Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Learning Torah: Rationalism vs. Mysticism

One difference between the rationalist and non-rationalist/ mystical approaches to Judaism is in 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. 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 past, I have mentioned several examples of this. One is the mitzvah of mezuzah. For the rationalist Rishonim, mezuzah serves only to remind one of one’s duties to God; whereas with the rise of mysticism came the idea that it also serves as a metaphysical protective device for the home. Another example is netilas yadayim. For the rationalist Rishonim, the mitzvah of washing one’s hands in the morning serves only hygienic and psychological purposes, whereas with the rise of mysticism came the idea that one is removing harmful spiritual forces. A third and potent example is the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, sending away the mother bird before taking the eggs. For the rationalist Rishonim, this was all about practicing compassion, whereas with the rise of mysticism came the idea that it is all  about engineering a celestial process involving angels and God.

But there is another mitzvah in which the difference between the two schools of thought is reflected, and it's perhaps the most significant of all: the mitzvah of learning Torah.

For the rationalist Rishonim, learning Torah serves to increase one's knowledge, and to refine one's character, via moral lessons and learning the commandments. (See my post on The Rishonim on Torah Study.) That is it, and that is all. Which is not, of course, to trivialize these functions - from a rationalist perspective, this is of immense importance!

With the rise of mysticism, on the other hand, came a new and primary function of Torah study. As  expressed by R. Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim, the primary function of Torah study was now seen as being to metaphysically sustain the universe, via the creation of spiritual "worlds." (See my post on The Goal of Torah Study.)

The ramifications of this difference are vast and far-reaching, affecting everything from one's study curriculum to the value and role of kollel. I plan to explore this in future posts. Meanwhile, chag same'ach, and for readers in Canada, here is my schedule over the next week:

Shavuos - Beth Zion in Montreal
Shabbos - Zichron Yisrael in Toronto
Sunday morning, 9am - "The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought" - at Shaarei Tefillah
Monday evening - Parlor meeting, relating to the Encyclopedia and Museum - please email me if you are interested in attending.

59 comments:

  1. "Rationalists understand the purpose of mitzvos... Mystics...see their primary function..."

    Wrong.

    Rationalist and Mystics traditionally agree the primary function of our performing Mitzvos is following Hashem's will.
    Hashem can perform any function himself.

    This was clearly the view of Misnagdim (Case in point: Reb Moshe switched אתה צוויתנו לספור וכו' כדי לטהרנו to ולטהרנו)

    I hope to bring more sources. Also Halchik Man באריכות

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  2. You are confusing the motivating reason for observing a mitzvah, with the function of the mitzvah. Following Hashem's will is not a "function" of a mitzvah; it's a reason for doing it.

    There is undeniably a huge difference between rationalists and mystics regarding the function. Just look at all the explanations given with mezuzah, netilas yadayim, and shiluach hakein.

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  3. It's hard to over-state just how much influence mysticism has had in the past 800 years.
    For the early Kabbalists, it was the study of actual mysticism - the Zohar, for example - that led to mystical benefits; whereas studying a sugya of Talmud would not.
    But that idea caught on so completely, that later Rabbis extol the mystical benefits of a plain reading of any text.

    But I don't see the big difference between studying Torah & other mitzvot. The gap between mystics & rationalists is almost too large to bridge. They're on different planets.

    I recently pointed out to someone that for Rambam, all the laws of tumah & tahora have nothing to do with any "real" impurity. In the Guide he states that the reason is to (deliberately) keep most of the people tam'e most of the time - for the express purpose of keeping them out of the Temple, or sanctuary. (lest over-familiarity lead to a loss of reverence)
    This person absolutely refused to believe the Rambam could write such a thing, because he could not fathom any other mind-set, other than one which assumes the existence of tum'ah.

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  4. from my understanding the mystic view is not in contrast to that of the rationalist but rather subsumes it.

    Meaning, the mystic would agree to each of the purposes outlined by the rationalist, but would layer the mystical perspective on top of that.

    I don't understand why the two perspectives need to be portrayed as opposing one another

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  5. You are correct that the mystic would agree to each of the purposes outlined by the rationalist, but would layer the mystical perspective on top of that.
    But the two approaches are still deeply in opposition. Because from the rationalist perspective, the mystical functions are not true. And from the mystical perspective, the rationalist functions are not the primary ones.

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  6. Your refrain, "with the rise of mysticism" doesn't fit the fact that the Bahir predates the Moreh Nevuchim.

    And for that matter, the rationalism of the Rambam's era wasn't that far from the mystics. Certainly to a modern reader, the Naoplatonism of Hilkhos Yesodei haTorah 2:4-10 reads like mysticism.

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  7. Isaacson - To some extent you ere correct, but it has real ramifications in how it's applied.

    For example with Metzisah B'Peh the rationalist will point out it was obviously seen as a health benefit. The mystic will usually respond with "That's fine (sometimes derisively) but here's the deeper meaning..." and then continue on with some explanation of how it saves the child from mankind's original sin.

    Now as the rationalist, you have a choice, do you give credit to the mystic's claim or not? If you do, you might kill your next baby boy. If you don't you're now at loggerheads with them over a practice they deem essential to the mitzvah.

    There are both hashkafic and practical differences that come out from the different approaches.

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  8. AHG, I disagree. If you hold it's mandatory lehalakhah, then you minimize the risk to your kid, but you do it. If you hold metzitzah need not be done bepeh (Chasam Sofer), or at least not directly (RSRHirsch, RYESpektor), then you don't. Even if you like all those deep mystical connotations about beris and the eitz hadaas and therefore requiring the mouth for the tiqun the beris is supposed to cause, if it's not obligatory you would have to forgo them.

