Friday, December 20, 2019

Picturing Rationalism vs. Mysticism

With my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought nearing publication, it was time to start thinking about the cover design. What type of illustration would be relevant to this topic? The only thing that came to mind - and I think that it really cuts to the core of the schism - is a picture of an atom and the sefirot.

Allow me to elaborate. For many years I have been defining the schism between rationalism and mysticism as falling into the following three topics:

I. KNOWLEDGE
Mystics see reliable knowledge about the world as being obtained from ongoing instances of supernatural revelation; rationalists see it as coming from human investigation.

II. NATURE
Rationalists prefer to perceive God as working through nature; mystics prefer to see Him as working through supernatural miracles.

III. MITZVOT
Rationalists understand the commandments as functioning solely to change our thoughts and behavior; mystics see their primary function as manipulating mystical forces.

In my book, for expository reasons, I have expanded this list to include two extra topics:

IV. SUPERNATURAL ENTITIES
Rationalists minimize the number of supernatural entities and forces, mystics maximize them.

V. TORAH
Rationalists see Torah as being toras chaim, a religious guide to life; mystics, on the other hand, believe the Torah to be the genetic blueprint of creation, possessing all kinds of metaphysical qualities, which only on its most superficial level is an instructional text. (This is really just an expansion of the differing views of mitzvot.)

Now, all these five differences ultimately relate to understanding Judaism within the framework of the laws of nature vs. within the framework of supernatural forces. (Why people choose one rather than the other itself presumably boils down to some fundamental aspect of human psychology, which is certainly worthy of investigation, and which I have some initial thoughts about; perhaps there are some psychologists here who can give an insight?) Ultimately, then, the visual depiction of rationalism should relate to physics (which is the "rawest" form of science), hence the illustration of the popular conception of an atom (even though that's not what atoms really look like). The illustration for mysticism should be a visual depiction of mystical forces, hence the illustration of the sefirot.

(Meanwhile, if there are any Photoshop wizards out there who would like to assist with a certain modification that I would like to make to this illustration, please write to me at director@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org. And if you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you. And if you're in Israel for Chanukah, come visit The Biblical Museum of Natural History!)

43 comments:

  1. Great cover idea. It says a lot through its simplicity.

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  2. I think the graphic you propose is a fine illustration of the two perspectives. I think the atom vs. the sefiros chart has a nice parallel structure to it.

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  3. TL;DR: Your summary may work sociologically, but the model is far too oversimplified for classifying serious primary sources in machashavah.

    This may work for the masses, where subtlety is not the strong suit.

    BUt the number of different axes you list here proves what I have been haranguing you about for years -- when you look at the sources, there is no one "Rationalism" vs "Mysticism".

    The common cause you identify, "Judaism within the framework of the laws of nature vs. within the framework of supernatural forces" does not hold among primary and secondary sources.

    You can have a mequbal who believes the whole system is semniotics (the Ramchal) or mystic non-mequbal (Maharal). The Gra and the Besh"t both accepted the Lurianic system, but the Gra did so in the way yeshivos accepted lomdus -- the model tied up many of the questions he had in a neat system of thought. Whereas it's the Besh"t and later the Ben Ish Hai who invokved progressive revelation. Thus it's near sacrilage to a Chassid or many Sepharadim to talk about the R Chaim Vital's allegedly authorized presentation of the Ari's teaching as being wrong. Whereas the Gra not only often chose other students' interpretations ahead of RCV's, he didn't always agree with the Ari in every detail.

    And of course no one who predates the invention of the scientific method (Francis Bacon? Vincenzo Galilei [father of the gravity guy]?) couldn't be a rationalist in our sense of the word. In the Rambam's day, being what they called a Philosopher and we would more narrowly call a Scholasticist / Kalam was in no small measure accepting Aristotle as an authority without thinking to test his statements against anything but whether one can fit revelation to it.

    Vekhulu...

