Mekori Q&A – Major Problems with the Kabbalah

Q: Someone asked…

I have heard you mention on several occasions that you object to the kabbalistic idea of there being multiple manifestations of divinity. Do you believe that such ideas are avodah zarah (idolatry)? The kabbalists who employed such language were strict monotheists, and it seems that their depictions amounted to little more than poetic illustrations of the many perceptions of God found within the Tanakh and rabbinic literature. If someone were to affirm such ideas, but still believed in Ein Sof, would you still have a problem with that? Thanks.

A: Thank you for your questions.

I do indeed view the “multiple manifestations of divinity” concept (referred in the kabbalah to as partzufim, or “faces”) as being avodah zarah. The Kabbalists who used this language were not strict monotheists. They were, however, very strict dualists who affirmed a belief in a transcendent god (which they termed Ein Sof, or “The Infinite”) who, prior to the creation, “creates” (or, emanates) another god which is imminent (i.e. finite). This language is explicit in the Zohar literature, especially in its explanation of Bereshit 1:1.

Zohar 1:15a [ד] –

 בְּהַאי רֵאשִׁית בְּרָא הַהוּא סְתִימָא דְּלָא אִתְיְידַע לְהֵיכָלָא דָא
הֵיכָלָא דָא אִקְרֵי אֱלהִים וְרָזָא דָא בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלהִים

“With this Reishit (beginning), the Concealed One which is not known created (bara) this chamber, and this chamber is called Elohim (God). This is the secret meaning of the verse, ‘Be-Reishit bara Elohim‘ [i.e. ‘Using Reishit, Ein Sof created Elohim’]”

This passage reads Bereshit 1:1 as referring to two gods (powers, potencies, emanations, or what have you), one creating the other. Incidentally, the Gemara on b.Megillah 9a discusses certain changes that were made by the hakhmei ha-sanhedrin when preparing the first Greek translation of the Torah as requested by King Ptolemy. One of the changes they made was to switch the order of the words in their translation from בראשית ברא אלהים to אלהים ברא בראשית in order to avoid the appearance of polytheism since, due to the common style, as enabled by the syntax of the Greek language, the most important word would be placed first. This being the case, the hakhamim were afraid that בראשית, appearing first in the Torah, would be misunderstood as a reference to a deity. As Rashi explains there:

אלהים ברא בראשית. את השמים – שלא יאמר בראשית שם הוא ושתי רשויות הן וראשון ברא את השני

“God created in the beginning – the heavens, etc. [This rewording] was so that no one would say that Bereshit is a name and that there are therefore two gods (reshuyot, “powers”), and the one created the other.”

The commentary of the Tosafot on this passage says that,

הרי בראשית אינו שם כלל אלא בתחילה

“Behold, Bereshit is not a name at all, rather [it means] ‘In the beginning.'”

The Zohar not only adopts the mistaken reading of Bereshit 1:1, but it also purports that it is the “secret” meaning of the original words.

Just in case you think that my reading of the Zohar is uncharitable, the Kisei Eliyahu (written in the 19th century by Eliyahu Suleiman Mani as an introduction to the Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah) makes a sharp distinction between the Ein Sof – to which he says it is forbidden for us to direct our prayers – and Zeir Anpin (one of the lower manifestations/faces), which is referred to as “our God” and which, together with his celestial wife Nukba, cares for and governs the world on behalf of the Ein Sof.

From page כ”ו – [brackets mine]
kisei-eliyahu-citation-1

“The principle that arises [from the previous section] is that the First Cause – which is called Ein Sof by mouths of all the kabbalists – is the one who emanated, created, formed, and made all things, and he conceals himself within Zeir Anpin. Therefore Zeir Anpin is the ruler of all the created things, and directs them, and nourishes them, and provides for them with the power of Ein Sof that is in him. Therefore, he [i.e. Zeir Anpin] is our God and we are his people, for our souls are a part of him, and he is whom we should worship, etc.”

From page כ”ז – [brackets mine]
kisei-eliyahu-citation-2

“And so you see that all the directing of the world is done through Zeir Anpin, and everything is by the power of Ein Sof, blessed is he, which illumines him like a soul within him For with his power [i.e. the power of Ein Sof] Zeir Anpin performs all of his deeds, and also with all of our calling out to him. All of our prayers are to him [i.e. to Zeir Anpin] because ‘he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock of his hand’ [cf. Tehillim 95:7]. And just as our teacher [Yitzchak Luria] has written (may his merit protect us) in the book Mavo Shaarim, ‘We are his people Israel and all of us are guarded by Zeir and Nukba, and we are their children, as it is written: You are children of HaShem your gods’ [cf. Devarim 14:1, apparently elohim here is being taken by Luria to be plural and a mystical reference to the heavenly couple of Zeir Anpin and Nukba].”

This type of language is unfortunately not rare, and it is highly problematic.

As for the monotheism of those who espoused such ideas, I would say that while they may have strongly professed a strict monotheism, their writings betrayed otherwise. Rav Yihyeh Qafih, z”l refers to this type of profession in his Milhamot HaShem as being no different than when Christians, after explaining all of their ideas about multiplicity within God, the incarnation through a virgin, etc. then proceed to say “but we really just believe in one God” – it is not much more than lip service to a monotheistic idea. In saying this, Rav Qafih quotes directly from a very important passage in the Moreh HaNavokhim of the Rambam which says,

