Monday, September 14, 2020

Ghosts and Golems

There's a new book, A Jewish Guide to the Mysterious by Rabbi Pinchas Taylor, which promotes the most extreme examples of non-rationalist Judaism. Astrology, demons, evil spirits, ghosts, golems, magic, auras, extrasensory perception, reincarnation, mystical teleportation, astral projections, vampires, shape-shifting witches, and more. It's packaged along with criticism of mainstream science, ridiculous claims of science supporting magic, and promotion of pseudo-science such as extreme Creationist catastrophism. And it also includes revisionism of Rambam to be a closet or latent mystic.

Yet after reading it, I was pleasantly surprised!

To be sure, I didn't actually agree with pretty much anything in it. But the contrast to other books reflecting such an outlook was striking, in three ways. 

First was that Rabbi Taylor had no problem quoting respectfully from the full gamut of literature - not only rabbinic writings of all stripes, but also scientific literature and even academic Jewish scholarship.

Second was that he fully acknowledged the existence of alternate, rationalist approaches. 

Third was that he made virtually no attempt to delegitimize them! 

For example, while Rabbi Taylor presents all kinds of revisionist approaches with Rambam's approach to magic and demons, he acknowledges that there are those who maintain that Rambam did indeed reject these things. About the harshest statement he makes is that after acknowledging all the questions regarding the antiquity of the Zohar and bringing various apologetic responses, he concludes that to think that one can question its authority after it was validated by so many great Torah scholars "seems misguided." Which is hardly the standard non-rationalist approach - that there is absolutely no reason or right to deny the authenticity of the Zohar, and if you do then you're a heretic!

No, I wouldn't actually recommend the book to anyone (though I wonder if some of its readers will be more intrigued by the questions that he raises about the authenticity of the Zohar than they will be convinced by his responses). But it's a great lesson for other non-rationalists in how to do non-rationalism correctly. Just as rationalists can acknowledge the existence and heritage of a mystical approach, mystics can acknowledge the existence and heritage of a rationalist approach. It's so rare to see such a thing that Rabbi Taylor's work is a breath of fresh air!

 

Meanwhile, tours of the new Biblical Museum of Natural History are available until the lockdown starts. During the lockdown, we will be offering live online tours, including a full-day Yom Iyun. For more details, see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org

34 comments:

  1. The PR writeup calls him "one of contemporary Judaism’s leading scholars and teachers".

    I don't wish to malign him in any way, just wondering if I am the only one who has never heard of him.

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    1. No, you're not. Although being famous and being a leading scholar are hardly congruent.

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    2. https://pinchastaylor.com/about/

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  2. It's far better than the other book on the subject: Magic Mysteries, and Mysticism, which was written as a direct response to Rabbi Slifkin.
    Rabbi Slifkin, have you ever read this?
    https://www.amazon.com/Magic-Mysteries-Mysticism-Rabbi-Mordechai/dp/1988022371

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    1. My internet filter blocked it - it must be a rationalist internet filter!

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  3. I believe this is because the author is Chabad. Although Chabad tends to have very "non-rational" beliefs, they are surprisingly open-minded. Like the Rebbe himself.

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    1. I agree. The Rebbe was very opened-minded, despite being a flung mystic. I agree with the rabbi that this books seems to be a breath of fresh air.

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    2. "Flung"?

      In any event, I don't know. He certainly would let anyone talk. Did it ever affect his own views? I don't think so.

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  4. The Rebbe was not AT ALL open to rationalist approaches.

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    1. I'm interested in what evidence you have for this. I'm sure he didn't believe in a rationalist approach, especially in your style. But I don't think he would have signed a letter calling your books kefirah. He was open-minded in a general sense of being able to relate to people from all walks of life, something that can't be said for all Gedolim.

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    2. Depends in which area. He did insist that Chazal's statement that the avos kept the mitzvos is not to be taken literally, for instance. It seems to me he approached issues on a case by case basis.

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    3. Yes! It is part of the Chabad PR machine to remake the Rebbe as some kind of synthesis of rationalism and traditionalism, when the fact is that he used his secular learning to buttress irrational approaches. For example, he wrote a letter to a professor “proving” that the universe is in fact geocentric. Whether one accepts his approaches or not, it is a disservice both to his legacy and to truth to present him as some kind of rationalist.