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    1. Hmmm...It does seem true that taking kabbalah as a 'system of thought' like the Gra or using the style of pre-modern non empirical science (which is also just an internal system of thought) are so close in kind as to be indistinguishable, but perhaps we can say that pre modern science was still based on basic observation of the senses, with logic and sometimes math built on top to create ‘reasonable’ conclusions (mostly without testing those conclusions in the real world) while the mystical took ideas that were not sensory at all and built other logical arguments on top, and really did not concern itself with whether it seemed to make sense in real life in the least (or maybe took some pride in the fact that it didn't).



      In the end, maybe that’s the real distinction, rationalist are just bothered by the fact that an idea doesn’t seem to work out in the real world, while mystics get a kick out of that. Security vs escapism? Two different ways to deal with the existential crisis?

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    2. There is definitely a rationalism vs mysticism debate. I would venture to argue that there is no biases for mysticism in the Torah.

      One camp is Maimonidean (rationalism) and the other is Kabbalistic (mysticism). It is not that, if Torah is right and if onkelos is right, than mysticism is correct. Both rationalism and mysticism can’t both be correct. Thus, the question remains and this book.

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    3. Turk Hill: I am not denying the existence of a debate. On the contrary... I am saying that amongst the sources, there are a number of very different debates being lumped together.

      J writes: In the end, maybe that’s the real distinction, rationalist are just bothered by the fact that an idea doesn’t seem to work out in the real world, while mystics get a kick out of that.

      And that appears to be true on the more popularist level, the people who need a world that makes sense are picking on those elements from the sources that they can build that logical world from. And those who find meaning in realizing how much of Creation is beyond human comprehension similarly find the aspects of verious sources that fit those needs.

      But among the rishonim and acharonim themselves, there is a lot more going on. Few if any come out on the same side on all the dichotomies listed in this post.

      It isn't rationalism vs mysticism, it is far more complex than that.

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    4. Your statement that 'some people need a world that makes sense' is spot on. It is some kind of psychological need, no less than the need some have to make everything mystical. It isn't more logical, it doesn't serve any Torah purpose and it isn't more based on seichel. The primal need to have an understanding of everything, never to leave a question with a simple 'I don't know', is a major force in their logic. Often it is quite noticeable, that actual logic is not the primary force, but the goalposts have already been cemented in.

      It isn't cerebral, it's psychological. A hot drink with some classical music could have the same effect on them.

      Jason from Jersey

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    5. Wouldn't it be more nuanced back then precisely because the differences between metaphysics and natural philosophy were so thin in many areas, and science generally got on well with religion. It would seem to have been much easier to travel between the two. It appears more nuanced today because both are not really on speaking terms with each other in any real sense anymore, and while any modern individual can have both scientific and mystical beliefs, the actual disciplines themselves have nothing to say to each other that the other could recognize as a valid idea.

      What I mean is, is there actually a lot more going on with the rishonim and acharonim regarding this topic, or is it simply that if we lived then we also would have all sorts of positions that straddled the two disciplines without even thinking that we were doing that? Wouldn't it just seem a normal way to think?

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    6. This could well be true, but it isn't the point I was making. All I said was that as the post itself points out, there is a list of distinctions being made between "Rationalism" and "Mysticism".

      For example, Raymond asked where R' Yehudah haLevi would fit in this dichotomy. He believed that once you justified Judaism based on a trusted tradition, Aristotle has a lot to tell us. (So after section 1, there is a lot of Aristo.) However, he also believed that born Jews and Israel are different in kind than other humans and lands. And he taught that nature was a real thing. Depending on which subset of the 5 items listed in this post (at least those 5) -- you would end up putting the Rihal in different boxes.

      The premise behind much of this blog is that the loose correlation you find among the masses who go with their gut can be used to categorize rishonim and acharonim who worked heavily producing a well-developed worldview.

      There is no Rationalism vs Mysticism, because neither term was given a single clear definition.

      If, beyond that, in the days of Natural Philosophy, before the invention of science, many of these distinctions also had a broader gray area than they have today, that would make things messier. In addition to my point.

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    7. Jason from Jersey: You wrote, "Your statement that 'some people need a world that makes sense' is spot on."