If, however, you have a desire to rise to a higher state, viz., that of reflection, and truly to hold the conviction that God is One and possesses true unity, without admitting plurality or divisibility in any sense whatever, you must understand that God has no essential attribute in any form or in any sense whatever, and that the rejection of corporeality implies the rejection of essential attributes. Those who believe that God is One, and that He has many attributes, declare the unity with their lips, and assume plurality in their thoughts. This is like the doctrine of the Christians, who say that He is one and He is three, and that the three are one. Of the same character is the doctrine of those who say that God is One, but that He has many attributes; and that He with His attributes is One, although they deny corporeality and affirm His most absolute freedom from matter; as if our object were to seek forms of expression, not subjects of belief. For belief is only possible after the apprehension of a thing; it consists in the conviction that the thing apprehended has its existence beyond the mind [in reality] exactly as it is conceived in the mind. If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of the belief or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief is true. Renounce desires and habits, follow your reason, and study what I am going to say in the chapters which follow on the rejection of the attributes; you will then be fully convinced of what we have said: you will be of those who truly conceive the Unity of God, not of those who utter it with their lips without thought, like men of whom it has been said, “Thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins” (Jer. 12:2). It is right that a man should belong to that class of men who have a conception of truth and understand it, though they do not speak of it. Thus the pious are advised and addressed, “Commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still. Selah.” (Ps. 4:5)

(I:50 – Friedlander Edition)

True monotheism is necessarily apophatic, and consists in our taking every measure to nullify any corporeality or spatio-temporal attributes from our conception of God. Doing this is essential to “pulling the plug” on even the possibility of idolatry, which a proper monotheistic conception of God necessarily precludes.

The Kabbalah, however, is not only decidedly cataphatic, but its practitioners relate to divinity in very practical and matter-of-fact ways on the basis of such mistaken descriptions of God. I wish that it were an uncommon occurrence, but I regularly hear the kabbalistic rabbis in my own city make bold and unabashed statements such as, “You’re God, I’m God, everything is God. In Judaism we believe that the entire world is just God” (this is a direct quote). The repeated instances of these and similar statements simply disallow me from accepting the thesis of the kabbalistic apologists. To claim that all of the cataphatic statements made in the Zohar and other mystical books are mere “metaphors” or “poetry” to illustrate certain concepts does not stand up to textual scrutiny. Further, it defies the consistent events of history and cannot be maintained with complete intellectual honesty. While I do believe that some kabbalists (e.g. the Ben Ish Hai) worked very hard to distance the kabbalah from this troubling phenomenon, and they should be respected and praised for doing so, the fact is that the majority then did not, and today still do not, do so.

Another important point about the “poetic” language used to express acts of God in the kabbalah is the switch from kingly decrees in the Torah’s creation narrative to very intense and graphic sexual imagery in the narrative of the Zohar. One of the reasons, in my view, that the Torah expressed creation in terms of statements or decrees (i.e. “let there be,” etc.) is because an expression of God’s will in a decree or a statement is one of the least corporeal concepts we can relate to, being readily translated into simile and metaphor. This portrayal was in sharp distinction to nearly every other creation myth in antiquity wherein the world was seen as either being manufactured from the bodies of the gods and goddesses themselves, or as a product of copulation between various divinities. Even the eminent scholar of kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, acknowledges the sexual mythos inherent in the Zoharic depiction of God in the act of creation, describing it as a “re-emergence” and admitting that such imagery is foreign and in direct tension with the Biblical account (cf. On The Mystical Shape of the Godhead, p. 108).

The purpose of not employing such common ancient mythological imagery – even though we do have a principle of torah dibrah ke-lashon benei adam (“the Torah speaks in human terms”) – was, I believe, to immediately divorce the ancient hearer of the Torah from such ideas. That the basis of creation are divine pronouncements or decrees was also explicitly championed by Hazal (cf. Pirkei Avot 5:1ff) – they never made any mention of supposed “divine sexuality.” The kabbalah, however, reintroduced these mythological concepts to the point where kabbalistically-minded individuals truly believe that blessings, etc. come into the world via the supposed unification of male and female forces in a heavenly realm. So, even though Yermiyahu HaNavi (cf. 7:18; 19:4-5; 23:27; 44:17-22, et al) railed against the worship of Baal and the Queen of Heaven (which featured sexual relations with temple prostitutes in order to encourage the deities to do likewise above), husbands and wives are now taught that the mystical purpose of their sexual relations on Friday night is for the supposed unification of the sefirot of Tiferet (also called “Tzadik” and representative in the kabbalah of the male member) and Malkhut (also called “Shekhinah” and representative in the kabbalah of the female genitalia). In effect, we have in many ways returned to our ancient errors through such teachings. “As a dog returns to its vomit, so also does a fool repeat their folly” (Mishlei 26:11). May we be delivered from all such foolishness.

Lastly, and most importantly, the standard for idolatry is much lower than needing to express cataphatic views of God or adopting a form of Panentheism. As Rambam explains in the opening chapters of Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, idolatry – in its most basic form – consists of merely using or appealing to other beings (or perceived beings) as intermediaries between oneself and God – even if one does not believe that such intermediary beings are themselves gods or a part of God (cf. 1:2-3, Yemenite Manuscripts). Rambam is very clear there that professing a strict monotheism does not rescue one from committing serious acts of idolatrous worship.

Thanks for writing. I hope this helped to answer your questions.

Kol tuv,

YB

Electricity on Yom Tov – A Meqori Perspective

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act or not act upon any of it is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those which are intricate and/or are severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

The following video (actually, it is an audio shi’ur uploaded to YouTube) was sent to me by a close friend in Israel. The speaker, Rabbi Haim Ovadia, an Israeli-Sefaradi rabbi who received his semikhah from HaRav Mordekhay Eliyahu z”l after studying at the Shehebar Center in Jerusalem and is now a community rabbi in Rockville, Maryland. He is fully-orthodox and also possesses several degrees from various universities. Yet, he admits that his children grew up in a home where they made full use of electricity on yomiym toviym. He also relates that using electricity was the predominant Sefardic practice until more recent times when it was abandoned for political reasons.

There have been many halakhists who have either permitted the use of electricity on Yom Tov (and Shabbath) or have argued for its permissibility. Its use, of course, is limited by the boundaries of melakhah, but barring these concerns – according to Rabbi Ovadia and several of the poseqiym he cites – electricity can actually enhance the joy of the holiday. Imagine being able to microwave food on Yom Tov, or use the dishwasher, or turn lights on and off. It could make a real difference.