    Hashkafah doesn't drive halakhah any more for people with mystical hashkafos than for those with rationalist ones.

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  9. If I remember correctly, in the Guide, Rambam discusses the symmetry between actions in the sublunar sphere with those in heaven. He also understood the stars to be angels in heaven. It was not until Galileo's time, that it was fully appreciated that the same physical processes that occur in the sublunar sphere (here on earth) govern the objects in "heaven".

    We can only speculate that Rambam would have accepted the scientific understanding that the stars and everything we see in the sky are physical objects governed by physical laws, and that they do not affect what happens on earth (except by physical processes).

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  10. RSD: In Aristo's universe, the planets do run on the same rules as things down on earth. The difference is that intellect was more central to his physics, and therefore the spheres -- which are below angels, not angels, and in which the sun, moon and stars are embedded, not the orbs themselves -- had to have intellects. Or else the motion would have run out by now.

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  11. Micha, I understand what you are saying. However, my impression (based in part by posts on this blog) is that those who hold it's l'chatchilah are influenced by the mystical reasoning in reaching their position. The plain reading is that it was a medical remedy. To require it, l'chatchilah, requires overcoming the plain reading the Talmud and understanding of some (many?) Rishonim.

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  12. the rationalist lives an unappealing boring life . the mystic lives an appealing ,exciting life.

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  13. There's another important rational (as you define it) basis for Torah study: there should always be Jews around who know the Gemara, know the halacha, know all the esoteric parts. Nothing should be forgotten, even the laws that only apply when the Beis HaMikdash is standing.

    It pains me that we are no longer certain where techeiles comes from. Nothing else should be lost.

    So there's a reason why we should have a bunch of people in kollel. Not everyone, not like the current hareidi system, but a lot of people studying.

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  14. There is mysticism and there is mysticism. Unfortunately, we don't have very good words for the distinctions.

    A lot of what we are calling mysticism here is simple folk magic. Some examples are specially blessed rings which bring luck and fears that skirts which fall three inches below the knee will cause earthquakes and hurricanes.

    There's also superstition in its most accurate sense, putting layers on top of things, generally layers pulled out of thin air or some less polite repository.

    Then there's the Evil Magic. The idea that by reciting an incantation or wearing an amulet you can force the Master of the Universe to do your will is at best presumptuous. At worst it is blasphemous.

    Finally we have the good stuff. Mysticism as a method for transforming the practitioner, improving perception, changing perspective in useful ways and bringing him or her into better alignment with the Divine. It is generally rigorous, often difficult and demands more than obedience and rules. The risks are great, but so is the goal.

    I've met Buddhists, old-school meditative Kabbalists, Sufis, Franciscans and others. They all have something in common which I cannot express but which stands out once it's been seen. As G. K. Chesterton put it in the Father Brown stories:

    "I should hardly have thought, sir," he said, "that you had any quarrel with mystical explanations"
    "On the contrary," replied Father Brown, blinking amiably at him. "That's just why I quarrel with 'em. Any sham lawyer could bamboozle me, but he couldn't bamboozle you; because you're a lawyer yourself. Any fool could dress up as a Red indian and I'd swallow him whole as the only original Hiawatha; but Mr. Crake could see through him at once. A swindler could pretend to me that he knew all about aeroplanes, but not to Captain Wain. And it's just the same with the other, don't you see? It's just because I have picked up a little about mystics that I have no use for mystagogues. Real mystics don't hide mysteries, they reveal them. They set a thing up in broad daylight, and when you've seen it it's still a mystery. But the mystagogues hide a thing in darkness and secrecy, and when you find it, it's a platitutde."

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  15. Dynamic Weight Loss, if you need superstition and self-aggrandizing gurus to lead an "appealing, exciting life" I pity you. The world is already wonderful and fascinating.

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  16. I believe that mysticism is an earnest attempt at keeping Jewish practice relevant.

    Take the laws of Kashrut, for example. Rationalists (such as the Rambam, among others) hold that the laws of Kosher are there to protect us from physical harm/illness.

    However, we now know that the animals forbidden to us are no more likely to cause illness than those permitted. If we hold by Rambam's logic, there's no reason to continue denying yourself pork.

    But we still think it's important to keep kosher, and we need a rationale more meaningful than 'because Hashem says so'.

    We can't use modern science to justify it, because then we're falling into the same trap Rambam did, and our teshuvos will inevitable become irrelevant/wrong as science progresses.

    So we invent explanations that are immune from scientific inquiry, and thus sustainable, and we call that 'mysticism'.

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  17. the terms rationalist / mystic are totally misleading. no one was able to dissect a gemara in rational, logical manner as the ramban. same thing with his perush on the chumash. even when he introduces sod, it wasn't because he was being irrational, he simply thought that sod gave a better, or even needed pshat.

    the data base of the mystics included material not used by philosophers, or non-mystics. but many of these mystics (rav chaim of volozhin included) were rational as one can be.

    (assuming that any of us are rational (freud, lizard brain, drives, etc)).

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  18. I have enjoyed your blog for a long time, but this is my first comment.

    Torah study is probably the area in judaism where the mystical approach has to made the incumbent approach.

    For instance ones study of the long list of "Alufei Edom" in sefer Bereshit can not serve any practical or moral benefit to the individual or society.

    Unless you say that the study of Torah itself has an existential (mystical) affect on the universe(s) as detailed in Nefesh HaChaim.