      But then, the other side is also psychological. We aren't judging which model is more true with these statements, but why different people are drawn to one or the other. You can accuse people of inventing complexity that can only be half-understood by human-level intelligences or of eliminating from the world anything they can't explain. Either accusation is just reflecting your own biases, which model speaks to you. (And your unwillingness to invoke "eilu va'eilu" and just accept the difference.)

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    8. I think I understand your argument, though it brings up a question for me: So let's say Rabbi Slifkin is making a mistake, and we are really just dealing with a current definitional point of view only applicable to our generations, and he is wrong to seek cover from the past. How does your approach address his stated need to have the frum world respect a wider swath of what we can rational ideas in hashkafah and halacha? I mean, you are creating a very niche view of rishonim and anachronim, each one in his own thought world of his own creation, which seem to be hard to share and compare in a consistent way outside of themselves. How do we then address the basic rational issue of this blog? Not the issues themselves, but the notion of these ideas coming into contact with Judaism. We can't very well make three dozen different approaches. That’s not going to work practically. The blog seems to assume that there can be some consistent basis to understand the rational world within Judaism. On the other hand, if we make it all so personal, almost like a subjective art form, with as many approaches as there are various rishonim and acharonim, it doesn’t seem any progress can be made. Is this the state of affairs we are stuck with?

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    9. Miccha, you are right. I merely wanted to point out that the side that claims the cerebral advantage is just as disingenuous

      Jason from Jersey

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    10. J, that is something I said, not really my main point.

      My main point was that in this post, R Slifkin notes that there are a number of points of dispute here. And I agree that among the masses, there tends to be a correlation between the sides people pick on each of them. Perhaps (as I suggested earlier) because some people find more meaning in that which they understand, and others in knowing there is so much they can't understand.

      But we do not find too many actual primary sources that one can show have consistent tendencies on all 5 matters.

      But in addition, yes, I did point out that with the invention of "science", the definition of "Rationalism" underwent such a change that no rishon qualifies.


      But given my main point, about there being very different topics being lumped together under two poorly defined labels, I cannot say "we are really just dealing with a current definitional point of view only applicable to our generations". Because even with the old definition of rationalism... Look the Rambam's metaphysics in Yesodei haTorah 2 is not that far from Qabbalah. The difference is that the Rambam talks about levels of intellects being the metaphysical cause of the level below, and Qabbalah talks about "Light" descending through olamos. Or even that the chomer of one olam being the tzuros of the one below. And the Rambam even says intellects are tzuros beli chomer...

      Or you have a non-qabbalist who revels in how much the world is beyond human intuition like the Maharal, and the Ramchal giving a rationalist presentation of Qabbalah.

      One can very logically embrace mysticism and even inherentism (eg that Benei Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael are inherently qadosh, metaphysically different in kind) and yet not be a maximalist when it comes to believing midrashim that multiply the miracles.

      Etc...

      The whole Rationalism vs Mysticism split, even with a Medieval notion of what is "rationalist", really only describes tendencies among the masses. People who think about the issues, like the baalei machashavah who write the texts being discussed, do not end up on the same side on every issue being lumped together here. The labels are just not well defined.

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    11. Thank you for the clarification.

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    12. I agree with much of what Micha Berger wrote. For example, ibn Ezra the Ralbag believed in the efficacy of astrology, a view that Rambam rejects. They also relied heavily on Arabic philosophers. Rambam himself believed in many wrong science, the views of the pagan Greek Aristotle. Of course, these ideas were ancient wrong science. But since science progresses, and Maimonides even admits that future generations will understand science better than he does (Guide 2:24). They were many great rationalist but Maimonides possessed all of the qualifications.

      Additionally, Maimonides would accept the findings modern science if he were alive today, for example, I think he would have accepted the theories of evolution. He accepted the investigative scientific methodology of Aristotle. He rejected the somewhat mystical notions of Plato. So he relied on science. In fact, in one of his medical books he wrote we should not rely on tradition, even the traditional ideas of the great physicians of the past, because our knowledge increases. He did not accept the notion of the decline of generations, but felt that people improve over generations. Menachem Kellner explore much of Maimonides' philosophy and shows how Maimonides was opposed to mysticism.

