Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Ghostbusters Analogy

Harold Ramis, a.k.a. Egon Spengler from the 1984 hit movie Ghostbusters, just passed away. That reminded me that I had drafted a post about Ghostbusters and mystical Judaism, which I never got around to posting. So here it is, l'iluy nishmas Harold Ramis.

Do you remember Ghostbusters? Most people loved it for its hilarity; some for its fantastical elements. I was intrigued by a different aspect of it, and it's something which will provide a useful analogy for understanding the difference between rationalist and mystical approaches to various Jewish concepts.

For those who didn't see it, Ghostbusters was about a group of eccentric geniuses/ dropouts who launched a career catching ghosts. The shtick of the Ghostbusters was that they discovered that it was possible to design technology that could detect ghosts, and ultimately to subdue and contain them. PKE meters, proton packs, muon traps - these were gadgets that used physics but could detect and interact with spiritual phenomena.

Behind the concept of Ghostbusters, then, lies four ideas:

1. Spiritual phenomena exist as entities;
2. They follow precise laws;
3. These laws are connected to the laws of the physical universe;
4. Physical objects can manipulate spiritual phenomena by way of these laws.

The rationalist stream of Jewish thought denied pretty much all of these four ideas. Menachem Kellner, in Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism, explains how according to Rambam, concepts such as kedushah and tum'ah are states of mind rather than metaphysical phenomena. The reward for mitzvos is the effect on one's mind rather than in some sort of spiritual world. There are many examples of this. Mezuzah creates a reminder rather than a force-field. Shiluach ha-kein teaches us compassion rather than engineering a celestial process. And so on, and so forth. Without the first idea in the list above, the latter three don't even begin.

The mystical stream of thought, on the other hand, posits the existence of all kinds of spiritual entities. These relate to, and can thus be influenced by, the physical universe, though not in exactly the same way as with Ghostbusters. The Ghostbusters used technology to create physical forces that directly interact with the spirit world. The mystical stream in Judaism, on the other hand, proposes that physical items create spiritual forces which in turn affect the spiritual and material world. However, there are still valuable points of analogy. Just like an improperly calibrated proton pack will not subdue Gozer the Gozerian, so too a mezuzah missing a letter will not create a protective force-field - even if the missing letter is a result of, say, termites attacking the parchment.

My point in this is not to mock the mystical stream of thought - just to note how very far apart it is from the rationalist stream of thought. I believe that appreciating that these are simply two very different worldviews, each the result of a rich heritage, helps avoid friction between people who adhere to different streams. Good fences make good neighbors, and all that. Don't cross the streams!


  1. About crossing the streams: earlier today I was at a lecture about a shut of the Ben Ish Chai where he paskened Halacha against an explicit Mechaber because of the mystical spiritual effects of the mitzvah.

    It was a jarring crossover between the world of Halacha and the world of Kabbalah.

  2. Wait, but if for example one has Passul Tefillin even without knowing it, he does not affect get a Misswah for it. According to the "rational" thought presented here he would because its the same box, same feeling the person get's (perhaps the same pressure from the weight of the box unto the head). Only difference being 1 letter missing.
    How do you explain this? If 2 people putting on the same Tefillin (externally) for months or years maybe, one of them being proper and the other Passul?
    If you say well one day he will find out they are passul, fine, but what about the time being? They can both get the same "feelings" and physiological idea's at the time being.

  3. This brings up an interesting question: Say that someone reverently puts on tefillin for years, but then discovers that the tefillin were invalid from the day he purchased them (due to some פסול that a מגיה couldn't detect, but nonetheless invalidate the tefillin): would a rationalist still say that the person achieved the effect of putting on tefillin anyway?

    Rabbi Slifkin asked a similar question, after the famous incident where they served non-kosher meat at the President's house here. Rabbi Slifkin was pleased that he wasn't נכשל in partaking of the meat, despite having attended the ceremony.

  4. Well, the Rambam certainly believed that spiritual phenomena exist as entities.
    He believed in angels who possessed life and performed certain specific tasks--like communicating Divine messages to prophets and initiating all physical processes.
    He apparently believed they followed precise laws because they have no independent power and it is futile to worship them to get them to do things for you.

    Don't know about the last two, though.

  5. A rationalist would say that GOD is not some great bean-counter in the sky. The effort and intention in doing a mitzvah is what counts. That effort, however, must include checking the parshiot or having a reliable sofer check them when purchased. The evaluation of the person's life is not just a matter of counting up all the mitzvot performed, even those done perfunctorily. It's a question of quality as well as adhering to an halachic framework.

  6. "Don't cross the streams!" -- Hmmm, I'm interpreting this in two different ways. Which one do you mean:
    1. Don't create a hodgepodge of rationalism and mysticism.
    2. Once you're a rationalist, don't switch over to become a mystic. (and vice versa)

  7. Y Aharon - what about mitzvot performed unintentionally? We know that not all mitzvot trichot kavana (eg. counting sefirat haomer).

    According to your formulation, what merit is there in these mitzvot?

  8. To paraphrase Ben-Gurion, to be rational a Jew must believe in mysticism. Certainly Rambam believed in the next world and reward and punishment there.However, in reality Rationalism and ?Mysticism are not discreet entities but a continuum from one extreme to the other. Regarding the pasul tefillin,An extreme Rationalist would probably say that the person is a lawbreaker albeit unknowingly and leave it at that. An extreme mystic would get all worked up by the negative spiritual effects. The halachic man would tell him to go do teshuva.

  9. Kira, can you please cite the halacha in the Mechaber and Ben-Ish Chai? Probably he also relies on the Rema, whose chumrot he often accepts, or the Arizal.

  10. You can also look at it in exactly the opposite way: With "spiritual" phenomena on hand (everyone can *see* the ghosts, after all), the Ghostbusters decide to deal with it in a purely scientific manner. (They are, by the way, not dropouts but dismissed university researchers, and remain with that mindset for both movies.) One can compare this to a super-rationalist who will, say, not deny kriat yam suf or maamad har sinai, but will find scientific explanations for those events- which may even include God, but in an "explainable" way.

  11. Y. Aharon said, "A rationalist would say that G-D is not some great bean-counter in the sky"
    The Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah (3:4) says that Hashem weighs a person's mitzvos vs. his aveiros, taking into account the effort involved as well:
    ואין שוקלין אלא בדעתו של א-ל דעות, והוא היודע היאך עורכין הזכייות כנגד העוונות.

    The Rambam continues in this chapter and describes how this accounting is performed.

  12. Great post, great analogy. Of course, as we know, Gozer The Gozerian was only destroyed once the Ghostbusters DID cross the streams.

  13. sounds like no one has any idea WHAT is really going on in the spiritual/rational/psychological construction of Judaism.

    This is how false authority accrues...assertions are made that have no documentation to begin with, but they're said as if they are reliably true.


  14. I never, ever want to watch a movie with you.

  15. "Well, the Rambam certainly believed that spiritual phenomena exist as entities.
    He believed in angels who possessed life"

    When Rambam referred to angels, he was talking about the separate intellects.

  16. Good post, well-presented. Nice also that you got in something about Harold Ramis, one of our own, who left such a huge footprint on American comedy.

    On Tummah/Tahara - could you (RNS)or any of the learned readers here kindly recommend a clear, academic-style, article, book, or discussion on this subject? Something that evinces a clear and thorough grasp of all the Mishna through Achronim, as well as modern research. Thank you very much.

  17. Harold Ramis on Groundhog Day and leining - see around the 3 minute mark.


  18. yt, I claimed that GOD is not a 'bean counter', I certainly did not mean to imply that I qualified as GOD's accountant. It's just a theological idea about the Divine, i.e., to magnify the idea of the divine and not to limit it. As to doing a mitzvah unintentionally, that can't count for much, but it's certainly not for me to say that it's of no account.

    My concept is a subjective judgment of what counts in life. Neither I nor anyone else has a clear idea of how GOD would judge matters (as Isaiah puts it, "My thoughts are not (like) yours, nor are your ways (like) mine"). The most that we have are some clear statements in the torah and prophets about such matters. Anything else is speculative.

    My objection to a mystical approach to Judaism is aimed primarily at things that make religious acts appear to be magical. I consider such interpretations to be unworthy of a thinking person and demeaning of the reverence owed to GOD (as if magical acts could 'force' Him to do something).

  19. > Kira, can you please cite the halacha in the Mechaber and Ben-Ish Chai? Probably he also relies on the Rema, whose chumrot he often accepts, or the Arizal.

    The Ariz"l, of course. (And there's a Rambam that we don't hold by). But who says you can override an explicit Mechaber because of something the Ariz"l said about "hamshachat hamochin".

