Monthly Archives: June 2012

Chussidic Intellectualism

“The misnagdim argue that Torah study is a Jew’s main devotion. The chussidim argue that prayer is the main devotion. But I say, ‘pray and study and pray’!”     -R. Nachman of Breslev

Due to the argument between misnagdim and chussidim, a caricature emerged painting chussidim as Jews who only attempt to commune with the Divine through emotion. This unfortunate description is one of the barriers that prevent those of us with more litvish backgrounds from accessing chussidus. I am here today to assure you that indeed Chussdim do value the brain.

While there are many chussidic passages describing the value of the intellect, I particularly enjoy the first chapter of Likutei Moharan. Ironically, Breslev chussidus is actually anti-intellectual. R. Nachman discouraged his students from studying “secular” books (although he himself seems to have done so). However, despite R. Nachman’s public animosity towards modern thought, Likutei Moharan is filled with intellectually engaging and challenging concepts (including platonic references!). This greatly emphasizes the importance of opening ourselves to ideas coming from divergent cultures.

(Quick tangent, the chapter is filled with mystical concepts that I will try to not go into. I will do my best to explain those parts which are necessary and to jump around other theosophic points. I will instead present singular sentences and try to explain them to the best of my ability. That said, the idea is incomplete without these references. )

Know by means of the torah all prayers and requests are accepted.  This is the beginning of the piece and it clearly presents R. Nachman’s position, Torah infuses our prayers with grace, or chein (remember this word, spelled חן!), making them wanted in the eyes of Gd.  In other words, torah study is the battery you put into the gameboy of prayer.

The Jew must always look at the ‘intelligence’ of everything and attach himself to the ‘intelligence’ and ‘wisdom’ (Chochma) that is in everything so that the ‘intellegence’ may enlighten him. R. Nachman encourages study as a way to see Gd in all things. As we will see, he specifically chooses ‘wisdom’ to refer to the sfirot of chochma and binah two of the sfirot that are closest to Gd. Loosely, they represent the divine thought behind creation.

This is the concept of ‘sun’, because intelligence shines for him in all his ways…and this is the concept of the letter ‘chet’, or chiyut, because wisdom and intelligence is the life-force of everything. It is here that R. Nachman gloriously alludes to the famous platonic cave. To walk in this world without intelligence is no different than to walk in the dark. To the unlearned the world is a dead place filled with shadows that can’t possibly be understood. This in turn effects one’s ability to pray.

However, because the light of intelligence is very great, it is impossible to attain it except with the concept of the letter ‘nun’ which is the concept of Malchut… This is also the concept of the moon, for the moon has no light of its own only that which it receives from the sun. This sentence is key to R. Nachman’s philosophy. Malchut is the lowest of the sphirot making it farthest from the divine light. R. Nachman is claiming that it is impossible to fully understand our world or the Divine (as represented by wisdom/the sun/the letter chet). Sometimes, we must move down from the sphirot of Chochma and Bina, representing the intellect, to the sphira of Malchut, representing faith. While the skeptic must remain skeptical the Jew must trust that there is a higher power behind the movement of things that he does not understand. This difficult task requires a high level of humility. We must periodically cease to be active thinkers (the sun) and make ourselves passive observers (the moon). Kierkegaard famously mocked Aquinas for praying to uncover a proof of G-d, rather than simply accepting the fact that he believed in G-d.

The main reason that requests are not granted are that they lack chein and therefore don’t enter into the heart of the person of who the request is being made…but through torah study, the ‘chet’ and the ‘nun’ are combined to create cheinThrough study, the ‘chet’ representing knowledge and the ‘nun’ representing faith are combined to give the individual’s prayers a sense of ‘chein’, or grace.  I believe strongly in this concept. Think about studying economics. When you start learning theory, you understand almost nothing. Eventually, you advance to the point where you start studying the calculus behind the theory. You gain wisdom (chet) and rather than assuming that everything which you don’t yet understand is false you trust that it will make sense (nun) in the future and even if it doesn’t that economics is still a valid social science. Then you pray to Adam Smith that he grant you a shidduch.

This lesson teaches that torah study (both traditional and secular) helps us to understand and to come closer to Gd, even to imitate Him. However, we must also be humble, understanding our limitations. Aspects of torah that we don’t understand may in fact make sense. It is here that we must turn to faith to overcome our doubt. Furthermore, there must be a combination of the intellectual with the spiritual to fully connect to Gd. Prayer without torah study will be ineffective while torah study without prayer will leave you unfulfilled. Both Chochma and Malchut must be synthesized.

Just like the GR”A had niggunim (its true!), chussidim have systematic expressions of their philosophy.

Until next week (who knows? Any suggestions?) raise a glass and sing a niggun.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus

Avraham Avinu and a Henotheist Walk into a Bar: Judaism’s Ignoble Beginnings?

If you read any Introduction to World Religions textbook, you will discover that the Hebrew’s religion started off as henotheistic (to be explained). I had not known that from my extensive Day School education. In fact, the first time I encountered the term ‘henotheism,’ was while I was guest teaching a college religion course on the topic of ‘Avraham Avinu and the centrality of monotheism in the Hebrew religion.’ During my monologue, the teacher abruptly interrupted me to caution her class about my speech’s veracity. She, with an accidental hint of condescension in her voice, said: “that is what Orthodox Jews think, but really Abraham was a henotheist who believed in localized gods.” At that point, the only prefix I’ve ever affixed to the base word ‘theism’ was the much celebrated “mono” one we’ve heard so much about. But the teacher was espousing that there was another prefix, that was equally if not more accepted by the scholarly community, of which I was unaware of. Apparently, a non-Jewish professor was going to be the one to set me straight regarding my Abrahamic faith.

Before I was confident of the term’s definition, feeling confused and consternated, I mustered the strength to stutter out the following advanced inquiry: “How do you know that? Are you sure?! I’m sure that you got that from the Torah somehow… but me… I’ve read the Torah, many, many times, and I’ve never noticed that!” Without missing a beat, she calmly responded to my prattle by noting that everyone knows that the Jewish Patriarchs were henotheists, and all scholars explain it that way.

Before I continued arguing on the topic, or further question her perception in front of an impressionable class, I figured that my best course of action would be to actually look up ‘henotheism’; for all I know, it might have just been an innocuous way to refer to monotheism. Unfortunately, after I researched a bit, I was not much happier. I certainly was not a henotheist, and did not believe that my forefathers were either. So how should we account for the discrepancy between my understanding and her teachings? Should we just chalk this up to another example of the Apikorsim trying to stick it to the Jews? Sure scholars and religious Jews rarely agree on much of the history of Ancient Israel, but this time, we were using identical material for crying out loud. They didn’t use extra-Biblical information about the Patriarchs to buttress their argument. We both had the same Pentateuch with (roughly) the same words, yet we came out with such dissimilar conclusions.

