Phenomenology of the Mitsvot: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s “Halakhic Mind”

Phenomenology of the Mitsvot:

A Materialist Approach to the Commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s “Halakhic Mind”

Continuing my series of posts (see here and here) on materialist approaches to taamei hamitsvot, reasons for the commandments, I want to take a look at a few passages from Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Mind. In these passages, Rav Soloveitchik constructs a theory of the commandments (based on the philosophy of religion developed throughout the work, and in use throughout Rav Soloveitchik’s other writings) which emphasizes the material rites of the commandments over any reason or cause given for them. That said, his theory differs from the approach of R. David Silverstein, which I discussed in my last post on the topic, and that of Rav Shagar, which I plan to discuss in a future post. I will discuss the nuances of Rav Soloveitchik’s theory below.

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Not only does Rav Soloveitchik’s theory emphasize the physical aspect of the commandments, he actually uses it attack theories of the commandments that emphasize the reasons for the commandments over the physical actions. While his main targets seem to be non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, he also sees himself as siding with the Maimonides of the Mishneh Torah against the Maimonides of the Guide for the Perplexed (without getting into the validity of that distinction, I take issue with his reading of the GP, which I think fails to take into account GP III:34).

The reluctance on the part of the Jewish homo religiosus to accept Maimonidean rationalistic ideas is not ascribable to any agnostic tendencies, but to the incontrovertible fact that such explanations neither edify nor inspire the religious consciousness. They are essentially, if not entirely valueless for the religious interests we have most at heart. Maimonides’ failure to impress his rationalistic method upon the vivid religious consciousness is to be attributed mainly to the fact that the central theme of the Maimonidean exposition is the causalistic problem. The “how” question, the explanatory quest, and the genetic attitude determined Maimonides’ doctrine of the commandments. Instead of describing, Maimonides explained; instead of reconstructing, he constructed. (Halakhic Mind, 92)

The Jewish people, Rav Soloveitchik argues, are not interested in “genetic” questions about what led to the creation of the commandments. The commandments exist, as objects independent of any cause, and the “religious consciousness” is not interested in questions that might challenge their existence.

The “genetic” approach, according to Rav Soloveitchik, sees the commandments as serving goals unrelated to the commandments themselves.

As we have previous indicated, whenever the causal question is raised, the philosopher must transcend the boundary line of religion in order to find his answer which lies beyond the religious domain. Both mechanistic and teleological concepts of causality explain the effect through the existence of an alien factor, be it within or without the system. Thus religion cannot be interpreted under immanent aspects but must avail itself of foreign elements. The net result of Maimonides’ rationalization is that religion no longer operates with unique autonomous norms, but with technical rules, the employment of which would culminate in the attainment of some extraneous maximum bonum. In rationalizing the commandments genetically, Maimonides developed a religious “instrumentalism.” Causality reverted to teleology (the Aristotelian concept of causa finalis) and Jewish religion was converted into technical wisdom. (93)

Maimonides’ theory of the commandments in the Guide for the Perplexed describes the commandments as having goals outside what we call “religion.” Instead, they are meant to “rectify the body and the mind,” meaning that they are supposed to create a peaceful society of virtuous individuals with accurate knowledge reality (GP III:28-32). The goals of the commandments thus come not from the realm of Judaism, or even religion more generally, but from politics and philosophy.

Against this model of reasons for the commandments, which renders religion the handmaiden of the secular realm, Rav Soloveitchik proposes an alternative.

In contradistinction to the causal method of the philosophical Guide that reads to a religious techne, the halakhic Code (the Mishneh Torah) apprehends the religious act in an entirely different light. The Code does not pursue the objective causation of the commandment, but attempts to reconstruct its subjective correlative. It would seem that the Maimonides of the Halakhah was not intrigued by the “how” question. He freed himself from the genetic purview and employed a descriptive method of expounding the content and symbolic meaning of the religious norm. The “what” question was his guide in the Code. (93-94)

Here, as throughout his various writings, Rav Soloveitchik sees the commandments as the “objectification” of “subjective” religious ideas, experiences, and values.[1] This movement from subjective to objective is not strictly a move from internal to external, but from the individual, chaotic, and unrefined to the shared, orderly, and well defined. Hence Halakhah not only guides a person’s actions, but also her thoughts and feelings. Derived through the objectification of certain ideas, experiences, and values, halakhah’s goal is essentially to perpetuate them, recreating that subjective element in the individual fulfilling the commandment. However, all of this is essentially a reconstruction, our determination extrapolated from the already-existing halakhah. It does not enable us to really get “behind” the halakhah, such that we could challenge its nature or existence. In keeping with Rav Soloveitchik’s phenomenological method, he takes halakhah as a given and examines the way the individual living according to its laws experiences it, rather than asking about whether or not halakhah should exist at all.

Looking through the lens of “materialist” approaches to taamei hamitsvot, we can see that Rav Soloveitchik’s approach gives primacy to the physical acts of halakhic rituals over any reasons or goals that we might give the commandments. As with Rabbi David Silverstein’s approach, Rav Soloveitchik’s discussion does not once appeal to the reasons that the commands were given, or what God may have had in mind for them. The emphasis is on what the commandments do, the experiences they evoke or the values they convey, rather than what motivated them.

