Friday, September 08, 2006

Plato Beats Aristotle

Someone commented that Kabbalah presently has no place in the Litvish yeshiva world. This is true. But...

In the field of Jewish philosophy, kabbalah is the massive winner over Maimonidean rationalism and philosophic mysticism. Or, Plato is more popular than Aristotle. Or, France and northern Spain beat out Andalusia.

Rambam, for all his brilliance, expressed a philosophy of Judaism that was incomprehensible to the masses. At the same time, however, kabbalah was being developed in France and northern Spain. As a comprehensive religious philosophy that informed every mundane activity with religious meaning, it was much more attractive to most, than a cold intellectual contemplation of the ultimately unknowable God.

Rambam, if anything, was speaking to intellectuals, who were already attracted by Muslim philosophy, and needed a counterbalancing intellectualism to pull them back towards Torah. However, clearly from the Chasidic texts, lots of people can come to some grips with Kabbalistic emanationism.

I'm sure the Rambam would have regarded kabbalism as some kind of shutfut, partnership between the demigod partzufim and the unknowable Divine, akin to gnosticism's division between the evil creator god, and the unknowable god of goodness above it.

But like it or not, Kabbalah is the regnant paradigm, except in the Litvish world.

Certainly it's popular among Sephardim, and among Chasidim. The Litvish stopped teaching it, apparently to stem the tide of Sabbateanism (which was based on misreadings of Kabbalah), which seems to have worked. The 18th century was rife with it, as it is known that almost all of R' Yonatan Eibeschutz' immediate family, sons-in-law, etc. were Sabbateans, if not RYE himself. By the late 19th century, it was gone. Chassidism remapped it as a psychological guide and meditation scheme, and created the godly rebbe system, which defused the messianic impulse. I don't know how the Sefardim defused the Sabbatean bomb.

Meanwhile, today, there is lots of spiritual searching. The Kalte Litvaks have failed to impress the emotional content of a true insular Yiddishe life on their students. Rav YBS often complained about this - they have the knowledge, but not the emotional connection, they don't cry on Yom Kippur. So, naturally, we are turning once again to the emotional frameworks of Kabbalah and Chasidut, to inform our observance with love, with dveikus, etc. Temimus isn't enough, if there isn't an emotional component, so we turn to dveykus.

Even aside from the Bergian cultists, there is a tremendous resurgence in Kabbalism, both in the Orthodox world (Bnei Baruch, followers of R' Baruch Ashlag, opponents of the Berg co-optation of R' Ashlag pere, and others) and in the secular world (Bergism).

BRGS seems to finally be stepping into this, recognizing that kabbalah has become a real force in even the Misnagdish world again (the Vilna Gaon was a major kabbalist, R' Chaim Volozhin wrote in Kabbalistic metaphor in Nefesh HaChaim), requiring some familiarity with these schools of thought. It's a good thing, a broadening thing, that will help them speak to their congregants.


Y. Aharon said...

Mazal tov on opening a blog. I enjoyed your comments on the Aishdas site and look forward to participating here.

I agree that kabbalah has made more inroads into Judaism in recent centuries than has rationalism. The picture is starting to change, however, among the educated Orthodox. The Zoharic and Lurianic teachings, I believe, are seen to be too weird and non-normative to be convincing, or even acceptable. My own personal objections come from the near deification of the leading kabbalistic personalities and prototypes, and their depiction of the Deity. The current issue regarding the late Chabad rebbe is but a reflection of the prior attitude towards the Ari shown by his chasidim. Then, there is the great presumption of these savants concerning their privileged knowledge that was alleged to be superior to Moshe's.

Lets face it, anyone can claim to know deep secrets, and there are adherents of all religions who have gone into trances. Why is the information presented in the Zohar and kitvei Ha'Ari any more compelling than such works in other religions? If, because the other works have an unacceptable depiction of the Deity, then so, I would argue, do the Zoharic and Lurianic teachings.

Y. Aharon

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I agree. In discussing the idea of not sleeping on Rosh Hashana with someone, I was told that the Ari did sleep on Rosh Hashan, but that was okay, because "he accomplished more in his sleep than others do when they're awake."

I mean--what?