So, I proceeded by investigating and analyzing the best scholarly arguments in favor of the fact that my forefathers were henotheists to see if they hold water. I delved into the topic as objectively as I could for I truly just wanted the truth.

The famous philologist and sociologist Max Muller, the accidental father of Aryanism, coined the term ‘henotheist.’ He explained it means “monotheism in principle and a polytheism in fact.”1 In other words, it is the belief or devotion to one God, while still accepting that other gods might, and most probably do exist.2 So in the context of the Hebrew religion, it means that the Patriarchs believed in a localized God of the Levant. This god can be referred to a ‘Shadai’ or the Cnaanite ‘El’. According to this theory, the Patriarchs may even have acknowledged the existence of other gods, while refraining from worshiping them.

There are many examples that proponents of the theory that the Patriarchs (or parts of the Bible) were henotheists can cite. For example, even the Ten Commandments have hints of this phenomena. The Torah says that you should not worship any other gods besides me. A cursory read of the verse could lead one to conclude that the Torah accepts the existence of other gods, but forbids the practitioner from worshiping them. Furthermore, many other phrases in the Torah like: Exodus 12:12, 20:2, 23:13, Numbers 33:4 and Deuteronomy 6:14 are arguably best explained this way. Furthermore, on another front, the Torah refers to God, not as the Creator of everything, not as the one true God, but as the subjective, personal, localized God of the Patriarchs: the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” as we see in Genesis 15:7, 28:13 and 35:11.3 All these aforementioned verses, arguably, give the impression that the Torah accepts that other gods exist beside the God of our forefathers, and that the only reason we cannot also worship those gods is because God, the jealous and vengeful God of the Israelites forbids it.4

But do all these proofs lead to the conclusion that the Patriarchs were truly henotheists as my scholarly co-teacher taught her class to believe? Is this the conclusion that emerges from a neutral reading of the Biblical narratives? Should a Jew just accept these verses as proof-text and admit henotheism as the ignoble beginnings of his/her religion?

I do not think so. Just because the Torah states that Avraham Avinu enjoyed a personal relationship with God, or that our forefathers did as well, or that God considers one land more religiously valuable than another, or that God speaks of other nations’ false deities in ‘the language of man,’ or ‘lashon hoveh’ (the Torah employs practical idioms) should not lead the whole scholarly world to the conclusion that the Ancient Hebrews were henotheistic. As I could think of several alternative – and equally sound – ways to explain these instances, I assume so could the scholarly community. In fact, there must be more to the story!

It turns out that much of the scholarly community do present supplemental arguments in addition to their exegetical points in defense of the henotheism hypothesis. But the foremost piece of evidence comes, not from the Bible, but from sociology. In the days that German criticism was found ubiquitously worthwhile, in a world dominated by JEDP, enlightened scholars tried to show that just as critical readers could discover the authors behind the Torah, so too one could see the historical development and evolution of religions as a whole. Taking Judaism as the prototypical religion5 that has come to fruition in the German Enlightenment, it was assumed that all religions start with animism, then advance to polytheism, then mutate to henotheism, until finally the highest form of religion is achieved in monotheism (and for the modern world, the scholar would add that then monotheism dissipates into atheism, secular humanism or some form of a scientific religion).

Ironically, the post-modern scholarly world, on the other hand, no longer accepts this assessment. It is no longer chic to maintain that monotheism is the zenith of religious expression. Today, all religions are equal (from what I’m told). The African and aborigines religions originally studied by anthropologists to learn about the roots of the major world religions, are now viewed as spiritual equals to their monotheistic counterparts. Today, any assertion that the monotheistic religions are better than other religious traditions, even if but for their rational or philosophic merit, is viewed as bias, unscientific and even discriminatory by the scholarly world. But if this is true; if this is the accepted status quo about religious truth, then no longer do we need the “Enlightened” assessment of religions’ evolution towards an ideal religion. Accordingly, it is no longer necessary – nor reasonable to assume – that a henotheistic Hebrew religion evolved into a monotheistic Israelite religion based on sociology alone. Notwithstanding, scholars have forgotten that you can’t throw away the junk without its German accessories. It is no longer politically correct to believe that there are higher forms of religion or a true religion. Accordingly, it should no longer be accepted, asserted or even whispered, that Moshe Rabbeinu’s monotheism evolved from the Patriarch’s henotheism.6

Don’t worry, I’ll call the teacher myself and set her straight.

1The term ‘henotheism’ comes from the Koine Greek εἷς θεός – heis theos which means ‘one god.’ Of course ‘monotheism’ (μόνος θεός – monos theos), also means ‘one god,’ but a more literal translation would be ‘singular god,’ and to the exclusion of any other gods. See Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s Faith of Maimonides where he explains the difference between the two notions.

2Basing his theories on the commonality between Hinduism-Sanskrit and the European religions-European languages, Muller believed the key to understanding the development of pagan European religions lies in the early Rig-Vedas.

3Ironially, probably the most famous example of henotheism in the Bible is the case of Yonah fleeing Israel-Judea in the hope of ignoring God’s command to rebuke Nineveh. Scholars point to this example as it seems from the text that Yonah believes that he can flee the Jewish God. I believe this example is wrong for several reasons: 1. most scholars date Yonah to a post-exilic writer when monotheism would have been more accepted, even by these scholars 2. God strikes him at sea: a place the localized Cnaan/Israel god would not be able to attack. 3. Even if Yonah was henotheistic, the story itself shows that Judaism is not in that Yonah is attacked at sea and told to travel to Nineveh, outside of that god’s jurisdiction.

4Likewise, according to the henotheistic hypothesis, it is not coincidental that throughout the book of Genesis, never do we find God ordering his followers to make war with the infidels. Avraham converts others, not by the sword, but by persuasion, and never takes arms against those who refuse. Possibly, one can surmise that their gods were just as valid to Avraham from the perspective of the book of Genesis. On the other hand, in the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, the Cnaanite nations living in their land are given the straightforward choice to leave the land, accept monotheism or die. One has to wonder why was the command to wipe out idolatry only materialized at a later date. Not only did the Patriarchs not have any obligation to wipe out the heathens, they actually enjoyed quite hospitable relationships with idolaters. Avraham Avinu acted very friendly to the, presumably less than righteous, king of Sodom, and to the morally dissolute, Avimelech, king of Gerar. Ya’akov Avinu lives with the idolater Lavan for twenty years, and, shockingly, refrained from slaughtering him all those years. The Torah even testifies that Lavan chased after Ya’akov searching for his idol. Obviously, this was not the first time that Ya’akov ever heard about his father-in-law’s idolatrous practices. Based on these facts, one could make a strong argument that in the time of the Patriarchs, henotheism was a religiously legitimate belief system, but in the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, the Jewish henotheism evolved into monotheism and rejected all semblances of localized gods.