However, Rav Soloveitchik’s approach does seem to assume specific, singular meanings for each commandment. In contrast, Rav Silverstein’s discusses the different ways each commandment he examines has been understood throughout Jewish history. He gives the ritual acts of the commandments such independent weight that the same commandment can essentially mean different things to different people. Not so Rav Soloveitchik, who seems to see each commandment has having one true meaning in all historical contexts. The practical outcome of this distinction is that Rav Soloveitchik by definition thinks most of the attempts to explain the meaning of a given commandment missed their mark, as only one of them could be correct (notably, his discussion of reasons for the commandments in Halakhic Mind takes the form of an attack on Maimonides discussion thereof in the Guide for the Perplexed). Rav Soloveitchik’s approach therefore differs from what I have called a “materialist” approach to the commandments while still possessing its primary characteristic, an emphasis on the physical acts of the commandments over any meaning or explanation. In my next post on this topic, I will examine how Rav Shagar differs from Rav Soloveitchik on exactly this point.

[1] For a thorough discussion of this idea, see Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility (Jerusalem, Israel, and Brooklyn, NY: Urim Publications and the Orthodox Union Press, 2012), 334-340.

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Science-Fictional Messianism in the Writings of Rav Shagar and Rav Froman

A shiur I gave for Yom Yerushalayaim 2018 discussing how Rav Shagar connects science fiction and Messianism, as well as how this “Science-Fictional Messianism” shows up in other places in his writings and in the writings of Rav Menachem Froman. Sources below.

 

  1. Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 9:10
    The only difference between this world and the Messianic Era is subservience to the Nations.

  2. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 165-166

In order to understand these wondrous, magical depictions, which are not of this world, we can look to a somewhat parallel literary phenomenon, science fiction. Both science fiction and the rabbis’ homilies (midrashim) about the future redemption describe an alternative world. This world’s primary purpose, if we can speak of such a thing, is to lay bare the mystery (mistorin) of our lives, aiding the collapse and destruction of our banal, boring everyday life.

In the rabbis’ days there were no rockets; the eschatological homilies don’t talk about distant galaxies or about worlds full of robots and beyond-human creatures. However, they contain just as much magic and wonders just as great [as science fiction contains]. They provide the realistic possibility of a substantive alternative to this world, an alternative that many of the rabbis certainly thought would arrive one day. […] In this way, the miraculous and the wondrous bursts into the world and disrupts its factual, scientific stability.

  1. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 241

To truly rebel against force, you must abandon it. The ability to abandon the game of force and violence is truly a messianic option. We do not dream of a time when the right power will win out, but for a time when power and might will not make right at all. We seek pleasure (oneg) and not reality (metsiyut) – this is true messianism.

  1. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 346

I don’t know how to depict this redemption, but Rebbe Naman’s words inspire me to think that, perhaps, if we stand vulnerable before God… this will enable a shift, something transcendent will reveal itself, something that is beyond difference. I am not talking about tolerance, nor about the removal of difference. The Other that I see before me will remain different and inaccessible and, despite this, the Divine Infinite will position me by the Other’s side. Again, how this will manifest in practical or political terms, I do not know. But Yom Yerushalayim will be able to turn from a nationalistic day, one which has turned with time into a tribalistic celebration of Religious Zionism alone, into an international day.

  1. Rav Menaem Froman, Ten Li Zeman, 140-141

The way each side sees it’s way of thinking as natural and obvious closes them in on themselves. Open dialogue, never mind mutual understanding, gets father and farther away. […] Perhaps the path to Jewish normalcy goes by way of abnormalcy. For example (to suggest a product of abnormal Jewish thinking), the idea that the Jewish world which sees this land as its ancient homeland and its modern destiny does not necessarily contradict the Palestinian world that see this land as the refreshing cradle of its birth. For example, perhaps peace will not come about through the mutual contraction of two cultural worlds, but through their expansion and sublimation.

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  1. Rav Menaem Froman, Ten Li Zeman, 160

Once a year, when we approach the juxtaposition of Pesaḥ and Yom Ha’atsma’ut, a Jew like me is permitted to write a new proposal: all the birds that broke forth from their eggs are chirping that the time has past, but perhaps this movement of faith is a real movement of non-submission to the enslaving world and of building a free nation – from an intellectual perspective, adhering closely to reality, to the hope that creates reality.

  1. Rav Shagar, Panekha Avakesh (derashot from 1982), 163

What would happen if the state of Israel absorbed “the territories,” conquered the entire promised land of Israel and reigned over it? What if we really achieved political liberty and were politically and economically independent from other nations? Would this be redemption (ge’ulah)? Would all our sufferings really disappear? Certainly not. The basic suffering of the Jews is first and foremost a spiritual, mental, and religious suffering. It is the suffering of our distance from God. This is the suffering described by the terrifying curse, “I will surely hide my face” (Deuteronomy 31:18), when God hides his face. This is the suffering of a person who has no faith, a person drowning in despair, whose life is torn and imperfect, who does not “live in the light of the face of the king” (Proverbs 16:16), the king of kings, the king of life.

All the sages of Israel have agreed that the meaning of redemption, and not just the World to Come, which “eyes other than God’s have not seen” (Isaiah 64:3), which the human mind cannot comprehend, but also the lower redemption, the Messianic Era, cannot be summed up by physical or political redemption.

