Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The Challenge of Mysticism

Yossi Adler of Toronto recently sent me (along with others on his email list) the following:

See http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1263147868969&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

“It also comes after Shas's spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said in his weekly sermon on Saturday night that Shabbat desecraters are "stupid" and "worse than animals." Yosef's comments were made during a review of Shabbat laws.”

Other recent R’Yosef gems as reported by the Jeruslam Post include the following:

1. July 2009: “Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has argued that those murdered in the Holocaust were a reincarnation of sinners from past generations, Ma'ariv reported on Sunday.”
2. February 2009: “In a bid to stem defection of voters from Shas to Israel Beiteinu, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef warned on Thursday that anyone who votes for Avigdor Lieberman's party is a transgressor whose sin will never be expiated. "If someone plans on voting for a party that is in favor of assimilation, of selling pork, then his sin is too great to bear, his sin will never be forgiven," the Shas mentor said in a televised appearance without explicitly mentioning Israel Beiteinu's name.”
3. August 2007: “Officials from across the political and military spectrums slammed Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Monday for a sermon in which Yosef said troops killed in the Second Lebanon War lost their lives because of their lack of religious observance.”
4. July 2007: "Women should make hamin and not deal with matters of Torah," the spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said in a speech to supporters on Saturday night.”

Obvious question: How many outrageous comments need be made by R’Yosef before we could disqualify this Rav as a gadol?

This was my response to Yossi's email:

There is a more fundamental issue here -- which explains why ROY has his following and why his acceptance by this following is actually strengthened by these type of pronouncements. This is the infiltration of mysticism into everyday Jewish life and thinking.

We live in a world of basic physical cause and effect and upon recognizing and analyzing this world, we come to certain conclusions regarding behaviour etc. Torah, from our perspective, superimposes itself upon this world -- not denying it but adding to it. As such, we do encounter statements within Torah that cannot be supported by our analysis of cause and effect but to us, this is a challenge, a problem, which leads us to accept that God has wisdom beyond our own and knows what He is doing. We, though, continue to live with questions and, for sure, do not see Torah as challenging our understanding of the world and its cause and effect -- and, as such, continue to apply this understanding in our lives. As such, these type of statements by ROY are discounted. Unless he can show that they are really some type of Halacha L'Moshe miSinai, as they are applied in an attempt to define our structures of understanding, we do not only disagree but find them challenging, problematic and embarrassing.

Yet much of the religious world does not see life this way. They understand the Torah as presenting a totally different realm of cause and effect that even challenges normative, rational understandings. In fact, they want a religion that offers a completely different way of looking at the world, a religion that says that you fell because your mezuzah was passul and not because you didn't tie your shoes properly -- in fact, chas v'shalom that you should even think that it was because you didn't tie your shoes properly. They want a world of complete mystical cause and effect, wherein nothing happens because of apparent reasons -- relying on apparent rational reasons even is wrong and reflects a lack of emunah -- but because of some realm of cause and effect that is 'hidden'. This is the extreme realm of mysticism and actually many, many people want it -- as they want to not have to deal with the normative world of cause and effect. As such they turn to religion and the religious leader, who can give reasons that apply different, mystical rules, is the desired one.

And this is what is happening here. ROY, like many Sefardim, is engulfed in the world of Kabbalah and mysticism. His theories all work from that realm and the cause and effect that it applies. And it is these rules that he applies, leading to his statements. As they totally don't make sense within the world of the rational, even of rational Torah, they seem to us weird and embarrassing. But to his followers, they are statements from someone who knows the workings of the 'real' world and the 'real' cause and effect. So while you are saying 'enough of this,' "we need challenge this man's voice," with each and every pronouncement his following actually strengthens because, almost the more outlandish the statement, the greater must be his understanding of the 'real' world and so his pronouncements, within the perception of his followers, only show that he really is a gadol.

BTW my understanding is that the GRA, who was a big mekubal as well, still maintained a connection with this world's cause and effect. IOW his mysticism did not lead him to reject his rationalism. I get this from the fact that the GRA was praised for never letting his kabbalah lead him to deviate from the words of the Shulchan Aruch. This of course cannot mean that he never acted contrary to the psak of the Rama or Mechabeir for the GRA often set his own halachic positions in contradiction with even all others. However even when he disagreed it was within the rational rules of halachic reasoning. The Kabbalah simply did not lead him to not apply rationalism first and as the direct determinant of behaviour.

What do you think? What should be the role of the olam hanistar in our everyday world?

Rabbi Ben Hecht


Yossi said...


1. ROY cannot be absolved of his outrageous statements simply on the basis that it rooted in Jewish mystical thought. You cannot attempt to make a rational argument by then resorting to the fact that much of the religious world does not share our proclivity for rational thought, and thereby attempt to justify these ridiculous pronouncements. If that were in fact the case and if “they understand the Torah as presenting a totally different realm of cause and effect that even challenges normative, rational understandings”, then why be Jewish at all? Why not consider Islam, Christianity or Wicca or secularism? The fact that “so many people want” this kind of Judaism is no justification, notwithstanding your attempt to show some sympathy for a different approach on the basis of “Elu V’elu”.

2. If what you are saying is true, that “with each and every pronouncement his following actually strengthens because, almost the more outlandish the statement the greater must be his understanding of the 'real' world and so it only shows that he really is a gadol”, then we should not be surprised nor alarmed were ROY to one day say that we should murder each and every non-frum Jew for example. Because after all, while this would be an outlandish statement, this must prove ROY’s gadlus! Where does this all end? Where do we say, enough of this nonsense! He speaks not for us nor for our tradition and we must reject his intolerant approach?