5Muller mostly focused on Hinduism, but the argument is based upon his work.

6Of course, this is not meant to be an argument against the fact that the Patriarchs were henotheists, but rather, if the scholarly world wants to still believe such a theory, additional and more substantive proofs must be first put forth.

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Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism

Lithuanian Kabbalah Conference – Bar Ilan University – Chassidic Ethics vs. Misnagdic Ethics

By Avi Kallenbach

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the first conference organized by Bar Ilan University’s Moussaief Center for the Study of Kabbalah. The topic of the conference was Lithuanian Kabbalah. This was such an interesting topic because the title already raises questions. Lithuanian Kabbalah? As the first lecturer Raphael Shochet said “Aren’t Lithuanians those grumpy guys with glasses who learn Talmud all day?” Of course this assumption is not true. Andmany lectures went on to prove that Kabbalah was an important element of the Lithuanian Torah learning.

One of the most interesting lectures, in my opinion, was that of Shlomo Kasirer. He discussed two conceptions of man’s relationship to God the Misnagdic – (represented by the Mussar movement of Yisrael Salanter) and the Chassidic. These two conception in turn influence how the Misnagdim and Chassidim understand man’s relationship to another man. In other words one’s conception of man to God is similar to one’s conception of man to man. 

[In the picture below the two non-closed circles in God on the Chassidic side represent non-absolute identities as opposed to the full dark circles which represent absolute identities]

The Misnagdic conception of God believes in a complete separation between God and the world. God and man are two separate entities who “meet”, as it were without either one losing their individual identities. God is completely transcendent.Chassidim on the other hand tend to view God as encompassing the entire world. The separation between man and the world from God is merely an illusion, an illusion which can and should be overcome. Man strives to be nullified in the great light of God and lose his identity. “The soul of man… desires to be separate and leave the body and to cleave to its root and and source – to God the life of lives even though [the soul] will be nothing and will be nullified completely and will have nothing left of its original essence or identity” (Tanya Chapter 19)These two conceptions of man’s relationship to God also influence how the different schools understand ethical obligations between man and man!

We will just look at the attribute of humility.

Look at these two conceptions of humility:

Rav Yisroel Salanter:

“The commandment of humility is usually against reason, because one who realizes his deficiencies is not yet called humble, unless he realizes all the amazing qualities he has… and yet he forces his inclination, and goes against his reasoning [and tells himself] that he is nothing. Like Moshe Rabenu who was the most complete member of the human species and yet he saw himself as the worst of them all!” (כתבי רב ישראל סלאנטר, מהדורת פכטר, עמ’ 78)

Rabbi Shalom Dovber Shneirson:

“[Describing the proud man:] … Because of his feeling of “being” he does not leave room for the “other”, the “other” takes away from his existence and he cannot stand it! The main cause [of his pride] is his strong feeling of being which forces him to see the other as an opponent. However the side of holiness [the way of the humble man] is to annul himself completely… and thus leave room for the “other”. And “leaving room” means he accepts the “other” and becomes one with him.” (הרש”ב מאמר החלצו שנת רנ”ט)

In the Misnagdic world of separate identities (God and man) there are only two ways to relate to an other (man and man): I’m greater than you (Pride) or you are greater than me (Humility). However in the Chasidic world there is a third choice “I” does not exist at all and therefore there is no need for a comparison of who is greater than whom.

According to Salanter (above) a humble man is one who sees someone else as greater than him. The humble man is stuck in a paradox, if he knows he is greater than his friend then how can he be humble? Salanter answers that one must force oneself to think the irrational. The humble man finds the one area in which his friend is greater than him and forces himself to focus on that point and forget all the ways his friend is actually worse than him. This need to create an illogical and paradoxical contrast is part and parcel of the Salanterian conception of a duality in relationships between man and God and man and man. Man defines himself according to his meeting with the other (very Buber – like) and as a result of this he must define his humility as a relationship between him and the “other” leading to the above paradox.

Chassidut on the other hand equates humility with the understanding of one’s own “nothingness”. The humble man does not define himself or anybody else but actually reaches his humility by failing to define himself. Humility has nothing to do with comparison as per Salanter but rather sees himself as nothing at all. His humility derives from the realization that he is actually nothing. Ultimately the humble man engages in an “anti-contrast” where he realizes that he and the “other” are actually the same! This has to do with the Chassidic conception of God and man all ultimately being one.

Kasirer went on to use this paradigm to understand forgiveness and mercy. But that’s all for now.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus

Conference on Jewish-Catholic Relations

This past week, along with approximately fifty other Jews and Catholics from about a dozen countries, I attended the International Catholic-Jewish Emerging Leaders Conference at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in the Berkshires, Connecticut. Organized by IJCIC (International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations) and the Holy See’s (the Vatican’s) Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews, this partnership – known together as the ILC (International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee) – seeks to promote Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

As we are all well aware, to put it lightly, Jews have not fared well under Catholic hegemony throughout the ages. Nonetheless, since the Second Vatican Council (aka Vatican II) in 1965 passed the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with non-Christian Religions (aka Nostra Aetate – “In our time,” which are the first two Latin words in the document) along with two other declarations, the Church has been bound by a religious obligation to view Jews (and other religious traditions as well) more positively.

Pre-Vatican II, the Catholic masses, following the preachings of many of their priests, claimed that the Jews killed Jesus (deicide). If Jews had only killed the Catholic god, that would have been bad enough, but Catholic theology, much of it rooted in certain interpretations of the book of John, had identified “the Jews” as the enemies of Jesus, plotting against Jesus to kill him, identifying them with ‘darkness’ and even the devil. Obviously, these animadversions led to tremendous persecution, antisemitism and blind hatred towards Jews for over a millennium.

With the help and prodding of countless individuals, Pope Paul VI made sure that this declaration – Nostra Aetate – would pass. In short, in respect to Jews, the document states that the Jews cannot be collectively blamed for Jesus’ death, nor should they be presented as rejected or cursed. It decries antisemitism and discrimination. Last, dozens of interfaith groups centering on Jewish-Catholic dialogue and appeasement have been established because of it. The conference I attended should be seen in light of this last point.

The conference spanned four days, included over a dozen speakers and several workshops. The topics spanned from theology, family ethics, American law to history. Nonetheless, for many of the participants, the most impactful element of the conference was not the intellectual side, but the social. Most Jews, regardless of their denomination, have not spent several days in a row eating, laughing, learning, and sleeping in the same rooms as Catholics. Traveling to Manhattan to meet Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, at his house, then traveling to three Jewish sites in Manhattan only solidified this bond of friendship.