  1. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 363-367 (derashah-letter from 2007)

We yearn for more than just “natural” redemption, which some of the rishonim, such as Maimonides, thought would be realized in the Messianic Era, differing from this world only in terms of “subservience to the Nations.” Our messianic pathos also contains the melody of the open miracle, what Rebbe Naman called the melody of the land of Israel, which stands opposed to the melody of nature. This miraculous redemption means the shattering of nature’s lawfulness. Reality itself will metamorphose. The world will shine differently, as reality’s crude matter will be purified and receive the translucency and illumination of the day that is entirely Shabbat and rest. […] This is redemption as described by the Kabbalists, the Hasidim, and all varieties of mystics, as well as by modern, anarchistic, utopians. The indwelling of the Shekhinah which they are waiting for is real divine presence, which not hidden behind the lawfulness of nature, no matter how pure it is.

  1. Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, quoted in Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Bereshit 8

If a person knows that God is concealing himself, then there is no concealment, for “all evildoers are scattered” (Psalms 92:10). This is the meaning of the verse, “And I will conceal, yes, conceal, my face from them” (Deuteronomy 31:18). This means to say that God will conceal from them such that they will not know that God is hidden there.

10. The Greatest Showman, “Come Alive”
When the world becomes a fantasy / And you’re more than you could ever be / ‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open / And you know you can’t go back again / To the world that you were living in / ‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open / So, come alive!

Lag Ba’Omer and Authenticity – My Introduction to Studying Lekutei Moharan

Lag Ba’Omer and Authenticity – My Introduction to Studying Lekutei Moharan

For Lag Ba’Omer, I want to look quickly at a piece from Rebbe Naḥman’s Lekutei Moharan which served as my entrance into studying, and actually finding meaning in, Rebbe Naḥman. This piece (LM I:66) is the longest piece in the first half of Lekutei Moharan, and covers a huge variety of topics. However, there are clear threads that emerge throughout, and this actually helped me learn a key skill in studying Rebbe Naḥman, which is the ability to pick up on recurring themes or ideas, and make note of specific lines or paragraphs where the idea is expressed particularly clearly. (Another important step in my introduction to Lekutei Moharan was reading this essay by Shaul Magid.)

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Turning to the teaching itself, Rebbe Naḥman begins the teaching as a meditation on the scene of Elijah’s ascent to Heaven in 2 Kings, focusing on one specific aspect of the scene.

As they were crossing, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” Elisha answered, “Let a double portion of your spirit pass on to me.”
“You have asked a difficult thing,” he said. “If you see me as I am being taken from you, this will be granted to you; if not, it will not.” (2 Kings 2:9-10)

What grabs Rebbe Naḥman here, and what is glossed over but certainly not intuitive in the the biblical text itself, is the possibility of someone giving twice what they have. Thinking perhaps overly literally about Elisha’s request, Rebbe Naḥman sets out to solve how it is that Elijah could have only a certain amount of spirit (ruaḥ), and yet potentially give twice that amount.

In the process of grappling with this issue, Rebbe Naḥman expands the range of his discussion from the scene of Elijah’s death in the bible to include all deaths of all tzaddikim everywhere.

At the time of a tzaddik’s passing, he attains far more than he attained during his lifetime; each one according to his spiritual level. We find this in connection with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the Idra, Rabbeinu HaKadosh, and other tzaddikim.

While the significance and power of the tzaddik is an important theme in writings form a large variety of Hasidic authors, Rebbe Naḥman emphasizes it to a strong degree. In this piece, it serves to connect disparate characters. Elijah is one of the biblical characters who manages to bridge heaven and earth, and is considered the prophet who will bring the messiah and new messianic revelations. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai is the hero of the Zohar, who brings down and reveals heavenly secrets that were never before revealed, and would never be revealed again until the Messianic Era, with his most intense revelations taking place on the day of his death. Rebbe Naḥman also mentions Rebbe Yehuda Hanasi, who compiled the Mishna, presumably because this could be seen as a form of revelation.

Though left unsaid, the fact that Rebbe Naḥman considered himself a tzaddik (in fact, not just a tzaddik, but the tzaddik of his generation) probably hovers in the background here. That will be important later.

Rebbe Naḥman then returns to the particular issue of the double-spirit that Elisha requests, explaining that the tzaddik has two spirits, a higher spirit and a lower spirit, and that they always fail to bring down the higher spirit and only ever access the lower spirit. The only exception to this, Rebbe Naḥman says, is when the tzaddik dies (“passes on/away” in this translation), when they can access both spirits. As he explains it, this timing is not incidental.

Know, too, that the reason for this is that at the time of [the tzaddik’s] passing, the spirit and vitality from on high descend. The lower and higher spirits then embrace and unite. In truth, they are one, so that as soon as they reveal themselves to each other, they bond in a most exceptional oneness. Yet the spirit from on high cannot stay in this world, since by nature it cannot bear this world at all. It therefore departs for on high, and consequently the tzaddik passes on. For when the aforementioned spirit departs, the spirit from below departs with it, on account of the most exceptional oneness in which they were united.

Rebbe Naḥman essentially argues that when the higher spirit ascends, when the tzaddik achieves this peak state, then he must necessarily die, the lower spirit departing with the higher one. While that is all well and good as an abstract statement, it’s a little hard to evaluate, and certainly hard to translate into the language in which I live my life. What does it mean to have a higher and lower spirit? Why can’t the tzaddik ever attain the upper spirit? And why does attaining it result in the tzaddik’s death?

