Sunday, November 15, 2009

Philosophy and Torah

Just listened to the first lecture by R' Eliezer Brodt of the Seforim blog, in the eTIM series on "Rare Minhagim Books and Controversies". The subject was the book Malmad haTalmidim, by R' Jacob b. Abba Mari Anatoli. He claimed it was the first book of drashot arranged by parsha, but I wondered, what about the She'iltot of R' Ahai Gaon? Surely a Geonic work predates a late 13th century collection of sermons. Or were the She'iltot more theoretical constructs, rather than records of actual sermons?

The book is in the philosophical mode, being a series of moral/ethical essays based on verses from Proverbs. The author was a big fan of Rambam, naturally. Starting around 1300 there was a big backlash against philosophical writers and works; R' Brodt surveyed R' Anatoli's defenders and detractors. The book languished virtually unknown for centuries, until published from manuscript by Mekitzei Nirdamim in 1866, and once more a century later. Recordings should be available for a nominal fee in the near future.

It seems to me that affinity for philosophy among the Torah world has come and gone in waves, perhaps following trends in the outside world. Here we have a Jewish flowering of philosophy, in the same period that the Muslims were experiencing their Golden Age and engaging in philosophical speculation, whether as the Kalam, or as Sufism, or as Alfarabi'an Aristotelian, which affected Maimonides so strongly. As dar al-Islam began to lose ground to the Christians in Spain and the Holy Land, Jewish affinity for philosophy began to fall off as well.

In the Renaissance, as Christendom began to open itself up to philosophy, Judaism experienced another round of philosophical speculation, peaking in the 1500s with figures such as Azariah dei Rossi and David Gans, who wrote books on natural philosophy and history; until the 1600s when some (such as Spinoza) went too far. But it continued underground for a little while, until the Sabbatean revolution, and later the publication of the works of the Ari, replaced it with Kabbalistic theosophy. "Preachers of the Italian Ghetto," ed. Ruderman, surveys a number of 17th-century figures who supported or opposed philosophy, in much the same way as the sources surveyed (many drawn from Marc Saperstein's "Jewish Preaching") by R' Brodt did in the 14th century. Some of the open opponents of philosophy reveal that they themselves knew the philosophical idiom even as they openly reject it, which makes for somewhat entertaining reading, extracting layers of meaning.

And in the modern period, philosophy has made various attempts to rear its head, particularly as kabbalah had gone into abeyance in the Western non-Chasidic world. Mendelssohn and his circle engaged in it, just as their contemporaries in the German and French Enlightenment brought philosophy out of the middle ages (Kant, Leibniz, Hegel, Rousseau, Diderot, etc). With its association with Haskalah, and Haskalah's association with Reform, it went somewhat more underground for a time, before re-emerging in interwar Europe, when many who were to become the post-WW2 Gedolim, went to Berlin to study philosophy and secular culture (Heschel, Soloveitchik, Hutner, possibly Schneerson). It carried forth to become the underlying rationale for much of modern Orthodoxy. But as Kabbalah returns to Western sensibilities, it too is fading away.


micha said...

How are you defining philosophy such that Qabbalah doesn't qualify? I find this question perplexing, because we all speak about the Rationalists vs the Qabbalists, but it's unclear what issue actually divides the camps.

That said, the biggest determinant of a philosophy is not the answers it provides, but the questions it sets out to address. I think this is why Jews in the post-Kantian era have a different philosophy than did the rishonim. We're interested in answering a different set of questions.

Hashgachah peratis (HP; individualized Providence) today is more about how much effort do I need to / should put in, how to relate to events in my life. It's existential and experiential. To the rishonim, the question was theological, an abstract understanding of how G-d relates to the universe. A large part of the reason why they did not believe in a universal HP, extending even to animals, plants and inanimate objects while most contemporary O Jews do is that in reality we are using the label to mean different things.

Different eras have different pressing issues.


thanbo said...

Regular philosophy exalts reason. Reason is the filter through which we try to understand God and the Universe and each other.

Kabbalah posits continuing revelations, to Rashbi, to the Arizal, to the Besht, to the Tzemach Tzedek, etc., which contribute the premises, structures and modes of thought for understanding God and the Universe.

Recent reading indicates to me that the whole point of most Kabbalah is the structures, not the reasons for the structures. Being able to hold the structures in your head is the point of study (R' Eliahu Klein); only with the Chasidim do we start to get people speculating as to why the structures are the way they are. That's not what I think of as philosophy, because philosophy helps you understand, while Kabbalah for the most part just gives you more to know.

micha said...

I don't think progressive revelation is a defining feature.

What if we said that the philosopher is someone who tries to produce a reasonable universe with as few assumptions as necessary. Whereas the mequbalim arose as a counter-reaction, accepting more maamarei chazal and other ideas developed from them and enshrined them as untouchable. It preserves your focus on reason vs more postulates without relying on revelations to justify the postulates. Would you accept that as a defining distinction?

Notice that it doesn't require the Rambam's Aristotilianism to be less mystical than Qabbalah. (I am currently blogging on this subject, if you skip the Qitzur entries.) It provably isn't.

In any case, I don't think the later "revelations" are anything more than explanatory theories, as much new as Brisk explaining patterns in the Rambam using unifying theories.

Still, my point was that our philosophy changes more by the set of questions we seek to address than anything else. It's not that hashkafah is unreliable, it's that it is being applied onto a very fluid subtrate.


thanbo said...

