlds above this one, with all those myriads of angels, and stopped there.

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  10. Kobre and his ilk can talk a big game about spiritual reality all they want, but as we all know, and as you've discussed yourself, when the rubber hits the road (or when the rockets come falling) they still fall back on ACTUAL reality.

    Similarly, they'll claim that they believe that a man's livelihood is based solely on Hashem's decisions, but that doesn't stop them from protesting when Hashem supposedly decides that he government should implement cuts to kollel families.

    He's so full of it.

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  11. You quote the mystical approach from R. Chaim of Volozhin. How did his teacher the Gra feel about this?

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  12. "Learning Torah effects a mechanistic manipulation of spiritual forces, in which God doesn't really play an active role. "

    God doesn't play an active role? Why is this not heresy? God is in charge of EVERYTHING.

    "an act of cruelty designed to manipulate angels, and in turn to manipulate God"

    It was precisely the cruelty in this mystical interpretation of shiluach hakein that caused me to reject mystical interpretations in general. Rambam in Guide to the Perplexed 3:48 clearly states that HaShem cares about animals.

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  13. Mordechai GordonMay 29, 2013 at 8:53 AM

    I loved this post, and the one before it. Great work! I wish these opinions could have more exposure in the wider press instead of it being cast as a secular/religious divide.

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  14. He has to hold this is the only approach. It's a power grab, plain and simple. This has nothing to do with ideology. If people leave the yeshiva, or learn about secular society and why it is not te devil he and his contemporaries will lose power.

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  15. But don't we have a very recent & painful experiment which should have settled the matter?

    Pre-Shoa Europe had tons of "learning" What Divine protection did it get them?
    The Zionists, on the other hand, were mostly, not observant - some even militantly anti-religious. Yet they were successful.

    Shouldnt these 2 facts make clear the way the world really works?

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  16. To Ezra...

    precisely correct and therein lies the gist of the chillul hashem being perpetuated.

    it's a lose-lose situation for these so-called gedolim who rant about learning.

    for if they don't realize the arguments against their asserted power of learning, they are fools

    and if they do, but choose to pretend not, they are just plain liars.

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  17. You ignore the approaches of the Gra and R' Chaim Volozhiner, which are both very mystical and believe that "the purpose of mitzvos, and religious life in general, as furthering intellectual and moral goals for the individual and society". You also ignore R' Dessler, who calls nature an illusion, and yet is a Mussarist.

    This whole rationalist vs mystic dischotomy is hogwash. By today's standards, the Rambam is a mystic. In fact, his metaphysics differs from the Zohar's far less than normally portrayed. One has a chain of intellects / forms without substance that mediate incrementally downward from G-d to the world of physics, the other has Light that passes through a sequence of worlds.

    By making all this about one issue, an alleged rationalist-mystic axis, you conflate the debates between Platonism and Aristotilian neo-Platonism, between those who maximize appeal to authority vs those who try to maximize comprehensibility, between those who seek experience of G-d, those who seek to repair the world, and those who seek to repair their own "image" of the Divine, and numerous other issues that were actually orthogonal in the history of Jewish Thought.

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  18. Micha - I don't think Rabbi Slifkin is ignoring other approaches; he's just pointing out that some of his opponents are inaccurately delegitimizing the rationalist "side".

    I also wonder whether you're confusing the Rambam's opinions and his process for arriving at those opinions. The former may well have been 'mystical', the latter, probably not.


    - Moishe Potemkin

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  19. Reb Natan, although I agree with some of your points, your closing statement is a bit disingenuous. You certainly seem to indicate in previous posts that you oppose not only PUBLIC but in fact PRIVATE philanthropic support of kollel as well - i.e., you don't actually believe others have a legitimate "right" sourced within Judaism to support it.

    As such, while the nod to "other approaches" might appear to soften the tone, the substance of your argument is highly dismissive and hardly egalitarian at all. You seem to totally condemn any kollel study, not just publicly funded, trotting out familiar arguments like "milamdo tuflus", etc.

    Again, I recognize that these have some intellectual appeal (to me too), but I also recognize that luminaries like Rav Moshe who called them "atzas ha'yetzer" were familiar with them as well.

    So either a bit of humility or at least an earnest call to ecumenical thinking would be welcome.

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  20. I think a helpful analogy for describing the Chareidi situation is the Soviet Union.

