Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Other God Delusion

In the last few decades there has been a tremendous increase in the desire of people to learn kabbala, Jewish mysticism.  Along with this there has also been an increase in the number of books available for such folks, both in English and Hebrew.  Translations of the Zohar, both into Hebrew and English are readily available in Jewish bookstores and on-line.  Some of the greatest works of mysticism can also be found in such places as Amazon.
Contrary to the opinion of others I don't think this is such a great thing.  I mean, yes kabbala is an important and deep subject within Judaism.  The problem is that kabbala is the neurosurgery of Judaism and, like neurosurgery, it's not something anyone with a particular hankering for it should be getting into, especially unguided.
This especially bears mentioning as we live in the age of Artscoll.  Once upon a time a person who wanted to learn Talmud, for instance, needed a teacher.  He needed to go to yeshivah for a course of studies and his learning would be guided by an experiences rebbe in order to ensure he got the appropriate understanding of the text.  Nowadays with the availability of the Artscroll or Steinsaltz Talmuds this is no longer the case.  Anyone with an interest in Gemara can go to a Jewish bookstore or even go on-line and purchase a set complete with decent translations and elucidative notes.  On one hand this has opened up the world of Talmud to countless Jews who otherwise would have been cut off from our heritage.  On the other hand it has created a culture in which the commentary in the book becomes the person's rebbe instead of a real live teacher connected to our mesorah.
This lack of connection can certainly cause problems with one's understanding and use of the nigleh Torah.  There's a big kal v'chomer involved when it extends to kabbala and nistar issues.
Why does this matter?  While the nigleh deals with both bein adam l'Makom and bein adam l'chaveiro the nistar side of things involves bein adam l'Makom on a far more intense level.  It seems to me that this can be so intense that focusing on it leads one to forget about bein adam l'chaveiro.
This came to me a few years in a conversation with a Chabadnik who was telling me about how some folks had come through for him in a big way.  I responded by asking how he had shown his gratitude.  He shrugged and said "Look, it's all due to the Ribono shel olam.  He's the only one we really need to show gratitude to."
This comment stayed with me because it really exemplified the attitude that exposure to nistar brings out in some people.  Yes, God is the infinite, perfect and omniscient centre of our reality and the ultimate undeniable cause of everything.  Yes, He has a personal relationship with each of us, even those of us that, chalilah, deny His existence.  Yes, when it all comes down to it He is the only mover and shaker that truly exists.  But that doesn't mean that He's the only thing in Creation that we should be relating to, that we should see our fellows as mere tools in His hands.
It is also clear from His words on the subject in Tana"ch that we should be seeing our fellows as important, that the need to interact with them positively is a definite virtue He appreciates.  Far from ignoring the positive contributions of others to our lives because "only God matters" we are adjured to emphasize things like gratitude and kindness because this is the kind of decency He demands of us.
This then is the danger of kabbala these days, something which might explain the shockingly low level of bein adam l'chaveiro that is practised by many who otherwise claim to be on the highest level of piety.  How many people strive to ensure their food is mehadrin min mehddrin min mehadrin but have no issue with theft and slander? If only God matters then other human beings don't and this is an attitude that we must all strive to avoid.


Atheodox Jew said...

The joke I have is that when I see people driving with big letters on their rear windshield reading "Ein Od Milvado", why does it seem from the way they often drive (with no awareness of other drivers) like what they really mean is "Ein Old Milvadi". So yes, I definitely hear the larger point about being so much about "makom" that you forget about your "chaver". Just a couple of counterpoints from my own experience:

1. Long-time kabbalah learners are just as prone to this attitude as newbies.

2. Yeshiva guys are just as prone as kabbalah enthusiasts.

3. If you want to make any generalization about the dividing line of people who overemphasize "makom" vs. people who don't, you could probably point to Orthodox vs. MO. (I wouldn't even say Haredi vs. Dati Leumi, since there are many DL'ers for whom issues of Eretz Yisrael and the Arabs come in well ahead of bein adam l'chavero.)

Pactura Observa said...


moishe said...

I dont think that was a very good example. That guy sounds more like a chassid shoteh than a normal guy.

RAM said...

Most Orthodox Jews (even the mystically inclined) realize that Yiddishkeit is a package deal encompassing proper relationships with HaShem and with other people.

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely correct that learning with out a mesora is extremely dangerous. I agree with RAM's comment completely.
The damage that that can come from Artscroll is far less than that that which can come from Kaballah for Dummies. There was a reason - shabzi zvi - which caused the ban on Kaballa for those under 40 (30 for Zohar) It is very easy to come up with things completely kfira by misunderstanding it.
My personal view is that one of the appeals is that unlike Talmud where logic is legal and hard, Kabbalah can be misinteprerted with fuzzy drush type reasoning. People don't want to think if there is an alternative

Mr. Cohen said...

Sefer Chasidim, chapter 292:
...secrets of the Torah, [these] things should only be
revealed to an Av Beth Din who is modest [tzanua].
Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid (born 1150 CE, died 1217 CE)

Avraham said...

kabala is useful for parts of the Torah which are not open to literal interpretation like the flood.
Personally i find the Arizal to be a pretty good take on Torah. My only complaint is the the gematriot

ahg said...

I learned in yeshiva that the study of Kaballah was off limits until 40 (As anonymous mentioned). As a kid, the idea of learning "mysticism" intrigued me, as I neared 40 and became more rationalist in my approach, it now holds no interest for me.

What happened to the idea that you wait until 40? You don't hear about it anymore, and it's common to hear drashos from young 20 & 30 -something rabbis that reference the Kabblah sefer they've learned.

Off the cuff theory: The BT movement comes to their new found religiosity with child-like mindsets and want to delve into this mysticism thing right away - it's part of the allure of tradition for them. The kiruv rabbis don't want to tell them to hold off for years (at any age) for fear of turning them away, so it's study has become commonplace and the ban ignored. Plausible explanation?