Rebbe Naḥman himself will do some of the work of answering these question. He takes a first step in this direction by explaining that when he talks about the death of the tzaddik, that doesn’t have to be understood literally.

There are many expressions of ascents and descents, since there are many different aspects of passing away. There is the soul’s passing, and there is the loss of one’s name, which is also an aspect of passing away.

So whatever the higher and lower spirits are, and whatever it means to attain the higher one, it doesn’t have to lead to the tzaddik literally dying.

Rebbe Naḥman then clarifies what he means when he refers to higher and lower spirits, shifting from mystical to philosophical/existential terminology.

This also corresponds to the two spirits mentioned above: the spirit from on high and the spirit from below, which are the aspects of potential and actual.

This is a significant moment in Rebbe Naḥman’s teaching, when he translates the abstract language into more concrete ideas. This is something he actually does fairly often, usually tying his complex theory and exegesis into concrete rituals. In this teaching, Rebbe Naḥman translations “higher and lower spirits” into the still somewhat abstract “potential and actual,” but he also ties this directly into issues of intention (kavvanah) in prayer, as we will touch on below.

To flesh this out a bit, Rebbe Naḥman is saying that a person always has two aspects, potential and actual, and they can never really attain the potential. As he explains at length through various Kabbalistic interpretations (such as the shape of the aleph and the interweaving of the divine names “Adonai” and “YHWH”), a person can never realize her vision perfectly. The “potential,” the idea she hold in her head, never survives the process of bringing it into the real world. There’s an unbridgeable gap between “potential” and “actual.” It is this gap that the tzaddik overcomes at the time of her death, a process that, in fact, causes her death (literal or otherwise). The question that Rebbe Naḥman therefore needs to tackle is how you overcome this gap.

He does this when he shifts to a more concrete topic, prayer. He wants to talk about how you pray with “truth,” essentially meaning with proper intent (kavvanah). In terms of the discussion of “potential” and “actual,” it is a question of how you actually pray the ideal prayer that you would like to pray. Rebbe Naḥman first and foremost sets up the problem.

Now, truth is greatest when a person is not dependent on other human beings since “When someone is dependent on other human beings, his face changes color like a kroom to many different shades.” This is the reason someone who is dependent on other people finds it very difficult to pray with the community. It would be more beneficial and easier for him to pray in private, since in public he is plagued by powerful ulterior motives and appearances. On account of his being dependent on other people, he prays with affectation and pretense in order to impress them. Even someone who earns his own living, and so does not have to rely on others for livelihood, may nevertheless be dependent on others for respect or some other thing. In other words, if he craves respect, prominence and the like, he is dependent on other people since he needs their respect and esteem. When he is dependent on other human beings for any of the above he is in jeopardy of perpetrating a grave lie while praying i.e., of gesticulating unnecessarily in order to impress people.

This is the passage that most struck me when I first read this teaching. Rebbe Naḥman here essentially recreates the problem of authenticity. How can we act truly, actually express ourselves, when we are dependent on other people? And are we not always dependent on other people, for recognition at the very least? Since we are always dependent on other people, we can never truly pray around them. In contrast, Rebbe Naḥman says,

someone not dependent on other humans, who is not reliant on them for anything, can stand in the midst of thousands of people and pray honestly, to God alone. This is because he does not depend on any human being for livelihood, honor or anything else. Rather, “his hope is in God his Lord.”

People who are independent, are capable of being true, and of actualizing their potential. How is this connected to death? As Rebbe Naḥman said, “death” here includes “the loss of one’s name, which is also an aspect of passing away.” The willingness to lose your name, your reputation, is very logically connected to social independence (Rebbe Naḥman makes this explicit in Lekutei Moharan I:260, but it’s clear enough from the piece we’re looking at). Someone willing to break free of the need for recognition, someone who can recognize that their own self-approval is enough, can realize their potential and attain the double-spirit that Elisha requested from Elijah on the day of his death.

In these few excerpts, RebbeNaḥman has reframed the death of tsaddik as the capacity to escape the social bonds holding you back and actualize your potential. This also shifts the way we should understand the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai. Rebbe Naḥman is explaining that Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai managed to reveal such important teachings on the day of his death because he was finally free of his social constraints and able to make his vision a reality. (For people interested in differences between the rest of the Zohar and the Idrot attributed to the day of Rabbi Shimon’s death, and the corresponding differences between the teachings of the Ramak and Arizal, this is a fascinating analytical lens).

 

There’s a lot more in this piece that I didn’t even get to touch on, such as a connection between words, meaning and desire that practically cries out to be read through a Lacanian lens (such as Yishai Mevorach provides in chapter 3 of Yehudi Shel Haketse, though he focuses on the parallel in Lekutei Moharan I:31). However, as I hope I’ve demonstrated here, part of reading long teachings from Lekutei Moharan is the ability to break them down into smaller passages and connect different ideas. The understanding of death and authenticity that I have drawn out here is a valuable idea in and of itself, even without the larger train of thought to which it contributes.

Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey”: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments

Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey”:
A Materialist Approach to the Commandments

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Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey” is a masterful contemporary rendition of the traditional genre of taamei hamitsvot literature, books that give reasons for the commandments. Each chapter is dedicated to a different commandment or halakhah, stretching from saying modeh ani upon waking to saying shema before bedtime, and even touching on interpersonal mitsvot, loving God, and more in between. It also sports a helpful introduction that gives the reader background on taamei hamitsvot throughout Jewish history.

The introduction focuses on the question of whether or not Jews should speculate about the reasons for the commandments. The topic has been hotly debated throughout Jewish history. On the one hand, God’s commands are presumably rooted in the infinite divine wisdom. They should therefore “represent the physical actualization of a divine set of values and ideal” (p. xxiv), rather than simply being commands that a person must obey. On the other hand, emphasizing the reason for a command can come at the expense of obedience to the command itself. If keeping kosher is about eating healthy (the opinion of the Sefer HaHinukh, quoted in chapter 19), then shouldn’t eating healthy take precedence over keeping kosher? If the two were to contradict, shouldn’t we side with healthy eating over its handmaiden, kashrut?

Silverstein indicates that despite the critical importance of the “spiritual messages” of the mitsvot, we cannot give the reasons for the commandments priority over the commandments themselves. In addition to preserving obedience to the commandments, this has the added value of keeping a person humble. Just because I do not know the value of a commandment, that does not mean there is no value. Trying to understand the commandments is therefore an important, if not always achievable, goal.

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A Materialist Model of the Commandments

Silverstein’s approach to the commandments is what I have elsewhere called a “materialist” model of the commandments. Though he says the commandments are intended to convey spiritual messages, he ultimately gives priority to the physical acts of the commandments, their material presence in the world and history, over the ideas attached to them. This manifests in the call for obedience in the face of incomprehensible mitsvot. If you have to obey the commandments regardless of the reason, then clearly the actions take priority over the ideas.

The materialist model also shows up in the number of reasons Silverstein gives for each commandment. Classically, books of taamei hamitsvot give one reason for each commandment. They attempt to determine what goal God wanted to achieve by commanding each action, what specific idea or value God wanted to convey. In contrast, “Jewish Law as a Journey” doesn’t talk about what the purpose of each commandment is, or what God’s intent was in commanding it. Instead, Silverstein goes through the historical journey of each mitsvah, looking at what it has meant in different texts throughout history. He starts with Tanakh and the rabbis, for laws that go back that far, and continues all the way to rabbis so contemporary that their ideas are referenced from webpages rather than books. In a materialist model, the reasons for the commandments are not what God meant by them, but what they have meant to Jews throughout history.

One of the advantages of a materialist model of the commandments is the way it lets us look back at the history of reasons for the commandments. With a model like this, we do not need to say that everyone who disagreed with our understanding of a commandment was wrong, nor do we have to pretend that no one ever disagreed. We can recognize the full diversity of the Jewish tradition when it comes to taamei hamitsvot. Silverstein can therefore quote a variety of interpretation by thinkers who may have been consciously disagreeing with each other, as he explores the various things a commandment means. It does raise the question of what God’s intent actually was for each commandment, but this can be solved in a variety of ways, such as suggesting that God wanted each Jew to understand each mitsvah in a way that made sense to her in her historical situation, or that God omnipotently foresaw all the meanings that Jews would attribute to the commandments.

“Jewish Law as a Journey” therefore provides the reader with short collections of ideas that have been attached to each commandment, helpfully summarized in the book’s conclusion in the form of short meditations. However, it also asks the reader an implicit question: If these ideas are what the commandment has meant throughout its historical journey, then what does it mean today?

More Than Just “The Zionist Rabbi”: Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook”

More than just “The Zionist Rabbi”:
Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook”

If you ask most people about Rav Kook’s worldview, they likely won’t know anything about him. If they do, they will probably start talking to you about Zionism. They will tell you about how Herzl was a spark of Mashiach Ben Yosef, and about the critical roles that the nation, land, and state of Israel play in the ongoing process of redemption. For many of Rav Kook’s followers, and likely all of his detractors, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook can be adequately summed up as “the Zionist rabbi.”

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Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s new book of translations, collected from across the entire corpus of Rav Kook’s published writings, means to overturn this common misconception. While most translations of Rav Kook have focused on a specific book by him, “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook: The Writings of a Jewish Mystic” organizes hundreds of paragraphs from Rav Kook’s various writings into seventeen chapters, each dedicated to a specific topic. While there is a chapter on Zionism, and it is one of the longer chapters, it is still just one of seventeen. What is more, that chapter contains more pieces discussing the importance of universalism than the importance of the land! While Rav Kook was certainly a Zionist, he was also far more than that.

The other sixteen chapters are where “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook” really shines. Some of the chapters are dedicated to classical topics, like “Prayer” and “Torah.” In these, Schwartz has managed to find and present passages highlighting Rav Kook’s unique ideas. We are forbidden to think that prayer changes God’s mind, says Rav Kook, and we must learn the Torah that inspires us as individuals. Other chapters focus on more surprising topics, like “The Spiritual Importance of Creativity” and “Listening to the Inner Child.” Here it is not just what Rav Kook says that is unique, it is that he is talking about these topics at all. Most rabbis simply don’t talk about the necessity of creative writing, or how important it is to maintain the idealism of our inner child. Before reading “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook,” I didn’t know Rav Kook had anything to say about the inner child at all, let alone a consistent, fleshed-out approach to the topic. Schwartz’s novel categorization means that the book should have something new even for people already familiar with Rav Kook.