It is hard to generalize the goal of the conference. On the one hand, Catholics have a religious mandate to engage in this type of dialogue, and that is the reason that they attended. For Jews, this is not the case. If anything, I believe Jews would be justified in boycotting such an enterprise based solely on the quantity and quality of carnage inflicted on the Jews by the Catholic Church throughout the ages. But, IJCIC (along with the Vatican) see it differently. In the following, I want to present four reasons why Jews ought to engage in such interfaith dialogue, if not to state the obvious, to at least clarify the issue for myself.

  1. Impact – Without a dialogue, one cannot have any impact on the Catholic Church. Rabbi Rudin recounted how every Good Friday he attends mass to ensure that the local priest does not hate on the Jews. If the priest does promote hatred, antisemitism or the deicide libel, he calls the priest and informs him that any type of hating speech from the pulpit is forbidden since Vatican II and not in line with Church theology. Without engaging in the type of retreat that we enjoyed last week, the educational tools  and foundations for a relationship to ensure some type of change would not exist.
  2. Mutual Issues – Jews experience exorbitant school tuitions, and so do Catholics. Jews are conservative on certain issues, and so are Catholics. Jews encounter pastoral issues, and Catholics encounter almost identical ones. Jews have a personal attachment to Israel, and so do Catholics, etc. As we enjoy several shared values and contemporaneous problems, it makes sense for us to work together.
  3. Religious Bond – We are not atheists; we are not secular humanists. We believe in some form of organized religion. We are fighting very similar battles for our traditions and trying to ensure people care about our specific religions and fill the pews. Accordingly, we have a shared interest in promoting awareness of this religious bond to the public and joining forces whenever it is appropriate and feasible. By working together, we can share ideas, empathy and form bonds that promote a moderate form of our religions.
  4. Geography – We live in the same neighborhoods and towns. Without the local leadership espousing a positive relationship with other faiths, each individual practitioner will strongly identify other faiths as the “other” and discriminate appropriately. This type of conference encourages local leadership to see themselves as a team and as friends. Hopefully, this positive rapport will trickle down to others.

Of course, even while noting these four important issues, one must be wary. I noted at the conference, if one Jew were to go off the derech because of these inter-religious dialogues or intermarry, it would be nothing short of a tragedy. To be pondered.


Filed under Miscellaneous

The Hidden Holiness of Nature

by Avi Bieler

As discussed last week, I hope this blog will demonstrate the value of chussidus to the world of “modern Orthodoxy” (quick aside, every stream of thinking involves dangers. The purpose of this blog is not to suggest that modernity is inferior. I just assume most of our readership comes from this block and may be interested in examining it).  Some believe that chussidus is incompatible with modern religious thought, but the primary assumption of both is in fact the same. Namely, that G-dliness exists outside of the realm of revealed torah.

The Sfas Emes (R. Yehuda Aryeh Leib) offers a brilliant idea demonstrating the value of the natural world while answering a simple question. He asks why some rabbis wanted the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) removed from the canon of scripture. “This makes no sense; the purpose of Kohelet is to belittle all of the actions of this world and to encourage you to only busy yourself with torah and mitzvoth”. It’s a frum book! Why worry about its inclusion? The Sfas Emes answers that Kohelet could convince people that G-d has abandoned the natural world making us abandon our duty “to work to find torah concepts in every place”.  There is more to theology than the study of texts. We must also study and elevate nature by finding the divine hidden within it. This is in stark contrast to Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nachmani’s explanation that Kohelet might lead people to think that studying the revealed torah (Tanach, Talmud etc.) is “hevel” (nothingness).

R. Leib bases his opinion on a mishna in tractate Avot that states “With 10 utterances (Mamarot) the world was created”.  The 10 utterances play a significant role in Jewish mysticism representing the holiness hidden within nature as opposed to the 10 statements (Dibrot) which represent the holiness clearly revealed to humanity (the teachings of the torah).  G-d scattered the 10 utterances throughout nature in order that we may strive to reveal them.

The Sfas Emes finishes the piece thusly, “Every year there is individual work to be done until the ‘land is full of knowledge’.  That is to say until everything is [understood as being] completely torah”.  Fittingly, the Sfas Emes worked a regular job and frequently espoused the value of the 6 days of work that come before Shabbat.

From the point of view of religious modernity it is easy to view the world outside of the gemara page as holy. Unfortunately, there also exists a dangerous trap. To put it in Descartesian terms, modern religious people can easily confuse the primary (G-d) and secondary (nature) causes. The study of science and philosophy must be about G-d and not just about academic achievement. The Kutzker rebbe once said about the yeshiva bound religious scholars of his day “The chussid fears G-d while the misnagged fears the shulchan aruch”. When the textbook takes the place of G-d, the religion has fundamentally changed for the worse. It is important to educate people from a young age that there is not “torah and science”, but revealed torah (the traditional Jewish canon) and hidden torah (science and philosophy). This fits in perfectly with the practice of modernity, we just need to update (downdate?) our terminology to remind us.

Until next week (R. Nachman’s conception of the relationship between torah study and prayer) raise a glass and sing a niggun!

The passage of the Sfas Emes can be found in his commentary on parshat Emor in the section from תרנ”ו


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus

The Ten Commandments of Astronomy: Rambam’s Mistake

1. Stars are made out of gas

2. Gas cannot predict my future

3. My personality is not defined by what star, constellation or day I was born on

4. Constellations are an arbitrary way to group stars.

5. I know all astrology is silly

6. Stars are not spiritually better than me, nor will they ever be

7. Stars do not literally praise the Lord every day

8. Stars are good to gaze, but bad to ask to intercede on my behalfe

9. I am not better than my predecessors, but I do know some things they did not about gas

10. Stars are not holy, although, thank God, I could be

Leibniz sought to create a system of logic that could solve any problem: whatever the question, you could plug in the variables, and logic would do the rest. Finally, those questions that have loitered about for millennia would be answered, once and for all. Sadly, Leibniz never succeeded in actualizing his dream. As formal logic today cannot adequately take into account quantum mechanics or the problem of the naturalistic fallacy, he unknowingly sought to overcome an insurmountable hurdle. And even if we put these technical issues aside, he had a larger obstacle obfuscating his judgment and crippling his logic: unconditional reliance upon and respect for his master. Leibniz was smart enough to independently construct the foundations of Calculus and to create a metaphysical world never before put forth (and never again believed!), but like so many before us, he could not see past the silhouette of his mentor. Aristotle, the father of philosophy and the sciences, cast such a shadow over Western Civilization that, over two thousand years later, it was still recovering from the shade.