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  19. Micha Berger said...
    Your refrain, "with the rise of mysticism" doesn't fit the fact that the Bahir predates the Moreh Nevuchim.

    The mystics believe the mystical secrets of the Zohar and the Kisvei Arizal were given by Hashem to Moshe on Har Sinai and passed down from rebbe to talmid before they were published. They do not believe the Arizal and the Baal Shem Tov made everything up.

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  20. Micha Berger said...
    Your refrain, "with the rise of mysticism" doesn't fit the fact that the Bahir predates the Moreh Nevuchim.

    The mystics believe the mystical secrets of the Zohar and the Kisvei Arizal were given by Hashem to Moshe on Har Sinai and passed down from rebbe to talmid before they were published. They do not believe the Arizal and the Baal Shem Tov made everything up.

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  21. Micha wrote: " In Aristo's universe, the planets do run on the same rules as things down on earth."

    Micha: According to Aristotle, in the space between the moon and the earth, the sublunar sphere, matter was changeable and corruptible. The space outside this sphere was filled with aether, also called quintessence or the fifth element. In that space above the sublunary sphere "matter" was unchanging and incorruptible.

    My main point was that Rambam's rationality was in many ways quite different from what we would call rationality. He freely intertwined what we would call "spiritual" with the physical. He saw no division between the two, except perhaps his concept of G-d as incorporeal.

    It is a fascinating question of how Rambam would have come to grips with the (real) burgeoning science of the late 16th century, five hundred years after he passed away. We can only guess.

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  22. "You are confusing the motivating reason for observing a mitzvah, with the function of the mitzvah..."

    1) If we know the primary function of the Mitzvah then how would that would differ from our motivation.

    2) You haven't addressed my point about the objection from Rav Moshe - a non-rationalist-- to saying
    אתה צויתנו לספור ספירת העומר כדי לטהרנו
    and instead switched to ולטהרנו. This clearly referring to the function not motivation.
    (I even found Chabad source (!) taking issue with כדי לטהרנו for this very reason:
    hebrewbooks.org/pagefeed/hebrewbooks_org_15018_1797.pdf)

    Moreover you write "Mystics agree that mitzvos provide intellectual and moral benefits, but see their primary function as performing mechanistic manipulations of spiritual or celestial forces"

    I don't think it's a fair representation; just because mystics affirm Mitzvos can work through a non-materialistic
    medium, doesn't mean it's not to provide "intellectual and moral benefit."

    After all I doubt you believe in materialism - and surely Judaism doesn't - then what's the big deal to say that the effects may also work through a "metaphysical" medium?

    Also do you believe the Torah's stated reason's for Mitzvos like not eating blood are about physical things?

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  23. AHG: There is indication in the gemara that metzitzah is part of milah. When a milah is done on shabbos, and the mohel left some strips of flesh that aren't sufficient to invalidate the milah, the mohel can only go back to trim on shabbos while the milah is not yet complete. This includes milah, peri'ah and metzitzah, but not bandaging or medicating. The plain meaning of the gemara is that metzitzah is more like milah itself than a medical step.

    And this is why the Chasam Sofer still required metzitzah; he said it didn't need to be oral. And R' Hirsch and R' YE Spektor (et al) even required metzitzah bepeh; their ruling is that "bepeh" doesn't require direct contact - sucking via a pipette is sufficient.

    The gemara does say that a mohel that skips metzitzah risks the life of the baby and should be retired. But it does not say that the only reason for metzitzah is such risk. I think that misimpression is created by the fact that bedi'eved, a child who had a beris without metzitzah is not an areil. But still, as we see in hilkhos Shabbos, the mitzvah was not done to completion. Allowing the child to partake in a qorban pesach simply requires less than the full mitzvah.

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  24. I wrote: Your refrain, "with the rise of mysticism" doesn't fit the fact that the Bahir predates the Moreh Nevuchim.

    "Moshe Laymor" replied: The mystics believe the mystical secrets of the Zohar and the Kisvei Arizal were given by Hashem to Moshe on Har Sinai and passed down from rebbe to talmid before they were published. They do not believe the Arizal and the Baal Shem Tov made everything up.

    First, my point was to reply to the self-declared Rationalist Jew. Which means referring to the earliest date he cannot deny. Not what the qabbalistically inclined believe.

    Second, you are mistaken about the believed source fo qabbalah. The Zohar is said to have been written by R' Shimon bar Yochai from what he was taught by Eliyahu haNavi. The Ari wrote that he was a gilgul of Rashbi, and also visited by Eliyahu. The Besh"t is said to have learned his derekh from Achiyah haShiloni. This notion of later reveletation is because it is agreed that more inheres in Qabbalah than was taught at Sinai.

    The question is if that's a problem. After all, chiddush is common. I can accept that R' Chaim Brisker found a new way of modeling ideas inherent in the Rambam (and gemara and other rishonim) that is both an accurate description of what their teachings imply and yet also unknown to the Rambam himself. The rulings reflect a perspective on the truth, and I can describe a truth in different ways than its discoverer. So why can't I say the same thing about the accumulation of aggadic ideas?

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  25. Mystics agree that mitzvos provide intellectual and moral benefits, but see their primary function as performing mechanistic manipulations of spiritual or celestial forces.

    While this seems to be correct in general, "mechanistic manipulations" sound exaggerated and a bit condescending.

    I think that most mystics do not believe that mitzvos have a deterministic effect in the upper worlds in a way similar to classical mechanical forces, although the latter often serve as moshalim for lack of better analogies.

