Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The Ghostbusters Analogy

On the occasion of the release of the new Ghostbusters movie and the passing of the original director Ivan Reitman, 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 metaphysical 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. As explained in my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism, 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!

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49 comments:

  1. "The reward for mitzvos is the effect on one's mind rather than in some sort of spiritual world".
    Are you saying that according to the 'rationalist stream', Olam Haba is non existent?
    Which logically leads to the conclusion that s'char ve'onesh don't exist?
    I am aware of Menachem Kellner's view. However, I do not view that as 'traditionally rationalist' at all...

    So in a nutshell, do you not believe in Olam Haba?

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    1. I echo what Azka said above. If this "rationalist" interpretation of the Rambam is correct, there are no souls, there is no Olam Haba, no Creation, no miracles ever happened, no techias hameisim, Hashem doesn't respond to prayer nor does He punish for sin. Of course, needless to say, it's wrong. The mistakes and fallacies that lead to this so-called "rationalist" perspective are too numerous to mention, there is no point in even bringing up sources.

      The point about mezuzah makes it sound like the "rationalist" wouldn't care if his mezuza is missing a letter. I guess that's what I should have expected. Another reason why we need kollel, folks.

      The idea that people who appreciate the rationalist viewpoint shouldn't also appreciate the mystical side is downright silly, have you ever heard of machlokes? We can appreciate both perspectives, even if there are some aspects that are mutually exclusive.

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    2. it's expressed indelicately but i assume RNS was referring to effects in Olom Hazeh

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    3. Azka - what is Menachem Kellner's view?

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    4. happy go luck - Rationalists do not reject Olam Haba. Rambam did not reject Olam Haba. Although some "rationalists" interpret him to reject souls, heaven, hell, creation, miracles, and so on, and so forth.

      However, even if Rambam rejected these concepts, it's not really a rejection as much as it is a reinterpretation. For example, Rambam did not really reject souls. He defines souls as the intellect. He did not reject heaven. He redefines heaven as a states of mind. G-d formed the world out of pre-existing matter, not out of nothing. Miracles are natural events created during creation, etc.

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    5. Shmuel, yes, yes, I am well aware. I similarly redefine Biden as Trump. Therefore Trump, won the election, and nobody stool the election.

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    6. happy go luck - They didn’t steal they bought it. The Dems bought the supreme court with 20 million dollars.

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  2. The difference between Dati and Charedi or even a Charedi aligned person like myself is that we haven't heard of this movie, nor have our children. I think it's better to believe in the magical power of the mitzvah then to have your mind filled with trash and silliness. I don't know of a single musdsr Sefer that says otherwise.

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    1. Believing in the magical power of the mitzvah is idolatry, isn't it?

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    2. Well, he has given a fairly good summary of the important points

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    3. There are many discussions of that. Here is just one:

      https://www.sefaria.org/Tiferet_Yisrael.14

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    4. You're pretty sheltered if you think no charedi people know of movies like Ghostbusters.

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    5. @Avi. Whereas there is every type of behaviour to be found in the charedi society, rabbis don't learn musar haskel from the movies because they are generally foreign to them and their audiences. This is a modern orthodox style, which usually leads to סוף כל התורה כולה in a generation or two. Not always, but usually and has been proven true time after time and is very simple to observe weather you are a mystic, a rationalist or an atheist.

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  3. The gemorah says specifically that anyone who says the reason for shiluach hakein we throw him out because thats not the reason G-d gave us this commandment...

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    1. Gosh, I guess all the Rishonim who relate Shiluach HaKein to compassion must not have heard of that Gemorah!

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    2. G-d gives the commandment because G-d wants to teach us about compassion.

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    3. That doesnt mean you can't learn compassion from shiluach hakan however to say the entire purpose is to teach compassion is something else. Do you mind stating which rishonim and where they say that the entire purpose is compassion i would like to check them out myself.

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    4. First of all, it's a mishna (Brakhot 5,3; Megilah 4,9). This reason is one of two in the gemarah (Brakhot 23b), and the sugiyah seems to accept it more than the other. In any case that's how the Rambam explains it twice in his pirush, and also in hilkhoth tefilah (9,7).
      But in the Moreh (3,48) he says the reason is rakhamim, and that we don't hold of the mishna because we believe there is a reason for mitzvos, other than G.d's will.
      So we're left with a contradiction. And quite a strange one at it, because it would have been easy to explain that this mitzvah is to teach US to be compassionate, but that it doesn't express G.D's own compassion, as he is giving us the right to exploit those animals.