    Leaders, are picked by a small group of insiders, but proclaimed to have a larger-than-life purpose and authority.

    Careful control to the access of information through a combination of censoring the outside and generating propaganda on the inside are central to the strategy of keeping the masses subservient and reverent of the leaders. Destruction of works that don't fully support the establishment is accepted.

    Dissent is dealt with harshly and swiftly. You disagree with the supreme leader at your peril and that of your family.

    Punishment is extended to ones family and not just the individual.

    Lack of conformity is seen as a threat.

    Exposure to anything outside the country/community must be severely restricted so that the lies are not exposed.

    Portray themselves as peace loving victims while demonizing anyone on the outside as an antagonistic destroyer.

    The only difference is one claimed its authority from a superior man made moral system, and the other from God. However, the fact that both can't stand in broad daylight belies both their claims.

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  21. "I don't think Rabbi Slifkin is ignoring other approaches; he's just pointing out that some of his opponents are inaccurately delegitimizing the rationalist 'side'."

    I'm saying there aren't a mystic vs a rationalist side. The are numerous differences in approach to Jewish Thought being mixed together here. Oversimplification to the point that there isn't really a group being described, that we can talk about whether they are or aren't ignored.

    "I also wonder whether you're confusing the Rambam's opinions and his process for arriving at those opinions. The former may well have been 'mystical', the latter, probably not."

    I DEEPLY disagree. There was no science in the Rambam's day. He accepted Aristotilian Neo-Platonism because it was accepted knowledge about how the world works. It wasn't less mystical than the Bahir's Platonism (which was published shortly before his Moreh Nevuchim). After all, Artsto made it down to the Rambam with only minor changes after 1,500 years. Who thought in terms of evolving and refining our understanding? IOW, it was a blind unquestioned acceptance of a given philosophy as a well-established second source of Truth, not rationalism, that motivated the Rambam.

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  22. > Pre-Shoa Europe had tons of "learning" What Divine protection did it get them?
    The Zionists, on the other hand, were mostly, not observant - some even militantly anti-religious. Yet they were successful.

    > Shouldnt these 2 facts make clear the way the world really works?

    You underestimate people’s ability to reconcile facts with their worldview. The solution is simple: without the protection of all the learning in Europe, the Nazis would have been successful in carrying out the Final Solution. The Zionists, while successful, were merely a tool Hashem used to prepare Eretz Yisroel for the Roshei Yeshiva and talmedei chachamim who needed somewhere to go after the Holocaust.

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  23. What confuses me about these mystic explanation is how they inherently constrain God.

    Are the 'spiritual forces on high that, in turn, determine the course of human affairs' mechanistic and deterministic? If God is subject to the 'laws of nature' of these spiritual realms, then He is not all-powerful.

    Are the 'spiritual forces on high that, in turn, determine the course of human affairs' probabilistic and uncertain? If He is no more bound than He is to the laws of nature of our reality then there is no added value in introducing these realms - God still acts as he chooses and whatever effect our actions have are ultimately up to Him.


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  24. This rhetorical opposition of "rationalist" to "mystical" doesn't resonate with me, because actual Judaism has always contained elements of both. Is the contention here and in other postings that we at our level are not skilled in the mystic information set and mystic arts, so we necessarily have to follow the rationalist approach alone to get by? It's hard to justify sawing off a whole valid strand of Jewish thought because of our own current limitations.

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  25. Ari K you hit the nail on the head.
    The closing sentence in this post allows for charedim to have a place in Judaism, albeit RNS laments it should not be the only one.
    Yet on his post on April 26th 2013he says charedi judaism is "fundamentally flawed and is not the right path in Judaism"
    Evidently RNS has not formulated his own view and it depends on his emotions at the time of his writing.
    Another example, RNS is more soft on the American kollel guys. Yet are they also not guilty in not following the normative path of judaism, not contributing to society yada yada...?
    The answer is simple: American bnei torah are more worldly, clean shaven, broad minded and have no dandruff on their suits as opposed to the Israeli version.
    This moderates Rabbi Slikins view on the USA bnei torah, they portray themselves in their outside appearance more like him, therefore he is more timid with them - it has nothing to do with not contributing to society bla bla bla...
    This is rationalist Judaism? Emotional Judaism better describes this blog
    Kol Tuv

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  26. LOL. When I didn't differentiate between Israelis and Americans, I was criticized for not realizing that my critique was not so applicable to Americans, who have a much higher rate of employment. And when I do differentiate between them, I am criticized for only differentiating between them due to appearances!

