Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

What To Do With The Mystical

I've not yet had the opportunity to learn any kabbalah up close.  I've skirted around it, learned excerpts brought in other seforim like Nefesh HaChaim and the like, read about its importance and am aware of the huge amount of it out there but I've not yet sat down and made serious study of it.  My coming thoughts should be understood in this light.
I've always had a problem with the mystical side of Judaism.  Not because I don't believe it's not there, chas v'shalom.  It's quite clear there is much to this universe that is not physical, that is not quantifiable by physical means and which does not follow the laws of nature.  The easiest example I can think of is the subject of tumah and taharah.  It's easy to make the mistake of thinking that it is some kind of contagious affliction, especially the way physical contact or even close proximity transmit it.  But even a cursory study of the rules around tumah and taharah make it clear that we are dealing with something supernatural.  Why do sealed clay pots resist tumah?  Why is the sprinkling of the ashes of the parah adumah the only cure for tumas meis?  None of these things make sense from a simple, physical perspective.
I guess what bothers me is how it's presented.  The Zohar, for example, is something I've had issues with.  Leaving aside the ongoing debate on whether or not it's the genuine work of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai the biggest problem I've had with it has been how to fit in into the schema of Jewish law as I understand it.
Perhaps I'm just a simple person but for a long time I understood that God presented the Torah, both in Oral and Written form (but no apps) at Sinai.  The function of the Oral Law was to teach us how to understand the framework of the Written law and apply it in daily life.
Then along comes the Zohar which seems to me to exist as a parallel Oral Law for the spiritually special.  In other words, yes you could learn and follow the Talmud but if you really want to practice genuine Judaism it isn't enough.  You need to go a level higher and follow the Zohar. 
And what concerns me is the question: Why would God give us two parallel sets of laws, one for the unwashed masses and one for the special?  Doesn't the Torah emphasize there is to be one law for everyone?  Am I really doing my best to serve my Maker by following Talmudic law or am I just fooling myself becaise I'm really just doing a childish version of Torah practice?  And most annoying of all, if the Zohar is genuine Jewish law why is there almost no allusion to it in the Talmud, something like "And when you're ready for a higher level of observance..." or the like?
On the other hand I read an excerpt from the Yismach Moshe that might have helped my thinking.  After going through the whole PRD"S schemata he notes that different people, depending on their spiritual level, reach different levels at which certain expectations appear.  Some people function at a basic level and for them the Gemara is fine.  Some people, having built themselves up spiritually, develop a new type of relationship with the Ribono shel Olam and so for them it's not that it's wrong to follow the rulings of the Talmud but because of their enhanced level the rulings of the Zohar are more appropriate for them.
But then that got me thinking in a different direction.  We are all supposed to strive to connect to the Creator.  Does this include a desire to strive towards higher levels of spiritual understanding?  By not feeling a need to move beyond Gemara and embrace Zohar study, am I not fulfilling my purpose?
I'm still working on that one.


ZP said...

Interesting subject. I loved this line: "t's quite clear there is much to this universe that is not physical, that is not quantifiable by physical means and which does not follow the laws of nature."

I cannot claim to be very knowledgeable in the Zohar but I did grow up in a home where its study was greatly valued.

I never saw it as another set of laws, but rather as another layer of Torah and Oral law. The Zohar is a commentary, a mystical one at that, but it doesn't just comment on halacha but also on Torah. Though there are many things in the Shulchan Aruch which are founded on Kabbalah (e.g., the order of cutting the nails, etc).

I think that there are different ways to connect to Hashem for different people and that people also have different capabilities. I practice this as a teacher, but I also think its real within Judaism. We cannot expect the same from each person.

Though I think the mystical is great and real, it has unfortunately been watered down and misrepresented in many ways. There is also a hierarchy of how to learn and it is not for everyone.

If the thoughts are a bit scattered, its bc I didn't want to make it that long. I had been meaning, for a while, to write about something different, although perhaps connected in the mystical sense, and that is astrology within the realm of Judaism. Perhaps now that I'm back, in my non-existent free time, I will put my thoughts on paper, I mean, screen.

Adam Zur said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Zur said...

I would like to defend the theses that it is better to leave the Zohar alone. But I would like to also say this with the understanding that often there are very good insights into the Torah which you can find in the Zohar and the Arizal.

To I make my these clearer I want to say that what gentiles consider kabalah and what the Zohar and the Arizal [Isaac Luria] are about are two very different things. The Zohar is not about magic. It is a neo platonic explanation of the Old Testament.