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    5. It's not a contradiction, in one place he is writing halacha that it's forbidden to say that such and such is vadi the reason and in the moreh he is giving Tamei HaMitzvot, he is not saying this is definitely the reason but more rather a suggested reason.

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    6. Compassion for an animal? G-d forbid!

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    7. @Anonymous
      If that was the difference that's what he would have written.

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    8. "because it would have been easy to explain that this mitzvah is to teach US to be compassionate, but that it doesn't express G.D's own compassion"

      Why not read that explanation into the Rambam? That's exactly what he says about שחיטה- i.e. if it's about G-d's compassion then why allow שחיטה at all? Rather it's about teaching us compassion. Apply what רמב"ם writes about שחיטה to שילוח הקן and contradiction resolved!

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    9. The gemorah doesn't say that.
      It says a shaliach tzibbur cannot use that as a praise of Hashem during davening.

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    10. @Ephraim
      You didn't understand what I wrote, did you? The Rambam himself says he's going against this mishnah. You and me can explain it away but, for some reason, he chose not to.

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    11. The Bavli here is somewhat confusing, but things are clearer in the Yerushalmi: God's attribute is SOMETIMES mercy, and we should not either overestimate or underestimate how often this is the case.

      (There is also another interpretation of the Yerushalmi, that the reference to shiluach haken in prayers is a Christian innovation and we must avoid it because it's Christian - in which case we don't learn anything about shiluach haken in general).

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    12. @Avi
      This is all well and good, but like I and others wrote here, it's easy to reconcile this, the problem is that the Rambam chose another path.
      @Rochel
      It doesn't make any sense to differentiate.

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    13. "You didn't understand what I wrote, did you?"

      Not exactly. I had to check the מורה (both Pines & קאפח) again to verify. The problem is that the רמב"ם sets up a false dichotomy which he himself avoids when dealing with שחיטה. Rambam writes that there are (only) two opinions & applies an extreme opinion to the משנה. That's why קאפח in a footnote humbly suggests the middle ground (i.e. a reconciling third opinion) that the Rambam himself uses by שחיטה.

      So you're right. The Rambam does seem to reject the משנה. (Unless, by some stretch you read the Rambam's citation of th e משנה as actually a citation of the extreme reading of the משנה. I don't have the קאפח edition of the פירוש המשניות in front of me- so I'll stand corrected. Thanks!)

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  4. This is a very clever and well-written post.

    But I agree with the comments above that some clarification might be worthwhile since, as it reads now, the post does sound somewhat extreme in its absolute rejection of any “spiritual” element in Judaism (you write the Rambam believes that “The reward for mitzvos is the effect on one's mind rather than in some sort of spiritual world”, but surely even the arch-rationalist Rambam accepts the “spiritual” concepts of a non-physical afterworld in which a non-physical soul is subject to non-physical reward or punishment commensurate with its worldly deeds—after all, he discusses all that in his discussion of Perek Cheilek).

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  5. Rambam did not believe in ghosts even though Ghostbusters is good movie.

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  6. I suppose this is better than your usual distortions and hate-filled vitriol, but it still doesn't make any sense. Indeed, your artificial distinction of "rationalism" vs "mystical" doesn't actually hold up under scrutiny.

    Unobservant Jews throughout the millennia who were the furthest things from "mystics" still believed in the supernatural existence of Jews as a whole, and of divine intervention in their own personal lives. You yourself believe in the same thing. (Like so many other things, people have no problem excluding themselves from their own edicts and theories.) Have these rationalists suddenly become mystics?
    Likewise, mystically inclined people also invest in the market and make all the same everyday calculi and risk-reward analysis that "clear-eyed" rationalists do, and in the Torah sphere specifically, men like the Vilna Gaon were at home both in the Kabalah and the Halacha. Have these mystics suddenly became rationalists?

    The answer is, your entire construction is imaginary. It has some useful benefits in classifications, yes, but ultimately it is hollow, because it is false. People cannot be pigeonholed into neat little theories. This can easily be demonstrated at length, with many more examples, from the gentile world as well. The world is not so simple.

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    1. "People cannot be pigeonholed into neat little theories. This can easily be demonstrated at length, with many more examples, from the gentile world as well. The world is not so simple."

      Absolutely correct. Reminds me when a certain blogger was getting all in a tizzy about whether Rabbi Dessler was a "rationalist" or an "anti-rationalist" because he wrote one thing in one place that agrees with one aspect of the so-called "rationalist" position, and wrote a completely unrelated thing somewhere else that disagrees with a completely different aspect of the "rationalist" position. Confusing, eh? What's a body to do?

