Thursday, September 24, 2009

Where's the 'Snag Kabbalah?

I went into my neighborhood seforim shop (in Flatbush, we have neighborhood seforim shops, it's the B&N that necessitates a big trip "out of town") to peruse the new translation (by R' Avraham Yaakov Finkel, noted translator of short books for school fundraisers) of the Nefesh haChaim, the central expression of Misnagdish Torah philosophy by the founder of the Lithuanian Yeshiva Movement, R' Chaim Volozhin.

It looked rather small for a book whose modern editions tend to be fairly large and thick. I started flipping through the back and saw that the entire text was included in Hebrew in the back. Whoops - filler! How much actual English text is there? Not a lot, and the print isn't even that small.

Why is that? There was a note from the author at the beginning, that he had not translated the kabbalistic material. Huh?

One of the big strengths of the Nefesh haChaim is that it speaks in the same kabbalistic idiom as the Chassidic books. It was addressing the same early-19th-century audience, and making a case for the primacy of Torah study over other non-prayer activities. I've even seen some of the same imagery in both R' Chaim's writings and in the writings of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe - that the mitzvos are a rope between ourselves and God, strands being severed by sins. By cutting out the Kabbalah, R' Finkel has cut the meat off the bones of the Father of Yeshivos, leaving his work a poor meal indeed.

Note, I haven't extensively studied the Nefesh haChaim, so it will wait for someone more knowledgeable to write a proper review. I'm just talking about the form; the substance needs deeper appreciation.

But what about Kabbalah for Misnagdim? Following the publication of the works of the Ari, Kabbalah spread throughout the Jewish world, supplanting the pure intellectualism of post-Maimonidean philosophy. This led to the Sabbatean disaster, and in an effort to root out secret conventicles of Sabbateans, different communities had different approaches. The Sephardim, I don't know, there was some strong opposition, but did secret Sabbateans continue much among them? The Ashkenazim were plagued with them throughout the 18th century. Two distinct approaches developed:

The Chasidim gave a quasi-messianic role to their Tzaddikim, their Rebbes. Not that "every Chasid thinks his Rebbe is Moshiach", which is a canard put forth by some Lubavitchers to justify their continuing belief that their late Rebbe is/was [a suitable candidate for] Moshiach. Rather, they believe (see, e.g., Beis Aharon by R' Aharon of Karlin) that the soul of Moshiach is distributed among all Jews, with Tzaddikim having a somewhat higher proportion of that soul.

The Misnagdim outlawed Kabbalah. This continues to this day. Until the end of the 18th century, the major rabbinic figures in the Ashkenazic world were almost all Kabbalists, and thought of their Judaism to some extent through its filters. Some of the greatest wrote amulets for the common folk, who believed wholeheartedly in the Kabbalah. It's clear that the general run of educated Jews in that time knew Kabbalah, because the Chasidic writings for them are all written in Kabbalistic idiom. But after the founding of the yeshiva at Volozhin, Kabbalah was taken out of the yeshiva curriculum. So today, Misnagdim don't know Kabbalah. And there are no more Misnagdish Sabbateans, nor are there messianic obsessions such as arose over the last Lubavitcher Rebbe.

However, the Chasidim and Sephardim still deal in Kabbalah. Only kooks and entrepreneurs (such as the Bergs and lehavdil R' Aryeh bar Tzadok) seem to be truly involved in Kabbalah in the yeshivish and modernish world. More and more kabbalah is becoming available, even in English, but it's still frowned upon. The closest one gets is an underground shiur in Tanya at major yeshivos, such as Philadelphia or Ner Israel. Even at YU, the "intro to Kabbalah" is taught in the college and the graduate school, not in the yeshiva.

Hence this edition of the Nefesh haChaim, and both English translations of the Ramban's commentary on the Torah, have excised all Kabbalistic material, even though that's a lot of the meat of the writers' material.

The Sabbateans have been gone for 200 years in western Orthodoxy. Is it perhaps time for the yeshivish world to rejoin the rest of Judaism, and expose its practitioners to Kabbalah in some organized, controlled way?



8 comments:

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>Not that "every Chasid thinks his Rebbe is Moshiach", which is a canard put forth by some Lubavitchers to justify their continuing belief that their late Rebbe is/was [a suitable candidate for] Moshiach.

When a Chabad chassisdsays "a chassid" 9 times out of 10 they mean "a Chabad chassid." They know what they mean, and they also know that most non-Chabad people have no idea, and think they mean Chassidim generally.

So when they say this they are speaking what they believe to be the truth, namely that "every [Chabad] chassid thinks his Rebbe is Mashiach," but knowing full well that you think they also mean Belz and Vizhnitz Chassidim.

I am almost completely certain that my interpretation is correct.

All that said, did you consider that the translator of Nefesh ha-Chaim might have not understood that material? When Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein translated/ adapted the Maharal's Be'er Hagolah he was open about the fact that some of it he failed to translate or include because he just couldn't.

Keter Malchut (Kabbalah Redemption) said...