    For all but perhaps a queer fringe of diehard formalist mystics, doing mitzvos is not analogous to simple pulling of levers and pressing buttons, and there are spiritual and intellectual components like kavanah not quantifiable in this way.

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  26. I would be most curious readers of this Blog think the effect on the world was of serving Hashem through the Korbonos in the Beit Hamikdosh. Was this not the primary and intended way of serving Hashem, first in the Mishkan later in the Beit Hamikdosh?

    Since the destruction of the Second Temple, learning has taken the place of making a Korbon. But if we pray, as we do every day for the return of the Temple service, what function, rational or mystical, does that service provide that we cannot attain without it?

    Also, why do we mourn every year on Tish B'Av? It is a mourning for national destruction or for the loss of performing the Korbanot? If the latter, then we are back to question of the purpose of that service and why learning Torah does or does not completely replace it.

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  27. "Mystics agree that mitzvos provide intellectual and moral benefits, but see their primary function as performing mechanistic manipulations of spiritual or celestial forces."

    How about the reverse? Meaning: Can you think of any rationalist for whom the following statement is true?: "I, a Rationalist, agree that mitzvos can be done to mechanistically manipulate spiritual or celestial forces, but I see their primary function as providing intellectual and moral benefits." (Or: "I think it's more useful for people to think of mitzvos in this rationalist way, so I basically ignore the mystical way.")

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  28. Rav Slifkin,
    You write that with the "rise of mysticism" people began to believe that Netilat Yadayim removes harmful spiritual forces. Isn't this concept explicit within the Gemara when it speaks of ruach ra'ah? I understand that Rambam disregarded these gemarot as aggada, but seemingly the Talmud is leaning towards the mystical side.

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  29. Phil asked if I could picture someone saying (ver. 2): ""I think it's more useful for people to think of mitzvos in this rationalist way, so I basically ignore the mystical way."

    That's me to a T. I figure that if we needed toras nistar (esoteric Torah) in order to be good Jews, our sages wouldn't have cordoned it off as esoteric. We do not hide something necessary for the sake of those who might shoot themselves in the foot. "K-i yesharim darkhei H', vetzadiqim yeilchu vam ufosh'im yikashelu vam -- ... for the ways of Hashem are straight, and the righteous will walk in them, and the sinners will stumble in them." (End of Hosheia; see its application in AZ 54b)

    I think it or the 1st version were also the position that dominated Lithuania in the latter half of the 19th cent through the extermination of the community. They couldn't deny the notion of Qabbalah, which is so central to the Vilna Gaon's and R' Chaim Volozhiner's writings. But it didn't figure in daily life or discussion, either.

    And acting in order to obtain something through Qabbalistic means is considered by Lithuanian posqim to be a violation of "tamim tihyeh im H' E-lokekh -- be whole[-heartedly] with Hashem your G-d." (Devarim 18:13)

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  30. I am Fennster:
    "There's another important rational (as you define it) basis for Torah study: there should always be Jews around who know the Gemara, know the halacha, know all the esoteric parts. Nothing should be forgotten, even the laws that only apply when the Beis HaMikdash is standing.

    It pains me that we are no longer certain where techeiles comes from. Nothing else should be lost."

    I do not want to be rude, but this is completely wrongheaded. In order to believe the identity of the hilazon is uncertain you have to argue one fo the following:
    - The real Hilazon existed alongside the Murex Trunculus, in the same pleace, producing the same dye, but Hazal never once mentioned that Murex Trunculus was not a valid source of tekheleth.
    - The real hilazon has disappeared and another creature - the Murex trunculus - has amerged in the same pleace producing the same dye and, at some point, archaeological evidence was forged suggesting otherwise.

    Therefore NO HALFWAY REASONABLE PERSON WHO KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT DENIES THAT THE MUREX TRUNCLUS IS THE HILAZON.

    The arguments agains it are:
    - The Zohar says the hilazon comes from the Galilee (Answer: so what? The Zohar was written by medieval Spanish mystics. The Gemara says it comes from the Med. No dye producing creatures can live in both salt and fresh water.
    - Even though the Torah says we should wear tekheleth, we shouldn't because, err, tradition and kabbalah and stuff. (Answer: this view is literally kefirah).
    - The people who wear Tekheleth are not b'nei Torah (Sinath Hinam)
    - The Gedolei haDor don't wear it! (Minuth)
    - But the Rambam says it has black ink! (Clearly he was wrong)
    - Rashi says it is a worm! (Clearly, he was wrong)
    - Various lame arguments agains the identity (Answer: see the overwhelming implausibility of these arguments as explained above)

    And yet most "observant" Jews are mevatel misswath ssissith on a daily basis. Clearly the Kollel system isn't working, indeed it seems to turns peoples' brains to mush and render them incapable of assessing facts and rational argument. Further, it imbues its products with deeply questionable hashkafoth that lead them to openly flout the Torah in the name of being frum.

    To sum up:
    1) The Hilazon was lost not because there were not enough people learning, but because the Byzantine and Arabic empires successively trashed the region so comprehensively that the trade fell apart.
    2) It was rediscovered by modern orthodox people using a combination of science, archaelogy and Torah study.
    3) Not only could it never have been rediscovered by people learning in kollel, they won't even accept it, showing the total bankruptness of their system and philosophy.

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  31. As a BT, rationalism is what kept me afloat during my gap year in Aish.
    Once i became orthodox 24/7 and i began learning mishnayoth kodshim and taharoth, with all the connected intricate halachoth, i matured and realised rationalism can indeed explain the basic ideas in Judaism like you correctly point out in your monograph on mezuza, but for the vast majority of Torah (especially the fine laws of kodashim & Taharoth) rationalism has very little to say.