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    2. Unknown and Happy,

      I often find myself wondering how so many Jews who have received such a 'good' jewish education can have such a poor understanding of their own tradition.

      Do you really not understand what is meant by the rationalist tradition in Judaism?

      It's like finding christian adults who have read the lion the witch and the wardrobe but are suprised to see it isn't literally true and there isn't a passageway at the back of the closet.

      I think you should both read (with an eye to understanding, rather than an eye to dismissing) Rabbi Slifkin's most recent book.

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    3. @not a fan, unfortunately, you are very wrong. Another example why we need kollel. It is true that there are traditions in Judaism that have more or less "rationalist" leanings. We don't deny that. But there are no traditions like the one expressed on this blog, traditions that deny Creation and miracles, traditions that reject techias hameisim, traditions that don't care whether a mezuza is missing a letter, traditions that claim improving the economy is more important than keeping Shabbos. These are not rationalist-Judaism positions, they are simply non-Judaism positions. They are positions that were held at various times by various sects that we consider heretical, with the latest incarnation being an offshoot of haskala 150 years ago.

      The idea that Rabbi Slifkin is trying to express is that "rationalist" tradition is so different from the "mystical" tradition that it constitutes a different religion entirely. And naturally he identifies with the "rationalist" religion. Which would be true if these "rationalist" authorities actually held like the positions that he ascribes to them. Alas for him, and fortunately for us, they didn't. If the rationalist Rambam actually denied Techias Hameisim in his famous letter rather than confirming it, we wouldn't be using his very important works today. He would simply go down as one of the many heretics in our history.

      Since the very rationalist Rambam and Albo and Ibn Ezra and Ralbag all confirmed our core beliefs, such as Creation, the very real miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the authority of the Rabbis, the importance of keeping the mitzvos, they remain with us today. They may have had many vehement disputes with the mystics, they may have had positions we view as controversial (as did many "mystics") but we view them as sharing the same religion with the "mystics" and with us. Unlike (most) of the maskilim.

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    4. Besides for that, the point that Unknown and I are making is that these traditions are definitely not mutually exclusive in practice, given the scores of rabbis throughout the centuries who have drawn from both "rationalist" and "mystical" ideas. As Unknown said so beautifully "People cannot be pigeonholed into neat little theories. This can easily be demonstrated at length, with many more examples, from the gentile world as well. The world is not so simple."

      Secularists fancy themselves as sophisticated "rational" intellectuals, but time after time they show themselves to be simple-minded rubes, who don't appreciate that people are complicated and can't be stuffed into neat little boxes with labels.

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    5. happy
      you are really jumping the shark here

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    6. Not a fan, why? Because I wrote such a long comment? Sorry, will try to be more brief. If you have arguments, state them.

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  7. Rabbi Slifkin writes in his book that there is a spectrum. Its not black and white that someone is a rationalist or a mystic, it's really worth reading his whole book to better understand his point of view, an article on his blog is never going to be thorough enough. It must also be noted that it is also possible to rationalise mystical ideas. What I mean is there are many mystics who rationalise their ideas to the extent they hold them to be 100% true in the same way a rationalist holds science to be very authorative however that doesn't make the idea rational. So it is possible to see rationalists and mystics engage with the world in the same way but their rationales are completely different. This occurs equally in the performance of mitzvot as well as other day to day activity. So what makes someone a rationalist or a mystic, in my mind it is the core principles they hold to be true because this will naturally dictate many other principles however it is still possible to hold other more mystical principles to be true when they don't contradict with core principles. It is also quite evident that people often live with contradictions because they never fully investigate them or they have sentimental reasons to hang on to things that contradict their core principles.

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    1. This amounts to nothing more than the observation that people have different inclinations which are often subject to exception on the basis of whim. Which is hardly a chiddush, and useless as a taxonomy.

      The reality, as any rationalist would conclude, is that Judaism is a religion, and hence incompatible with how you or NS define rationalism. Just like in Israel a realist has to believe in miracles, a real Jew anywhere cannot be a rationalist. Commenters above already made this point succinctly. At best one can prefer the style of the Ibn Ezra over the Ramban, to use a simple shorthand applicable to all field of Jewish learning. Okay, fine. This does not justify the creation of a fictitious and wholly imaginary Great Divide between "rationalists" and "mystics" as though they were intellectual combatants somewhere on a football field. There is no field and no combat to speak of.

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    2. Sometimes there is value in defining differences and sometimes in pointing out similarities however a look at Jewish history and the disagreements between the Rabbis of Provance and Andulisia would point to more than "stylistic differences". You don't burn books and label people heretics over stylistic differences.