      It, therefore follows, that at lest with wise Jewish rationalist (their philosophical orientation was generally rationalistic) in general Moses Maimonides in particular. Thus, we can make a distinction and categorize the two perspectives, namely between rationalism and mysticism.

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    13. Turk Hill, see what I wrote J. While I do have a problem with using the word "rationalist" without taking into account the difference between the rationalist Natural Philosopher and the rationalist Scientist, that's my lesser problem.

      Aristotle isn't "wrong science" -- it wasn't science. It wasn't belief in evidence, experimentation, etc... It was a kind of philosophy, just happened to be about nature. Aristo took a commonsensical view of the world and wrapped it in elegant ideas, but he never thought of checking the results.

      As for the Rambam, what a hypothetical Rambam would have said isn't a reliable game. Today's rationalist, including your version of the hypothetical contemporary Rambam, wouldn't consider the real Rambam -- or any Natural Philosopher -- a "rationalist". The world figured out a new and more rational way of testing ideas since.

      And that isn't my primary issue here either.

      What I thought was important was to once again note something RNS doesn't seem to acknowledge, but I can show is implied in this post: That "rationalist" and "mystic" are not well-defined terms, sometimes meaning one thing, sometimes another.

      Here he shows "rationalism" means at least 5 different things. And you would be hard pressed to find a primary source that actually falls on the same side of a mysticism vs rationalism line on all 5, never mind side-issues RNS didn't identified.

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    14. We agree that today's rationalists would be skeptical of most natural philosophers. For example, ibn Ezra, as well as Gersonides was convinced that astrology worked, and could be minded to manipulate nature. Indeed, there is no single type of rationalist or mystic. For example, Joseph ibn Caspi, a rationalist, held some interpretations of the Bible which Maimonides would reject. But fairness requires that these were the views of most medieval contemporaries. Maimonides was a startling exception. Of course, Maimonides wasn't the only rationalist we would consider "rational" today, but he was the most knowledgeable, generally comprising most, if not all of the rationalistic philosophy which "fits" nicely in with the Rabbi's categorization.

      Let's go over Rabbi Slifkin's list and see if Maimonides meets all the requirements.

      (1) Knowledge: Rabbi Slifkin writes that rationalists generally view knowledge as stemming from people. Rabbi Kook couldn't agree more. He felt that revelation did not cease at Sinai. Revelation is ongoing in the form of science. Rambam also felt that people can derive at truths on their own. Indeed, his favorite philosopher Aristotle did just that. Contrary to his views, most mystics today rely on "revelation." Only G-d could reveal truths.

      (2) Nature: Maimonides agrees that G-d works through nature. Natural law is fixed and needs no change. This has led some to think that Maimonides did not believe in miracles. All agree that he at least minimizes them. Mystics, like Nachmanides, felt that even "hidden" miracles exist, like, for example, a falling leaf.

      (3) Mitzvot: Rambam was absolutely religious, devout, and observant. He taught that Jews should obey all the enactments as the rabbis explained them, but explained that the commandments served three purposes: To teach the truth and improve the self and society. G-d does not need to see people doing mitzvot. Ever opposed to his thinking, Ramban felt that doing mitzvot held celestial implications that could even aid G-d.

      (4) Supernatural entities: Maimonides did not believe in angels. They do not exist; they are metaphors for the natural forces of the divine. In Guide 2:42, he explains that Jacob did not wrestle with an angel, it was a vision or a dream. Rashi believed in angels and demons, writing that Noah even saved demons during the flood.

      (5) Torah: Again, this falls back into the third category of the purposes of mitzvot. Rabbi Akiva felt that every letter, and later crowns as noted by mystics, taught a lesson. Rabbi Ishmael disagreed. He felt that “the Torah [which is intended for humans] speaks in human language.” The Torah often repeats itself for emphasis, clarity, poetry, or to make a point and that this is how humans talk.

      Thus, as far as Maimonides and Nachmanides are concerned, it appears that they fit neatly into Rabbi Slifkin's categorization.