And it is an explanation that is necessary for many reasons. One is that the alternative--Maimonides [the Rambam] with his reasons for the mitzvot based on Aristotle are not very convincing. Clearly some type of Neo Platonic approach is necessary.

Yet I still have to say that my general impression of people that learn Zohar is that they start thinking they are the Messiah and get other delusions rather quickly.

I should say that I spent time learning Kabalah and I am familar with many of the so called kabalists in I am not completely ignorant about this subject. I learned the Eitz Chaim of Arizal several times. and went through the other writings of the Arizal at length. I read several works of the Remak including the Pardes and the Reshash and prayed with the sidur Hareshash for many years. I went through several authors of Medieval kabalah like Avraham Abulifia and others.a lot of this was very inspiring for me but still the tendency is to instill delusions into people.

I know the fraudulent kabalist of the Kotel. and i knew some that had actual insights.One fellow had virtual film going through his head showing him the life of people that came to him.[He was put into Cherem by Rav Ovadia Joseph] I was close with many of the disciples and descendants of Bava Sali. I was by many chasiic rebbis, and spoke with them and heard what they had to say about kabalah. Most were frauds and scam artists. altogether I must say that even the yeshivot where kabalah is studied seriously are mad houses.

Friar Yid said...

And most annoying of all, if the Zohar is genuine Jewish law why is there almost no allusion to it in the Talmud, something like "And when you're ready for a higher level of observance..." or the like?

Probably because the Talmud predates the Zohar by a good 1000 years.

Atheodox Jew said...

But even a cursory study of the rules around tumah and taharah make it clear that we are dealing with something supernatural.

Well, just because something doesn't accord with our understanding of physical laws doesn't prove that tumah and taharah are "supernatural". Don't forget that until the early 1800's, we weren't aware of microbes or "germ theory". We subscribed to the "four humors" and other such theories. So even if one were to argue that tumah and taharah were strictly "disease" focused (which I don't - it seems to some combination of physical health mingled in with morality), we could still say that it was a theory of disease which - like other theories - was based a good deal on folk medicine and superstition.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

AJ, have you ever read Rav Hirsch's explanation of the laws of tumah and tahara? It's fascinating and he demonstrates that it has nothing to do with disease and everything to do with distancing oneself from death.

Moshe I said...

This is my first time reading your blog (came from your post on mekubal) and I have to say up front that now I want to read The Curse Of Garnel Ironheart.

To your points, I think we see the idea that there are layers of understanding in Judaism all the time. Kids are first taught chumash, then we layer on Mishna, Gemarah, Rishonim, etc. all of which provide incrementally more nuanced and profound understanding of the word of God.

Kabbalah does not impinge on any of that (and if/when it does we don't pasken like it). It is clear from the gemarah that there was a mystical tradition reserved for the elite, which was actually forbidden to be taught publicly. Probably for the same reason that chazal hid esoteric ideas in aggadic form, or for the same reason I don't explain the episode of Lot and his daughters to my 5 year old kid.

Not everything can be taught to everyone at whatever level of comprehension they are currently at.

I add to that, that the alternative, to me, seems ridiculous. That kabbalah is fake? That one or a few individuals made up this tradition and that it was swallowed wholesale by the majority of Jews for hundreds of years without ever discovering the ruse?

Furthermore, that God orchestrated the history of the Jewish people such that they would follow a system of belief which is completely false?

Why would we acquiesce to go down such a train of thought without overwhelming proof? (To equivocate, I do believe that things like scientific proof must be accepted, even if it contradicts the words of chazal)

Lastly, on a personal note, I will say that studying kabbalah has infused much more meaning into my Judaism. Without kabbalah I found myself following commandments that seem bizarre, antiquated and having nothing to do with morality. With it I have found substantive meaning in every action I take. I have found mizvot to be connected to spiritual truths and I have found the importance in keeping them has consequences that are meaningful to me.

chaim b. said...

>>>Why would God give us two parallel sets of laws, one for the unwashed masses and one for the special?

What do you mean by this (can you give an example)? The Beis Yosef and other seforim are filled with halachos and minhagim whose roots are mystical sources -- there is one law for all. And the poskim address already what to do when the Zohar contradicts the gemara (the GR"A holds that this is only possible if one is either misunderstanding the gemara or the Zohar -- there are now real contradictions.)

Atheodox Jew said...

it has nothing to do with disease and everything to do with distancing oneself from death

Yes, I'm familiar with it. The perush definitely resonates in terms of rules for kohanim, tumat meit, not touching neveilot, even niddah. It's more of a stretch with childbirth, not eating specific types of animals, tzara'at, and zav/zava.

BTW, great topic!