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  8. I do not believe the mezuzah 'creates a protective force-field', but I do believe if termites ate one letter, then it's not kosher and the mitzvah is not being fulfilled. I wonder what the point of this sentence was.
    Let's not forget that the kabbalist trend in Spain was triggered in reaction to some people abandoning the practical side of mitzvoth, because they believed only the lesson is important. See rabbi Moshe de Leon in his introduction to his Sefer Harimon, and Scholem in the end of the fifth lecture in MTIJM. This mezuzah argument seems pretty much in the same vein.

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  9. Of course,the entire premise of this blog post assumes that in the Ghostbusters universe, ghosts are a spiritual things that they developed technology to manipulate.

    One could just as easily conclude that in this universe, ghosts are a physical phenomenon that we were simply unable to manipulate in the past. Much like radio was before Maxwell's theories (published in 1865).

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    1. And in some alternate universe idolatry was forbidden not because it was false but because it was true and worked. And some if the more "do this small physical thing ad spiritual forces directly give you physical things" is just Cargo Cult idolatry.....

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    2. Well, in the real universe there is a historical Jewish debate whether magic is forbidden because it's false or because it's true and worked.

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    3. Tellner - "Alternate Universes" is where most of the world resides today. Both sides think the other one is wacked and is basing itself on fake news and false facts. The chief difference is one side is aware of both universes, and the other is completely ignorant of any but its own. Thus, while they both live in alternate universes, one at least has the ability to assess both before choosing in which to live. The other just lives where's he's told.

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  10. No spiritual world for reward means no Olam HaBah.

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  11. My favorite mishna is RH 3:5 (found on 29a) that discusses two seemingly wacky things Moshe did: lifting his hands for the purposes of winning the battle with the Amalakites (Ex 17:11) and also lifting up the pole with the copper snake for the purposes of saving those who had been bitten by snakes (Nu 21:8).

    The mishna seems at first to be taking an exceedingly rational perspective, asking incredulously, "is it possible that Moshe's hands make or break a war?" and "is it possible that a (copper) snake kills or maintains life?" Such great questions, I always though!

    But then the mishna turns to respond: "rather, when the Israelites looked upward and subjected their minds to their heavenly father, that's when they were able to be victorious / healed."

    In other words, the mishna teaches that we should not think that physical actions for which the mechanics just don't make any sense (raising hands or looking at statues) could possibly have any real effects. Rather, we are informed that there are spiritual methods, for which the mechanics are similarly inexplicable from a rationalist perspective, that are indeed effective at winning wars and healing people from otherwise fatal snake bites.

    The mishna comes to solve one problem but introduces another in its stead, one can say. In contemporary times, for those who wonder about the mechanics of the universe and how these two narratives jibe with them, is it any less problematic to abide by the secondary explanations than it is to abide by the primary (rejected) explanations? And for those who embrace mysticism, if inexplicable method B works, why is inexplicable method A worse?

    Clarity can be gained by seeing the mishna as merely elucidating how the spiritual world works, according to the authoritative canon of talmudic authority. It's not that raised arms were the lynch pin, but the guidance those raised arms provided and the insights they triggered that were effective. It's a subtle yet substantive difference.

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    1. Interestingly, both of those stories are pounced upon by Christians. For the mishna, Moshe's hands pointed Heavenward. But for Christians, they were outward, such that he was posed in a cross. Similarly, the Copper Snake was mounted on a staff that *obvious* had a shorter crossbeam, and the snake was just something to attract the eye to, but really the thing that saved the afflicted was turning to the cross that supported it... (The Amalek story is even MORE interesting because Moshe stands back while his successor Yehoshua - whose Greek name is sometimes Jesus - is the one that does the fighting.)

      Anyway, I bring this up bc the mishna in part may be involved in anti-Christian polemic. Don't look at the chatchka, instructs the mishna, whether it is a staff, a snake, or Moshe himself! Rather, focus on praying only to Hashem!

      (In this explanation, we can understand that the mishna was never trying to solve the rational question that you perceived and thus is not left with a similar question.)

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  12. You forgot the 5th principle of Ghostbusters:

    Don't cross the streams!

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  13. Never saw the movies. Anyway, is something like this in the movies:

    5) Spiritual objects can manipulate physical phenomena.

    I think some here reject the reverse. Why must the direction only be one way ? If the spiritual and physical can interact why cant the pathways go either way ? Why is one way RATIONAL and the other way MYSTICAL ?

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