Moving from the level of the chapter to the individual text, we find one of the most helpful and unique aspects of Schwartz’s translation. He has given each passage a title summing up its main idea. For some texts the title-summary felt unnecessary, but for others it was a godsend. Schwartz did mighty work turning Rav Kook’s effervescent poetry into lucid prose, but some of his longer passages can still be very difficult to follow. In such cases Schwartz didn’t just give a title to the piece as a whole, he also broke the piece down into smaller paragraphs and gave each of those paragraphs a title as well. The longest passages of the book, spanning three to four pages, thus become much more understandable.

Perhaps most usefully, the book ends with a short biography of Rav Kook, and with a “Spiritual Letter to the Reader,” where Schwartz summarizes each chapter of the book. Importantly, while the letter sums up the book, it does not just do that. The letter aims at inspiring the reader to act based on Rav Kook. Schwartz doesn’t want “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook” to be just another interesting book on the shelf; he wants it to inspire a spiritual revolution for each and every reader. Each chapter offers the reader an opportunity to revolutionize a part of their life, and the letter frames the ideas in exactly that light.

On the Idea of Prayer as Human Nature in Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

On the Idea of Prayer as Human Nature
in Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

(Some Preliminary Thoughts)

 

I want to look at some texts from the contemporary Dati Le’umi turn to Hasidic texts in order to examine the theme of prayer as a natural human action. Specifically, I will look at texts from Rav Menahem Froman, Rav Dov Singer, and Yishai Mevorach. However, I will first briefly examine a similar idea from the writings of Rav Soloveitchik, in order to highlight the difference between Soloveitchik’s idea and the Israeli texts.

 

Rav Soloveitchik

In various text, Soloveitchik argues that petitionary prayer is the purest, most authentically Jewish form of prayer. He argues that petition is the aspect of prayer that corresponds to a person’s essential creaturely neediness.[1]

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Prayer as a personal experience, as a creative gesture, is possible only if and when man discovers himself in crisis or in need. That is why the Jewish idea of prayer differs from the mystical idea, insofar as we have emphasized the centrality of the petition, while the mystics have stressed the relevance of the hymn. Since prayer flows from a personality which finds itself in need, despondent and hopeless, its main theme is not praise or adoration, but rather request, demand, supplication. True prayer comes to expression in the act of begging and interceding.[2]

Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs. Prayer tells the individual, as well as the community, what his, or its, genuine needs are, what he should, or should not, petition God about […] In short, through prayer man finds himself. Prayer enlightens man about his needs. It tells man the story of his hidden hopes and expectations. It teaches him how to behold the vision and how to strive in order to realize this vision, when to be satisfied with what one possesses, when to reach out for more. In a word, man finds his need-awareness, himself, in prayer.[3]

Prayer, Soloveitchik says, fits with human nature. Moreover, it actually helps a person recognize her own nature. Petitioning God is both natural, and helps us be natural. However, it is not itself human nature. Additionally, he sees petition as just one part of prayer, if the primary one, and the rest of prayer is not as essentially linked to human nature. The texts from Israeli thinkers that we will see below will differ on these points, from him and each other.

 

Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

Contemporary Israel thinkers, specifically Dati Le’umi thinkers working off Hasidic texts, have also connected prayer to human nature, but they have done so very differently from Rav Soloveitchik. For example, Rabbi Dov Singer explores the nature of prayer in his book, Tikon Tefilati.

singer

Various thinkers have given different answers to the philosophical question, which is to a great degree an existential question for humanity, what is man. The most famous answer is that Latin term, “Homo sapiens,” which means “thinking man” or “cognitive man.” Perhaps I could give a different answer: Man is “Homo mitpalelos,” a praying creature, or more specifically, a prayerful creature. The unique ability of the human soul to express prayer from within itself differentiates man from animal even more sharply than his cognitive capabilities. [4]

Singer argues that prayer is the very essence of human nature. This is in contrast to Soloveitchik’s argument neediness and lack are essential to human nature, and that prayer is a natural next step from them. Neither of them embrace the model of man as an essentially cognitive being, though Soloveitchik does not frame that model as prayer’s antagonist. Singer, on the other hand, sees intellectual reflection as an obstacle to prayer, overriding man’s nature.

In defining man as a praying creature, I am trying to free us from the need to explain to ourselves what prayer is, who God is, whether or not prayer works. The primary obstacle to prayer is often the theological, intellectual obstacle, the attempt to delineate and understand exactly how things work. Prayer suggests putting those questions aside for a time, an instance of “We will do and [then] we will understand.” We let the naturalness of prayer act upon us, exactly the way that we breath, without understanding the mechanism of breath entirely.[5]

Singer’s argument is essentially that we need to stop asking question about prayer, stop analyzing it, and just begin to pray. We shouldn’t be looking for a reason for prayer, because it is just who we are. Moreover, analyzing prayer and trying to explain it actually disrupts prayer. The same way breathing consciously and intentionally requires effort and disrupts our natural breathing, trying to be too conscious about prayer can disrupt it. Instead, we have to take prayer as our starting point.