One of the arguments made by contemporary mahmiyriym who prohibit the use of electricity on either Shabbath or Yom Tov is that those who did permit it were simply ignorant about how electricity “actually” works. This, as stated by Rabbi Haim Ovadia in the shi’ur, is completely fallacious. The claims made by Haredi-Hasidic groups (usually Ashkenaziym) about electricity have been essentially as follows: [1] Electricity is fire, [2] electricity is (at least safeq) moliydh, makeh be-patiysh, boneh, or some other melakhah de-oraytha, [3] both of these claims were debunked by both science and halakhic reasoning (by both Sefaradiym AND Ashkenaziym) so they admit that it isn’t fire and is [probably] not a melakhah, but [4] those who permitted it in previous decades “didn’t really understand how it works.” So, they began by mistakenly prohibiting it by identifying it as fire, but even after having been conclusively disproven, they maintain that those halakhists who permitted it were just ignorant – which is a convenient claim since most of them have died and cannot defend themselves. This is ridiculous.

Further, it is just another version of the argument for latter-day “kabbalah” in the face of outright contradictions with Torah and halakhah. When confronted with texts written by Saadyah Gaon, Rambam, Rashi, Tosafoth, Ramban, and others who explicitly rejected teachings which were later espoused by the Zohar literature, Luria and his followers, and Hasidism they simply assert that these early authorities were ignorant and mistaken, claiming that they “did not have a mesoireh in the kabboloh” – a statement that is so incredibly stupid and fallacious that it would not be worthy of argument if so many people had not been taken in by it.

Now, just to be sure, while I am certainly an advocate a person’s right to choose whether they will use electricity on yomiym toviym, I am not for poking people in the eye, as it were, with the results of such a choice. What I mean is that there are those who are secure and socially adept who can choose how they will conduct themselves and the lives of their families within their own homes – these people are wise, and they are even more wise if there are ready with sources to calmly and cogently defend their religious practices to those onlookers who might express concern. There are others, however, who are socially inept and feel that it is their business to advertise everything about themselves that is either controversial or out of the mainstream, and then incite arguments with other members of their communities – these people are fools, and even if they knew all the sources to defend themselves, wisdom would still escape them.

As a movement, meqori’iym desperately need to overcome the tendency to want to the throw down at any given moment with fellow Jews or to figuratively wear their “Ani Ma’amiyn” on their sleeve (as Rav Ratson Arusi once personally taught me). We do not owe anyone a statement of faith just because they demand it, but we do owe others respect even if they do not. The rare times that call for harsh or direct exchanges with others should be done with care.

The following mishnayoth from Pirqey Avoth (1:12-17) encapsulate these principles:

TEXT

הלל ושמאי קיבלו מהם.  הלל אומר, הוי כתלמידיו של אהרון אוהב שלום ורודף שלום אוהב את הברייות ומקרבן לתורה הוא היה אומר נגד שמא אבד שמא דילא מוסיף יסוף ודילא יליף קטלא חייב ודישתמש בתגא חלף

הוא היה אומר אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני ואם לא עכשיו אימתיי

שמאי אומר עשה תורתך קבע אמור מעט ועשה הרבה והוי מקביל את כל האדם בסבר פנים יפות

רבן גמליאל אומר עשה לך רב והסתלק מן הספק ואל תרבה לעשר אומדות

שמעון בנו אומר כל ימיי גדלתי בין החכמים ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה ולא המדרש הוא העיקר אלא המעשה וכל המרבה דברים מביא חטא

רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר על שלושה דברים העולם קיים על הדין ועל האמת ועל השלום

TRANSLATION

“Hillel and Shamma’iy received the [the Oral Torah] from [Shema’yah and Avtalyon]. Hillel says, ‘Be like the students of Aharon; love peace and pursue peace; love your fellow creatures and bring them near to the Torah.’ He used to say, ‘One who announces (i.e. to seek personal renown) his name destroys his name. One who does not increase [peace], diminishes. One who does not learn [these lessons] is deserving of death.’ And, ‘One who makes personal use of the Crown [i.e. the Torah] will perish.’

“He used to say, ‘If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself [only], what am I? If not now, when?'”

“Shamma’iy says, ‘Make your Torah [study] a fixed practice. Say little and do much. Receive every person with a pleasant countenance.'”

“Rabban Gamli’el says, ‘Appoint for yourself a rav and [thereby] remove yourself from [halakhic] doubt.’ And, ‘Do not increase tithing by estimation [i.e. this is an example of where you should remove legal doubts from your observance of halakhah].'”

“Shim’on his son says, ‘All my days I have grown up among hakhamiym and I have found nothing better for the body other than silence. And the study [of a matter] is not the main thing, but doing. And anyone who increases their words brings about sin.'”

“Rabban Shim’on ben Gamli’el says, ‘The world is upheld by three things: by the law, by the truth, and by peace.'”

May HaShem allow these things to enter our hearts.

Whatever you decide to do, enjoy your upcoming Yom Tov.

Kol tuv uverakhah,

YB

Lag Ba-Omer – A Mekori Perspective

The thirty-third day of sefirat ha-omer is widely referred to as “Lag Ba-Omer” (lag being the acronym for 33 in Hebrew – ל”ג) and is usually accompanied with celebrations featuring massive bonfires and singing the praises of a certain Mishnaic sage, among other things. The day is also colored by intensive study of the Zohar and special trips, parties, and dancing – all leading to the [supposed] grave of Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai in Meron, Israel.

As with most practices invented in more recent history, the exact origins of this day are unknown. And although it was at one time meant to commemorate the end of the plague/execution that was said to have affected the students of Rebbi Akiva in b.Yevamot 62b, it has been co-opted by kabbalists and has now become the flagship day of latter-day mystics and their celebration of the Zohar – along with Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai as its patron saint.

More than simply being of dubious and unknown origin, the celebratory practices and the piles of “halakhic rulings” that have accrued in the name of Lag Ba-Omer are completely without basis in Hazal. In fact, Lag Ba-Omer is not mentioned in any rabbinic text prior to the 14th century. And when it is first designated as a distinctive day during the weeks of the omer, it is referred to in the context of a Geonic tradition that it on this particular day the students of Rebbi Akiva stopped dying/being killed (cf. Menahem Meiri, Beit HaBehirah to b.Yevamot 62b). And it is for this reason that there was [supposedly] a call for some sort of celebration, or at least a relaxing of the traditional mourning rites, such as taking a haircut or getting married.