The starting point for the Enlightenment and Modernity, on the other hand, is the rejection of many of these old assumptions. Occam’s razor and the scientific method became the new fundamentals. Indeed, in many ways, scientists took the place of philosophers of old. Not because they proffer correct opinions on metaphysical issues, but because they have successfully dispelled countless false conceptions formulated by metaphysicians since time immemorial. They accomplish this by employing inductive logic and by proposing new theories that they believe best explain the facts. They hope their theory works without any unnecessary or unjustified assertions and pray it continues to best explain the facts, in spite of the fact that they lack any assurances that the same physical rules will continue ad infinitum. This is the nature of science, for better or worse; all the same, our present age is living proof of the benefits that such an approach to the world reaps.

While people experiences the advances of practical science and technology every time they visit their local Radio Shack, the impact of science on the philosophical world lags well behind. No where is this made so clear as in the field of astronomy.

Nicolaus Copernicus had the gall to stand up against a scientific fact that was literally clear as day to bring about the Copernican Revolution. Looking back, it does not seem like such a crucial point: is the universe geocentric or not? Only once we realize that this physical fact laid the cornerstone of his contemporaries metaphysical world do we understand why Copernicus in fact lead a revolution. Bertrand Russell explains:

Round this apparent scientific fact, many human desires rallied; the wish to believe Man important in the scheme of things, the theoretical desire for a comprehensive understanding of the Whole, the hope that the course of nature might be guided by some sympathy with our wishes. In this way, an ethically inspired system of metaphysics grew up, whose anthropocentrism was apparently warranted by the geo-centrism of astronomy (Mysticism and Logic p. 76).

But with the Copernican Revolution, this warrant withered away. No longer could Man justify his metaphysical beliefs based on the physical location of the earth in the universe. Now, the philosopher needed to search high and low for better, more accurate information – whether scientific, philosophic or other – to found his theories upon. No longer could he simply look towards the Heavens to buttress his way of viewing life.

For the Jew, on the other hand, the search for ethics’ foundation has never been as pressing a matter. The Jew looks towards the Sinaitic revelation for his own ethical  foundation and the Shulhan Arukh for the practical way to implement that ethic. But, this does not mean that Jews have not exploited these geocentric assumptions of old. The Church was not the only one body who thought a heliocentric world was blasphemous: such famous Jewish personalities as the Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv HaTorah 14), R. Yonason Eybeshitz (Ya’aros Dvash), and the past/present Lubavitcher Rebbe (Mind over Matter p xlvi) have upheld such convictions. So while the Jewish world may not need to re-evaluate their worldview from an ethical perspective, they definitely need to re-evaluate their astronomical assumptions.

Indeed, along with the Copernican Revolution came certain indisputable facts about the Heavens, stars and the spheres (as the medievals called it). Before Copernicus, most if not all, religious folk thought that the stars were spiritual beings. The Psalmist himself asserts:

Praise Him, all his angels; praise Him all his legions; praise him, sun and moon; praise Him all bright stars; praise Him the most exalted of the heavens and the waters that are above the heavens. Let them praise the Name of God, for He commanded and they were created. (Psalm 148:3)

While one might be inclined to proffer a rational understanding of the Psalmist’s words when he says that inanimate objects praise God, the greatest of the Jewish rational philosophers, Maimonides himself exclaims:

As for the assertion that spheres are living and rational, I mean to say endowed with apprehension, it is true and certain also from the point of view of the Law; they are not dead bodies similar to fire and earth – as if thought by the ignorant – but they are – as the philosophers say – living beings who obey their Lord and praise Him and extol Him greatly. Thus Scripture says: “The heavens tell of the glory of God,”… For the terms speaking and telling are applied together in Hebrew only to a being endowed with intellect (II:5).


They [the Sages] have said explicitly that the heavens are living bodies and not dead ones like the elements. Aristotle said likewise with regard to the spheres being endowed with apprehension and mental representation corresponding to the dicta of our prophets and of the bearers of our Law, who are the Sages, may their memory be blessed (II:5).

While the Maimonides-lovers might not think that he actually meant this gut wrenching error literally, they need look no farther than Maimonides’ second book of Guide for the Perplexed where he puts forth Aristotle’s argument to buttress this unassailable fact:

Know that the opinions held by Aristotle regarding the causes of the motion of the spheres – from which opinion he deduced the existence of separate intellects – are simple assertions for which no demonstration (logical proof) has been made, yet they are, of all the opinions put forward on the subject, those that are exposed to the smallest number of doubts and those that are most suitable for being put into a coherent order (II:3).


That the sphere is endowed with a soul is clear upon reflection.

And after a convoluted argument that only a medieval scientist could espouse, he says:

In consequence this circular motion [of the spheres] can only come about in virtue of a certain mental representation, which determines the sphere’s moving in that particular way. Now there is no mental representation without an intellect… Furthermore, it follows necessarily from this that the sphere has a desire for that which it represents to itself and which is the beloved object: namely, the deity, may His name be exalted (II:4).

Similarly, Maimnides believes that stars are higher on the spiritual hierarchy than their human counterparts.

All this indicates to you that they apprehend their acts and have will and free choice with regard to the governance committed to them, just as we have will with regard to that which from the foundation of our existence has been committed to us and given over to our power. Only we sometimes do things that are more defective than other things… whereas the intellects and the spheres are not like that, but always do that which is good, and only that which is good is with them (II:7).

He also thinks that:

The governance of this lower world – I mean the world of generation and corruption – is said to be brought about through the forces overflowing from the spheres” (II:10).

We are not better because we are closer to the truth; we simply have a different form of scientific inquiry. What we mustn’t forget is that this was their science and it justified their metaphysical beliefs about Man’s position in the universe, God and the spheres. It was their best explanation given the information.

Today, we know with complete certainty that stars are luminous balls of plasma composed of hydrogen and helium formed within molecular clouds; they are gas balls. You could be sure that anyone who denies this, you would not want to have a conversation about science with, let alone about God. The metaphysics (Maimonidean science) of stars has been replaced by the science (astronomy) of stars, but like most fields of philosophy in which science has had an impact, the metaphysical implications (or lack thereof) of a star’s position and rank in the world has not yet been fully appreciated by the religious community. Of course, they may fall back on the 23rd chapter of tractate Shabbos and stand strong in the name of God, truth and Zoroastrian astrology. But, for some reason, no one seems to tell them that God (along with His good Name) left the building a good four hundred years ago. Most people cannot believe that their holy religious texts are wrong, and even if they could, find it difficult to separate themselves from their juvenile notions of religion and science; but whatever the reason the religious community is so stiff-necked, I feel obligated to play my part in the formal decimation of propaganda and erroneous ideologies. I feel that I could best accomplish this by putting forth a short list of proclamations that every sane person would do well to accept and possibly recite every morning if necessary:

1. Stars are made out of gas

2. Gas cannot predict my future

3. My personality is not defined by what star, constellation or day I was born on

4. Constellations are an arbitrary way to group stars.

5. I know all astrology is silly

6. Stars are not spiritually better than me, nor will they ever be

7. Stars do not literally praise the Lord every day

8. Stars are good to gaze, but bad to ask to intercede on my behalf

9. I am not better than my predecessors, but I do know some things they did not about gas

10. Stars are not holy, although, thank God, I could be

And by the way, astronomy is the field of science that has been MOST accepted by frummies of all the conclusions postulated by the scientific community.

