Further Thoughts and Clarifications on The Process of Change of Judaism, and A Defense of Mysticsm

So I didn’t post yesterday because I was absurdly tired, so today I will try to post on two topics to make up.

First, some further thoughts and clarifications on my last post about change in Judaism. It was mostly devoted to talking about the philosophical and theological basis for the idea of change in Judaism, but it only briefly and inadequately touched upon the process of said change (in my talking about the criteria for acceptable change.) But, how does this change happen? Is it, like was asked to me in the comments, a conscious decision by halakhic decisors to change things in Judaism? Or is it an unconscious process? How does it actually work?

I’m prone to think of these changes as a mostly unconscious process. I’ll begin first with the most practical reason for this: Change is dependent on the Jewish community accepting it, and the Jewish community is much more likely to accept a change if it doesn’t seem like one. One could cynically say this is because the unwashed masses of the Jewish community are stupid. I would like to avoid such cynicism if at all possible. Not that I am opposed to principle to cynicism; as anyone who knows me can tell you, I’m very unopposed to cynicism. But such cynicism stems from arrogance, that *real* religion is only accessible to an intellectual elite who need to keep the masses stupid. Any philosophy of Judaism should be equally accessible and understandable to everyone, and its important for me to keep my ideas grounded in a concern for the entire Jewish people, not just the intellectual. I like cynicism. I hate elitism.
Okay, but how do we uncynically and un-elitistically (can that be a word?) explain the fact that change must not seem apparent for the purpose of appealing to the Jewish community? I think we have to see the Jewish people, to reiterate an earlier point, as the filtering mechanism of God’s will on this earth, which we’ve previously defined as constituting the combination of revelation and reality. But God’s will itself doesn’t change, being eternal and timeless, and the Torah, to paraphrase a midrash, precedes creation. Judaism changes; God’s will does not. We can see the process of Judaism as the continuous attempt of to uncover that timeless truth, and the Jewish community as the mechanism of finding it. In such a search for timeless and eternal truth, the idea of change would defeat the purpose of the whole endeavor, because the Jewish community is committed to uncovering eternal truth, not truth subject to change. Rather, change In Judaism is the uncovering of lost or latent ideas from the original timeless and eternal truth of God’s will. Thus, Judaism ends up incorporating outside ideas into its tradition, but as timeless truth, not momentary adaptations. This may be the explanation of the idea that the whole Torah, even chiddushim of students in yeshiva, was given to Moshe at Sinai. Moshe was given the ability to understand God’s will in its perfect form, but each successive generation of Judaism comes closer and closer to that understanding.

So how does such change happen? I like a passage in Moshe Halbertal’s book “People of the Book” where he describes the concept of “charitable reading” of religious texts. To steal from my description of it in the comments of my previous post, generally speaking, religious communities assume sacred texts are truthful and good and represent the eternal and unchanging will of God. No chiddush there. However, when sacred texts are challenging to the reader, due to developments in the reality, be it morally, practically, truthfully, etc, benefit of the doubt is given, but in either of two ways. Either “I don’t understand how this text can be true or moral or practical, but it is a sacred text so I assume it knows better than me and I will thus accept it”, or “I don’t understand how this text can be true or moral or practical, and therefore, it can’t actually be saying that, it must be saying something else.” My idea is that change in Judaism occurs when the second approach is taken. This leads to change, but does not impinge on the eternality and timelessness of God’s will. On the contrary, its the eternality of God that actually prompts the change. The question that must be asked by religious people is not “How can we change Judaism to fit with our age?”. It is “What could God realistically demand from us in our relationship with him?”

With that, we can lead into the second thing I want to discuss, which is, A Defense of Mysticism.

Mysticism gets a bad rap in the community of the intellectually sophisticated Modern Orthodox. Maybe it’s the roots of Modern Orthodoxy in the Lithuanian Misnaged tradition, but defending Kabbalah will get you some funny looks, and most people tend to say “they’re not inclined towards mysticism.” Certainly there are some benefits to being wary of Kabbalah, especially in its use by unscrupulous organizations to fool the gullible into thinking there are shortcuts to personal and religious success. But such trends are not the same as ascribing some validity towards more mystical streams of thought.
I see the critiques of mysticsm in Modern Orthodoxy as the following:
1. It’s irrational, and inferior to more rational philosophies of Judaism. People are not “inclined” towards irrationality. Only gullible idiots believe in such hocus-pocus.
2. Related to #1, we risk turning people off to Judaism by teaching them silly things.
3. Kabbalah contains ideas borrowed from other religions and traditions, and Judaism should contain no outside elements.
4. It has no practical purpose.