It was not until the early part of the 17th century that the spuriously honored day of Lag Ba-Omer was co-opted by Lurian kabbalists, specifically by Luria’s well-known publicist (and likely producer of pseudepigraphic sayings and ideas in his name) Chaim Vital. In Vital’s work, “Etz Chaim” (cf. Sha’ar Sefirat Ha-Omer, chapter 7) he equates the hilula (pop. “yahrtzeit”) of Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai with the 33rd day of the omer. According to the Zohar literature, the anniversary of Rebbi Shimon’s death is actually a day of celebration and great joy (cf. Idra Zuta, Parashat Ha’azinu). This connection is centered around the false claim that Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai was actually authored the Zohar, having supposedly written it while hiding in a cave with his son from the Romans (cf. b. Shabbat 33b). According to the Arokh HaShulhan (493:7), Lag Ba-Omer is the day when Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai emerged from the cave.

Based on the reports of the personal practice of Luria, and those seeking to imitate him, masses of people go to the [supposed] grave of Rebbi Shimon in Meron to seek his blessing. Additionally, there has developed a practice of dancing around bonfires and singing praise songs to Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai (e.g. “Bar Yohai nimshakhta ashrekha…”), and sometimes silk scarves or other elements of clothing are burned while reciting kabbalistic incantations in an effort to dispel demons and evil spirits. The entire enterprise has turned into a dangerous, primitive, and idolatrous activity that certainly falls under the category of darkhei emori (the “ways of the Amorite”). A great many celebrants and would-be pilgrims to Meron end up turning to Rebbi Shimon in prayer, making all sorts of requests to their patron saint of the Zohar, committing one of the simplest forms of avodah zarah, namely, placing intermediaries between themselves and God (Rambam, Mishneh TorahHilkhot Avodah Zarah 1:1-2:1).

I have written before on this site about the dubious origins of the Zohar literature and of it being a forgery. And now there has developed around it an equally dubious day – a baseless holiday for a baseless book.

The crafting of pseudo or para-halakhic regulations that have no basis in Hazal is actually discussed within the halakhah and is related as being the activity of the Tzaddukim (“Sadducees”), the heretics who denied the Oral Torah itself. The Rambam mentions this illegal tendency in Hilkhot Parah Adumah 1:14, where he says:

TEXT

הצדוקין היו אומרים שאין מעשה הפרה כשר אלא במעורבי שמש לפיכך היו בית דין בבית שני מטמאין את הכוהן השורף את הפרה בשרץ וכיוצא בו וטובל ואחר כך עוסק בה כדי לבטל דברי אלו הזדים שמורים מהעולה על רוחם לא מן הקבלה

TRANSLATION

“The Tzaddukim used to assert that the preparation of the parah was not acceptable (kasher) except for those who, [after having immersed in a mikveh,] wait until after the sun completely sets (i.e. tzet ha-kokhavim). Therefore [in order to completely dismiss with their heretical contentions] the beit din (i.e. the Sanhedrin) during the Second Temple period would purposefully make the kohen who burned the parah impure through contact with a dead reptile, or something similarly impure, have him immerse [in a mikveh], and directly afterward complete his appointed task. All of this was to nullify the words of these [heretics] who willfully give legal instruction based on what whimsically arises in their mind and not based on the received halakhic tradition…”

Now, I am not saying that inventing religious practices and creating pseudo and/or para-halakhic days of celebration is necessarily equivalent to being a heretic, but judging from the above statement it must be close – or at the very least, viewed negatively by Hazal. And it is certainly considered dangerous enough to warrant the performance of details that directly defy such things in order to keep the halakhah clear in the minds of the people. This concern for halakhic clarity, I suspect, was the reason for the strong reaction from Rebbi Yosi in the following story related in b.Pesahim 100a.

TEXT

Pesahim 100a - selection

TRANSLATION

“Once Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel, Rebbi Yehudah, and Rebbi Yosi were reclining [together around a table for a meal] in Akko and [while they were eating] the sun set, signaling the beginning of Shabbat. Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel said to Rebbi Yosi, ‘Would Be-Ribbi (the form of address for one eminent scholar addressing another) like to interrupt the meal now and follow the more stringent halakhic opinion of Yehudah our colleague?’ He said to him, ‘Each and every day you prefer my halakhic opinions over those of Rebbi Yehudah, and now [i.e. when he is here with us] you act as though you prefer his opinions in front of me? Will you also rape the queen with me in the house (quoting from Megillat Esther, 7:8)?’ He said back to him, ‘If so, then we shall not interrupt the meal now lest the students see us and determine the halakhah throughout the generations [incorrectly].’ The students who were there said, ‘They did not move from there until they established that the halakhah was in accordance with the opinion of Rebbi Yosi.”

There were two opinions about what was necessary if, while eating at a seudah that began after Minhah on a Friday afternoon, the sun completely set: [1] the opinion held by Rebbi Yehudah was that once the sun sets one must interrupt the seudah, re-wash, make kiddush, and begin a completely new meal in honor of Shabbat, and [2] the opinion held by Rebbi Yosi was that it was not necessary to interrupt one’s meal at sundown at all.

Between these two opinions, that held by Rebbi Yosi had already been determined as the halakhah. However, Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel decided to ask Rebbi Yosi if he wanted to be hoshesh to the other opinion, since Rebbi Yehudah was there with them – apparently as some gesture of respect to his participation in the meal. But Rebbi Yosi, immediately sensing the potential damage that could be done due to the many students observing their teachers and listening intently to their conversation, reacted very harshly and made a clear and unquestionable declaration about which opinion was actually the halakhah. He even quotes Ahashvarosh who, returning from the garden to find Haman prostrate on Esther’s couch, says, “Will you also (i.e. after everything else) rape the queen with me here in the house?!” Rebbi Yosi intends, le-aniyut da’ati, to indicate that setting a mistaken halakhic example for the students, and by extension the Jewish public, is akin to raping the legal process (i.e. forcing a halakhic position which is not halakhah). Now, in this case the position of Rebbi Yehudah was not heresy and he was not a Tzadduki, but nevertheless they made sure that everyone in attendance understood clearly that his position was not the halakhah and need not be followed.