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Academic Reading vs. Traditional Reading

by Avi Kallenbach

I have sat in many Jewish classes in university and am witness to an interesting phenomenon.

Some people sign up for Jewish classes expecting something akin to what they learned in Yeshiva or Seminary. The class is after all titled “Talmud” or “Rambam”. These people have learned Talmud and Rambam in Yeshiva and Seminary and are hoping to learn something like that here. Alas, these poor people are often disappointed with the content of these Jewish classes and I know this because they often make their disappointment rather vocal over the course of the year. These people have made an understandable genre mistake. They were expecting the traditional study of Jewish sources. However most universities engage in a somewhat different method of text study – the academic study of Jewish texts. 

I would like to explain briefly (in this post and others to follow) what these two types of study are. What defines their different methodologies? How are they different and how are they the same? And perhaps, at some point, I can address the difficult question of whether these two methodologies have what to teach each other and can they be reconciled?

For starters let’s discuss something called charity of text. Academic study assumes that texts mean what they say. This means that when the Gemara says that semen comes from the brain it actually means that semen comes from the brain. When a kabbalistic text says that there are ten sefirot there are actually ten sefirot. This is literalism. An academic reading read texts literally and unless s/he has a good reason to think otherwise s/he doesn’t assume that the text does not mean what it says. No, the academic reads the words in front of him and reads them as they are with no embellishment and no additions.

However the traditional study of a text often does not share this assumption. It assumes that texts do not necessarily mean what they. At times texts are meant to be decoded and a deeper meaning lies underneath the surface. Literalism, simply scratches the surface without touching the deeper meaning of the text and thus misses the point or worse completely misunderstands what is going on. Dig deeper.

But enough abstract theory, let’s apply it:

Rabbi Slikfin a while back wrote about Chazal’s view about the sun and the moon: In his article he brings the Gemara:

The Sages of Israel say, During the day, the sun travels below the firmament, and at night, above the firmament. And the scholars of the nations say, During the day the sun travels below the firmament, and at night below the ground. Rebbi said: Their words seem more correct than ours, for during the day the wellsprings are cool and at night they steam.

His article proceeds to examine the different views about these statements.

Now according to what we have said above there are two ways we can read this Gemara. We can either read the words in front of us OR we can look for a deeper meaning in the text something beyond what the words actually say. The former approach will be academic the latter traditional.

The words say: that the sages believe that the sun is hidden by the firmanent in the day and that is what causes night. The nations of the world on the other hand say that the sun is hidden underground and THAT is what causes night. Rebbi agrees with the nations of the world because it would provide an explanation for why wells hot at night. The sun goes under the ground and heats up the wells. Slifkin prefers here to take the academic approach and chooses to read the words as they are and thus concludes that the Rabbis believed in a different picture of astronomy than we do.

Those are what the words say. However a traditional approach will dig deeper than that and avoid the simplicity of the words. Thus the explanation of the Maharal of Prague (also mentioned in Slifkin’s article) that this picture represents a spiritual description rather than a physical description of the world. The words themselves give us no reason to think that we are talking about a spiritual description, and the Maharal’s explanation is adding to the simplicity of the words. This is the traditional approach. That sees the words as somewhat esoteric and that they need to be “cracked” or “explained” in order to understand the true meaning.

There are countless other examples of these two approaches especially in the field of Talmud. Needless to say many “traditional” scholars use a somewhat academic approach and many academic scholars at times use what i’ve called the traditional approach. These two categories of thinking are in no ways absolute.

BUT these models help us understand why the Yeshiva guy sitting in my Talmud class seems so confused. Someone is explaining a Talmudic text to him academically and he can’t understand why this professor is being so stupid and not looking for the deeper hidden meaning of the words. What he perhaps does not realize is that the professor is using an entirely different methodology, something the Yeshiva guy is not used to and therefore the professor reaches drastically different conclusions about the text.


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What Kind of Name is “Bachya”?

Unfortunately, the study of Jewish History is often given short shrift in many Jewish schools. I have often encountered teachers and Rabbis who don’t comprehend the critical role the study of Jewish History can play in understanding Torah. One personal pet peeve is the significant number of yeshiva graduates who have virtually no sense of historical context of the Rabbis they spend their days studying. One significant example which I have encountered is that many yeshiva graduates are surprised to find out that, in fact, there was more than one Rabeinu Bachya (or Bechaye, as it is often pronounced).

The earlier one was Rabeinu Bachya ben Yosef Ibn Paquda, famed author of Chovos Halevavos, a very important work originally written in Arabic and later translated into Hebrew by R. Yehuda ibn Tibbon.

Then there is Rabeinu Bachya ben Asher ibn Halawa, best known for authoring of his eponymous commentary on the Torah, but who also wrote the significant works Shulchna Shel Arba and Kad Hakemach. He dies in 1340, which means that not only are there two Rabbeinu Bachyas, but they lived almost three hundred years apart!

When you look into it, Bachya is a pretty unusual name. In fact, we only know of a couple of significant Jews in all of history who have had that name, and they are the aforementioned Torah scholars.

Rabbi Re’uven Margaliyos, in Peninim U’Margaliyos (pg. 183), writes that he has long surmised that “Bachya” was not a real name, but merely a nickname, similar to “Kashisha” of the Talmud.

He records that a manuscript of R. Bachya ben Asher’s Kad Hakemach was recently discovered in the Spanish Royal Library in Madrid. The title page of this manuscript proves the accuracy of his guess. It reads:

Written by R. Yehuda ben R. Asher, called R. Bahya

It can therefor be seen clearly that R. Bachya ben Asher’s real name was Yehuda, not Bachya. At this point I’m unaware of a similar discovery referencing Rabeinu Bachya ben Asher ibn Paquda, but it is a fairly safe assumption that he had another name, as well.

