Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Function of Prayer and Tehillim

I've been getting sidetracked a lot on this blog, writing on various matters relating to politics, and I'm going to be getting sidetracked again, posting pictures and reports from my Africa trip. But I do have a list of topics about Rationalist Judaism that I plan to address, and in this post I will deal with one of them.

As we have discussed before, one of the main differences between the rationalist and mystical schools of thought in Judaism relates to the function of mitzvos. According to the rationalist approach, prevalent amongst the Rishonim and best expressed by Rambam, all mitzvos serve one or more of three purposes: teaching us concepts, improving our characters, or improving society. There is nothing else that mitzvos do, because there is nothing else that they can do. Mitzvos can only affect our minds and personalities.

According the mystical approach, on the other hand, while mitzvos can do all of the above, that is only a relatively minor aspect of their function. Their primary function is to manipulate various spiritual metaphysical forces.

(It is crucial to stress that my goal - and I believe this should be everyone's goal - is not to delegitimize either approach. Rather it is to help people understand that both approaches have a long history to them, and are both part of Torah Judaism.)

Previously, we have discussed numerous examples of this difference. Mezuzah, according to the rationalist Rishonim, serves as a reminder of our duties; whereas according to the mystical Acharonim, it provides metaphysical protection. Netilas yadayim, according the rationalist Rishonim, cleanses our bodies and puts us in a fresh frame of mind; whereas according to the mystical Acharonim, it exorcises harmful spirits. Shiluach hakein, according to the rationalist Rishonim, is all about compassion; whereas according to the mystical Acharonim, it is about manipulating the celestial court. Studying Torah, according to the rationalist Rishonim, is about understanding Judaism, improving our characters and improving society; whereas according to the mystical Acharonim, it is about creating spiritual energy.

I would like to introduce another example: prayer. This is a complex topic, but without getting into too much detail here, we can say as follows: According to the rationalist Rishonim, prayer is solely about our relationship with God. According to the mystical approach, on the other hand, prayer is primarily about manipulating various metaphysical energies, with a corresponding effect on the material world.

What about Tehillim? This is an interesting case, which I think also expresses the difference between the two schools of thought. According to the rationalist approach, Tehillim such as those commonly recited after tefillah in a time of crisis - e.g. Shir lama'alos esa einai - are effectively a form of prayer, and function in the same way. On the other hand, the concept of reciting the entire book of Tehillim, which includes those that solely consist of praise, would be done by adherents of the mystical school. They perceive mystical benefit in all the chapters, and even more so in the unit of the entirety of Tehillim. (Rationalists would also see a benefit here, but of a different sort - in the emotional effects.)

Again, I must stress that I think nobody should try to delegitimize either approach. This also means that nobody should try to impose their own approach on others. It's different strokes for different folks.

*   *   *

Amidst everything we do, we say Hashem, please help our soldiers bring our boys back home.

76 comments:

  1. Well said, but I am not as comfortable with the mystical approach as you say you are. If prayer is conceived of as "manipulating various metaphysical energies, with a corresponding effect on the material world," I have a problem with that. It could mean either that prayer is a means of manipulating God, i.e. compelling Him to act in a certain way, in which case prayer would share the same methodology and goals as avodah zarah, or it could mean that prayer is a means that God has granted to us to manipulate nature or some other unseen forces. The problem with the second suggestion is that it all too frequently doesn't work. When our prayers or tehillim fail to save lives, as is often the case, mystics might claim that we are saying them wrong or with insufficient kavanah. But to my way of thinking, the proper reason to pray or recite tehillim in a crisis is to express our feelings of subservience to God and our solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters. This removes the element of magical thinking and obviates the need to make excuses (for us or for God) if the answer we receive is "no."

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    1. You write: "It could mean either that prayer is a means of manipulating God, i.e. compelling Him to act in a certain way, in which case prayer would share the same methodology and goals as avodah zarah, or it could mean that prayer is a means that God has granted to us to manipulate nature or some other unseen forces. "
      However, there is a third option, and your question regarding failure of prayer to perform is not a new one either. See R' Yosef Albo's Sefer Ha'Ikkarim, 4/18, who explains that a prayer is usually required to facilitate the execution of a decree which has already been issued, but may go unrealized if the prospective recipients lack adequate preparation. He specifically addresses the question of prayer vs. decree and the issue of "unanswered" prayers, there and later on chapter 21.

      P.S. As a late Rishon, perhaps Albo's opinion that a prayer acts upon a heavenly decree by making the praying person worthy of its receipt, could be seen as a bridge between the two approaches discussed in the post.

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  2. It happens to be that according to the Rambam (Hilchos Avodas Zoroh) saying Tehillim for someone who is sick is prohibited under the issur of Menachesh.

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    1. Actually it's a very clear Gemara, Shevous 15b, and SA YD 179
      Tehillim chanting by groups who can't understand a word they are saying is even worse

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    2. But the same halachah (Chapter 11:13) says that the z'chus of reading them can also lend protection:
      אבל הבריא שקרא פסוקין או מזמור מתהילים, כדי שתגן עליו זכות קריאתן, ויינצל מצרות ונזקים--הרי זה מותר.