When it comes to kabbalistic practices that were instituted by various latter-day mystics and “prophets” (although they did not always lay claim openly to the title of “prophet,” they nevertheless claimed – or their followers claimed on their behalf – to have possessed “ruach ha-kodesh,” a form of prophecy) we need to be diligent to resist them, in my opinion, through non-participation. The incredible number of urban myths and legends regarding actual Jewish law and practice among the religious Jewish public is proof-positive that too many have stood by and consented to the inventions of regional scholars which have no basis in the received halakhic tradition, and an even greater number have helped to cement the general Jewish sentiment that such practices, once inaugurated, can never be annulled since they somehow magically became a part of the “mesorah.”

Once again, the Jewish people today lacks the legal authority of a lawmaker in respect to halakhah and retains solely the potential for an authority of expertise, comparable to that of a lawyer. All that any rabbi, teacher, scholar, or beit din can do is apply the law as it stands to various circumstances and make very limited, low-level, regional rulings within the bounds of codified halakhah. While there still remains legal diversity within the bounds of such halakhah as it currently stands, any real changes to its determinations cannot take place until proper universal (i.e. Sanhedrinal) authority is restored.

The policies of “live and let live” and “go along to get along” with regard to the constant religious extremism and social pressure of the Haredi-Hasidic world is how we got to where we are in the first place. Years ago, when a more-or-less docile (passive) orthodox mainstream was faced with a pushy elitist (expansive) Haredi-Hasidic fringe, the latter was either tolerated by the former or – as the case usually is – succeeded in intimidating them into obedience.

As a result, the twisted religious outlook of the once Haredi-Hasidic fringe has been allowed to infect and overtake the vast majority of “orthodox” Judaism. In the name of “unity” between Jews (which is ludicrous since the Haredi-Hasidic camp unites with no one), we have allowed error, idolatry, corruption, and a plethora of contrived Eurocentric practices to enter Judaism and masquerade as authentic tradition. If we do not stop giving them our tacit consent and passive allegiance, then they will continue to destroy peoples’ faith and to obscure the message of the Torah and the purpose of the Jewish people. If we want our sane, rational, reasonable, vibrant, compelling, and practically-useful Judaism back, then we need to take it back through a consistent call for authenticity and realism.

Lastly, we need to stop giving them our money.

  • Stop giving charity to Haredi-Hasidic organizations, stop sending our young men to their yeshivot to be ruined by the roshei yeshivah and brainwashed into submission to their agenda.
  • Stop sending our young women to their seminaries to be equally brainwashed into obsessive worry about their appearance and thinking that marital servitude is religiously noble.
  • Stop purchasing their books and materials, and stop supporting the members of any kollel. We do not need their system to spread Torah and uphold its values.

Basically, we need to stop seeking their approval. We have our own non-Haredi, non-Hasidic yeshivot, printing presses, seminaries, and rabbinical programs that are beautiful and which produce wonderful young Jewish men and women committed to a life of Torah. Haredi-Hasidic groups are part of a system that subsists almost entirely on welfare and public charity – remove your support and you remove their ability to intimidate and perpetuate their ideology.

 What I am NOT calling for is violence, disrespect, or rudeness. Not at all. Instead, the most effective way to assert your resistance is to simply stop participating and to become educated enough to argue for a reasonable mekori position. The goal is not to offend, but to convince; not to hurt, but to help. Anyone who makes it their business to openly and loudly say confrontational and controversial things – especially within the communal setting of a shul – is not a part of the solution, but is a [truly embarrassing] part of the problem. Such people are usually only egotistically looking for a fight.

Our true desire should be for positive and lasting change.

May HaShem give us the wisdom that grants us success.

Happy 22nd day of the omer,

Kol tuv,

YB

“Daas Torah” and the “Agentic State” – Virtue or Vice?

The Experimenter - Movie PosterMy wife and I watched another excellent film the other night entitled The Experimenter which, in a unique and almost documentary style, portrays the life and work of the well-known Social Psychologist, Dr. Stanley Milgram, whose groundbreaking work on the nature of obedience continues to be featured in psychology textbooks today. Throughout the show, the actor playing the role of Milgram speaks to the viewer in his dual role as the main character and the movie’s narrator. The content of the story focuses primarily on his various psychological experiments and their significance in understanding the nature of human behavior. Having studied in the 1950’s under Dr. Solomon Asch, who also supervised his Ph.D. at Harvard, Milgram earned his doctorate in Social Psychology in 1960 and then spent the next three years at Yale performing his famously controversial experiments related to the nature of human obedience to authority, publishing his findings in 1963. Dr. Asch was a major influence on the direction of Milgram’s work, being the famed psychologist who demonstrated the phenomenon of human social conformity with his “line experiment,” wherein a single subject was tested in a group setting to see if they would conform to the blatant error of the majority or maintain their personal resolve in the face of social opposition. Through their work, both men provided the world with startling insights into human moral resolve and how, for the majority of people, any such resolve dissolves under the slightest prompting or pressure.

Dr. Milgram was a child of Jewish immigrants from Romania and Hungary. At several points throughout the film he is questioned about the origin of his surname, to which he responds, “‘Milgram’ is Hebrew for ‘pomegranate,’ one of the seven fruits of the Bible. I’m Jewish.” As a Jew, the events of the Holocaust had a profound effect on Milgram, especially the 1961 trial of Otto Adolf Eichmann, a former Nazi officer who had fled to Austria and then Argentina following the war. Although Eichmann had been personally responsible for the deportation of many of Germany’s Jews to death camps, during his trial he claimed that he himself could not be held liable since he was merely “following orders.” This confident shirking of responsibility by Eichmann was not unique to him, at least not in the mind of Milgram, since the Nazi extermination efforts were facilitated by many people – soldiers and civilians alike – all of whom seemed to think that through committing horrendous acts of animalistic brutality and systematic genocide they were merely “following orders.” The question for Milgram was “How?” as much as “Why?” How do relatively normal, moral human beings become the agents of such evil against their fellow creatures?