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  27. I DEEPLY disagree. There was no science in the Rambam's day. He accepted Aristotilian Neo-Platonism because it was accepted knowledge about how the world works. It wasn't less mystical than the Bahir's Platonism (which was published shortly before his Moreh Nevuchim). After all, Artsto made it down to the Rambam with only minor changes after 1,500 years. Who thought in terms of evolving and refining our understanding? IOW, it was a blind unquestioned acceptance of a given philosophy as a well-established second source of Truth, not rationalism, that motivated the Rambam.

    If I understand you correctly, that was my point. The Rambam was using the broadest available array of available tools to understand the world, even if those tools were limited to treating Aristotle as a sort of revelation. He didn't argue for the irrelevance of what we perceive as reality.

    - Moishe Potemkin

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  28. I'm saying there aren't a mystic vs a rationalist side. The are numerous differences in approach to Jewish Thought being mixed together here.

    The question, as I understand it, isn't whether individual respected rabbanim would be on one team or the other. The question is how we should apply ideas promulgated as an element of their hashkafos.

    - Moishe Potemkin

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  29. Right on cue:

    'Before Lapid harmed Torah, our security situation was quiet'

    http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=9575

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  30. I would agree with Yehuda P. - I don't understand how these lines are being draw.

    Doesn't the rationalist believe his actions and prayers effect the way God relates to both that individual and the world as a whole? Obviously learning torah in the bathroom isn't learning torah either.

    There is too much conflating and oversimplification going on here.

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  31. Oish, Moshe Potemkin: Those TEAMS are fiction!

    They are the product of oversimplification on our host's part to the point of inaccuracy. There is no rationalist or mystical camps or trends. Different baaleh machashavah (by which I mean: rabbanim who wrote about Jewish Thought) thoughout the history of mesorah have had different combinations of things being lumped together to make these imaginary camps. There isn't even a statistical tendency for someone who holds something on the issue of metaphysics necessarily holding a particular position on the issue of reasonableness vs authority or a particular position about nature vs miracle or a particular position about the role of mitzvos, or a particular position.... There are buzzwords being used for pools of ideas that are unrelated and have never been pooled by anyone worthy of being considered a primary source.

    There isn't and never was a "Rationalist Judaism". Just as there isn't and never was a "Mystic Judaism".

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  32. Doesn't the rationalist believe his actions and prayers effect the way God relates to both that individual and the world as a whole?

    Possibly not as often as you might think and not in the way you think it. I certainly believe that God is capable of affecting the world any way He sees fit, but I believe prayer and observance to primarily affect me internally not externally (i.e. help me be a better person in the face of my circumstances rather than simply change the circumstances for my convenience).

    Nevertheless, even for those who see a world full of constant active personal divine providence - what do yo gain by defining mystical other-worlds that are affected by our actions and then, based on some laws of nature, affect our world in turn?

    My Rabbi recently told his congregation to be very suspicious of any mystical explanation that works by simply replacing a problematic concept with a fancy-but-poorly-defined term.

    How is "my actions activate spiritual forces on high that, in turn, determine the course of human affairs [in a way that we can't understand]" any better than "my actions affect God's relationship with me and the world [in a way we can't understand]"?

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  33. Perhaps Mr. Kobre is describing the "Jewish reality" formulated by the Ramchal? Deeply mystical, but not quite as pagan or mechanistic as you suggest.

    I'd rather argue the nature of the "deeds" which affect all of existence. Tanach makes it very clear that our deeds in this world affect our rewards - neither incidental nor an afterthought - also in this world. It is also very clear in its judgment of people who do not step up to act on a national level, and let their brothers fight alone. Cf, Shirat Devora.

    It wasn't Barak's stellar learning that won that battle...

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  34. I DEEPLY disagree. There was no science in the Rambam's day. He accepted Aristotilian Neo-Platonism because it was accepted knowledge about how the world works. It wasn't less mystical than the Bahir's Platonism (which was published shortly before his Moreh Nevuchim). After all, Artsto made it down to the Rambam with only minor changes after 1,500 years. Who thought in terms of evolving and refining our understanding? IOW, it was a blind unquestioned acceptance of a given philosophy as a well-established second source of Truth, not rationalism, that motivated the Rambam.