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    3. I haven't read the Tzitz Eliezer cited below in kollel nick's comment--but I don't think the Rambam is saying that there's a prohibition against say Tehillim for someone sick.

      He's saying not to utter psukim as an incantation. To select out certain Tehillim that relate to recovery from illness, or that beseech Hashem to get well, is no different than any other prayer--which we are obligated to do in times of need (like the Rambam himself says in Hilchos Ta'anis, Chapter 1).

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    4. Protection is OK, but not for a cure or healing.

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    5. Shulchan Aruch YD 179 allows incantations (Lachash) in cases of danger to life. It is also very unclear that this is an incantation. And unlike the Rambam, Shulchan Aruch thinks that reading pesukim is effective (and allowed) against the "Mazikim". Rav Karo was not a "rationalist".

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  3. "manipulating various metaphysical energies, with a corresponding effect on the material world,"

    Hmm...

    Sounds like paganism, i.e. avoda zara, to me...

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  4. I think we all act as rationalists le-maaseh - even if we claim otherwise. Here's a thought experiment to prove the point. Someone you love dearly goes into cardiac arrest. There are 2 doors in front of you. Behind one is the gadol hador. Behind the other is a nurse with a defribulator. You can only choose one door. Which would most people - even the most religious - pick?

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    1. clarity requiredJune 25, 2014 at 7:47 AM

      Let say I have a halacha question .Do I go to the nurse or the rabbi?

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    2. Well I certainly would not ask the Rabbi. What would she know about halacha?

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  5. @litvish
    Tzitz Eliezer vol 17 siman 30 has a teshuva about this.

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    1. The Nosai Kalim on the Rambam explain that for someone who is deathly ill, you can recite Tehillim ; though it is Assur it is no worse than Chilul Shabbos for which you're allowed.

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    2. I read the teshuva of the Tzitz Eliezer, and he systematically removes any of the "problems" in saying Tehillim for a sick person, in light of the Rambam's statement in Hilchos Avodah Zarah:
      1) the saying of pesukim as a לחש is what is ossur--the person believes that the pesukim have a curative effect, and doesn't use any other means to cure himself. If a person says Tehillim, and takes medicine etc., no prohibition exists.
      2) החש בראשו, יעסוק בתורה--the merit of learning/praying/beseeching is to bring the refuah, not just the mere mumbling of the pesukim,
      3) Tehillim are to arouse the sick person to teshuva, as well as those saying the tehillim for the sick person,
      4) Perhaps there is a distinction between לוחש על המכה, and some other type of illness,
      5) If a person says Tehillim, w/o regard for selecting a particular set of verses, he's not using it as an incantation,
      6) The יהי רצון after the Tehillim includes well people that you want to protect, as well as the sick person that you specify that you pray that he'll get well.
      There is therefore no reason to disqualify a widespread minhag of Jewish communities to say Tehillim for anyone in distress.

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  6. One of the great things about our religion is that it has many different facets that can appeal to many different people. I know people who are more into mysticism and spirituality; Judaism has that. If one is into the rationalistic approach, Judaism has that as well. I believe that it's possible to be a good Jew and a good person while subscribing to an entirely different Judaism than someone else.

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    1. It's possible to be a good person while subscribing to a different religion altogether. The question is: how good a person can one be scrupulously following Jewish mysticism? What benefit has this teaching brought the Jewish people and humanity?

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  7. Any mystical benefits from korbanot? Any mystical benefits from tefillin? Any mystical aspect of niddah or all tummah and taharah?Attempts to marry Aristotelean ethics with traditional Judaism were misguided in the 14th century when Aristotle was state of the art philosophy. Nowadays it's just foolish alchemy.

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  8. @ Rabbi Slifkin. I applaud your last sentences which you include in this post. They definitely serve to prevent any further political dissent between theses two schools.

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  9. Prayer works only if you believe that without a doubt that your prayers are answered. This is true אמונה,

    Example, In the Amidah prayer we ask for penitence, only if and when penitence is granted can we then ask to be pardoned of our sins, How does one know if his request was granted? He does not, therefore we can only rely on believing it was and for that matter believing each and every request was granted in order to be able to continue the Amidah prayer. (Each benediction in the Amidah is contingent to the preceding benediction)

    In Adon Olam we recite "At the time when all was made by His will." This refers to the time before God created man, suggesting that now man too has a say in what happens. As in Ashrei Psalm 145 verse 16 "You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living being." This is saying God will answer all our prayers.

    Is desire 'to want'? Then why does not everyone have a million dollars.
    In ALL of the prayers of the Siddur, Machzors, and Tehillim etc. the phrase 'I want' can not be found. 'Please' is found very rarely. Prayers phrased in the form of a demand is the common. The consensus is by saying 'I want' is to acknowledge 'I don't have' because perhaps 'I don't want', inducing doubt. Demanding on the other hand is saying 'it is coming to me' and 'its like I already have it', eliminating doubt.