In 1974, Milgram published a book – which has now become a classic text in the field of Social Psychology – wherein he expounds his theories and conclusions based on the experiment held at Yale. Since more than a decade had passed between the initial publication of his findings and his book, there was a great deal of critical reaction to everything from his interpretations of the data to the ethics of the methods he used during the experiment. Milgram expends considerable effort in his book answering the objections of his critics and providing justifications for his approach. Drawing on the work of Asch and the outcomes of his research, he expounds on two socio-psychological theories:

  1. The “Theory of Conformism” (largely based on the findings of Asch) – That individuals who have no particular experience or competence in making decisions will, when in confronted with crisis or a moral dilemma, will simply conform to the majority consensus within a group, even when the outward action of such conformity conflicts with his own inner convictions. In essence, the majority of people will simply allow their decisions to be made by the group in which they participate.
  2. The “Agentic State Theory” – According to Milgram in the preface of his book “the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow” (Obedience to Authority, 1973, p. vii). The antithesis of the “agentic state” – viewing someone else as responsible for one’s actions – is the “autonomous state” wherein an individual views themselves as responsible for their own actions. The adoption of the “agentic state” is viewed by Milgram as being volitional. In other words, even when a person is subject to an abusive authority figure they remain ultimately responsible for any action they commit.

According to Milgram, the volitional abdication of responsibility and the abandonment of decision-making to an authority figure was responsible, in part, for the complicity of millions of people during the Holocaust in carrying out Nazi directives. These tendencies of human behavior – conformism and the agentic state – are essentially negative and viewed as detrimental aspects of human behavior, indicative of character flaws, and something to be cautioned against.

In Haredi-Hasidic circles, however, both conformism and being agentic are encouraged, and even praised, as traits that religious Jews are duty-bound to espouse. This ideology, known popularly as “Daas Torah,” “Kabbalas Ol,” and “Bitul Daas,” posits that a special echelon of rabbinic personalities have a unique and infallible, or nearly infallible, power of insight in all spheres, secular and religious, representing God in such a way that the general population of Jews are obligated to obey them, irrespective of inner conviction or commonsense.

These rabbinic figures – known collectively as “Gedolim” – is an amorphous group whose status is determined via a combination of “mob rule” consensus and political affiliations. The authority of the “Gedolim” is considered – by them and their followers – as being inherent and absolute, obligating everyone with whom they speak or over whom they supposedly have “jurisdiction” to very literally obey them. Usually this group consists of roshey yeshivah and Hasidic “rebbes,” but anyone with either prestigious lineage extending back to Old World Jewish leadership or who is considered prodigious in their level of knowledge can be a “gadol.”

It is demanded of adherents to have “Bitul Daas” – a very literal surrendering of the will and authority to make decisions – and to simply obey the spiritual directives of their particular “tzaddik” in both religious and secular matters. Any refusal to do so is considered an expression of rebellion and arrogance, often compared to such rebellion in the Torah as that of Qorah against Mosheh Rabbeynu (`alaw ha-shalom). This type of mass consent usually leads to an almost overwhelming sense of social conformism wherein any deviation in either dress, personal expression, or halakhic position is considered sinful or, at the very least, spiritually “dangerous.” Everything from the color of one’s shirt, the style of talliyth, the way in which the lolav is waved, and even one’s manner of Hebrew pronunciation are considered decisions that must be directly approved of by the “Gedolim.”

The historical origins of this type of thinking are rooted firmly in Hasidic movements of Europe and their unique conceptions of the nature and function of rabbinic leadership. “Daas Torah” is essentially the result of Hasidic theology infecting the European Haredi world. And although the idea certainly appears in many Hasidic works, it is never referred to specifically as “Daas Torah” until after World War II, when European Jewry myopically declared that due to the Holocaust that “Torah learning was all but destroyed” due to the severe crippling of European Jews when they were murdered by the Nazis (yimah shemam). Co-opting the term from the writings of Rav Yisra’el Salanter and the Hafess Hayyim, they began to see the authoritarianism and absolutism of the Hasidic construct as the only way forward in the struggle to rebuild and fight assimilation.

In no way do I mean to minimize the loss sustained by the Jewish people during the Holocaust, but the call for a re-invention of Judaism – in both practice and methodology – even to the point of invoking “`eth la`asoth HaShem heferu torothekha – It is a time to act for HaShem – they have nullified Your Torah” (cf. Tiliym 119:126) to justify subverting basic Torah directives in an effort to direct everyone into full-time learning while living on public charity was without justification. We have seen the clear warnings of Hazal come to pass before our eyes with regard to learning Torah without having a worldly occupation, giving formal instruction to those who are not worthy, and living on the largess of the community. HaShem yerahem. The stubborn and elitist refusal on the part of Ashkenazi Jewry to acknowledge that the Torah was still strong among the Jews of Yemen, Turkey, North Africa, North America, etc. has ultimately led to the Haredi-Hasidic world of today, a subculture and ideology almost completely divorced from the Torah except in outward modes of practice. I admit that this is a strong assessment, but the truth is apparent to all who are honest with the facts. Much of what the Haredi-Hasidic world today extols as virtuous is, according to the halakhah, actually destructive and sinful (but this topic is for another post).