    If so, how do you explain Guide Part 2 Chapter 24, where he questions the accepted views on astronomy as correct in preserving appearances, but being impossible physically so that there must be some deficiency in the theory.

    Also, I would question your assumption that lack of progress was due to a lack of desire to make improvements. First off, Ptolemy was not Aristotle, so there was change in ancient times. Also, part of Aristotle's unfortunately outsized influence was based on the fact that he does have a lot of evidence for some of his theories. His proofs of the earth's sphericity are both very convincing and correct. He made a lot of really good observations in biology, but then gets a bad rap in popular culture because he miscounted the number of teeth that women have. His casting of logic as a formal process is another example of a correct approach when applied correctly.

    Finally, a lot of stagnation had to do with the fall of the Roman Empire and the loss of knowledge. It took a while to rediscover it, translate it and process it before it could be built upon (or for anyone to realize that it could be built upon). Clearly, science at the time of the Rambam was not the same as science in the 17th century, but I think that to say that it was just another set of mystical assumptions is incorrect. If that was true, then it is not clear why Aristotle was accepted when he was rediscovered; why didn't they just stick with their prior theories?

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  35. Micha -

    "Oish?" What's an Oish?

    More seriously, I'm in no position to contest your statistical analysis, but I'm not convinced of the impermissibility (probably the wrong word) of pooling the machshavos of different baalei machshava to produce a new derech, assuming the ideas are coherent and consistent.

    Of course, there never was a trademarked "Rationalist Judaism", but the common contemporary assertion that, for example, belief in purely physical cause-and-effect is absolutely foreign to Judaism is (I believe) itself wrong, and worthy of challenge.

    Rabbi Slifkin's model, like all models, is false. But it is useful.

    - Moishe Potemkin

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  36. Carey Booker, mayor of Newak NJ, made these comments at a recent commencement speech and perhaps they are relevant to the discussion here.

    Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I'm not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.

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  37. I realize that this is a somewhat reductionist view, but it seems to me that much of the popularity of the "magical-mystical" viewpoint has gained in popularity due to the fact that as the world of science becomes gains in complexity, it has become more and more difficult for non-scientifically educated laymen to communicate intelligently with the scientifically-trained.
    The gap is even more extreme among elements of the religious community educated in the "Torah only" approach, while in secular society, a general "dumbing down" of standards of scholarship and habits of culture, as well as the very ability to focus attention leaves increasing numbers of people both number and dumber.
    Popular culture has become increasingly difficult to avoid, and whiz-bang high quality special effects in popular culture bring about a longing for, if not always a credulity in, a universe of "magic".
    This leaves more and more Jews vulnerable to a totally non-rational view of the world, including their spiritual lives.
    Too frequently, the average Jew exposed to selected textual learning is taught without any sense of a broader philosophical perspective. We get a little bit of Maharal, a little bit of Rambam, a bit of Rav Dessler, large undigested chunks of chassidus, without any sense of the conflicts between them. Somehow they are all assumed to be equally and simultaneouslu "true", without any differentiation between them.
    Is it any wonder that more and more Jews are seduced into assuming the mechanistically mystical view you describe, a sort of Judaized Harry Potter and light saber world that exempts us from the responsibility of mastering "hard" science or philosophy? No wonder rationalist Judaism has become such a hard sell and a threat across the board.

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  38. Micha: There is a WORLD of difference between the Rambam's taamei ha-mitzvot and those of the Zohar. For the Rambam, all the mitzvoth serve only to perfect man, and they have NO effect at all on the cosmos, much less on the divinity. Moreover, how they serve to perfect man is all explainable rationally. This is a 180 degrees difference from the Zohar. There are also many other relevant differences, which I cannot go into now.

    Lawrence Kaplan

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  39. But I didn't say their taamei hamitzvos were similar. I said their metaphysics were. The fact is that the Rambam's metaphysics is no less mystical than Qabbalah's. (Nor are they as far apart as usually described.) And the Rambam had no less an appeal to authority.

    What I said about taamei hamitzvos is that the dichotomy between those who are out to change the world and those who are out to change the self has nothing to do with the line between those who utilize Qabbalah and those who don't. Such as R' Chaim Vital (see his Tomer Devorah), the Gra and R' Chaim Volozhiner, all mequbalim, all saw the role of mitzvos in terms of self-refinement.