    Therefore, when praying from the Siddur we must believe and whether you know it or not you are demanding, add in true believing that all your prayers are answered, even before you have finished praying. This is exercising True desire. The only thing that it needs to be coupled with is a conscious awareness.
    o

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    1. The beauty of your approach is that when people discover that their most sincere prayers have no efficacy whatsoever, you can always tell them, "Guess your prayers weren't sincere enough." Slam dunk.

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    2. "......prayers weren't sincere enough." 100% true.
      You make an excellent point, Kugel could not agree with you more. But it can be looked at in several ways.

      1) No one knows for sure what is in their own heart let alone in the heart of another.

      2) If one does not believe that his prayers will be answered why would he then waste his time praying?

      3) As you are aware, it is recommended that prayer should be performed everyday.
      Because everyday one's meditation and belief in his prayers grow more and more intensified. Before you know it has become a reality.

      Heart felt prayer and true desire is truly effective if someone wants anything desperately from God. In this I can testify to.
      o

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    3. 1) If you do not know what's in your own heart, how can you ever be sure your prayers are sincere?

      2) For any of the reasons that R' Slifkin outlined.

      3) Not sure what you mean. If I pray for rain every day, eventually my desire will be fulfilled due to the course of nature. If I pray every day that a friend should recover from cancer, that may never become the reality.

      And how do you know about the efficacy of prayer? Have you verified that every sincere prayer in the course of history was answered? That is quite remarkable.

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    4. Re; Fiery Chulent, Good questions.
      #1) To be able to understand this, the best teacher would be life experience. As you go though life you find yourself asking 'do I real want this' or 'do I real like that' etc., Evidently you will realize your changing moods and feelings i.e. awareness of your experiences, realizing you'r not always certain about what is in your own heart.
      #3) Firstly I was referring to individual desire. But you should ask, does that ill individual what to recover? Does everyone effected what rain? etc.
      As to your last question. You are asking how can one know the unknown. No one knows, and to verify, one will need to know. I can only speak of the results from my own desires and of those I bear witness to. I also consider the testimony of other's outcomes.
      Also consider, " from the knowledge of knowing what you don't want, the more you will know what you do want."
      o

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  10. I wonder how rationalist approach explains chukas? How for example the procedure with a red heifer teaches us concepts, improving our characters, or improving society while the same procedure with brown heifer would do nothing?

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    1. Don't have the references in front of me, so please bear with my errors, but yes, the Rambam (and Ramban) maintain that Chukim have reasons. Rambam distinguishes Mishpatim as inherently morally wrong such that one should not desire to violate a Mishpat, while Chukim have reasons, but have an element of arbitrariness such that one would not be considered defective for wanting to violate. Bad to desire to steal, OK to desire to eat a cheeseburger. As far as Red vs. Brown, Rambam says that not all details have reasons, only the broad aspects.

      Ramban has a different distinction between Mishpatim and Chukim which I admit that I didn't understand fully when I read it.

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    2. See Rav Hirsch's incredible exposition on the subject in his commentary on Chukas. For a general explanation of the rationalist approach to chukim is Rav Hirsch's Nineteen Letters

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    3. @David Ohsie
      With no doubts all chukas have reasons, otherwise Hashem would not command us to observe them. The question is whether or not we can comprehend and rationalize these reasons. And the red color of hefer is not just a detail, it is a critical thing, so critical that even one different hair makes it unusable. But even aside from the color, how can the entire procedure of purification (not to mention the ways of becoming impure) be rationalized?

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  11. If you don't want to be accused of delegitimizing the mystical approach, I would suggest you use the word "influence" instead of "manipulate." "Manipulate" usually has a negative connotation. If you don't like "influence," perhaps there's another word you could use.

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    1. That does't make sense. Influence and manipulate don't mean the same thing. I believe that manipulate is the correct word in this context.

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    2. I agree with Avi. (As he's my son, I must confess to a bias.) I may "influence" a government official with a letter, but I "manipulate" the change in my pocket. If the recent solicitation I received from "Shemirah Bidrachim" is any indication, manipulation of Hashem is the objective of at least this group.

      This tzedakah claims that the prayers on your behalf of their tinokos shel beis raban will protect you from serious injury or death in traffic accidents.

      Against R. Slifkin's advice, I'm very willing to delegitimize that approach. I wrote to this organization challenging them with the possibility that their attempt to change the physical world by uttering certain words is chishuf.

      I don't expect my words will have any more affect on them than their talmidim's words will on traffic statistics.


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    3. I second Jeremy's call to wordsmith from manipulate to a less derisive alternative. AFAIK mystical prayer is involved in tikkun. The goal is not to manipulate or influence, it is to play a proactive role in the saga of (re)building the world.

      Meseches Taanis is replete with instances where Tanna X prays for rain and it rains. How/why does that work if prayer is solely about our relationship with God?

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  12. > This is a complex topic, but without getting into too much detail here, we can say as follows: According to the rationalist Rishonim, prayer is solely about our relationship with God.

