Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Ghostbusters Analogy

On the occasion of the release of the new Ghostbusters movie, I am re-posting something that I originally posted back in 2014 on the occasion of the passing of the parshan Harold Ramis.

The original 1984 Ghostbusters movie was immensely popular. 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 provides 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 courtroom drama with angels. 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!

(In other news - I will be in Florida in November, and I am available for scholar-in-residence engagements. If you are interested, please email me.)


  1. "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"

    A g'zeira shava

  2. And coincidentally this was in the news today on CCN's website.....

  3. What about the soul, which continues to exist after death? And what about reward in the world to come? Do rationalists also deny their existence?

    1. no. we just don't waste time wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. they may or may not exist, but really who cares?

      we focus on making this world better.

    2. @downtoearth: Even the mystics agree that the purpose of Torah and mitzvos is to refine the person and the world around us. In this regard, the rationalist approach is certainly correct--the burden of proof is on the Kabbalists that what they say is also correct.

      For example, in Lurianic Kabbalah, the things around us have "sparks of Kedushah" that are liberated and raised to kedushah when the object is used for a holy purpose. If a person eats kosher food with the proper intent, s/he liberates these sparks of holiness and raises them to the realm of Kedushah. If s/he partakes of the food only for physical pleasure, then these "sparks" are not elevated, until the person somehow utilizes the energy gained from that food for a holy purpose.

      The Rambam would also say that a person should enjoy things of this world only לשם שמים--there is no debate on that point. The explanation of the mechanism behind it is simply different.

  4. (On another subject) Rabbi Eliezer Melamed is asking for expert assistance regarding the halachic issue of vessels "swallowing" taste from the food cooked in them: According to the Talmud and Rishonim, metal vessels swallow a huge amount of taste, which then passes on to the next food cooked in it. But modern studies indicate that today's metal and glass vessels swallow hardly anything. So is it perhaps that in older times, vessels had a different composition of metals, or that people were unable to clean them as thouroughly as we clean them today? Also, when was glass made resistant enough for use in cooking and for hot food?

    Here is a link to Rabbi Melamed's column:

    (Also in the same column, Rabbi Melamed explains, based on the Gemara in Ktobot, how Chazal determined the best balance between husband and wife in the Ketuba: By a process of trial and error! But that's another subject...)

    1. r' h schachter has said on occasion that it is clear that stainless steel does not "swallow" taste and all the rabbis should get together and reflect this in psak. (my chiddush is that when all the rabbis get together it will be moshiachtzeit and we'll hwave a Sanhedrin to do this)
      Joel Rich

    2. I'm no expert, but if you've ever used cast iron cookware, which is likely what was prevalent in the times of the Talmud and Rishonim, it's easy to understand that why they thought metal vessels "swallowed" taste. The truth is the minute amount of fats from meats cooked in cast iron cookware that becomes part of the desired "seasoning" layer does not affect taste, but it's still a misconception that a well used cast iron skillet will impart flavors to your food. This phenomenon of oils/fats adhering to the surface that is not easily removed had to be known to them. (It takes strong soap or high temperature to removed the seasoning layer)

      While somewhat speculative - the process of casting may also not have been as refined in those days, and perhaps it wasn't uncommon for the surface to be pitted and create further areas for fats from food to be trapped.

      Compared to modern stainless steel, enameled iron, or the finishes on non-stick cookware, and the ease in cleaning these surfaces, the cast iron cookware probably seemed very "absorbent". I think when one thinks of cast iron cookware, it's easier to understand why they had a different perception of metal cookware than most of us do today.

    3. Also, it wasn't uncommon in the time of Chazal to cook with earthenware vessels--earthenware that hasn't been glazed is observed to absorb the liquid that you put inside (like in Baba Metziah 40a--if a person entrusts oil in earthenware vessels, it's assumed that the earthenware will absorb a certain amount of the oil).

  5. "1. Spiritual phenomena exist as entities;
    Without the first idea in the list above, the latter three don't even begin."

    Rabbi Slifkin, to clarify, is this statement just to suggest that there is no presence in this world of non-physical phenomena (aside from consciousness/thought) that can be tested empirically. Or is this a denial of existence of anything non-physical (perhaps including the Almighty). Or something in the middle?

  6. There is a whole seder in mishna called seder taharos which deals with the laws of tumah including how tumah travels and how it is blocked through ohelim. It seems ludicrous to suggest that the rambam actually believed that tumah is merely a state of mind and not a spiritual entity. The rambam in mada speaks about the different types of angels which are spiritual entities. It seems that the rambam actually identified with the mystical stream of thought.

    1. I assume Rabbi Kellner is basing it on the Rambam at the end of הלכות מקוואות where he says that just like someone who immerses in a mikveh becomes tahor, even though his body is the same as it was before, so as soon as a person immerses his mind in reflecting how certain thoughts or traits are destructive, he immediately purifies himself.
      It's true though that he also there are a lot of things in laws of tumah and taharah that are seemingly counter-intuitive--and are to be accepted as חוקים.

  7. I think that rationalism (which I am partly sympathetic to) needs to more carefully define what it does an doesn't believe in. Reducing the entire religious experience and Man's relationship with God to empirically verifiable phenomena is thin gruel. A true rationalist wouldn't believe in the concept of a human soul . . .

    1. Would you believe it!? In the sense that you mean the soul I indeed don't believe in it!

      The truth is that there are a lot of rationalists and they all believe different things. Who decides what rationalism believes in?

    2. Well then, how does a rationalist define the human soul? (Hence, "I think that rationalism . . . needs to more carefully define what it does and doesn't believe in.")
      Even Plato and Aristotle believed in a transcendental divine soul.

  8. the notion that our physical actions have no spiritual effect is against an explicit mishna in avos perek 4 mishna 13 which says רבי אליעזר בן יעקב אומר העושה מצוה אחת קונה לו פרקליט אחד והעובר עבירה אחת קונה לו קטיגור אחת. (the rav explains that a פרקליט means a מלאך מליץ טוב )

    1. Polemics....

    2. If it's so explicit why do you need the Rav to explain it?

  9. well... ok, let's try some socratic rationalist questions: what exactly is this soul thing that you believe in? and on what basis do you believe in it?

  10. Found an excerpt from Moreh Nevuchim Book II Chapter 6 in RNS's Challenge of Creation:

    They only show that all parts of the Universe, even the limbs of animals in their actual form, are produced through angels: for natural forces and angels are identical. How bad and injurious is the blindness of ignorance! Say to a person who is believed to belong to the wise men of Israel that the Almighty sends His angel to enter the womb of a woman and to form there the fœtus, he will be satisfied with the account; he will believe it, and even find in it a description of the greatness of God's might and wisdom; although he believes that the angel consists of burning fire, and is as big as a third part of the Universe, yet he considers it possible as a divine miracle. But tell him that God gave the seed a formative power which produces and shapes the limbs, and that this power is called "angel," or that all forms are the result of the influence of the Active Intellect, and that the latter is the angel, the Prince of the world, frequently mentioned by our Sages, and he will turn away; because he cannot comprehend the true greatness and power of creating forces that act in a body without being perceived by our senses. Our Sages have already stated--for him who has understanding--that all forces that reside in a body are angels, much more the forces that are active in the Universe.

    But earlier in that same chapter we read this:

    We have already stated above that the angels are incorporeal. This agrees with the opinion of Aristotle: there is only this difference in the names employed--he uses the term "Intelligences," and we say instead "angels." His theory is that the Intelligences are intermediate beings between the Prime Cause and existing things, and that they effect the motion of the spheres, on which motion the existence of all things depends. This is also the view we meet with in all parts of Scripture: every act of God is described as being performed by angels.

    But "angel" means "messenger"; hence every one that is intrusted with a certain mission is an angel. Even the movements of the brute creation are sometimes due to the action of an angel, when such movements serve the purpose of the Creator, who endowed it with the power of performing that movement; e.g., "God hath sent His angel, and hath shut the lions' mouths that they have not hurt me" (Dan. vi. 22). Another instance may be seen in the movements of Balaam's ass, described as caused by an angel. The elements are also called angels. Comp. "Who maketh winds His angels, flaming fire His ministers" (Ps. civ. 4). There is no doubt that the word "angel" is used of a messenger sent by man; e.g., "And Jacob sent angels" (Gen. xxxii. 4); of a prophet, e.g., "And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim" (Judges ii. 1); "And He sent an angel, and hath brought us forth out of Egypt" (Num. xx. 16). It is also used of ideals, perceived by prophets in prophetic visions, and of man's animal powers, as will be explained in another place.

    When we assert that Scripture teaches that God rules this world through angels, we mean such angels as are identical with the Intelligences.

    So it is clear from the Rambam that angels are indeed spiritual entities that really exist and really have an effect on the universe.
    But the term "angel" doesn't only refer to these spiritual entities. They can -- at other times -- refer to the laws of nature.

    1. Kellner (maimonides confrontation with mysticism') points out that for rambam angels = laws of nature....

      Intriguing little book....

    2. The ONLY "angels" (in terms of non-physical entities) that Rambam believed in were Aristotle's intelligences that moved the spheres. That has very little in common with the type of angels found elsewhere in theological writings. Furthermore, it's pretty clear that had Rambam know physics, which accounts for the movements of the "spheres," he wouldn't have needed to posit the existence of such intelligences to begin with.

    3. fozziebear:

      It would seem that Kellner, along with the book "Challenge of Creation" are guilty of quote-mining the Rambam out of context.
      The Rambam repeatedly in Mishnah Torah and Moreh Nevuchim states that angels are real, live spiritual entities.

      Just start with Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah chapters 2-4 and then move on to M.N. Book I chapters 49, and 72 Book II chapters 2-12, and then see the Letter against Astrology (especially the first half):

      I'm glad you acknowledge the Rambam's view based on what he actually says. They are in fact spiritual entities with a significant effect on the physical universe. (And they communicate with people)

      But you're assumption that Rambam would have changed his mind with knowledge of physics is quite unfounded.
      Even in the field of physics, the origins and the underlying source for ongoing functioning of the laws of nature are a complete mystery.
      Just describing what the laws of physics are doesn't bring anyone closer to understanding why they emerged and continue to function.