So my critiques of these critiques:
First of all, for #1, Let’s stop pretending that any version of Orthodox Judaism is entirely rational. At a certain point at any point in Judaism, you have God, the eternal, the unknowable, the great and perfect and powerful, comes down from his heavenly throne and gives us a book. This is not a rational thing, especially in today’s environment in which religious skepticism is a norm. To say nothing of miracles and prophecy and prayer and all the various other things that don’t make sense. I mean, you can claim Judaism is rational all you want, but the reason you get up in the morning to recite hebrew prayers and wrap your arms in leather straps is not because it makes sense. Which leads me to skeptical of #2. Who are we trying to impress by purging Judaism of all irrational elements except the couple we actually kind of need? Do you think anyone who’s inclined towards secularism is gonna be impressed by the fact we made Judaism less irrational, when it still is somewhat irrational? I could argue the opposite, by making it clear that some religious doctrine is subject to critical appraisal and subsequent dismissal, you lower the barrier to questioning the fundamental irrationality. Rationalist Judaism, especially in its more radical adherents (think Faur and followers, not Slifkin, who is often saner than given credit for) seems to be an internal form of New Atheism, in that it takes pride in mocking everyone else as irrational idiots and upholding itself as the only possible truth. The New Atheists just have a little bit more guts. Though, in all seriousness, it may be a kind of good thing that there exists room within the Jewish community for the kind of smug arrogance that is the domain of the New Atheists, where a kid is reading and preaching Jose Faur instead of Sam Harris. Then again, should we be encouraging that sort of thing?

One more thing, the guillible idiots who believe Kabbalah happen to include a fairly large portion of Jews and Jewish authorities throughout history. I mean, read Jose Faur’s Anti-Maimonidean Demons to see how many huge rishonim and acharonim he just dismisses because of their mystical tendencies. The Rashba and Raabad, obviously, but the Rosh, too, and, most vociferously, the Ramban. These are big names who our current practice of Judaism is built off of. To call them gullible morons, or worse, in Faur’s case, is irresponsible. Not to mention the fact that Kabbalah was huge in the Jewish world through its history, and left no part of it untouched, save, maybe, a small corner of Yemen. Maybe. It’s highly irresponsible to call entire generations of Jews idiots, or worse, not really practicing Jews. This is especially true within the context of the system of halacha I’ve been expounding. If the Jewish community accepted Kabbalah, then it has validity that needs to be respected and dealt with, even if not necessarily blindly accepted.

This leads me to #3, the notion that there elements of kabbalah that come from other traditions, which necessitates kabbalah being placed outside the tradition. First of all, the hypocrisy of people who view the Rambam as their main authority and encourage the adoption of religion to modernity castigating mystics for appropriating ideals from other traditions is amusing, even if they insist, a historically, that Judaism was always like that. Second of all, it may not even be true. Certain mystical ideas are remarkably universal to humanity, and the origin of some of these mystic notions that are seen as problematic may stem from being a human being, not a heretic. For another, there is the possibility of a consistent tradition of Jewish mysticism that runs parallel to these other traditions. But all this is besides the point. There’s nothing really wrong with change, as long as its passes through the filtering mechanism of the Jewish community. And it should be mentioned that mysticism is remarkably better at implementing change in Judaism than rationalism, and has had way more endurance in the Jewish community than any “Rationalist” philosophy has ever had. We could discuss why this is, the use of religious language, the portrayal of new ideas as eternal truths latent in the original sources (which I relates to what I discussed above), the usual percieved piety/ascetism of its  main voices. Whatever it is, mysticism does a much better job of incorporating new ideas into Judaism in a way acceptable to the Jewish community.
Which leads me to #4, having no practical usage. Why learn about these complicated metaphysics, these sefirot and partzufim and tzimtzum and the like? Well first of all, this is stuff which affected Jewish History, and is important to a lot of philosophies, so you should know it, not be contemptuous of it. But my point, and again, I hope this isn’t heresy, is that us Modern Orthodox Jews, committed to a continuing healthy relationship with God, committed to coming to terms with the secular world in a way faithful to our tradition, have ignored a crucial tool in the toolbox of the innovative religious thinker, that of mysticsm and mystical language. We cling resolutely to a sort of half-rationalism that denies the validity of some irrationality but must uphold the value of others. We need to widen our horizons, to use all of the vocabulary and philosophies available to us in the Jewish sources to build a firmer foundation for a Judaism that finds itself on the quickly shifting sand of modernity. We need more Rav Kook, a thinker brave enough to use kabbalistic ideas to make sense of modernity, both in our curriculum and in our ranks, as a text and a personal example. We need to use mysticism in a sophisticated and nuanced way, like we would use any philosophy, and not just be scared off by its current abuse as a tool of charlatans. We need mysticism.


One Comment

  1. Unfortunately, really since the Haskalah and the early Reform movement the Ashkenazi world has been far too conscious of change to just allow it to happen unconsciously. The Information Age has intensified that immensely. Everyone knows about a change the second it happens, even when the change was not conscious. Then it becomes an issue of “conscious change”, since everybody knows about it and are discussing it.

    In terms of Mysticism, I definitely agree with the model you present at the end. Most Kabbalists used the same terminology slightly differently anyway, something that multiplied exponentially when you get to the Hasidim. Kabbalistic terminology and imagery can be fantastic frameworks for meaning and for grappling with modern society, and we don’t need to be bound to their most mystical undertandings.

    On a relevant note, Rav Shagar uses R’ Nachman’s understanding of the Tsimtsum to embrace Post-Modernism, and R’ Kook’s understanding of rebuilding the Kelim to embrace Pluralism.


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