    From a rational perspective, I believe prayer also impacts our relationships with our communities. For example, I read recently that at least one of the mothers of the kidnapped boys says the families all feel "overwhelmed by the love, Tefilla and support they have received." Prayers recited publicly at times like these (and in other times too) help foster a sense of communal solidarity and caring about one another. By helping our communities maintain awareness and focus, prayer & Tehilim can also help encourage other effective forms of action on behalf of those in need.

    Prayer also impacts our relationships with ourselves. By that I mean the benefits of meditation, reflection, mindfulness etc. that we can experience in prayer. Perhaps that is all included in what you mean by "our relationship with God."

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    1. From a rational perspective, I believe prayer also impacts our relationships with our communities. For example, I read recently that at least one of the mothers of the kidnapped boys says the families all feel "overwhelmed by the love, Tefilla and support they have received."

      But would they have felt this love and support without knowing from the media that people were praying for them and their sons?

      Here is an interesting experiment:
      When the captured boys get released (may it happen soon) we should ask them if at any time during their capture they felt a wave of love and support overwhelm them.

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  13. It seems to me that there is a fine line between the mystical approach and magical thinking. It's all to easy to slip from a legitimate approach to superstition and paganism. I do think that it's important to emphasize the rationalist perspective. Too often it is not mentioned at all.

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  14. Regarding reciting tehillim in times of trouble: My son sometimes cleans his room before he asks me for something. He has a perfectly rational belief that cleaning his room makes it more likely that his request will be viewed favorably.

    So what can we do? What is our equivalent to cleaning our room before asking Hashem for something? We can't bring a korban anymore. Maybe tehillim is our best shot.

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    1. This makes no sense to me. How can we "butter-up" and omniscient and perfect being?
      There is no equivalent.

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    2. Your response is nonsensical. Why would an omniscient G-d need us to pray at all? Surely the omniscient G-d does not need us to supplicate towards it!

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    3. The answer to my question, by the way, is that it is self evident that prayer is for the supplicant's benefit, not HaShem's.

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    4. The matriarchs were barren for a period, to induce them to pray--Chazal state:הקב"ה מתאווה לתפילתן של צדיקים--Hashem "desires" the prayers of the righteous. Quite an anthopomorphism, but Chazal say it nonetheless.

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  15. The mystical approach believes - in essence - that prayer is intercessory. We can influence the Divine will through the medium of prayer.

    To me, the major issue with intercessory prayer is that it conflicts with the idea of God as omniscient and his "plan" is perfect.

    If we can change His mind via prayer than either He is not omniscient or His original plan was not perfect to begin with.

    How does the mystical approach deal with this?

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    1. Whilst not being a mystic myself, I think this essentially a repackaged version of one of the classic problems with free will-How can we have choice if G-d has complete control?
      There are many suggested answers to this problem, most of which will deal with your problem.

      I will admit that I am not particularly happy with any of the suggested answers, but this is a problem rationalists also face. However I think the real answer is the free will does not mean we have choice in the superficial sense we often think (namely that if you played it again, things might have turned out differently). I don't have time to explain what I mean here though.

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    2. I understand that the Rambam is a minority opinion in holding that prayer is one of the Taryag mitzvos--but we are obligated to pray for our needs to all opinions. These needs could be that a person's health is deficient, or parnassa--that doesn't contradict believing that Hashem is omniscient.
      Before the Mabul, Hashem argues to destroy mankind, because יצר מחשבות לבו רק רע כל היום--that Man yields to his Yetzer haRa. After the Mabul, Hashem says he won't destroy mankind again, because יצר לב האדם רע מנעוריו--because Man has a Yezter HaRa. The same fact can be a reason to be inclined towards judgment or towards mercy--we pray to Hashem that He should be inclined towards mercy.

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  16. ברוך אתה.......... שומע תפילה

    ?????????????????????

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    1. One way of understanding God's listening is like that of a therapist, where we benefit just from being listened to.

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  17. "According to the rationalist Rishonim, prayer is solely about our relationship with God."

    I've never heard this before. Will you please cite a few Rishonim that state that Bakasha has no efficacy?

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  18. I don't think that rationalists hold that Bakasha doesn't work, that would undermine the wording of the entire siddur. I think the point is that the emphasis is much more on strengthening the relationship with God, and consequently hoping that the prayer will be answered by Him. The mystical approach is much more mechanistic - input prayer x and feeling y into the metaphysical system, and out comes result z, ker-ching!

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  19. Prayer is a perfectly rational matter if one believes that there is divine interaction with the world. It is not different, in principle, from making a plea to parents or authority figures. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't. In either case, it can help develop a relationship - assuming that the request is reasonable, with the one empowered to grant it. There is no need to introduce any mystical notions about the power of prayer in changing the worlds or acting as a disembodied intermediary. The same is true for saying Tehillim in a time of trouble - it is prayer, not a segulah. Donning tefillin is a torah requirement with an explicit rationale, "it shall be a sign on your arm...in order that the torah of Hashem shall be in your mouth" (Ex. 13:9). Again, there is no need to invoke some mystical idea about wearing black boxes and straps. While other chukim have no obvious reason - at least not as understood by modern man, that doesn't mean that no rational reason exists. For example, the chok of tumah and tahara can be understood on the basis of the strong effect of contact with death and decay can have on a person. Full immersion in water is a natural cleansing procedure that would tend to counteract the initial depressing effect of the contact. The Parah Adumah ritual is obviously of a different nature, but can be seen in the Rambam's relationship context (as a child will obey a parental directive without understanding it) rather than a mystical one.