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  4. Why not view physics as miraculous? I do. I don't have a problem with God acting through the mechanics of nature. After all, He created the laws of physics. Why he chose to do that is not really my business. That much is beyond me anyhow. Whilst I move about within this mortal coil I need to function within it according to the rules that govern it. At the same time I must nuture that Supra-natural soul which must continue after I shake it off. The combination of soul and body is miraculous. Each aspect informs the other. In the image of God were we created which requires us to achieve that level of Godliness we each are capable of. The natural world forces us to work within those confines whilst feeding that Godly soul which must continue on. I cannot but see the hand of my Father in heaven in every natural phenomenon. The use of the tools of nature, or the HOW,combined with the spiritual, the WHY is our entire purpose of being. Just my two cents.

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    1. That’s like saying why can’t unicorns coexist with the natural world.

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    2. What's your position on climate change?

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    3. Unicorns don't exist. Climate change doesn't worry me.

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    4. We agree that unicorns don’t exist. But you should be worried about climate change. Scientists are worried.

      In any event, G-d does not want people to sit back, relax, and expect that G-d will provide by preforming a miracle. If we do nothing to prevent climate change, it will be our own undoing. The laws of nature, such as when a hurricane cleans the atmosphere but may kill people residing near the proximity may be considered evil f we abuse the earth.

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  5. "Why people choose one rather than the other itself presumably boils down to some fundamental aspect of human psychology, which is certainly worthy of investigation, and which I have some initial thoughts about; perhaps there are some psychologists here who can give an insight?"

    MOST people don't "choose" one approach over the other, just like MOST people don't choose to be orthodox Judaism or Muslim or Hindu or fundamentalist Christian or ...

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  6. Following along the lines of micha berger, I think the title should be Between Rationalism and Mysticism:Schisms...

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  7. I credit Rabbi Slifkin's books for keeping me frum in my high school "questioning" years, and I've been following this blog for quite a while. I'm married with a large family, b"H, so I have neither the time nor the headspace to delve into the sources. But the more I read, the more I'm convinced "Rationalism vs. Mysticism" is, in many cases, a false dichotomy. Must I "choose one over the other"?

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    1. No, you mostly don't. But this blog does not discuss things with the nuance that you seem to have discovered with years. This is the Talmudic concept of תלמידים שלא שמשו כל צרכם, people with little knowledge of the subject matter that they discuss. Many have little familiarity with primary sources and have not spent the time necessary to really delve into the subject matter. Perusing the dust cover is good for political screeds and alternative medicine tracts. Important ideas require deeper study.
      Jason from Jersey

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    2. "Unknown," you can be like Rav Kook, who had both strong rationalist and mystical inclinations. But there's many areas where ultimately you have to choose. Do you prefer to see God acting through the natural or through the supernatural? Is Shiluach HaKein about compassion (as per most Rishonim), or about causing the mother bird distress (as per the Zohar)? Etc., etc.

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    3. Shiluach Haken can be in order to increase compassion in humans, or it can be to remind Hashem that His children are in Galus. Neither are really mystical. They are just two different reasons. The Rishonim give different reasons for korbanos, neither of which are more rational than the next. If anything, the Ramban's is slightly more rational, albeit not significantly.
      Different reasons have nothing to do with mysticism vs rationalism.

      ANd the idea that mysticism means the supernatural is just plain ignorant. Kabbala gives a mystical explanation to the natural world. Kabbala does not need nissim to exist to justify its theories and belief system. It can exist without anything supernatural.
      Jason from Jersey

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    4. Anonymous, while I agree that mysticism isn't the same as supernatural, I can't agree with your post as a whole.

      First, it's not ignorance to identify the two; it's oversimplification. Since we can't understand the supernatural as well as we can things that fall under the purvey of science, the supernatural will have more appeal to someone who finds meaning in how much he cannot know, than it will to someone who finds meaning in what he does understand. They aren't the same thing, but there is a correlation.

      "Supernatural" itself is a blurry word. It could refer to nissim that defy rules of nature, or to the metaphysics that drives nature. Qabbalah is about the latter.

      Third, there is a rational mechanism between setting up an exercise for a person to practice compassion and their becoming more compassionate. And, reward-and-punishment is a comparatively rationalistic metaphysical law.