3. Where does Chilul Hashem come into the analysis? Are we not to be concerned about how religious and non-traditional Jews and the world at large receives such irrational statements? Or must we accept the fact that this is a mystical approach which we do not share, but that we are mandated to respect? At what point does rational judgment kick in to help us determine whether a statement or an approach is a worthy one?

With respect, Yossi

Nishma said...

Dear Rabbi Hecht

As you know we go way back! About 20 years ago I taught a course for you titled "Mysticism and Rationalism in Jewish Thought"

[We should probably write a series on this] in summary my entire 10 lecture course was really about the PSYCHOLOGY of the Mystic vs. That of the Rationalist

I made for myself a short list of "Rational Mystics" - at that time.

As I Recall
Maharal MiPrague
Were my short list

I would expand it to include
Hovot Halvavot
RSR Hirch [a closet mystic]
Rav AY Kook

And several Honourable Mentions
Rambam - NOT a Kabbalistic but a Mystic of sorts based upon Moreh n'vuchim and Y'sodei Hatorah

Ramchal whose topsy turvey life is hard to fathom, but his classics seem grounded

R Aryeh Kaplan who never allowed mysitcal principles to compromise clear thinking.

«GRA was praised for never letting his kabbalah lead him to deviate from the words of the Shulchan Aruch.»

Actually Rav Nachman of Braslav also said no amount of kabbalah justified even the slightest deviation from Shulchan Aruch.

What IS True - even about ROY - is that many of our greatest Halachic minds were great mystics

Shulchan Aruch
SA Harav - Ba'al HaTanya
Ben Ish Chay
Urim v'Tumim
Shlah Haoqodesh
And many more

More needs to be said

Permit me to summarize:

Marx accused religion as being the "opiate of the people".

Only abusive religion would be used as an opiate to shrug off responsible living

Similarly, only abuses of mysticism - not mysticism itself - would allow Rabbis or Followers to deviate from a positive, productive life. [Think Shabtai Zvi as the ultimate abuser]

Our neviim must have been mystics, but we rarely if ever see self-destructive behaviour. Yirmiyahu did have extreme angst - but those were extreme times. Certainly the Avot and Yosef all had Divine Visions and were quite responsible for their behaviour "in their own self-perception!"

Mysticism is no excuse for discarding good clear common sense. Ideally it can enhance or augment it, never quash it - [unless perhaps under extreme exceptional conditions]

Thinka about it. Would Madonna ever have counseled A-Rod to use Kabbalah as SUBSTITUTE for going to the gym.? I kind of doubt it.


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...


I am not really in disagreement with you. While I do understand Eilu v'Eilu in a broad manner that, on some level, must deal with the views of ROY within this context, that really wasn't the focus of my thoughts. I was not trying to justify his, or his followers', behaviour. Outside of Eilu v'Eilu there are disagreements within the Beit Medrash and Eilu v'Eilu does not mean not to critique, challenge, even attack. Expreseing dissent, even with strong language, has been over the years part of Torah and limud haTorah -- so while within another context, I have to deal with how I can include ROY in Eilu v'Eilu, that does not mean I cannot express dissent in strong terms -- and in this case, I am clearly also in dissent. My words were not meant to defend him.

What I was trying to say is that the problem is not just with him. As much as you are disgusted by these statements and you would call for him not to be defined as a gadol, the greater problem is that there are those who (a) do not share your disguet (b) in fact define him even more as a gadol precisely because of these words. This is because people are looking for mysticisim as a way to remove oneself from the world and the issues of life (see Rabbi Wolpoe's comments) and the more outlandish the mysticism, these people feel the better. If you want to stop ROY, you have to respond to this problem -- and this starts with the 'innocent' call to check your mezuzah in the case of illness. Its the benign forms of allegiance to mysticism in the face of rationalism -- that is all around us within the frum community -- that has to be addressed. We have to stop this in its bud before it can become more and more problematic ala ROY.

So why don't these people just adopt another religion? Because there are still authentic Jewish roots here. Even the Kabbalah Centre is seen as being Jewish. The language of the Kabbalah lends itself to this kind of stuff -- and unless you have the rational boundaries as portrayed by the GRA and, as Rabbi Wolpoe mentions, many others, you can go in a myriad of different directions. Remember, Shabbtai Tzvi was a noted Kabbalist. Does that mean we should thus forsake Kabbalah? No, but it should tell us to be careful.

A stated allegiance to Kabbalah allows these people to think they are being Jewish -- and the reason many of these people do not contemplate other religions or mystical systems -- or better want to call their system Jewish -- is because they have strong feelings for their Jewish identity. I remember, once a Lubavitcher was trying to convince me of the strength of his viewpoints and how wonderful and overriding Lubavitch is, because, at the time, Lubavitch was the most successful in getting members of Jews for Jesus to become frum. He was telling me all about these Jews for Jesus people who gave up their belief in Jesus because of the convincing of Lubavitchers and the strength of Chabad. I responded with the question of what other group within Judaism does he think would be as successful -- for to move to Chabad from Jews for Jesus is much shorter than the move to another form of Judaism. IOW, with Lubavitch, he could still satisfy to a great extent that which drove him in the first place to JforJ while maintaining a stronger Jewish identity. Of course, Lubavitch is going to be successful in combatting JforJ. Someone like me may totally fail for I would challenge the very a prioris that led this person in the first place to the kind of religion of JforJ.

As for your point about Chilul Hashem etc. this is for me part of the arguments against an unfettered mystical approach. As long as we are told that we are to be concerned about hayashar b'einei adam, what is straight in the eyes of humanity, we had better respect the rational.

I hope this clarifies my viewpoint.

Rabbi Ben Hecht