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Does God Protect Us? The Boy Who Fell from the Tree

by Yitzchak Sprung

There are many approaches to the concept of Divine Providence which have found their place among Orthodox Jews. These range from the opinion that there is no such thing as chance[1], because God takes part in all actions and reactions, to radical positions in the other direction, which maintain that God has minimal to no involvement in our world[2]. The former outlook is a lot more popular, while the latter barely seems to come up in conversation, but they’re both there, and there are plenty of views and opinions in between the two[3]. One such approach emerges from the famous Talmudic story about the boy who fell from the tree.

The Talmud[4] tells us of a boy whose father asked him to climb a tree and send away the mother bird so that they might enjoy her eggs[5]. Fulfilling “Honor thy father”[6], the boy climbs the tree to send the mother bird away, which he does successfully. Unfortunately, before he could make his way safely down from the tree, the boy lost his balance and fell to his death.

I’ve always been fascinated by this story because it never fails to make me think, and whenever it (somehow invariably) came up on Shavuot when I was younger, it brought about a lot of interesting discussion and questions, even late into the night.

The story is actually brought as kind of explanation for the opinion of Rabbi Yaakov, who holds that “there is no reward in this world for (the performance of) Mitzvot.”The boy died then, because he can only expect his reward in the World to Come, whereas in this world there is none. As Marvin Fox once said [7], “The pain of an innocent child is no less a challenge to faith, in principle, than the pain of the millions whose agonies form the melancholy history of our age”. This must be what was bothering Rabbi Yaakov, and brought him to his conclusion.

The Talmud subjects this opinion to a series of challenges, including one brought from an obviously opposing Rabbi Elazar, who tells us : “Ones sent (to perform) a mitzvah are not harmed on their way (to do it), nor on their return (from its performance)”.

“Well”, you might be thinking,” if Rabbi Elazar is correct that one who has just completed the performance of a commandment will not be harmed on his way back (down a tree, say), then how do you explain the fact that this boy experienced serious harm -to the point of death -on his way back from the performance of a commandment?[8]

Really, the Talmud might say back, your question is a good one, but there is an exception to the rule. You see, we do not rely on miracles or providence in an inherently dangerous situation, even if we are performing a mitzvah. In our case, the ladder the boy was using to climb down was a rickety one, which means that the boy was in an inherently risky situation, and so the exception applies.

This then, is the opinion of Rabbi Yaakov. He accepts the maxim of Rabbi Elazar as true, but with a certain exception in mind.

So, we might ask, if, according to Rabbi Yaakov, providence cannot be relied upon to save us from a dangerous situation, when exactly can we expect providence?

I suppose there are several ways we might try and explain this, and I’ll list some of the more obvious ones.

1)  The Talmudic discussion applies to a layman, who may not rely on a miracle, but a tzadik, or an especially righteous person, may in fact do so.

This doesn’t really help most of us, and we can learn from this that most of us receive no divine providence whatsoever. Bummer.

Still, this is probably not the Gemara’s opinion, because the Talmud seems to be discussing regular people and makes no indication otherwise. The boy who died was doing a mitzvah, but (as one suggestion goes) maybe the reason he died was because he was thinking idolatrous thoughts while in the tree, thus voiding the protection of these commandments. So, if the Talmud does not assume that a person has to be a tzaddik to be protected by God, then one must merely steer clear of paganism while doing the mitzvot.  After all, is that really too much to ask?

Therefore, R. Elazar’s maxim applies to anyone doing a mitzvah, not just the righteous elite, and we are forced to seek another explanation[9].

2) Maybe the Talmud believes that while providence should not be relied upon to save us from danger, it may be relied upon to improve situations that are not inherently dangerous. Intuitively, I do not think this is a simple reading of the text, since I don’t think the rest of R. Elazar’s maxim (if he were still alive) would be “but in all other situations you may rely on a miracle to make your life better”. Still, we won’t look into whether or not we can answer this question decisively one way or another right now.

3) Rabbi Yaakov may hold that God does not tend to get involved in our lives one way or another, but you never know. He is, after all, a personal God[10], and you may pray to Him. Providence or a miracle is always a possibility, if one that should not be relied upon.

This last option does seem to me to be the simple explanation of R. Elazar’s maxim, since the Sages believe in providence, but seem to want to limit our reliance on it[11].

My brother has recently assured me that blogs must have contemporary relevance to be interesting, so here’s my bit on how this all relates to you:

In the times of planes, trains, and automobiles[12], that’s a lot time spent in inherently risky situations, not to mention all the other dumb things we do like eat unhealthy foods and inhale an incredible amount of second hand smoke. So, I suppose that this little exception to the rule is some pretty good information to have. In dangerous situations we don’t rely on a miracle, even if we’re in the middle of a mitzvah. If we are constantly in the middle of at least somewhat risky situations, we should be extremely careful, since God will not be careful on our behalf[13].

Now that we’ve analyzed (if very shortly and in a basic way) this Talmudic story, and even spoken a little bit about a ramification or two, I feel like I should justify our discussion on a broader level. After all, not only is this but one of an almost endless seeming list of approaches in the Talmud to this and similar questions, but do we really think that this kind of question is solvable at all?

Without trying to answer those questions, because I think they probably deserve a lot of thought, I want to offer two justifications[14].

I think there’s value in showing that the sages had nuanced opinions on these issues, and didn’t see things in purely stark[15] terms. They were complex people with complex opinions, and if we remember this we will also remember that our tradition is a complex one, and cannot be fit into a neat box with one answer for each question.

Furthermore, if Rabbi Yaakov did indeed believe that providence should not be relied upon in a risky situation, then I think he was trying to teach us an important lesson as well. We might experience an apparent absence of God’s involvement in our lives, and so we might come to reject the classic Jewish belief in a personal God. In order to affirm the belief in a personal and present God the Sages chose to use the particular phrasing of “reliance”. Indeed, one may not rely on providence according to this story, however, one may ask for it, since these Sages believe that God will either accept or reject our petition to Him.

Of course, this isn’t the only opinion in the Talmud, which we can see by continuing down the very same page…

[1]I was informed of this recently by a book seller in Bnei Brak, but it’s actually something people around me have been saying my entire life as far as I can remember. I have often heard people treat the idea of coincidence or chance as somewhat insulting to God.

Rambam lists this in the Guide (3:17) as a mistaken opinion of the Ashariya, but lists no Jews who might have held this opinion.

I assume this belief  is one of the things Menachem Kellner is referring to when he says the world favored by “Maimonides’ opponents” is an “enchanted” one (‘Science in the Beit Midrash: Studies in Maimonides’ (Academic Studies Press, 2009) on page 357.).

[2] While even Gersonides holds that there is divine providence for some individuals, he holds that it is in correlation to how close a person is to the “Active Intellect”, which the individual reaches a sort of unity with. (For this see “Providence in the Philosophy of Gersonides” by J.D. Bleich (Ktav), especially his translation of Mihamot Hashem treatise 4.) At any rate, this is apparently a natural process, and not “a conscious act of God” (Bleich, p. 40), so that beyond the nature that God has already put into place, it would appear that He does not interfere in our affairs.