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  32. Isn't it obvious that if alive today, Rambam would have no problem with modern physics, just as in his life he had no problem with aristotle. Aristotle was the best available "science" at that time. Rambam says himself that much of it is conjecture and not proven in an empirical sense (only "proven" philosophically). He says so about aristotle's belief in eternity of the world. The idea that a Rambam born today would somehow still be stuck on an outdated and clearly wrong system of aristotelian metaphysics is a complete joke. That notion that he would be stems from antirationalist thought processes. It's similar to telling me that if a member of chazal was born today somehow, he would still insist that spontaneously developing dirt mice exist. Because the 'science' and conventional wisdom of the masses that informed that belief in the 3rd century has some kind of intrinsic value and must be true. what a laugh.

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  33. Interestingly, a mystical view of Torah study as maintaining the universe doesn't necessarily lead to lifelong kollel and an aversion to secular learning. After all, the plain meaning of Pirkei Avot 2:2 is that Torah alone (not combined with work) will lead to sin. So if things had gone a little differently, I could see people putting greater emphasis on that, so that it's seen as a wondrously great and holy thing to combine work and a regular schedule of daily learning, such that it's on a vastly higher spiritual level than just learning Torah or just working. After all, if Torah study sustains all the worlds, it should do so more effectively if it's done the way Chazal said we should do it in Pirkei Avot!

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  34. Wouldn't the rationalists agree that ultimately that Moshiach will come once the Jewish people as a whole are doing enough mitzvot? Isn't that the basic pshat of the universal Orthodox hashkafa regarding Moshiach -- that he will come when the Jewish people do teshuvah and fulfill the commandments? If so, then even under the rationalist view each mitzvah really does have some ultimate significance, because it brings us closer to Moshiach and could theoretically be the last mitzvah to weigh the scales toward redemption. In that case, perhaps really all the mystics are doing is adding a lot of detail on top of that.

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  35. Student V writes: Isn't it obvious that if alive today, Rambam would have no problem with modern physics, just as in his life he had no problem with aristotle. Aristotle was the best available "science" at that time.

    I wouldn't take that for granted. Aristo's thought was 1,500 years old, unchallenged, and Natural Philosophy, not science. By the time the Rambam gets on the scene, it was accepted by the educated as the truth obtained by reason.

    Science is open to constant advance -- no one theory ever gets the level of confidence Aristotle did in the Rambam's day. And its results are proven by experiment, not by arguments that make those conclusions appear inevitable from a priori givens.

    So I really don't know if the Rambam would engage in a parallel project to the Moreh Nevuchim if he were alive today. Of course, the whole hypothetical doesn't work; being alive today would change the Rambam's perspective on so many issues, the person in question wouldn't be the Rambam.

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  36. Gerald.

    Rambam explains that point in Moreh Nevuhim. The laws of kodashim and taharot in the broad sense exist for comprehensible reasons. The fine details do not have comprehensible reasons, indeed they don't have any real reasons, but since the Torah is a system of laws then all the fine points have to be specified in one way or another. If memory serves he uses the example of shechitah. What matters is that we kill animals in a civilized, humane and hygeinic way; it doesn't really matter how. But from the many possible options Hashem could have picked, he picked the ones he did and that is the law and we have to learn it.

    To take another example I have seen on this blog (I think). Everyone understands the reason for speed limits on roads - no mysticism is required. But why should someone travelling at 49 m/h on a given road get away with it and someone at 50 m/h have their license confiscated. There is no "rational" reason why this should be, so presumably it must be the case that travelling at 50 m/h must cause all sorts of bad ramifications in the celestial spheres. But we all know this is not so, there has to be a limit and, to a certain extent, the limit chosen is random.

    Indeed if you look into, say, the law of parking tickets you will discover all sorts of loopholes, technicalities, details etc. that clever lawyers can use to get clients off the hook. Many of these have no rational basis when viewed in isolation and are really just arbitrary choices; no-one assumes they must therefore have great mystical siginificance unless they are mentally ill. That is just how law works and the Torah is a law.

    ***
    The real reason why mysticism became popular is because many laws in the Torah really do have no point in a situation of galuth; they are only meaingful in the context of a sovereign nation living in the land of Israel, with their own institutional religious framework. "Mystical" reasons for, say arba minim, sefirath haomer etc. were really just a way to keep them relevant. The problem is that, on the one hand, mysticism contunually throws up heterodox and antinomian movements and, on the other, it repels a significant proportion of the Jewish population who find it laughable and inane. The deleterious effect it has had on Judaism is almost impossible to overstate.

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  37. After Yeudah's comment, I'm interested in to whether Rabbi Slifkin wears techelet in his tzitzis--I don't know if he has written about it in the past.

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  38. Yehuda said,"The problem is that, on the one hand, mysticism contunually throws up heterodox and antinomian movements and, on the other, it repels a significant proportion of the Jewish population who find it laughable and inane. The deleterious effect it has had on Judaism is almost impossible to overstate."

    In the aftermath of Shabbetai Tzvi and the Frankists, I don't think anyone would take a spiritual figure seriously if that leader possessed a broad knowledge of kabbalah, but didn't strictly adhere to halachah as well.

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  39. "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."

    There is another way the mystics reasons, and why the rationalists prevail in truth.

    Lets take for example techeleth. One of the Torah's great mysteries.

    If we look back at how something was dyed 3000 years ago we will see that dye was derived from natural sources.