      Only someone with a materialist bias can just assume the mere existence of the laws of physics are somehow a self-justifying bottom-line explanation for why the physical world behaves the way it does.

    4. Dovid, you are entirely correct, the origins and the underlying source for ongoing functioning of the laws of nature are a complete mystery. R. Slifkin has a comprehensive presentation of that argument in The Challenge Of Creation, where he explains why this is the strongest testimony for a Creator. Still, it's pretty obvious that once you have modern physics, you no longer need to accept Aristotle's "intelligences" for moving the spheres in the patterns of movement that they undertake. This is no way contradicts the point that you still need an ultimate Intelligence for the underlying laws of nature, but you no longer need separate intelligences/"angels" for planetary motion.

    5. The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim interprets the midrash that says that an angel "made" Yehudah have relations with Tamar is the sexual desire:
      (Part II, Chapter 6):
      Again, we read (in Bereshit Rabba, chap. lxxxv.), in reference to the relation between Judah and Tamar:" R. Jochanan said that Judah was about to pass by [without noticing Tamar], but God caused the angel of lust, i.e., the libidinous disposition, to present himself to him." Man's disposition is here called an angel. Likewise we frequently meet with the phrase" the angel set over a certain thing.''
      In Midrash-Koheleth (on Eccles. x. 7) the following passage occurs:"When man sleeps, his soul speaks to the angel, the angel to the cherub." The intelligent reader will find here a clear statement that man's imaginative faculty is also called" angel," and that" cherub" is used for man's intellectual faculty. How beautiful must this appear to him who understands it; how absurd to the ignorant!

    6. why not read Kellner's book before assuming he quotes it out of context... he's quite familiar with Rambam's writings, I assure you.

      Ironically, given your accusation, that particular book of Kellner's is also, in essence, a presentation of a coherent account of Rambam's approach to many early mystical conceptions that were starting to take hold in Judaism (and have since taken hold in a big way). So to suggest that kellner took Rambam out of context is particularly inappropriate with reference to this book...

      (Sidepoint: I wonder if Kellner and his friends keep a score of how many times they get quoted in this blog... and the winner gets a decent bottle of plonk...)

    7. I think you misunderstood the Rambam.
      The Rambam isn't saying we need intelliegnces for planetary motion in the physics sense. He says the intelligences are intermediaries between G-d and the laws of nature. The laws of nature need ongoing *non-physical* influence from the intelligences in order to continue to operate.

      Nothing about what modern physics has discovered about the laws of nature have any bearing on how they get their power.
      Saying they get their power from G-d --as R. SLifkin says-- is no different in kind --from a modern physics standpoint--than saying they get their power from intelligences.

      So I don't see how the Rambam's view of malochim becomes obsolete to their core with the discoveries of modern physics.

  11. 1. What did Yaakov Avinu mean when he said המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע יברך את הנערים?
    2. If mystical and rationalist Judaism are "simply two very different worldviews" and no more, why do I serve in the IDF and work for a living, when others believe that if they learn Torah they are exempt from these obligations, based on the idea that Torah protects and sustains all?

    1. Regarding #2, every individual has his own job. Some have the job of learning full-time, some have the job of being career IDF officers and some do a little of everything. TheChafetz Chaim likened Am Yisrael to an army. Just as an army needs different units (including support troops) so does Am Yisrael.

  12. Rav Slifkin,
    A recent Cross Currents שליט"א article has this:
    "Were the myriad mazikin that constantly surround us visible to us, says Abba Binyamin (Berachos 6a), we would be frozen in terror. Whether he had in mind the fungi, protozoa, bacteria and viruses that regularly seek to invade our bodies must remain speculation."
    I read the above passage and almost screamed. Chaza"l knew about disease-carrying microorganisms, AND THEY DIDN'T WARN EVERYONE about the need for proper hygeine? What kind of אכזריות do they unknowingly attribute to Chaza"l, for the sake of making them into omniscient superhumans?

    1. Well, didn't they instruct people to wash their hands before meals and not to put coins in one's mouth?
      Didn't they legislate "tumas yodayim" for "ruach ra'ah" which necessitated proper hygiene on a pretty regular basis?

  13. If the spiritual world acts according to set laws and can be affected by our actions how is it essentially different than the physical world? Perhaps it is a parallel universe (this is not just science fiction - Perhaps it is simply a part of our universe that Science has not yet discovered. Just to give one example, at one time making an object fly by remote control would have been considered magic.

    As for the reward of mitzvot being the effect on one's mind, so what? If this effect does not lead to a reward in the spiritual world (and Rambam certainly believed in it)why should we care about improving something that will be gone in a relatively short period of time?Could it be that there is a third way that makes peace between rationalism and mysticism?


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