    Y. Aharon

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    1. No it's not. There is a very big difference between parents and God. Parents are human beings who can be swayed by emotional and/or logical arguments. Therefore it makes sense to make plea to them However, God id a perfect omniscient being, there is no logical and/or emotional argument that you can make that God has not already considered and rejected. How can a human being possibly think that he is going to change God's mind.

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    2. ושמעתי כי חנון אני

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    3. bluke, I disagree with your apparent conception of GOD as a remote, philosophical entity yet directly responsible for all that happens in this world. The two are not compatible, and both are rather extreme positions that it would be difficult to justify based on language in the torah. If there is an impending tragedy or disaster, GOD may not have been responsible for the situation, or the situation is intended as a test. In any case, the brief torah citation that Shy Guy brought illustrates the potential efficacy of prayer, that is, prayers can be heard and effect change.

      Y. Aharon

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  20. After years of praying and studying prayer I concluded that there are different types of prayers. There are prayers of the mystic, prayers of the triumphalist, prayers of the priest, prayers of the scribe, prayers of the meditator and prayers of the dramatic performer. Whether the person reciting prayer is by nature more rationalist or more mystical, the prayers themselves remain distinct in their personalities. I discuss all of this in my book "God's Favorite Prayers" http://www.amazon.com/Gods-Favorite-Prayers-Tzvee-Zahavy-ebook/dp/B005D5CD02

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  21. "According to the rationalist Rishonim, prayer is solely about our relationship with God."


    Jewish "Rationalism" then is not very far from Jewish Mysticim. The very notion that a human being can have an interactive, 2-way "relationship" with a metaphysical being is, itsef, the foundation of mysticism.

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  22. It seems that people keep confusing "rationalism" with "materialism". Rationalism does not deny that there is a G-d that is on a different plane of existence, and that He hears our prayers. The reason He hears our prayers is because of the special relationship that He has with the Jewish People. When we disappoint Him, He does not listen to our prayers. This is an explicit verse in Yeshayahu 1, read in Shabbat Chazon.

    The mystical approach appears to try to go beyond this and describe the actual mechanisms by which G-d interacts with the world. This would include the ways in which He interacts with us and our prayers. While this also appears in the Tanach (Yechezkel's vision, for example), most of it is in the realm of "nistar" (hidden) Torah, rather than "nigleh".
    הנסתרות לה' אלוקנו והנגלות לנו ולבננו

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  23. Where do the ideas of tumah and tahara fall in to place within a rational approach to judaism. Something "mystical" is being manipulated upon going into the mikveh, sprinkling cow ashes on someone, washing netilah. or maybe there is a distinction im not seeing between being mystical and being spiritual?

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  24. There is a very obvious question when it comes to prayer, which is since God is a perfect omniscient being why should there be a need to pray and why should it work? God knows my situation better then I do and knows exactly what I need what is the point of asking? Additionally, since God is omniscient and perfect he has already taken into account every factor so how can a person hope/think to change God's mind? In fact, since God is perfect the whole idea of him changing his mind doesn't make sense either.

    There are 2 major approaches
    1. The mystical approach - this is the system that God set up for people to get things
    2. The rational approach - prayer is meant to establish a relationship with God.

    In truth, while I am a rationalist, I find the rationalist perspective on prayer very very difficult for a number of reasons:
    1. The prayers that we see in chumash are direct requests of God using logical arguments. For example, Moshe after the Golden Calf prays to Hashem saying what will the Egyptians say if you destroy the Jews in the desert? If prayer is simply for a relationship with God tehre is no place for logical arguments to try to persuade God to do something.
    2. If you look at the Shemoneh Esrei we spend a lot of time asking for things that we think we need. Again, asking for things should have no place in the rational perspective on tefila.
    3. If prayer is about my relationship with God how can I pray for other people? The rationalist explanation for how prayer works to change my situation (for example sickness) is that by praying I change myself and therefore I am no longer that person any more who deserved to be sick, I am a new person due to my better relationship with God. That works for me but how does my becoming a better person help someone else.

    There are answers to all of these but they are not very convincing. In a rationalistic viewpoint it doesn't really make sense to ask God for things.