The significance of taking prayer as our starting point receives an added layer in a short paragraph from Rav Froman’s Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh. Froman formulates the idea aphoristically, so he lacks Singer’s systematic approach, but he makes up for it with emotional resonance.

froman

I sometimes think that all theology, all religions, all of the things we say about God are just how we explain that basic, instinctive, human thing we call “prayer.”

A person prays, and he must explain to himself to whom he is praying, why he is praying, and what he is doing, so he calls it “God” and constructs a whole religious understanding of the world around it.

But the very core of it all is prayer.[6]

Froman claims that not only do we not need to explain prayer, prayer can in fact explain all of religion! While man comes up with the rest of religion in order to explain religion, the actual causal order is the reverse. Prayer is “instinctive” and “human,” and thus cannot be explained other than by saying it is human nature. There’s no room for any more analysis than that, and trying to insert such analysis, trying to explain why we pray, would be putting the cart before the horse.

            Singer and Froman both frame prayer as part or all of human nature, and they both seem to see this as a good thing. However, that’s not the only form this idea has to take. Yishai Mevorach, in the process of shaping a Jewish theology heavily influenced by Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, describes prayer as if it were a symptom from which a person suffers.

mevorach

Just as a troubling thought does not exist independent of its manifestation in the troubled person, so too prayer does not exist independent of its manifestation in the praying person. The troubled thought, and prayer like it, is an integral element in the troubled-praying person, even though it is a perversion. […] The fact that prayer is “natural” does not mean that it is correct or good or successful. Obsession, anxiety, and depression are all natural and primordial parts of a person, but this does not mean that they are correct or good for him. They’re just there.[7]

Mevorach compares prayer to psychological conditions like depression and anxiety. These conditions naturally occur within a person, Mevorach says, and so too prayer naturally occurs within a person. With all of these, the goal isn’t to analyze them to determine if they’re good or correct or if they serve some sort of purpose. We have to accept that they exist, and then figure out how to work with them, how the individual person can tolerate them. Much like Singer and Froman, Mevorach places prayer within the realm of human nature and before any reflective analysis, moving away from questions of its function and efficacy. Unlike them, however, he does not speak of prayer and human nature in grandiose terms, but in the clinical language of psychoanalysis. As part of this, he makes no essentialist claims about the nature of all human beings, only about himself and those for whom his description rings true (much of the chapter from which the above quote is taken is written in first person language). He therefore also does not say that prayer is the defining characteristic of human nature, only a part of it, taking him back in the direction of Soloveitchik’s ideas. This is as opposed to Singer, while Froman’s unsystematic statement is silent on the issue. The three thus all take prayer as its own starting point, not to be explained by other factors, and an essential part of human nature.

 

The Maggid of Mezritch and Rav Kook

Having established this common theme, I want to take an aside to look at two texts that I hope will help sharpen this theme. I will argue that the first, from the Maggid of Mezritch, is only superficially similar, while actually differing in important ways. Meanwhile the second piece, from Rav Kook, is significantly similar to our theme, despite the ways it differs.

            In a famous passage, the Maggid of Mezritch denigrates any prayer where the individual praying seeks her own benefit.

“Don’t make your prayers set,” meaning that you should not pray for your business endeavors, only mercy and supplication before the Lord (makom), meaning for the sake of the Shekhinah, which is called “makom. So too the Zohar refers to brazen dogs who bark, “Woof! Woof!” etc., and this is the meaning of the verse, “I asked for one things,” which finishes “ I sought you,” meaning for the sake of the Shekhinah, as discussed above.[8]

Much like the Israeli thinkers quotes above, the Maggid is not interested in questions about what prayer accomplishes, whether it works, etc. However, he is not pushing for non-reflective prayer, prayer as human nature, taking prayer as its own starting place, or any of the other formulations I used above. Instead, he is trying to shift us from a human-focused to a divine-focused understanding of prayer, with assumed divine-centric answers to those questions. Thus he differs significantly from the Israeli thinkers I discussed above.

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Rav Kook, on the other hand, is surprisingly similar to them. I say “surprisingly” because Kook was heavily involved in analyzing prayer, throughout his writings. However, in the very first passage in the introduction to Olat Re’iyah, the collection of his writings organized as a commentary on the siddur, he says that prayer is not something a person does, but a function of their soul.

The constant prayer of the soul constantly attempts to move from concealment to revelation, to extend to all the forces of life of all the spirit and the soul and all the life forces of the whole body. It also yearns to reveal its nature and the force of its action on everything around it, on the whole world and all of life. For this we need the accounting-of-the-world that we arrive at through Torah and wisdom. We therefore see that the entire work of the Torah and its wisdom is the constant revelation of the prayer hidden within the soul. “The soul of all life blesses your name, the Lord our God.”[9]

While none of the Israeli thinkers I discussed used this metaphysical framing, Rav Kook arrives at a similar idea by locating prayer within the soul.[10] He makes prayer into an essential aspect of human nature, so that all that remains for the individual is to stop fighting her nature and just pray.