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    4. RNS, I don't think happygolucky means to say that it was the rebbes embrace of these ideas that allow Taylor to show them respect. Rather, it is the general subculture of chabad that allows for people to espouse these ideas without being suppressed. The rebbe may have been dogmatic in certain ways, but his worldview was less so than those of the traditional chassidish and litvish rabbonim...

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    5. True, personally he wasn't, but he supported Steinsaltz throughout his ban ordeal, just as an example. (Some of the criticism against him was about statements of non-literal chazal.)

      As others have said, chabad (today) has an implicit tolerance toward all types. After all they must if they want to have success in shluchis.

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    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    7. https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/49177/lubavitch-and-geocentricism

      This seems a good place to start. (Scroll down a bit to get to a letter with his declaration in writing).

      Sounds pretty "rational" to me...

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    8. He personally probably wasn't, but he tolerated them and engaged in it much more than any other chassidic leader (or yeshiva leader for that matter).

      I read your link, He's an apologist, trying to fit chazal's words into modern day's "two bodies encircling each other". Nu nu.

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  5. "while Rabbi Taylor presents all kinds of revisionist approaches with Rambam's approach to magic and demons, he acknowledges that there are those who maintain that Rambam did indeed reject these things."

    Yes, Maimonides felt that demons do not exist. Some of the talmudic rabbis agreed. It is nice that Rabbi Taylor acknowledged that other opinions and views exist other than his own.

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  6. Some examples would make your review more compelling.

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  7. Shaas wasn't open to rationalist approaches

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    1. Bavli or Yerushalmi?

      In any event, it's rationalist by their lights.

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  8. The Golem of Prague is bunk.Can’t remember if any of my Rabbaim taught the story as true, but many of the yeshiva students took it as true. The story was embellished with Nazis going into the attic ...ACJA

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    1. Well, as R' Leiman says, it's kind of suspicious when the story only appears only 200 years after the Maharal died. Apparently it was transferred from a lesser-known rav.

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    2. The Story of the Golem first appeared in a children's book written in 1909 by Rab Yudel Rosesenberg:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yehudah_Yudel_Rosenberg

      He wrote other fiction novels, some of which included the MaHaral as a central character. There is no evidence that he ever intended his novel to be taken as true.
      The only reason people took the book as true, is that in the introduction he claims that the novel was found in an unknown library in Minsk and is several hundred years old, but he used a similar introduction in some of his other works of fiction.

      BTW - he also wrote several serious Halachic works, including a guide how to build a Mikva at home which was very practical inn 1909 North America when there were very few public Mikvaot.

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    3. Metz, not Minsk.

      Of course, there is not and never was a 'cental library' in Metz.

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    4. A earlier known account of the tale is from a book named Der J├╝dische Gil Blas, published by Friedrich Korn in 1834.
      Or in the book Spinoze written by Berthold Auerbach

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    5. "Minsk" -- i think it's 'Metz' - certainly is for some of his other colourful works. Yudel R. was Mordechai Richler's Zayda!

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    6. MS: Royal Library of Metz (France Germany). Not Minsk.
      No such Royal Library.

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    7. To be fair, the first recorded references to the Maharal and the Golem date back some time earlier, to the 1830's. But that's still very late. Rosenberg certainly popularized the story.

      (The supposed library was in Metz.)

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    8. Thanks to everyone who pointed out that the library was supposed to be in Metz, no Minsk - very pleased to see that so many people are familiar with Rav Yudel, I found his story fascinating.

      Highly recommend reading his story of the Golom, it is full of magic and wonder. Even if you believed that the Maharal has the power to crate a Golom, in the book the Maharal can also tun invisible and apparate (if my memory serves me correctly), so it reads more like Harry Potter than a historical account.

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  9. Astrology, demons, evil spirits, ghosts, golems, magic, auras, extrasensory perception, reincarnation, mystical teleportation, astral projections, vampires, shape-shifting witches, and more. It is all bunk but the folk love it and Hollywood and scam artists love it ACJA

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  10. I used to love books about these kinds of things (UFOs, Bigfoot, etc.) as a kid. I think a certain N. Slifkin actually wrote a whole book with that audience in mind. It's all well and good, provided you realize what you're doing. Writing it for adults with a non-skeptical attitude...not so much.

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