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  25. bluke, it makes as much sense for a believing person to ask GOD for things as for a child to ask a parent. Hopefully, however, we are less egocentric than a child and less materialistic. The rationalist approach need not consider GOD to be this all-wise, knowing philosophical entity, but someone more like a concerned parent. Of course, a parent is meant to treat his own offspring with special attention and consideration. Such a relationship with the divine has to be merited, however - either one's own merit or ancestral. It's not sufficient for a rational person to simply assume that 'GOD knows best' in whatever situation. GOD may set up a situation designed to solicit the person's plea. Nor need the plea be for the own benefit of the pleader, the whole point may be to plea for others. The point is that we aren't meant to simply act stoically in the face of crisis or impending tragedy, but to take an active role in an attempt to ameliorate the situation, be it physical and/or spiritual. We don't require a mystical (certainly not, magical) approach to do so. The latter may well interfere with the process and the desired outcome - if it is treated as some mechanical type process.

    Y. Aharon

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  26. @Zaurus

    The mystics are gnostics. They pray to the intermediate ספירות. To quote רמב"ן from memory:

    כל התורה כולה שמות של הקב"ה היא. סוד של
    בראשית ברא אלוקים הוא - בראש יתברא אלוקים.
    רבינו בחיי מוסיף סוד אלוקים אלו הם
    י
    So they believe that בראשית created אלוקים. Which in turn is ten ספירות. They pray to these ten ספירות which are נבראים and can be manipulated. בראשית is perfect and had deligated the administration of this world to the ספירות.

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    1. Kabbalistical MonikerJune 27, 2014 at 9:53 AM

      Actually the Sefer Yetzirah is very clear that there are "10 sefiros.... Not 11... Not 9" - God is neither an additional sefira nore the highest of the 10. What you posit is a remote and unontactable God who is unchanging and so does not interact with creation. Kabalists suggest that you spend some time meditating on both God's immanence and greatness.

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    2. They pray to the intermediate ספירות.
      G-d Forbid. That would be a violation of the Fifth Principle of Faith, not to pray to an intermediary, only to Hashem.
      Rav Moshe Cordevero explains in Pardes (quoted by the Tzemach Tzedek, Derech Mitzvosecha, מצות האמנת אלקות) that the sefiroth are only conduits of Divine שפע, and have no will of their own--כגרזן ביד החוצב. When a person has the intent, for example, when he says ברך עלינו (the ninth berachah of Shemonah Esrei) on the sefirah of chessed, he intends that Hashem should send that שפע through the proper conduit.

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    3. They are addressing the ספירות which are נבראים not the Almighty.

      ע"ז in my book. How is this different from the trinity?

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    4. That is nonsense. Kabbalists pray to Hashem's Essence, as I quote below from Teshuvas HaRivash. No one directs their prayers to the sephirot to intercede for them. It is inconceivable that major Kabbalists, many of them halachic authorities in their own right, would flagrantly ignore the Rambam's Principles of Faith and הלכות יסודי התורה.

      This is not the first time that Carol (mis)quotes Kabbalistic sources on this blog, to hold them up for ridicule.

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  27. What do you mean, "simply" for a relationship with G-d? The entire Torah is about building a relationship with G-d! An important part of this relationship, as we learn from Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, Chana, David, Shlomo, is that we turn to G-d in prayer, and He answers. (He doesn't always agree - as we learn from Shmuel, but He answers.

    If it didn't say this in the Torah, we would not be able to derive it ourselves, we would be stuck in this philosophical paradox. But it does say it. Rationalist Judaism is nevertheless Judaism. Prayer is not a metaphor.

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  28. I would like to introduce another example: prayer. This is a complex topic, but without getting into too much detail here, we can say as follows: According to the rationalist Rishonim, prayer is solely about our relationship with God.

    Though it’s understandably difficult to elaborate on a complex topic, but at least a reference would be appreciated for a shocker like this, if possible. Thank you.

    According to the mystical approach, on the other hand, prayer is primarily about manipulating (emph. added) various metaphysical energies, with a corresponding effect on the material world.

    I join those groping for a better word. Others have difficulty with the excessive amount of control over metaphysical energies that the person praying allegedly has. This is in part because of the word “manipulate”. But it’s certainly no surprise to claim that Hashem has ultimate control and can prevent those “manipulations” from taking effect. Kira has shown that this is explicit in Yeshaya: גם כי תרבו תפלה אינני שומע. IIRC, there are many other psukim to that effect, let alone Chazals.

    When the Steipler would be asked, what happened to my prayers? Where did they go if they weren’t answered? –he would answer, among other answers, that they are in storage and will be put to good use. It’s highly doubtful that people in pain can absorb these kind of answers, but the point is that the people praying did succeed in creating the “manipulations” but Hashem won’t be using them right now, for reasons known to Him.

    Perhaps no single word can capture the idea that “manipulations” seeks to convey. Perhaps we must each time employ an entire phrase such as “create an effect”.

    On the other hand, the concept of reciting the entire book of Tehillim, which includes those that solely consist of praise, would be done by adherents of the mystical school. They perceive mystical benefit in all the chapters, and even more so in the unit of the entirety of Tehillim. (Rationalists would also see a benefit here, but of a different sort - in the emotional effects.)

    I was under the impression that all three components of Shemonah Esreh—praise, entreaty and thanks—were necessary for the entreaties to be answered—according to both mystics and rationalists.