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  40. It seems to me that there is a difference between Zoharic and Lurianic kabbalah which are entirely based on mysticism, and the Rambam's metaphysics which contains mystical elements. The latter is also based on physical evidence - albeit, mistaken. It was assumed by Aristotle, and later the Rambam, that the natural state of an object was at rest. Hence any motion was attributed to some external cause. Circular motion appeared to be artificial, such as twirling a weighted string around one's head - as in a slingshot. Hence, the motion of the planets was considered to be produced by an intelligent agent ('angel' or 'Intelligence'), rather than a mechanical consequence of a combination of centrifugal (tangential motion) and centripetal forces (gravity). Other elements in the Rambam's Aristotelian metaphysics such as the 4 'essences' (earth, water, air, and fire) and their 'proper' locations (the order listed - lowest to uppermost levels) are a mistaken way of understanding the composite nature of things coupled with a true understanding of their relative densities. While it is true that the Rambam's writings do not exemplify thoroughgoing rationalism (nor does the blogowner or his supporters), it is equally untrue that there is little difference between the Rambam and the later kabbalists.

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  41. RYAharon: I think you're conflating physics and metaphysics. Aristo split them into separate sets of books for a reason. And the Rambam's isn't quite Aristotle's, which is why I always called it Aristotelian Neoplatonism, not just Aristotelian. Everything above the Active Intellect is consistent with his Physics, but not necessary for the system to work.

    It's not that circular motion appeared artificial. I don't think Aristotle had an artificial vs natural distinction. Rather, he saw motion as always being the product of an intellect imparting impetus to an object. Otherwise, motion tapers off and ends, what we consider the effect of friction (including wind drag) on momentum.

    But in any case, the Naoplatonic elements are going to be similar to the Platonic elements in Qabbalah. What you're calling "entirely based on mysticism" is the non-physical aspect of /any/ metaphysics.

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  42. Chana wrote: "We get a little bit of Maharal, a little bit of Rambam, a bit of Rav Dessler, large undigested chunks of chassidus, without any sense of the conflicts between them. Somehow they are all assumed to be equally and simultaneously "true", without any differentiation between them."

    In Chabad circles, it's said that the Ba'al HaTanya based Tanya מפי ספרים ומפי סופרים--the ספרים being those of the Maharal and the Sheloh (besides the fact that the Ba'al HaTanya was a direct descendant of the Maharal).
    It's also said that Rav Dessler learned many Chassidic concepts with Rav Yitzchak Gurevitch ("Reb Itche der Masmid"), a famed Chabad chassid of the time. So it's not so surprising that there's overlap between the thinkers you've mentioned.

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  43. Micha Berger, I used the term 'metaphysics' when I really had in mind the Rambam's hilchot yesodei hatorah, where such concepts occur. The subject matters in chap. 1-4 are a combination of medieval physics and metaphysics. Even chap. 1-2, which the Rambam labels as pertaining to 'Maasei Merkava' contain some physics [chap. 3-4, labelled as 'Maasei Bereishit', correspondingly, contain some metaphysics]. Among them is the idea that the 'spheres' rotate due to an intelligent mover - ultimately, GOD. The preclusion of mechanical circular motion is in addition to the argument that such unceasing, constant motion implies a divine source of energy. If all motion were regarded as the result of an intelligent agent, how do you account for the fall of solid and liquid objects towards the earth?

    In any case, the Rambam doesn't deal with attempting to imagine various aspects of divinity - as do the classical kabbala sefarim. Rather, he emphasizes GOD's absolute unity as well as uniqueness. He is far removed from the later kabbalists.

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  44. The spheres move because they themselves have intellects. Those intellects exist through the aegis of the Active Intlellect, which in turn is a consequence of a higher intellect, which itself is caused by a higher intellect, and so on up to the Prime Mover.

    THe spheres (which correspond to the modern notion of orbit, not the celestial bodies themselves) are made of quintessence, but the Active Intellect and above are forms without substance.

    The Rambam (eg the middle of Yesodei haTorah 2) identifies the chain of intellects above the Active Intellect with mal'akhim, and the Prime Mover with HQBH.