Bleich also mentions (p. 39 and translation on 65) that species receive providence in the form of “organs” and “natural instincts” so providence for species is accomplished in a similarly naturalistic manner.

[3] See, for example, the very interesting opinion of Radbaz that man has the free will to live an ethical life, but providence determines his wealth. This is brought and translated in L. Jacob’s “Theology in the Responsa” (Littman Library), page 113.

[4]BT Kiddushin, 39b. The following discussion from the Gemara is also from there.

[5] Deut. 22:6

[6] Ex. 20:12

[7] ‘Collected Essays On Philosophy and On Judaism Volume Two, Some Philosophers’, page 93. (Binghamton University, 2001)

[8] The Talmud in fact assumes that Rabi Yaakov must prove his point does not contradict Rabbi Elazar’s, who is presumably correct.

[9] We could say that the Talmud moves on from this assumption though, and proceeds to assume in the following discussion that providence is only for the righteous.  For now, we’ll have to leave that question unsolved.

[10]See for example Psalm 146, Daniel 2:20-24, Deut. 16:2, these being 3 places I opened a TaNaKh to at random.

[11] The reason I’m not discussing the opinion of Gersonides and Maimonides here is because I do not assume a simple explanation of the text includes that Rabbi Yaakov is an Aristotelian. However, see Milhamot treatise 4 for a discussion of this particular Talmudic discussion according to Gersonides.

[12] I actually never watched the whole movie.

[13] One area we might discuss in relation to this point is regarding the risk of not having a job, or a full time job, or even a college education. This seems to me to be a ramification of Rabbi Yaakov’s view. If relying on charity is to be regarded as inherently risky, then the Talmud is telling us not to rely on God to raise our standard of living. However, there are those today who look unfavorably on working, going to college, etc., and this is a dividing line between many in the Orthodox community. Presumably, people who believe that having a job is B’diavad will affirm “God will provide” if we simply have enough faith, or perhaps, as others say, “if I put in my hishtadlus (effort), then God will provide”. The first approach is at odds with this particular opinion in the Talmud, though they could marshal their own sources.  As for the second approach, I have a hard time defining exactly what people mean when they say to put in “hishtadlus”, but it sounds a lot like “prepare for things properly and you’ll succeed”. That’s certainly not advice I would argue with generally speaking, but I do not think the Talmud here would agree with that opinion either. It is just that sort of guarantee that Rabbi Yaakov wants to inform us we will not be getting from God.

Marc B. Shapiro mentioned recently that “While it is true that the numbers of people who currently follow this approach (ie:looking unfavorably upon working) is much larger than ever before in history, it must be noted that even in previous years there were those who acted in the same fashion.” here thanks to Rami Schwartz for sending me this link.

[14] Not to the exclusion of many others that might be offered, such as those, for example, listed in Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s  “Why Learn Gemara?”, pp. 1-17 in his ‘Leaves of Faith: Volume 1’ (Ktav 2003)

[15] Tony.


Filed under Miscellaneous, Rationalism

Chussidus and Modern Day Orthodoxy

By Avi Bieler

See what I did with the title there? I don’t like the term “Modern Orthodoxy”. Others learnt philosophy before Rav Soloveitchik and they too incorporated it into their theology. “Modern Orthodoxy”?  That’s just a new name for a type of Orthodoxy that has existed for hundreds of years.

The argument about “Grecian Wisdom” dates back to Talmudic times and has continued throughout the proverbial ages. Only at some point along the way those of us who had heard of Aristotle deemed ourselves to be especially modern. It’s as if the 2400 year old writings of a guy who wore a toga outside of his frat parties are the arbiters of who is hip. You see, I know of a certain “yeshivish/charedi” Rosh Yeshiva who receives translations of Artie’s works so he can better understand the RaMBaM. Does he lose modern status because of proclivity to wear hats when he prays? No one is “Modern Orthodox”; people are “modern Orthodox”, or perhaps “Grecian Orthodox”. Torah conscious Jews throughout history live in different permutations of the “Grecian Wisdom” argument. Like the Matrix.

Why do I start with this other than to be obnoxious? In today’s modern environment (Jewish and otherwise), the pro-Greece lobbyists are haunted and hunted by the idea of being “irrational” and therefore “immodern”. So much so that I dare say it places them in many uncomfortable positions with regards to religion. I once ate Shabbat lunch with a family whom I deeply respect. At one point the father and son told a story about a poor man who approached them at the Kotel. The man said that if you give me charity and the name of a sick person I will pray for him. O how the father and son laughed at the concept of prayer (Tefilla) and charity (Tzdaka) removing the evil decree. The family is very pious and I have no doubt that they pray very hard on Yom Kippur, but they struggled with one of the most basic concepts of that Day and of Judaism in general. Why is that?

The wise Hillel Mansfield once suggested this brilliant theory. The RaMBaM’s religious thought is based on Apophatic Theology, a word I only use to make myself sound smart. In English that means that Maimonides only discussed what G-d is not. In the Jewish tradition, this goes back to a gemara in Brachot where one rabbi says many wonderful things about G-d and upon finishing his fellow rabbi asks him “can you possibly be done”? It’s a very sound idea with a major weakness. When you only talk about what G-d is not, you can eventually conclude that G-d is not anything.  Eventually, you may decide (perhaps only in your subconscious) that He/She/Zee has no effect upon this world. Simply put, G-d becomes so transcendent that He ceases to meaningfully exist.

Rav Soloveitchik once said “my students understand my brain, but not my heart”. The biggest threat to modern Orthodoxy is the tin man problem. I would like to propose that one of the causes of this quandary is our insistence on the word “modern”. The word carries with it a suggestion of subservience to current ideas of what is scientific even though many aspects of religion necessarily fail the rationality test. G-d cannot be completely understood with the head no matter how hard we try.

Worry not though; the Good Lord creates no disease without first creating its antidote. One solution is to look to the past. The heroes of “Grecian Wisdom” in Jewish history did indeed believe in the irrational (as did Grecian Wisdom itself) while incorporating rational ideas into their theology. We should be able to as well. It is my belief that chassidus (combined with Grecian Orthodoxy) holds the power to synthesize rational thought with spirituality.  In these blog posts I hope to demonstrate that one can bathe in kabbalistic waters without drifting off into the deep sea and that ideas in chassidus can sometimes be best understood by the intellectual mind.

Until next week, (showing how the main principle of chussidus and Grecian Orthodoxy are related), raise a glass and sing a niggun.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus