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יום חמישי, 24 בדצמבר 2009

How I got Here

I did not grow up in an Orthodox home[1], but at a relatively young age I was drawn to religion. The credit certainly goes to the Lubavitcher Rebbe's emissary in Be'er-Sheva who was hired to prepare me for Bar Mitzvah. Not only did he teach me the Torah reading berachos, but he also showed me the logic of some of the mitzvahs, and also produced Cuzari argument to prove the authenticity of our tradition[2].

The Turmoils of the Perplexed
Actually, it was not religion I was looking for. It was for meaning – for the truth.
After several years of religious “to and fro”, my interest in Judaism reemerged again, and during my academic studies I became "stronger"[3]. I rented an apartment in a neighborhood with a very lively and warm Sephardic[4] Synagogue, and very quickly I joined the shiurim. The Shabbos Gemara lesson lasted two hours, where we – a dozen men – crowded around the table and loudly (but politely) discussed a Talmudic section at depth. The discussions didn’t just reveal the sugia at hand, but also the common world view in that synagogue (and many others):
  • Everything is written in the Torah.
  • The authority of the Sages and Rabbis is absolute; it also extends into matters of science and philosophy.
  • Sages knew everything there is to know, and if there is a disagreement between modern science and the Sages – the Sages’ view prevails.
  • Agada portions should to be understood literally. Do not try looking for a deeper layer of meaning because Agada describes a tangible reality. Contradictions between Agada and known science are almost always explained away in a had-hoc manner. The most popular argument being: “Science advances all the time and in the end it’s bound to justify the Sage’s words.”
On many occasions, they read portions of the Zohar (like "Patach Eliyahu" before mincha), without a Hebrew translation and of course without understanding of what it says.
Religion in that synagogue was based on what is commonly called "emunah temimah”, naïve faith. You rely blindly on a rabbi or ancestral tradition, avoiding inquiries that might provoke doubts. The term "emunas hachamim" was invoked quite often.
As mentioned above, I was in the middle of my academic studies (master's degree in engineering), so giving up on science was inconceivable. What’s more, I saw that same science in action. I remember that this situation stopped me from wearing a yarmulke, because I could not get myself to relate to a worldview which turns away from reality.

Guides for the Perplexed
But “Israel is not widowed”[5], and thanks Hashem for the Internet. Knowing that Maimonides was a rational thinker and I decided to study the writings. At the same time I realized that there is a question about the Zohar and its author. I do not remember why, but Rabbi Yuval Cherlow appeared during that time in the headlines and I discovered a brave Jewish thinker. Someone beat me and asked Rabbi Cherlow on “moreshet” site a question concerning the Zohar. The Rabbi did the unthinkable and redirected him to the internet forum Atzor Kan Choshvim ("Stop here we think")[6]. At the same time I found a Jewish American site ( which advocates rationalist religion, and following the path of the Rishonim (Maimonides, Rav Saadia Gaon, Ibn-Paquda).
The irony is that such these sites (and unfortunately Rabbi Cherlow) – which are considered heretical by the ultra-Orthodox and a considerable public – are the ones that enabled me to become religious. I was not looking for an ultimate answer to my questions, but to approach and honestly discuss them. It’s hard to guess how much damage and chilul ha’shem is done by the intellectual dishonest in the religious community. I'm sure there are many people who do not approach the Torah and others who are leaving the Torah lifestyle just because they did not find a response or a method to deal with the questions that inevitably arise in life.
When I studied the classic texts of the Rishonim, I discovered an honest approach that was abandoned by many sectors. I am convinced that many of the ills I’ve described above are caused by the neglect of the philosophy of the Rishonim. It requires some bringing up to date (after all there were significant advances in science a philosophy) but basically it lets us cope with modernity. Superficial adherence to Kabala and Hasidism, (which, I admit contain deep and rational layers which one needs to look for) and distorted emunas hachamim have reduced Judaism into a superstition rubble. The real world always poses a challenge to faith, and instead of recognizing the difficulties, religious people prefer quick and mystical solutions over the logical clarification which will refine faith. The great thinkers from the medieval Rishonim to Rabbi Kook today (and yes, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits') did not hesitate in confronting the big questions.
Here are some excerpts from their teachings.
Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed:
When reading my present treatise, bear in mind that by "faith" we do not understand merely that which is uttered with the lips, but also that which is apprehended by the soul (mind), the conviction that the object [of belief] is exactly as it is apprehended...If, as regards real or supposed truths, you content yourself with giving utterance to them in words, without apprehending them or believing in them, especially if you do not seek real truth, you have a very easy task as, in fact, you will find many ignorant people professing articles of faith without connecting any idea with them. (I, 50)
Many hold that Maimonides and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi are situated in two different poles in Jewish thought. While the RYHal prefers faith, Maimonides favors an analytical analysis. However, the faith of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi is not simple or irrational. It does not contradict common sense. So he wrote in the Cuzari:
Heaven forbid that there should be anything in the Torah to contradict that which is manifest or proved! (1, 49)
Heaven forbid that we should assume believe that what is against sense and reason (1, 89)
Rabbi Kook, one of the greatest modern thinkers followed their path, and while dealing with modern secularism he understood the need for the continuous refinement of faith:
וכאשר ראה (הרמב"ם) שהרבה מהמשכילים, שדעתם נוטה אל הדעות הללו, הם עוזבים את התורה או מפקפקים באמונה מפני סתירות שהם חשים בין הדעות התרבויות הללו ובין התורה, על כן פרסם הוא ז"ל שהחלק המבורר שבדעות התרבויות הללו אין בהן סתירה לדברי תורה, ואדרבא לימד שהם מתחזקות מצד התורה, ובזה העמיד את יסוד האמונה מצד התורה, ובזה העמיד את יסוד האמונה בלב רבים, והציל את חיי התורה והמסורה לדורות רבים... וכך הוא דרכו של רבנו תמיד, לבנות את יסודות האמונה על בסיסים חזקים שאי אפשר לפחות מהם.
When he (Maimonides) saw that many of the learned, whose opinion leans towards these ideas (Greek philosophy) are leaving the Torah or questioning (the Jewish) faith, because they felt that there are contradictions between these trends and opinions with those of the Torah, he then publicized that the confirmed (proven) ideas of these societies do not contradict the Torah, and on the contrary, he taught that they are upheld by the Torah; and by that he fortified the foundation of faith in the Torah and by that he reinforced the faith in the heart of many, and saved the Torah way of life and the Tradition for many generations... And thus is the way of our teacher: reinforce the pillars of faith on strongest foundations that can not be reduced further. (Special article by Rabbi Kook, in “the History of Israel”, vol 12, appendix. by R. Zeev Yavtez,).
מה שמבינים את האמונה בצורה מקולקלת, קטנה וחשוכה, גורם לכפירה שתשא את ראשה. וזוהי המגמה ההשגחית בבנין העולם של מציאות רגש הכפירה וכל תיאוריה, כדי להעיר את כח החיים שבאמונה בכל לב, למען תבא האמונה למרום מעלתה, עד שתכלול עמה גם הטוב הכלול בתוכנים התיאוריים של הכפרנות, ותהיה האמונה שלמה בכל מלואיה. (מידות הראי"ה, אמונה)
The damaged, small and murky misconception of (Jewish) faith[7] causes apostasy to raise its head. It is the providential advancement of the world that realizes the emotional heresy with all its expressions[8], so as to awaken the vigor of faith that beats in every heart; and thus faith reaches its highest virtue and encompasses the expressive heretical content making it a complete (all-inclusive) faith. Middos HaRaHayah, belief)
סיבוכי הדעות והצרות במיוחד הרוחניות והנפשיות נובעות מכך, שמושג האלוהות הינו מעורפל ודמיוני ונתפס באנושות באופן בידיוני, אלילי ומבהיל, ותפקידה של הכפירה לנקות את העולם מתפיסה אלילית זו של האלוהים לאמונה בגדולת-שלמות-אינסוף, שלא ניתן להגדירו ולהגבילו. (אורות, עמ' קכו)
Complicated opinions and difficulties, especially the spiritual and psychological ones, stem from the fact, that the concept of God is vague and imaginary, leaving humanity with a fictional, pagan and scary perception. [Therefore] the role of heresy clear: rid the world of its pagan conceptions of God, and [clear the way] for a faith in the great perfection of the Infinite[9], which cannot be limited or defined. (Lights, p. 126)
The greatest thinkers, and not even the rationalists amongst them, claimed that a person may not live with a dissonance.
The purpose of Judaism may be termed Kiddush Ha’Shem – making God present in our lives and in the world.
Therefore it inconceivable for me that in the synagogue one may agree with the literal meaning of Midrashim which say the Sages were 12 or 15 feet high, but will then go to a physician whose education confirm that human physiology cannot allows it. Or agree with Maimonides that the Earth is fixed in the middle of the universe and the sun revolves around it, but return home to watch a football game broadcast live via satellite ...

When turning away from the world, we admit that the God of Judaism is actually irrelevant - this is the biggest Chilul Ha’Shem.

[1] I was not an atheist, but Judaism for me was minimal kashrus and Friday night Kiddush
[2] Later when I was exposed to the philosophy of Chabad, I looked back with somewhat irony: Chabad terminology is loaded with mystical terms that one must toil in order to translate them into an understandable language. They avoid studying the thought of the Rishonim - except Maimonides’ Sefer Ha’Mada – but only because it's part of Jewish Law. Maimonides Ta'amei Ha’mitzvos? – God forbid.
[3] The Hebrew ma”chbat term is מתחזק
[4] The reason I’m mentioning that it was Sephardic is twofold: From my experience, it’s usually the Sephardic synagogues which are “lively and warm” and where masorti Jews feel welcome. In conjunction Sephardic Jews are the ones who on hold “simple faith” while not being Haredi. Unfortunately, the Ashkenazi dati-leumi (national-religious) are usually less friendly to outsiders while on the other hand try to maintain a rational faith.
[5] Jeremiah 51, 5
[6] A description of that forum by Rabbi Michael Avraham can be found here (download a .doc file): (download .doc file)
[7] Take notice that in this piece Rav Kook defines faith just as Maimonides above.
[8] I believe that R. Kook indicates that heresy begins as emotional inclination that only later obtains rational and philosophical justification.
[9] Rav Kook uses the Kabalistic term Ein-Sof, which states that God cannot be defined or categorized.

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וְהַחָכְמָה, מֵאַיִן תִּמָּצֵא; וְאֵי זֶה, מְקוֹם בִּינָה.
אֱלֹהִים, הֵבִין דַּרְכָּהּ; וְהוּא, יָדַע אֶת-מְקוֹמָהּ.
אָז רָאָהּ, וַיְסַפְּרָהּ; הֱכִינָהּ, וְגַם-חֲקָרָהּ.
וַיֹּאמֶר, לָאָדָם--הֵן יִרְאַת אֲדֹנָי, הִיא חָכְמָה; וְסוּר מֵרָע בִּינָה. (איוב כח')