    Techeleth is the Hebrew word for blue. Being that there were no dye factories in those days, the blue dye was taken from the only available source, which happen to be the blood of some sort of fish.

    This practice was handed down from generation to generation until this source for the blue dye was no longer available.

    The mystic believes the blue dye must come from the same source.

    He reasons that the blood from that fish has some kind of mystical power, and this is what our God wants.

    If not why did our ancestors use it.

    But the rationalist sees it as it is, that there is no doubt that blue means BLUE. The Torah is talking about color only, and says if the Torah wanted us to use the dye from a certain source it would had said so, or if coming from Sinai as oral law, and Moshe would have deemed it important, i.e. a must, the Rabbis would have been more clear about it's source as they had been on other rulings.
    o

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  40. Ze'ev, while adherence to basic traditional beliefs is not a strictly rationalist viewpoint, it need not be irrational, either. The belief in the coming of a messianic era is one such belief. It is an optimistic view which is not reflected in current reality, but need not be irrational. The messianic era is treated rationally by the Rambam who discounts the literal interpretion of both the words of the prophets and the sages. He agrees, instead, with the Amora, Shmuel, that the basic difference between that age and the past and current ones is political independence and the vast increase in torah knowledge and ideology.

    The rationalists among us would not assume that a certain number of mitzvot will bring about that era. The consensus of the sages appears to be that the messianic era will come about in due time regardless of human activity, or sooner than that if the generation is deemed worthy. Worthiness is not a function of the number of mitzvot accumulated over the generations.

    In any case, mitzvot should be performed for their perceived intrinsic value or because we are so commanded - not because they will hasten the messianic era. It is presumptuous for an individual to make such an assumption. Hence, I never say the 'lesheim yichuds' that are printed in siddurim.

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  41. Misha, it surprises me that you entirely misinterpreted my comments.

    "Aristo's thought was 1,500 years old, unchallenged, and Natural Philosophy, not science. By the time the Rambam gets on the scene, it was accepted by the educated as the truth obtained by reason."

    I know that it was not science, which is why I used "science" in quotation marks. Today, the scientific method trumps "reason" because it is an empirical way to test hypotheses rather than a philosophy which is theoretical (as much as it may be based on reason and the intellect). The Rambam sought the truth in the best available method in his day - philosophical reason. Supposing he was raised from the dead today and put on earth right now, he would seek the truth about the cosmos in the best way it can be derived currently (modern physics) and would reject ideas of Aristotle he once accepted which are now proven undoubtedly false. He would not still insist that the stars are sentient. To say that he would is really an insult to him, IMO.

    "Science is open to constant advance -- no one theory ever gets the level of confidence Aristotle did in the Rambam's day."

    This is just false. In addition to crafting theories on uncertain subjects still being explored, science also establishes facts. Facts established by science are "accepted by the educated as the truth" today, just as Aristotle's view was once accepted by the educated as true. (or at least those who weren't platonists?)

    "And its results are proven by experiment, not by arguments that make those conclusions appear inevitable from a priori givens."

    Which is all the more reason their results should be accepted by any rational person, all the more so by a rational person who in his day accepted philosophical conclusions that were made inevitable by a priori reasoned "givens." If I have a choice between physical data and proof vs. hypothetical reasoning, it's an easy choice.

    "So I really don't know if the Rambam would engage in a parallel project to the Moreh Nevuchim if he were alive today."

    Why would he stick with something obviously untrue? Does that seem consistent with his personality? I'm saying it's inconsistent with who he was.

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  42. Isaac says "Lets take for example techeleth. One of the Torah's great mysteries.

    If we look back at how something was dyed 3000 years ago we will see that dye was derived from natural sources.

    Techeleth is the Hebrew word for blue. Being that there were no dye factories in those days, the blue dye was taken from the only available source, which happen to be the blood of some sort of fish."

    Isaac virtually everything you stated is incorrect. There were major factories to process the dye in ancient Phonecia. The original source is not from a fish, but from a snail called the Trunculex Murex. The process was well known and was written about my many contemproary sources. Additionally, it was not the only source of blue dye. Indigo was another source of blue dye and was also used as a countefeit substitute for Techeilet.

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  43. Yehuda P.
    "In the aftermath of Shabbetai Tzvi and the Frankists, I don't think anyone would take a spiritual figure seriously if that leader possessed a broad knowledge of kabbalah, but didn't strictly adhere to halachah as well"

    Sleeping in the Sukkah is halacha you know.

    Isaac
    "But the rationalist sees it as it is, that there is no doubt that blue means BLUE. The Torah is talking about color only, and says if the Torah wanted us to use the dye from a certain source it would had said so, or if coming from Sinai as oral law, and Moshe would have deemed it important, i.e. a must, the Rabbis would have been more clear about it's source as they had been on other rulings."

    Isaac, the most you can prove is that "tekhelet" means indigo, there is no philological reason to assume that other shades of blue are included. You are simply being anachronisitc. Further, I think it is reasonable to assume that the reason we are supposed to have a tekhleth string has something to do with its status as a rare dysetuff generally used for royalty, as well as its - at the time - incomparable status as a bright dye that did not fade. We don't really know if plant indigo i.e. 'kala ilan' had quite the same qualities at the time of hazal, because of the way it was produced. The chemical tests in the bavli woud indicate otherwise.

    That said I believe that when we set up a Sanhedrin I believe that they will permit indigo (not "blue) from synthetic and perhaps even plant sources. Currently, though, the ruling of Hazal is unambiguous and we don't have the authority to change it.