For Rav Kook, this human nature is explained by its context within broader national, human, and cosmic selves, but prayer inheres on all those levels as well. The contemporary Dati Le’umi thinkers don’t make that turn, starting from and staying at the level of the individual human. Starting from prayer as an aspect of human nature keeps them from reflecting on the purpose and function of prayer (in a way that theo-centric prayer wouldn’t), though it didn’t need to do so. This doesn’t mean that Kook’s idea led them to this idea, but it’s worth considering the way their texts reflect him. Dati Le’umi thinkers, whether they affirm, reject, or ignore Rav Kook’s thought, write in a context built entirely on his thought, and their writing can reflect this. They may even reflect Rav Kook more than the Hasidic texts toward which they turn.

 

rabbi-shagar

Rav Shagar

Another important thinker to mention in this context is Rav Shagar, as all three of the Israeli thinkers I mentioned were either students or close friends of his, or both. Rav Shagar does not identify prayer with human nature in any text of which I am aware, but he does push for a non-reflective approach to prayer, something that Dr. Smadar Cherlow has described as the primary innovation of his “Postmodern” approach to Judaism.[11]

[1] In addition to the sources below, see Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006), 54.

[2] Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition (Jersey City: Ktav Publishing House, 2003), 161.

[3] Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” in Tradition Magazine 17, no. 2 (Spring 1978), 65-66.

[4] Rabbi Dov Singer, Tikon Tefilati: Matkonei Tefilah (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2014), 13.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh (Jerusalem: Hai Shalom, 2016) §179, p. 160.

[7] Yishai Mevorach, Teologiah Shel Heser (Tel Aviv: Resling Books, 2016), 157

[8] Rabbi Dov Ber of Metzritch, Ohr Torah, §502.

[9] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Olat Re’iyah (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook), Introduction §1.

[10] Singer does use the term “soul” (nefesh), but he uses it in the way that contemporary Israelis use it, where it means something more like “the self,” and has connotations as much mental as metaphysical. He therefore may not mean “soul” in any strong sense. Regardless, he is certainly essentialist in his approach, and that is certainly similar to Rav Kook.

[11] See also the second chapter of her Mi Heziz Et HaYahadut Sheli?, pp. 71-88.

Texts Transform Readers Transform Texts: Fleischacker and Maimonides

Texts Transform Readers Transform Texts:

Fleischacker and Maimonides

 

I have recently been thinking a lot about a passage from Samuel Fleischacker’s excellent short work, The Good and the Good Book, which develops an argument for taking traditional texts to be good guides for living. In the first chapter he discusses a story of a wise man who tells a miser where he can find treasure. In going to that place, the miser finds people living in squalor, is moved to dedicate his money to improving their lives. This experience transforms him, and he realizes that the transformation was the promised “treasure.” He later returns the wise man, protesting about the misleading advice, and the wise man points out he originally would not have been motivated by the idea of such a “treasure.” Analyzing this story, Fleischaker notes:

fleischacker

And finally, following an authority makes best sense if one is carrying out an extended course of action and can periodically reinterpret what the authority says as one goes along. If the point is precisely to transform oneself, radically to change one’s character or orientation in life, then that is likely to take a while, and to lead one to have a new, deeper understanding of what one’s authority says after the change than one did before. This last point is the reason why authorities may employ obscure or indirect ways of saying things: what they want to convey cannot be properly understood by their listeners until those listeners have been transformed. And in the course of transformation, the authority’s utterances may well shift from a literal to a metaphorical register, or acquire new literal meanings that we did not expect them to have when we first heard them.[1]

Any statement or text that tries to change a person, moving them from personality A to personality B, risks the possibility that only one of the two personalities will be able to comprehend it, not both. Alternatively, it has to be capable of meaning two different things to each personality.

This is basically the problem Maimonides is struggling with throughout the Guide for the Perplexed. The Torah and its laws are meant to improve the people, as individuals and as a society (I:2, III:28). That means that it has to make sense to them both before and after it has improved them. This is all the more urgent a problem as the Torah is meant to improve the people’s cognitive understanding and beliefs as well (ibid.). The Torah has to make sense to people who think God wants sacrifices, but also to people who know that God doesn’t want sacrifices, or possibly even prayer; instead people should ideally just meditate (III:32).

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Maimonides solves this on a legal level by allowing the legitimate authorities strong powers both in interpreting the Torah’s laws and in creating legal enactments (Hilkhot Mamrim; intro to MT). On the level of the Torah text and how we interpret it, this is a project that occupies much of the Guide. The words of the Torah, he says, can have more than one meaning (intro to Guide). He therefore must go through and explain to the reader which meaning is the proper one, in all places trying to move away from corporealizing and “primitive” understandings of God.

While the Torah can more obviously be meaningful for someone who shares those understandings, people who have already moved away from those understandings may have a harder time (ibid.). Moreover, encouraging such a person to take up those understandings would actually be harmful (III:34). Therefore the Torah cannot mean the same thing for them that it meant for people who had those understandings.

In a real sense, this problem underlies all interpretation, and gives rise to the need for an Oral Torah. If the Torah is to speak to different people in different historical realities, it must be subject to significant interpretation. What Maimonides work points out is that this problem is internal to the Torah and its goals. If the Israelites had never been exiled, if international politics essentially froze during the First Israelite Commonwealth, the Torah would still eventually require reinterpretation. As society and individuals conformed more to the Torah’s laws, they would become more like the ideal society and individuals. They would then read the Torah and see that it must mean something different than what it had meant to them previously.

[1] Samuel Fleischacker, The Good and the Good Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 23.