    In Qabbalah, we exist because our forms are the substance of the world above us, which in turn has forms that are the substances of the world above it, and so on up to the Creator. These forms are created "downward" as the Or Ein Sof radiates from the Ein Sof Himself through layers of blockage (kelipos).

    Both are metaphysics rather than explanations of physical phenomenon, once one is trying to explain where the spheres' intellects or the forms of the world above ours come from. And both are based on trying to understand how the world came to be, and not mystical castles with no motivating basis.

    Really, the primary difference is that Qabbalah is more Platonic than neoPlatonic. There is a Reason why the Leshem is able to regularly bring proofs to his shitah in the Gra's Qabbalah from the Moreh Nevuchim.

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  45. Oh, and see the first of the Gra's 10 Kelalim. Qabbalah doesn't describe Hashem as He is, but rather as He appears to us.

    The parallel in the Rambam is his two classes of Divine Attributes. The only "attributes" of Hashem as He is are negative ones, descriptions of what He isn't. But there are also attributes of how He relates to us.

    Qabbalah's sephiros doesn't threaten Divine Unity any more than the Rambam's middos. In fact, both include character traits for us to emulate.

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  46. Micha Berger, the kabbalistic sfirot vs. the Rambam's 'spheres', it seems to me, provide a good distinction between their different worldviews. For the Rambam, the spheres represent physical entities - albeit essentially different than anything physical on earth. They are supposed to have superior intelligence and are composed of a different kind of matter than earthly things (quintessence). The reason for the model is to account for the apparent unchanging circular movement of stars and planets in the sky and their apparent permanence, i.e., it is a physical model with some metaphysical aspects. In kabbalah, the 'spheres' (sfirot) are completely mystical entities (divine emanations) analogous to some human attributes such as chochma, binah, chesed, and gevurah. They may provide a 'mechanism' for GOD's actions. In general, kabbalah appears to be focused on theosophy rather than philosophy. Kabbalah postulates the existence of entities, considered divine emanations, including 'Arich Anpin' (longface), Zei'ir Anpin (little or youngface). Such language used in describing the 'godhead' appears to be inconsistent with the Torah's severe admonition not to depict GOD with images. It is rather implausible that the Rambam would have accepted such ideas had he known of them.

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  47. Why are you comparing the Qabbalah's sefiros to the spheres? Why not pick rocks? The similar sounding names don't come from cognate words. No object within the universe, not even ones that are made of quintessence, paralel metaphysical entities.

    It would be more appropriate to compare them to some of the Rambam's angels or to middos of HQBH as He shows Himself through His actions.

    The Partzufim are somewhat thought of as entities, and somewhat thought of as dynamics between sephiros that are apparent in various instances. They certainly are comparable to such middos, in terms of function. Both are caused by perception. And the problem you raise with attributes of G-d have the same answer as well.

    I already pointed you to the first of the Gra's 10 Kelalim. It would have forestalled this conversation.

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  48. I claim no expertise in kabbalah, or other matters (besides chemistry) on which I comment in the JBlog world. Then, again, I see little evidence of expertise from other commenters (there are a few exceptions). As to the matter at hand, while I am not well read in kabbalah and have little desire to gain expertise in that subject, I didn't simply dream up a connection between the kabbalistic 'sefirot' and the celestial spheres of medieval thought. There is a kabbalistic model of sefirot that consists of concentric circles with the outermost closest to the 'Ein Sof' conception of godliness and the innermost closest in connection to the earth and its beings. That is, indeed, reminiscent of the celestial spheres centered on earth. It's just that the latter is essentially a physical model, while the former is a mystic one.

    However, one interprets the sefirot and Partzufim, the association of a form of divinity with anthropomorphic terminology is problematic. It's one thing when the torah (and Ezekiel)does this; it's quite another when it is a product of human imagination without the benefit of a true prophetic experience. The torah insists on not creating imagery for the divine, "for you have not seen any image" (during the theophany at Mt. Sinai). Who permitted the authors of the dominant kabbalistic works to write in such manner.

    As to the Vilna Gaon's take on kabbalah, I would appreciate a link to his 10 principles. I knew that he had included kabbalah in his studies, but was unaware that he had written some exposition on the subject. I also note that R' Shneur Zalman had written about the Gra's objection to Hasidut, that the Gra didn't accept the Lurianic doctrines (or some doctrines). If so, then the Gra's views need not reflect mainstream kabbalistic thought.