    Further the reason that the Rabbis did not go into more detail about the identity of the Hilazon is simply because when they were writing to find out what it was all you had to do was rock up to Haifa and say "hey guys can you show me a Hilazon", it was the only creature in the entire world that made such a dye. Your whole argument is moot.

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  44. I would like to address some prejudice:

    "And yet most "observant" Jews are mevatel misswath ssissith on a daily basis. Clearly the Kollel system isn't working, indeed it seems to turns peoples' brains to mush and render them incapable of assessing facts and rational argument."

    "It was rediscovered by modern orthodox people using a combination of science, archaelogy and Torah study.
    Not only could it never have been rediscovered by people learning in kollel, they won't even accept it, showing the total bankruptness of their system and philosophy."

    YOU ARE DEAD WRONG!


    The person who brought back Tchelet and founded Amutat Ptil Tkhelet is Rav Elyahu Tavger, a Chareidi from Kiryat Sefer.

    According to the Ptil website:
    "His involvement with tekhelet began in his kollel studies during which time he published his first work on tekhelet in the Journal Moria." He did not have a formal secular education but it's because of his work that we have a viable chemical reduction process to mass produce Tekhelet.

    Furthermore, in my humble opinion, the Chareidi works on Tekhelet are by far more superior and thorough paying close attention to every detail in chazal and halachik argument.

    See for example Sefer Lualot Tchelet
    Chotam Shel Zahav
    [tekhelet.com/pdf/chotam.pdf]
    Mitzvat Tchelet Bizmanenu
    [tchelet-net.022.co.il]
    Lvush Ha'aron
    [tekhelet.com/pdf/hellmann.pdf]

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  45. Yehuda said,"Sleeping in the Sukkah is halacha you know."

    The Rebbe's sichah (Likkutei Sichos Vol. 9) about not sleeping in the sukkah was to explain why chassidim were so careful not to eat or drink outside the sukkah, but weren't so makpid about sleeping in the sukkah. I think the interpretation that it's an instruction definitively not to sleep in the sukkah, is somewhat misled (there were Chabad chassidim that slept in the sukkah even in Russia--for example, my wife's great-grandfather, R. Meir Simchah Chein, o.b.m.: he had a room of his house specially constructed for the purpose).

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  46. Correction to my previous comment: the Rebbe's discussion about not sleeping in the sukkah is in Vol. 29 of Likkutei Sichos, not Vol. 9, as I stated previously.
    Vol. 9 has a discussion of a similar Chabad idiosyncrasy, of not (necessarily) making hamotzi for seudah shlishis. This is somewhat related to the subject of the post: a mystical consideration (about the kedushah of the time of Shabbos Afternoon, or the kedushah of the Sukkah) is used to rule in a halachic matter. But the mitzva of sukkah, or eating seudah shlishis, was in no way being uprooted, as the Rebbe's detractors claimed.

    I think you'll agree that this is a far cry from the perversions of Shabbetai Tzvi--where performing issurim like eating cheilev or eating on Yom Kippur, was deemed a meritorious act, based on false mystical premises. (Also, the fact that people are so sensitive to pick up on eccentric things like that, prove my point.)

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  47. gh 500.

    I retract. Although the basic point that the Haredi world rejects tekheleth for spurious reasons, thus calling into question the value of their studies still stands.

    Yehuda P.

    I don't retract. There is a diifference, but it's a (big) difference of degree, not of kind and it's not just lubavitch.

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  48. gh 500,

    I personally wear murex dyed strings, but I think you overstate the case.

    1- Halakhah is a legal system, not a fact-finding mission. It could well be that we could no something is true, and yet it is not a valid piece of the legal process for interpreting or establishing law.

    2- The Amutah's argument has weeknesses. First, we have Rashi saying tekheiles is yaroq (anywhere from yellow to aqua) and the Rambam saying its black. We don't know what color tekheiles ought to match.

    Their explanation of "gufo domeh layam" (that it gets fouled and look like the seabed) would be true of any sea snail, and thus not an identifying feature.

    The evidence of murex dying plants is explained by their use for purple. There is no proof our ancestors knew that with enough sunlight it would turn out blue.

    Etc....

    I am not convinced enough of these counter-arguments to save adding $70+ to each pair of tzitzis I buy, but to say its open-and-shut is overkill. Someone can legitimately disagree on either of these points and more. You don't need to assume bias, politics or error in order to disagree.

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  49. Another reply to Yehuda:
    In the 60s and 70s, a lot of people--including Jews-- were attracted to Eastern religions, and all their emphasis on meditation and the spiritual. The Rebbe said then that we should try to develop a Jewish form of meditation, to somehow quench the thirst of those Jews who are going astray because they feel the version of Judaism they're familiar with is too institutionalized and not spiritual enough.

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  50. Yehuda P. wrote: The Rebbe said then that we should try to develop a Jewish form of meditation...

    (I assume you mean the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, given your avitar. I since found these words on chabadworld.net": In 1979, the Lubavitcher Rebbe addressed the growing popularity of meditation and suggested that a kosher form of meditation be developed for those who ...)

    I doubt this is worded the way RMMS would have. Your rebbe well knew that the Ba'al Shem Tov wrote frequently about the importance of meditation, and the Mittler Rebbe had worked out a whole system of meditation.

    Why would he speak of inventing anew something that sounds like a bedi'eved for those who would otherwise leave Yahadus ch"b, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe had Qunterus haHispaalus iand Shaar haYichud in his arsenal?