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  29. But to my way of thinking, the proper reason to pray or recite tehillim in a crisis is to express our feelings of subservience to God and our solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters. This removes the element of magical thinking and obviates the need to make excuses (for us or for God) if the answer we receive is "no."

    Whatever this explanation's advantages, is there no way more direct to express solidarity than to pointlessly petition God?

    "manipulating various metaphysical energies, with a corresponding effect on the material world,"

    Hmm...

    Sounds like paganism, i.e. avoda zara, to me...”



    You must mean kishuph, not avodah zara.

    But anyway, we’ve been through this in the past. The fundamental difference between avodas Hashem and Avoda zara is Who or who is being worshipped. There is much overlap as to the method of worship. Unless you have an inherent difficulty with the method there is no problem if it happens to also appear in idol worship.

    --

    @Yehudah, thank you for (summarizing and) transcribing the Tzitz Eliezer.

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  30. Where do the ideas of tumah and tahara fall in to place within a rational approach to judaism. Something "mystical" is being manipulated upon going into the mikveh, sprinkling cow ashes on someone, washing netilah. or maybe there is a distinction im not seeing between being mystical and being spiritual?

    Very briefly—IIRC, Rambam says that the reason for tumah is so that people will be limited when they may enter the temple, that it not become a casual experience. (Today without the temple we unfortunately “manage” quite well despite all our tumah. Since the “reason” for tumah isn’t relevant to us—we have no temple that we might become too familiar with—so tumah itself isn’t relevant to us, as it were.) For mikvah Rambam has a beautiful symbolism at the end of the laws of mikvah. There is also a popular interpretation of mikvah and sprinkling that they represent 2 modes of teshuvah. One is to immerse completely into the teshuvah—to change completely—and come out pure. But sometimes old habits and deeds are perhaps impossible to break and change. In such cases at least sprinkle yourself with a good teshuvah.

    ---

    THE COLOR RED SIGNIFIES
    >sin (Sforno, from the explicit passuk אם יהיו חטואיכם כשני וכו אם יאדימו כתולע),
    >shame (RYS Kahaneman),
    >vitality (Malbim, Hirsch)—that is, complete vitality so that if (one) [two] hairs are any other color it’s passul.

    Other colors including brown don’t have these significances.

    --
    The Moreh 3:26 initially says that in the mitzvah of shechita only the barest minimum that requires a reason is the general act of killing. The use of a knife, the slitting of the trachea and esophagus—the very ABCs of shechita—are details which require no reason. Certainly then the redness of the red heifer needs no reason. However, Moreh immediately retracts from this. Possibly after his retraction there is a redefinition of what is considered a basic and what is considered a detail—but IMHO he remains with the first definition ועין שם.

    --
    The commentary of R Hirsch on Para Aduma is 40? pages long. Probably any good question one might raise against rationalistism in a blog is addressed in those many pages.

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  31. According to the rationalist Rishonim, prayer is solely about our relationship with God. According to the mystical approach, on the other hand, prayer is primarily about manipulating various metaphysical energies, with a corresponding effect on the material world.

    So the mystics worked out the mechanism of prayer... while the rationalists, as in the case of evolution, have no theory for the mechanism.... :)

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  32. I think that manipulation is the right word. A Kabbalistic prayer addresses specific sfirot at specific time and in specific order. Stam רפאינו is no good, it has to address the right sfira or מאלאך הממונה or שד or dibbuk or whatever.

    @reject

    If sfirot are נבראים the 'mystics' worship נבראים. If they are אלוקות, then אלוקות is not one.

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  33. It seems to me that there is a fine line between the mystical approach and magical thinking. It's all to easy to slip from a legitimate approach to superstition and paganism. I do think that it's important to emphasize the rationalist perspective. Too often it is not mentioned at all.

    Cheers for the rationalist perspective, of course. But another way not to slip is to resist innovations. One Sphardic Jew told me that his Chassidic neighbor got him to become more religious. But he only went along with things that he was familiar with, that he remembered his grandparents doing etc. When the neighbor suggested that he start wearing a gartel he said "no". It wasn't his tradition.

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  34. I don't know where Carol gets her information about Kabbalistic prayers and kavvanot, but from what sources I have on hand, I see that they negate entirely such a possibility as praying to the sefirot. There is no question that the prayers are directed only to Hashem, and the sefirot have no power of their own.

    In another ma'amar from Derech Mitzvosecha of the Tzemach Tzedek, (שורש מצות התפילה, Chapter 8ff), he brings a teshuvah of the Rivash (Siman 157), who inquired of the kabbalist Don Yosef "how is it that the Kabbalists intend in one berachah towards one sefirah, and in another berachah towards another sefirah--is there G-dliness in the sefiroth that one can direct his prayers to them?"

    Don Yosef replied: "G-d Forbid that a person's prayers should be directed to anyone other than to Hashem, The Source of all Sources (עילת כל העילות). It is rather like someone who has litigation with someone, and he requests of the King to send his Minister of Justice to judge his case...if he requests a gift of the King, he will not request it go through the Minister of Justice, but rather through a minister in charge of the storehouses...Similarly, the prayer is directed to the Source of everything, just that the person requests that the שפע should arrive via the sephirah that is appropriate to his request..."