I don't see why you're trying to divorce Kabbalah from the extensive revelations that underlie it. Rashbi & R Eliezer were in the cave learning Kabbalah. Either they made it up out of whole cloth, so that the whole enterprise is as fictional as if RMdL had made it up, or they were granted revelations. And the same goes for the Arizal, who claimed to have learned his material from a maggid, or R Yosef Caro, who had things from the "soul of the Mishnah".

I don't see a way out of it: either Kabbalah is entirely made up, hence useless as an actual guide to how God interacts with the world, or it depends on continuous revelation. The Chasidim certainly accept that as a necessary precondition for their system to work.

Various people go up to heaven and get information that is otherwise not available in this world. The Lubavitch claim that one of their rebbes ascended to heaven and got several posthumous teachings from the Baal Shem Tov, thereby cementing their claim that only they have the true and complete Derech haBaal Shem Tov.

And that's why, to me, even if it is a "philosophy", it's a philosophy based on entirely different premises from the Torah of Chazal, or the Aristotelianism of Rambam.

Both the philosophers and the kabbalists apply outside ideas to understanding Torah, but only the Kabbalists claim a Divine imprimatur, which doesn't need further justification beyond simple belief. The philosophers have to reason from first principles. It's a totally different methodology.

micha said...

False dichotomy.

A theory that explains existing data is not made up out of whole cloth, not repeating what someone before you said, and not new revelation.

And I think that in TSBP, this kind of innovation is the usual way new paradigms are added.

Case 1: Hillel's, R' Aqiva's and R' Yishma'el's divergent systems for explaining derashah. Note that they don't actually argue lemaaseh -- R' Aqiva uses the occasional kelal uprat, and R' Yishmael more often uses ribui umi'ut. They had different explanation systems for covering the cases inherited. And thus how to extrapolate toward the future.

Case 2: You've seen me say something similar recently about Brisker analysis of the Rambam. Done well, it well describes what the Rambam catalogs using relatively few consistent schemes. It's a theory inherent in the data, regardless of whether the Rambam was thinking in those terms.

I'm asserting that Qabbalah is another example. The Zohar gave a structure to the ideas already floating around. Which is why -- even if much of it did post-date RSBY by centuries -- it rang true to the rishonim who accepted it. The Ari gave an even more overarching and consistent explanation, giving a theory behind the Zohar. (Among other things, by speaking in terms of Tzimtzum and G-d-as-He-Is vs G-d-post-Tzimtzum, a way to do so and avoid overly pagan thinking.)

I don't think the Gra or the Leshem bought into this progressive revelation thing. Does that make them less mequbalim than the Ramchal or Chassidim were?

For that matter, the Ramchal believed in progressive revelation, but taught that qabbalistic metaphysical entities are metaphores for the progress of awareness of G-d through history. Is he more of a mequbal than someone who considers them real entities?

I just don't think it's a defining feature. And because it introduces discontinuities in the mesorah, I would prefer not to project that position back onto more baalei mesorah than those who explicitly say so.


thanbo said...

Sorry, I just read that twice, and you're saying that they made it up, rather than it being a new revelation. And you deny progressive revelation even as the practitioners themselves embrace it. So the whole thing is a worthless fiction, yet you somehow believe there is value to the kabbalistic system. I don't understand.

And using the Rambam - you just reiterate Marc Shapiro's (and RYYW's) claim that the Brisker derech has nothing to do with the way the Rambam thought. So too Kabbalah has nothing to do with the Torah's thought.

You seem to contradict yourself, and I'm left with Kabbalah is not the new revelation that its proponents claim, and it's not a made-up fiction, but a "philosophy", whatever that means, in this case, a structure that incorporates a lot of random ideas about God's relationship with the universe, posing as a new revelation. IOW, a fiction based on a few good ideas. But with no actual derivation how they got from the few ideas to the massive structure.


micha said...

I refuse to take progressive revelation as a defining feature because I don't think Litvisher mequbalim bought into it. Some of its proponents claim that revelation was involved, but that's not enough to say that what differentiates qabbalah is the revelation. That is, if you want a definition of Qabbalah that includes the Gra and the Leshem's. Was the Ramak not a mequbal, just because his theory lost "market share" to the competition.

I am not divorcing the Brisker derekh from the Rambam, nor claiming that the later embellishments of qabbalah were "made up".

I'll explain via a mashal. Michaelson and Morley did an experiment. Other experiments followed. Data was collected. This was one level of development.

Lorentz and Fitzgerald looked at the data and came up with a unifying formula. (He happened to have a wrong justification for the formula, but that justification is outside of my mashal.) We went from discrete data to a single phenomenon.

Then Einstein came along and gave an explanation for why the formula would be true. A third stage in development.

Einstein's work wasn't made up or a worthless fiction. It was a sevara that successfully explained what came before and enriched it.

The Zohar gave a structure to the ideas floating around in seifer haYetzirah and the Heichalos literature, and the Ari gave a further theory that explains the why and how of that structure.

The Rambam gave numerous dinim, and Brisk came up with a relatively small set of ideas that give a unifying structure to many of them.

It's not fiction, it's theorization. It has much to do with prior thought, all the way back to Sinai.

Where Qabbalah differs from philosophy, to my mind, is that Qabbalah's theories are Platonic or neo-Platonic, and they accept as many maamarim as possible. The philosophers do not presume that every preexisting throught is a given.

The decision to document the Zohar was born out of the battle that raged around the Rambam. He was seen as having jettisoned too much in his quest to make a Judaism that accepts Aristotilian science. So, the opposition makes incredibly elaborate theories with numerous givens. And to focus on Plato rather than Aristo.