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  51. Micha Berger

    2) Rashi never saw Tekhelet and nor did the Rambam. we know exactly what colour tekhleth is since it is the same as Kala Ilan, which is indigo.

    3) gufo domeh leyam is not an identifying feature of the Hilazon, it one part of a baraita explaining why it is hard to find and hence expensive.

    4) The Murex Trunculus is not the source of royal purple (which is a red purple), but an blue-purple, which we have no reason to believe was even used. A different snail is used to make royal purple.

    5) If you make the dye anywhere outside a lab where sunlight is deliberately excluded, it will turn blue unless you are super careful to make sure otherwise.

    These are not arguments, they are excuses.

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  52. R. Berger asked about the Lubavitcher Rebbe's call for forming a "kosher" form of meditation--I know that around thirty years ago, R. Yisrael Jacobson tried to do something to develop a form of Jewish meditation with Kuntres Hispa'alus. It is said that there were chassidim in the times of the Mittler Rebbe that contemplated ideas of chassidut for up to seven hours at a time! I guess the task is trying to package the material for today's audience. R. Yitzchak Ginzburgh (of Gal Einai) has a form of meditation on the words of אנא בכח, for example.

    My point was that the mystical aspects of Judaism answer a need in some people, just as the rationalist aspects are useful in other ways. (Like Rabbi Slifkin was in a quandary in one of his posts whether to label Rav Dessler as a rationalist or non-rationalist.)

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  53. I'd also be interested to know what your opinion is about Ruach Ra'ah / washing the hands after the bathroom.

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  54. Along the same lines as Chezky, but perhaps trickier to answer: What about taking leave of the angels before entering the bathroom?

    Ironically, this bit of "mysticism" is in the Rambam Hil' Tefillah 7:5, but the MeQubal from Tzefas from whom we have the Shulchan Arukh tells us to omit it (OC 3:1). (See the SA haRav, AhS and MB ad loc who all make basically the suggestion why. Which tones down the irony.)

    Still, the Rambam begging leave of angels?

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  55. Rambam's problem was combating folk piety with legal precision. Folk piety, in his day and indeed today, borders on Kabbalah but has an utterly debased and confused understanding of it.

    From another perspective:

    The Holy Name שקי, written on the mezuzah, demarcates the spheres/boundaries of life thus its gematria is 314, which remarkably, are the first three integers of π Pi.

    שקי (according to its expanded spelling, in which each of the three letters ש ד י are themselves spelled out: שין דלת יוד), shares a gematria of 814 with אָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ Love your fellow as your self (Leviticus 19:18).

    Therefore we see that the practice of affixing a mezuzah to our various entrance and gateways is wondrously connected with loving our fellow (i.e. by inviting him into the sphere of our private life).

    In addition we can see that the Holy Name שקי demarcates spheres/boundaries of life because it is the acronym of שׁוֹמֶר דְלָתוֹת יִשְׂרָאֶל “Guardian of the doors of Israel” (Kol Bo 90, 101:4).

    “Rab Judah further said: At the time that the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world, it went on expanding like two clues of warp until the blessed Holy One rebuked it and brought it to a standstill, for it is said: The heavens’ pillars quaver, are dumbfounded by His roar [Job 25:9]. And that, too, is what Resh Lakish said: What is the meaning of the verse, I am קל שקי [Genesis 17:1]? [It means], “I am the one ש, who, said to the world: די ‘Enough!’” [cf. Zohar 1:16a; 3:251a]. Resh Lakish said: When the blessed Holy One created the sea, it went on expanding, until the blessed Holy One rebuked it and caused it to dry up, for it is said: He rebukes the sea, and makes it dry, and dries up all the rivers [Nahum 1:4]” (BT Hagigah 12a).

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  56. So the gematria of mezuzah = 314 = Pi? Hello, Pi is 3.1415xxx (100 times smaller!)... The connection you brought is far-fetched. The spelled out gematria of שדי is the same as veahavta lereacha kamocha which is missing out the vav. And what does 'demarcating the spheres / boundaries of life' really mean?

    No no, let me stick to rationalist judaism and you can have the irrational parparaot latorah.

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  57. @Cheski Your skepticism is appreciated.

    If Pi is taken as a string of numbers, without decimal point, then the gematria of שקי, which is 314, would be the first three numbers in the string.

    Resh Lakish teaches that שקי is the One who said to the world: די ‘Enough!’”. The circumference of a circle and the mezuzah, with the name שקי, both demarcate the private from the public. Irrational?

    This example is not literally true, and indeed not an approach for everyone. Rather it is merely an opportunity to bring down a novel idea. Obviously it projects meaning where there may not be, but this is part of creative interpretation; so long as the novel does not conflict, but strengthens, tradition.

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  58. We see that the Rambam, at times, leaves himself open to the "irrational":

    "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" (The Guide of the Perplexed 2:43, Pines p.392-3).

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  59. The "rational" mind can't accept multiplicity of meaning in just one word. Its mode is to fix meaning and systematize. Of course this is useful and necessary. However, for the Talmudic/Kabbalistic mind there are other necessities in addition to the systematic impulse, namely the creative impulse:

    "The scroll of the Torah is written without vowels, so you can read it variously. Without vowels, the consonants bear many meanings and splinter into sparks. That is why the Torah scroll must not be vocalized, for the meaning of each word accords with its vowels. Once vocalized, a word means just one thing. Without vowels, you can understand it in countless, wondrous ways" (Bahya ben Asher to Numbers 11:15, cf. Jeremiah 23:29; BT Sanhedrin 34a; Shabbat 88b).

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