    The topic is whether to say Kriat Shema after the zman and before the end of zman tefilla. The exact source is not within reach at the moment, if it's important, I will go get it.

  20. Hi Rabbi,

    I really enjoy your work and I think that you are very thoughtful in your approach to most matters.

    I have personally experienced the metaphysical so to my mind the question is resolved.
    My resolution is that the metaphysical exists only for those individuals who are open to it. We have testimony from giants in Torah and Middot like the Mechaber Shulhan Aruch and the Ramchal author of Mesilat Yesharim who interacted with spiritual beings. I have had my doubts over the years but learning the Mesilat Yesharim made me realize that the Author did not have the ability to lie. So I trust him that he had visitations by a spirit who taught him mystical secrets. He even allowed himself to be driven from his home rather than retract. The same goes for Rav Yosef Karo. He was the acknowledged posek and in my eyes was beyond reproach. Yet he claimed to have been visited by a Maggid. One has to either accept the veracity of his claims, believe that he was hallucinating or that he was a liar. Knowing what I do about the Mechaber I think that the most logical answer is that he really was visited by a spiritual being. When you study his works it is clear that they couldn't have been written by a lunatic nor does it fit with his personality profile to think that he would fabricate these visitations.

    Thank you for your wonderful work.

  21. The existence of spiritual beings and the claim that mitzvot's main purpose is to effect changes on the spiritual plane are two different things.

    Just noticed, R' Natan - did you say this is "l'iluy nishmat Harold Ramis"? Not "le'zecher nishmat"?

  22. There is a story in the Zohar (Parshas Balak, 186a) which I think is revealing as to the mystical view on performing mitzvos:
    The son of Rav Hamnuna recoiled when he saw Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Yehudah. The child said that he could detect from "the fragrance of their clothes" that they hadn't read Kriyat Shema that day. They replied that it's true, but it was because they were involved in the mitzvah of הכנסת כלה.
    So even though they were technically exempt from the mitzvah of Shema, the lack of another mitzvah was still somehow "detectable" in their "clothes".

  23. "...The same goes for Rav Yosef Karo. He was the acknowledged posek and in my eyes was beyond reproach. Yet he claimed to have been visited by a Maggid..."

    Was this claim made in the seforim that we are relatively sure he wrote? Or was it only in Maggid Maishorim? If I'm not mistaken, there are those who question whether R' Yosef Karo wrote Maggid Maishorim.


  24. Just in the interest of full disclosure: the sources I googled assume that R' Y. Karo is the author of Maggid Maishorim, based on mystical statements that his contemporaries made about him.

    Can anyone with more information help out on this?


  25. Apologies but this is so simplistic and unlearned, someone should point out a few key points:

    1. The analogy to Ghostbusters is trivial and does not qualify as a good analogy of the differences between rationalism and mysticism, except on a superficial level.

    2. Jewish Rationalism does not necessarily have a problem with 2 or 3.


  26. Several hours ago Temujin posted a quip which was either lost in a black hole of the blogosphere or was deemed flippant by our host. If the latter, one should explain that it was a serious post. On the question of unintentional mitzvoth, one suggested two examples: The first was skinny-dipping in the ocean being an unintentional mikva which would still be deemed as a valid mitzva and the second, a man unintentionally performing the mitzvah of tzedaka after losing money which is then found by a poor person.

    These two examples, one learned, appear to be the only ones of unintentional mitzvot and were gleaned from a discussion with a visiting rabbi at a men's "ski and Torah" retreat at a chalet yesterday (where Temujin's yetzer hara got the better him as he succumbed to the grave sin of gluttony by gorging himself on a kosher caterer's interpretation of Chinese food....)

  27. For what it's worth, the mitzvah of shikhecha requires you to accidentally leave the produce in the field, but includes the requirement to purposely leave it there.

  28. Thank you, Presenter,. Leket shichecha be peah seems to even require genuine forgetting according to some and is in the class of mitzvoth which have no blessing as they are not entirely dependent on the doer (Shut Rashba 1:18).*

    Kind of like the question of whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound, one wanders if this mitzvah becomes entirely nullified...for both the rationalist and the mystic...if a) the doer doesn't realize he has performed it (e.g., forgotten sheaves in shichecha) and more so if b) a poor person does not find it or take it.

    *No, Temujin did not become a genius overnight; he stumbled on this quite accidentally while looking up shichecha on Google and getting into the subject: http://www.faqoverflow.com/judaism/17730.html


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