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  49. http://www.hashkafacircle.com/Asarah_Klalim.pdf

    I am referring to Kelal 1, which places all of qabalah in the same realm as the Rambam's understanding of the middos of HQBH, "as refer exclusively to His works, viz., 'merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness,' etc., (Ex 34:6). It is therefore clear that the ways which Moses wished to know, and which G-d taught him, are the actions emanating from G-d. Our Sages call them middot (qualities), and speak of the 13 middoth of God (RH 17b)..." (Moreh 1:54, tr. Friedländer 1904)

    But I'm surprised you were unaware of the Gra's qabbalistic writings. Particularly if we include books written from notes by his students, such as the Peirush haGra on Mishlei; just check the intro and material through 1:1. Central, but harder to find, is his commentary on Sifra deTzni'usa, a section of the Zohar and often considered its core. (With introduction by R' Chaim Volozhiner.) Also on Tiqunei Zohar.

    There are multiple ways of visualizing the sefiros. Most common is the Eitz Chaim / ladder structure. A model of how the various middos interact. The partzufim, which are dynamics of interation, relate more to that.

    Yes, for someone who believed in astrology as a science, also seeing the sephiros as concentric circles made sense. But they're far from identified. An astrologer believed that Divine Influence reached earth via the mechanics of the heavens. ("Mazal tov" thus means something closer to "good fate" than "good luck", as it's all mechanical, not random.) So the alignment of the planets against the sphere of stars and each other would change how we experience that influence. The sephiros are about how that influence reaches and gives existence to the universe(s). Same model, related concepts, but modeling different things. Again, the spheres aren't metaphysical.

    But my original point wasn't to make Qabbalah look more rational. It was to show that Maimonidian rationalism isn't all that much more rational, nor is it even all that different. So getting back to that...

    The Rambam's angels are "higher" (in the Yesodei haTorah ch. 2 sense) than the Active Intellect, which is in turn higher than the spheres. Which would be modeled by a picture in which they are circles outside the universe -- just as mequbalim draw the sephiros. (Not that they actually believe the spheros have shape, location, etc... It's a model, a comprehension aid.)

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  50. Micha Berger, I haven't had the chance to review the material on Mishlei attributed to the Gra. In any case, my inadequate knowledge of kabbala should preclude my getting more involved in a debate on the subject. I will, therefore, accede to your apparent view that kabbala can be interpreted such as to preserve an essential divine unity without resorting to the rhetorical devices used by Christians to rationalize the Trinity. I still, however, refuse to sing the 'Askinu seudasas' composed by the Ari with their mention of inviting several 'divine' persona that appear to be envisaged as distinguishable entities.

    Perhaps, in the end, the non-rational aspects of the Rambam's writings and kabbala lie more in the subject matter. The Rambam dealt with halacha and used his analytic powers to organize and rationalize that vast corpus. The authority of the then accepted halacha is not questioned. He will deviate from talmudic norms, however, when it comes to auxiliary notions such as sheidim and astrology - both of which he resolutely rejects despite many references to such matters in the talmud. Kabbalists, in contrast, appear to use their imaginative powers to rationalize and vivify a corpus of mystic tradition. Here imagination is more important that analysis.

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  51. Without discussing the substance of Qabbalah, the Gra opens by saying it's a description of how G-d relates to and appears to man. So, the 10 sephiros are no more (or less) an issue as are the 13 Middos haRachamim or any of the attributes of the Moreh 1:54. It's "just" a more complex system for analyzing His Appearance to man, not a more problematic one.

    Personally, I think Qabbalah is superfluous. The general rule is that if something is necessary to becoming a better Jew, we reveal it -- even if that information may be misunderstood and mislead others. "Darkhei H' yesharim, zadiqim yeilkhu vam, ufosh'im yikashlu vam -- The ways of G-d are straight, the righteous will walk in them, and the sinners will trip up on them." (Hosheia' 14:10) So, if some portion of Torah could be set aside as nistar, and only for the few, doesn't that imply I don't need to worry about it to be as good of a Jew as I am capable of being?

    So personally, I live my life as a rationalist; this is one of the things that attracted me to Mussar. But I leave the door open for eilu va'eilu, that the mequbalim aren't /wrong/; just looking at things from a different angle than what appeals to me.

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