      Whereas, getting what sure seems like reward by being cruel to a mother bird defies simple reward-and-punishment by proposing a countervailing metaphysical rule. And this notion of awakening Divine Compassion, reifying it into an entity that has no free will (?) or for some other reason follows law of metaphysics to be applied in general once awoken is very much mysticism.

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  8. Just like we have hagiography, I think we could say that some here have invented a new genre, called "rationalgragpy". Rationalgragpy is the practice of oversimplification and deification of science and rational "belief". Seems as though some believe in science more passionately than some of their chareidi counterparts believe in God.

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  9. What about the standard model particle chart versus the choshen? Both have 12 items in a 3x4 grid!

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  10. https://conceptdraw.com/a1500c3/p1/preview/640/pict--fundamental-matter-particle-types-standard-model-theory

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  11. Why not a chart of the Standard Model (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_Model)? That has two advantages over the image of the atom:
    1) It describes particles more fundamental than the atom;
    2) It is more chart-like, and therefore is a better parallel to the chart of the sefirot than the single atomic image is.

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    1. ... and it isn't a model that was only accepted as factor for a few years. Electrons don't orbit like planets.

      Still, it is a recognized symbol that means "science". (And with three electrons, it would have had a nice Magen David look.)

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  12. Your list is a head-scratching thesis of misconceptions. Your view of mysticism is seriously warped,y you must be speaking to an Israeli taxi driver who is giving you the synopsis of the kabbala on the radio hour. Mysticism does not discount rationalism in its totality, it does not claim that everything Hashem does is 'super-natural'. It dies not claim constant Divine revelations.
    Jason from Jersey

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  13. I like the idea of the cover, but as presented it looks a little change. Maybe an overlay between the atom and tree might look better with some tweaking.

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  14. Great cover. Some people are criticizing you for not including an obscure chart of the Standard Model, or because electrons don't actually orbit in ovals. But they're the kind of person who's no fun at parties. :) The point of the cover is to communicate to humans, and atom+sefirot does it better than any other design I can think of.

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    1. A recommended solution to a flaw that was pointed out by the post's author is not the same thing as a criticism.

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    2. The purpose of the diagram of the design is the same as the purpose of the book, namely to grossly oversimplify Jewish intellectual history so as to make it fit with the author's particular hobby horse. (Specifically, it is meant to imply that medieval rationalist Rishonim somehow endorsed the scientific method, which is basically the opposite of the truth.) Of all the different types of intellectual history, distilling all thought into two opposing camps that transend historical eras (e.g. 'Open Society vs. Closed Society'; hierarchical vs. egalitarian, traditionalist vs. liberal) is by far and away the dumbest.

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  15. In which group does R' Yehudah Ha'Levy fit?

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  16. Don't you think it would be more accurate to present an atom with a electron cloud of possible orbits as opposed to showing them as specific orbits?

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    1. And it would also be more accurate to shrink the electron cloud/ nucleus so that they are to scale with the difference between them.
      I bet you can guess why I didn't do that!

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  17. This relates to a minor quibble about the depiction of an atom. It is supposed to represent the beryllium atom with 4 protons(white) and 5 neutrons (red) in the nucleus and surrounded by 4 orbiting electrons. While this is a conventional popular depiction that may agree with the old (Bohr-Summerfeld) depiction, it is not a chemically valid depiction - aside from the quantum mechanical objection to our inability to know the precise position and movement of an electron. In chemistry, beryllium can lose 2 electrons to form the doubly charged ion. Loss of a third electron would require more energy than is found in chemical reactions. Hence, a better representation (if definite orbits are allowed) would be to have 2 electrons in an inner orbit and 2 electrons in an outer orbit which has a weaker binding to the more distant positive nucleus. One could also keep the electrons in an orbit at opposite ends to minimize electron repulsion. Of course, one could use the lithium atom as the simpler example, having 3 protons and 4 neutrons in the nucleus with 3 orbiting electrons - 2 in the inner orbit and 1 in the outer.
    Y. Aharon

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