    The Rivash continues: "This is what the Chassid explained to me as to the intentions of the Kabbalists, and it is a very good explanation--but who forces us to enter into all this? It is preferable to pray directly to Hashem, and He will know how to fulfill the requests of the petitioner...as Rav Shimshon of Kinon says, "I pray with the same intent as this child", to exclude the [extraneous] intentions of the Kabbalists."

    Perhaps the wording of Kabbalistic prayers is vague, but they specify that their intent is clearly to pray only to Hashem.

    The same question is directed at selichot that are said over the course of the year, such as מכניסי רחמים, and one of the selichot that are said during Behab, or at Neilah on Yom Kippur: מדת הרחמים עלינו התגלגלי, ולפני קונך תחינתנו הפילי... The Tzemach Tzedek explains "that we are not entreating these middos to bestow us anything, G-d Forbid--just that they should be the conduits of our prayers upwards and of Hashem's effulgence downwards."

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  35. So according to Don Yossef do you ask the minister to approach the king or the king to command the minister? In the משל you ask the minister to approach the king.

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    1. The Tzemach Tzedek says that that is a problem with the parable--the ministers and the King are separate entities (and the ministers are people with free will, to do differently than they are commanded); with respect to the sephirot, they are Hashem's attributes, and are one with Hashem, just as the Rambam says (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 2:14) הוא היודע, והוא הידוע, והוא הדעה עצמה--הכול אחד. These attributes have no will of their own, and are not separate from Hashem.

      In any event, Don Yossef himself states that it is forbidden to address our prayers to anyone other than Hashem. There is no such option as to ask the minister to approach the King--again, that would violate the Fifth Principle of Faith.


      As for the answer to the Rivash's question ("It is preferable to pray directly to Hashem, and He will know how to fulfill the requests of the petitioner"): The Tzemach Tzedek answers by explaining what is the purpose when we praise Hashem in general. When we praise Hashem for being kind, or wise, we request that He should reveal His wisdom in bestowing us wisdom, or kindness, in providing us parnassah. The kavannot during Shemonah Esrei are meant to implore Hashem to reveal these particular attributes, that would be otherwise latent.

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    2. OK, so Tzemach Tzedek disagrees with Ramban that Elokim and sfirot are נבראים. He thinks that the Almighty has identifiable parts that need to be addressed and manipulated in order to be revealed? And the Almighty wants us to ask him to reveal parts of himself? And the mekubalim know how to do it?
      I think that Rambam wouldn't consider it to be monotheism. The mystics want to manipulate the people into believing that there is no contradiction between their faith and monotheism. 'Attributes' that need to be manipulated to be revealed mean that the entity is not one. Isn't this clear?

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    3. I am saying that all the Kabbalists are addressing their prayers to Hashem's Essence--עצמותו ומהותו. No prayers are directed towards the sefiroth. (The level of sfirot are later revelations of Hashem, after the tzimtzum, and it says in the Sifrei that one must pray אליו ולא למידותיו. This all is answered quite clearly in the essay of the Tzemach Tzedek in Derech Mitzvosecha. I don't think I'm able to cite all the relevant parts of the essay to answer all your questions.)
      I don't understand what you say are these "identifiable parts" that you say are being "manipulated"--a person prays and beseeches Hashem. No one, Kabbalist or not, has any pretensions of being able to "manipulate" Hashem. I am challenging Carol's contention that Kabbalists pray to the sefiroth. That would be a violation of the Fifth Principle of Faith. The Tzemach Tzedek is answering the question as to why we praise Hashem at all, or add any such kavvanot at all.
      It is not a matter of praying as a Kabbalist or not--the explanation works whenever a person is offering praise to Hashem. What, are we trying to "flatter" Hashem so that He'll do what we want?

      If a person has earned the title "Kabbalist", he knows how to pray to Hashem with it still being monotheistic, and not to violate the Fifth Principle of Faith.

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  36. Suppose the “mystics” indeed engage in idolatry/witchcraft when they pray; while the “rationalists” believe that Hashem doesn’t respond.

    Now, the post appears to be saying that there are only those two authoritative schools of thought and only people who pray along those lines are loyal to the sources. Then why is it that in the real world all religious Jews—well maybe there are those who I didn’t know about—aren’t loyal to the sources? Why does apparently everyone in the real world pray to Hashem and think that He is certainly listening and may answer? Why have numerous commenters indicated that not only they don’t pray like either of the two schools but they were totally unaware that they exist?

    And to complicate matters we have by elimination that those who don’t pray like rationalists are idol worshippers and witches….

    --

    To add to Yehudah P.’s citation see question 91 here, (for bilinguals here), and here.
    Also תורת העולה חלק ג פרק ד.

    --
    Returning to the word “manipulation”, perhaps the phrase “attempted manipulation” is ok.

    Kt.

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