B"H
Nice post. It's interesting that the Vilna Gaon said that a Rav who lacks knowledge of Kabbalah is INCAPABLE of properly poskening a halachah. Look it up! The Lubavitcher Rebbe begged the chief rabbis of Israel in 1988 to include Kabbalah in Yeshiva sedorim, but he was not listened to (yet...)

thanbo said...

Some testimony from Toby Katz that she has heard Lubavitchers use this canard in the sense I mean:

"But for now I will mention just one: I have heard MANY times from Lubavitchers that “To be a chossid you MUST believe your rebbe is Moshiach. If your father didn’t believe that the Gerrer Rebbe was Moshiach then he wasn’t really a Gerrer chossid.”

from

http://theantitzemach.blogspot.com/2008/02/this-shliach-has-seen-enough.html

where some shaliach bashes her for reporting it as if *she herself* had claimed that "all other chasidim believe in moshiach", rather than reporting that "some Lubavitchers make that claim."

also, possibly here:

Fact: In a Fabrengen in Tishrei 5747 the Rebbe said explicitly that every Chossid should believe that their Rebbe is Moshiach. (It was a weekday Fabrengen and their is a recording).

from

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BeisMoshiach/message/414

although the citation here is a bit more ambiguous:

http://chassidusunlimited.tripod.com/teaching.html

Trying to find the source, but eyes tiring from reading small print on screen.

LazerA said...

I'm not sure I agree with the premise of your post, that (A) misnagdim don't study kabalah today and (B) that this is a significant change from pre-Sabbatian times.

The fact is that seforim such as Nefesh Hachaim, Tomer Devorah, Shaarei Kedusha, Derech Hashem and Yesod v'Shoresh Ha'avodah (among others) are very popular in the misnagdic yeshivos. They are studied by individuals, by chavrusos, and in vaadim.

The study of the more technical and advanced kabbalistic works is generally only engaged in by older scholars, who do not do so in a public manner. This is in keeping with the traditional manner in which such studies were treated.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I just got a copy of the English-Hebrew but I also own an all Hebrew Nefesh HaChayim. It's not that long a book. My Hebrew copy has a ton of commentary which makes it thicker, that's all.

As for not translating the kabbalistic stuff, I agree. Here's why. One of the teshuvos in Igros Moshe forbids translating that work into English. The reasoning is that if you're going to pasken, you should know enough to read his teshuvos in the original. Anyone can pick up an Artscroll book and pretend to be a posek. The real authorities go to the originals without anybody's translation.
Remember translations are often inaccurate, especially Artscroll's which change the text to fit their interpretation instead of leaving it literal and giving a footnote to explain. Their Shir HaShirim is particularily egregious in this regard but before Rosh HaShanah I read through their Selichos and found lots of intentional mistranslations. So again, by relying on the English you really aren't getting the book, just what someone else thought the book said. All the more so for the kabbalistic parts. If someone really wants to know what it says, then he needs the education to understand the original.

There is also still a lot of kabbala in the Misnagdish world but it's reserved for the upper echelons. Look at the Mishnah Berurah and the Aruch HaShulchan who both use it to pasken. Kabbala is, Madonna and Phil Berg aside, the rocket science of Judaism. It's not just accessible to anyone and not just anyone who buys the Soncino translation of the Zohar can properly understand it. It's just that misnagdim generally don't feel a need to justify a halachic stance by saying "And the Zohar says it too!"

As for the Chasidish thing, years ago a Chabadnik told me that as far as they were concerned, they were now the real Chasidim and everyone else, including other Chasidim, were misnagdim. So yes, when a Chabadnik say "Chasidus teaches" they mean Tanya. When they say that all Chasidim recognized the Rebbe as a navi and nasi, no it's only them. But I really think they do believe that all other Chasidim see them as the superior form of Chasidus. As a Gerrer friend of mine told me years ago, there's no point arguing with them. The time would be much better spent learning the real Torah of the Sfas Emes.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>Kabbala is, Madonna and Phil Berg aside, the rocket science of Judaism.

Rocket science? Or maybe it's a lot of chalk marks on a blackboard?

snag said...

"The Misnagdim outlawed Kabbalah."

Not true. If you claim it is true, why don't you document the claim?

"But after the founding of the yeshiva at Volozhin, Kabbalah was taken out of the yeshiva curriculum."

Who said it was part of 'the Yeshiva curriculum' in the first place? Some things are advanced studies, studied privately or in small groups by advanced scholars.

"So today, Misnagdim don't know Kabbalah."

Too broad of a statement. Some have knowledge in the area.

"The Sabbateans have been gone for 200 years in western Orthodoxy. Is it perhaps time for the yeshivish world to rejoin the rest of Judaism, and expose its practitioners to Kabbalah in some organized, controlled way?"

Why the extreme condescension and hostility, to the point of maintaining that the Yeshivish world has 'left Judaism'? You can disagree with them, but to claim that they have 'left Judaism'? Makes one wonder what other issues you have with them.

I recall you bringing this up in the past as well.

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver said...

Re the emuna of chassidim concerning their Rebbe, this is not a "canard" invented by Chassidim, the Rebbe said this (mem zayin) here.