The distinction between the philosophy of normative Judaism and that of “Daas Torah” is elucidated in the well-known article Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority (printed in Moshe Sokol’s Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy – 1992), as well as the background behind the invention of the latter. Referring to normative Judaism as “halakhic pesak,” he makes the following assessment:

“For the difference between the [Daas Torah and halakhic pesak] is not just a matter of halakhic – and particularly haskafic! – pluralism versus halakhic – and haskafic – uniformity. The difference also touches upon profound epistemological and axiological matters. For whereas halakhic pesak allows for, indeed encourages, reasoned debate and disagreement – within, of course, the framework of the halakhic system – Daas Torah… requires the suppression of one’s own critical faculties and submission to the superior, if at times incomprehensible, wisdom of the gadol. And one must submit to the views of the gadol not simply because the halakhic system, in terms of its complex rules for resolving disputes, ascribes greater authority to his decisions. Rather, the views of the gadol are true and authentic, while my differing views are false and inauthentic. What is required of me, then, is, again, intellectual submission and faith in the gadol and his superior wisdom.

This being the case, it follows that the ideology of Daas Torah is a central, perhaps the central, element in the ethic of submission that characterizes the rejectionist approach [i.e. those who reject any form or aspect of modernity]. For at the heart of the rejectionist approach is the view that unquestioning submission to authority, the authority of the halakhah, of the gadol, of God, is the highest religious value and one that is absolutely opposed to the modern values of intellectual autonomy and self-expression.” (pp. 23-24)

As is fairly obvious, the distinction between both philosophies is at times very subtle – at least in the way each is worded. “Daas Torah” is read back into both ancient and relatively recent rabbinic sources as if it were merely the continuation of authentic Jewish thought. This, however, is not the case, as is clearly laid out by Lawrence Kaplan in the article cited above.

But who wouldn’t want to be obedient to God? To the Torah? To the halakhah? Isn’t that what Judaism is, a covenant between God and `Am Yisra’el predicated on dutiful and loyal adherence to the misswoth? The answer is “Yes.” Service of God through the Torah is the foundation basis upon which all other functions and observances of Jewish life are supposed to be based – and through which any association with the Torah as a religious document makes sense. Of course, this acceptance of the Torah is predicated on an even more basic fundament, namely that of pure monotheism (cf. Rambam, Hilkhoth Yesodhey HaTorah 1:4[6]; Hilkhoth Qiryath Shema` 1:2), something which also seems to be lacking due to the popularity of Hasidic doctrines, on the basis of which many make the cavalier statement that “everything is God” or “we are all pieces of God” – statements that, before Hasidism and World War II, would have been roundly rejected as heresy.

Opposition to “Daas Torah” is not the promotion of anarchy or rugged individualism. Anyone who believes in the truth of the Torah and verity of the halakhah as it was communicated by Hazal and their direct expositors necessarily believes in a submission to authorities. Those who adopt the position of meqoriyuth simply recognize the pre-eminent authority of Hazal in halakhic matters and reject the self-styled “heirs” to their position in the Haredi-Hasidic world. Meqoriyyim do not have a problem with authority, just a problem with corrupt and invalid authority. Inherent in the halakhah itself is the power of the courts, from a local gathering of three judges to the supreme power of the Sanhedriyn of seventy-one, to settle legal disputes, and disobedience to their directives is a transgression. So the question of distinction becomes not the question of whether there are rabbinic authorities and the duty to abide by their rulings, but rather the question of the nature, extent, and propriety of such rabbinic authorities – as well as their identity.

The philosophical components of the “Daas Torah” position that distinguishes it as a latter-day innovation are as follows. There are certainly other possible ways to frame the issues, but this is my estimation:

  1. “Gedolim” viewed as a continuation of Hazal – For the vast majority of Haredi-Hasidic Jews, there is no real separation in their minds between the status and authority of Hazal and the “Gedolim.” Although Hazal are viewed as being on a “higher spiritual level” with the ability to raise the dead and perform other types of miracles at will, the rabbis of today are still viewed as being able, by virtue of their comparison to Hazal (and sometimes even Mosheh Rabbeynu, `alaw ha-shalom) to legislate their opinions to the Jewish world. In fact, this view was somewhat standard among Ashkenazi Jewry, as is evidenced by the vast body of tosafoth (“additions”) written which were intended to serve as extensions and continuations of the discussions of the Gemara itself. The position of [Old] Sefaradi Jewry (i.e. Spain, not Morocco), however, was that legislative authority had essentially ended with the close of Talmudic literature (i.e. hathimath ha-talmudh). This is evidenced by the codification that came from the Geonim (e.g. Halakhoth Gedholoth) and the Rishonim in Spain and Turkey (e.g. Hilkhoth HaRif and Mishneh Torah). This aspect of “Daas Torah” is a failure to distinguish between “lawyers” and “lawmakers” and removes virtually all boundaries to their legislative abilities since many “Gedolim” feel very much at liberty to dismiss interpretations of the Rishonim and reinterpret the Gemara (usually in the interest of either reinforcing superstitious ideas or producing excessive and baseless humroth).
  2. Rabbinic authority based on ontology and not legal appointment – Whereas the authority of Hazal rested in the facts of their legal appointment, being either on courts (e.g. the Sanhedriyn) or halakhic decisors for their local area, the “Gedolim” are viewed as being ontologically elevated above other Jews. In the Hasidic conception, the “Gedolim” (or “rebbes”) are “tzaddikim” whose very souls are composed of the spiritual stuff of the higher kabbalistic realms. In this way, “Gedolim” are popularly viewed as being “revealed” and not made, since their status was pre-ordained by the innate superiority of their “neshamos.” In other words, adherents to “Daas Torah” view their leaders as having an innate privilege to rule over other Jews. No such concept has ever been a part of Judaism or the writings of Hazal. Rather, those who were worthy – based on halakhic competency and refined personal standards of conduct – were appointed to courts and positions of authority. One of the harshest complaints found in the letters of the Rambam is in regard to the dynastic nature of leadership that developed over the yeshivoth.  He regularly complains that due to prestigious lineage possessed, many imbeciles and ignorant fools were appointed to positions of rabbinic authority. The plain halakhic [read, not absurdly mystical] definition of a “tzaddik” (ssaddiyq – צדיק) is “one whose merits are greater than his iniquities is a ssaddiyq” (cf. Rambam, MT, Hilkhoth Teshuvah 3:1; b.Yevamoth 49b-50a), and conversely “one whose iniquities are greater than his merits is a rasha`” (Ibid.). Ironically, by this definition many self-styled “Gedolim” and “rebbes” are actually not “tzaddikim” at all (דו”ק).
  3. Rav seen as “conduit” to God rather a bearer of wisdom – Again, in Hasidic fashion, many adherents to the “Daas Torah” ideology view their leaders as their spiritual connection to God – a conduit or pipeline of sorts – who channels blessings and spiritual energy to his followers. Such an idea does exist outside of Hasidic writings and latter-day Haredi texts. Although there is a concept of connection to Torah Scholars (talmidhey hakhamiym), it is in order to gain wisdom and instruction from their learning, as well as gain a good example from their deeds (cf. Rambam, MT Hilkhoth De`oth 6:3[2]). In other words, the true concept of “connection” with a rabbinic leader is not abstract or spiritual, but actual and practical – in the same way that a student of science gains knowledge through listening to the words of his professors and gains experience through conducting research in the field under their direction. The alternative, that the souls of all involved become linked in a chain to God, as it were, is at the most idolatry (`avodhah zarah) and at the very least stupidity (shetuyoth), having no basis in authentic Jewish sources. Again, viewing the Torah scholar as a respectable “lawyer” in a position to help you be “righteous” in the eyes of the law leads to the most healthy conceptions of and respect for rabbinic authority.
  4. Attribution of infallibility and prophetic ability to “gadolim” – Related to the previous point, “Gedolim” – being viewed as being directly connected to God – are viewed as possessing prophetic abilities (ruah ha-qodhesh) and thereby are considered necessarily infallible. Beside the fact that Hazal clearly taught that prophecy has ceased (cf. t.Sotah 13:4; b.Bava Bathra 14b), infallibility has not ever been granted to any court, prophet, or rabbinic authority in Judaism. Even the Sanhedriyn is not to be obeyed in certain rare circumstances, since it is considered possible for them to err in a matter of halakhah and become liable to bring a qorban (cf. Wayiqera 4:13; Masekheth Horayoth; Rambam, MT, Hilkhoth Shogheghoth). Although we do have a misswah of “lo thasur – לא תסור” (cf. Devariym 17:11), i.e. that it is forbidden to deviate from the instructions of the Sanhedriyn, it DOES NOT apply to singular rabbis, especially not those today who do not have authentic semikhah! This pasuq and the halakhoth built upon it are in sole regard to the rulings of the Sanhedriyn alone (cf. Rambam, MT, Hilkhoth Mameriym 2:1). Although there are those who will attribute expansion of the concept of “lo thasur – לא תסור” to the Sefer HaHinukh (Spain, ca. 13th Century), it is actually the 19th Century Polish-Ukranian rabbi Yosef Babad who does so in his commentary on the Sefer HaHinukh, known as Minhath Hinukh (cf. Misswah 496), long after the spread of the Hasidic movement into those areas.
  5. Expansion of rabbinic authority into secular matters disconnected with halakhah – In former times, Torah scholars were consulted to resolve matters of halakhic difficulty or to clarify legal points, the “Gedolim” have conflated all areas of life and have brought them under their [supposed] authority. Never were midrashic disputes settled in the courts, as this was not a practical matter, but a matter of open – yet educated – discussion meant to stay in the beyth midrash. In the Haredi-Hasidic world, however, it is not uncommon to hear that this or that “gadol” has “poskened” that a particular peshat in Rashi is correct or that a certain “tzaddik” has “ruled” about the correct age of the earth. Such arrogance has never been seen among the Jewish people since ancient times – it is patently ridiculous for anyone to attempt to make these things halakhic issues when they are not. People ask rabbis who have never held a day job or paid their own bills to help them make important business decisions which have nothing to do with the halakhoth of business ethics. This has caused many who adhere to “Daas Torah” to suffer great losses financially. And what else should we expect? Going to yeshivah does not qualify one, for instance, to give sound marketing advice or tax consultation.
  6. Redefinition of miynuth (heresy) and apiyqorsuth (Epicureanism) – One of the bully tactics most-commonly used by the Haredi-Hasidic world in service of “Daas Torah” is the attribution of heresy to any detractors. Those who refuse – for any reason – to submit and/or obey the “Gedolim” are referred to as “heretics” and “kofrim” as if their refusal constitutes a rejection of Judaism, fundamental tenets of Jewish faith, and even God Himself. Heresy (miynuth) and Epicureanism (apiyqorsuth) have well-defined halakhic parameters and neither category includes disobedience to an amorphous group of “Gedolim” (cf. Rambam, MT, Hilkhoth Teshuvah 3:14-16[6-8]). Such a person is often said to lack “emunas hachamim” (“confidence in [Torah] scholars”), a halakhic concept which, like “lo thasur – לא תסור,” is co-opted by the Haredi-Hasidic world since it too only refers to confidence in the general competence in the rulings of the Sanhedriyn, and even then it doesn’t mean robotic obedience in every case, as has already been explained. (An excellent exposition of emunath hakhamiym from the sources can be found an article by Rav Nachum Rabinovitch.)

The way in which “Daas Torah” conceives of rabbinic authority is nothing like that which historical Judaism has countenanced or that which has been communicated to us by Hazal, rather it bears an unseemly resemblance to Christian doctrines of “papal infallibility” and “vicarious Christi” wherein the bishops – including the pope – are viewed as “ruling in the place of God” (cf. Letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Magnesians – II, 6:1). Like many of the spiritual and messianic ideas of Hasidism, “Daas Torah” appears to be an adoption of Christian doctrines, not an authentic Jewish teaching. In fact, it appears that many of the core elements of the current “Daas Torah” ideology would have been objectionable even to some leaders of the early Hasidic movement. Shneur Zalman of Liady, author of the central Lubavitcher text known as the Tanya, bemoans the attribution of prophetic abilities to him and other rabbinic leaders and says that the way in which people treat him as a “rebbe” is unfounded in Jewish precedent. The following is taken from Iggerot HaKodesh #22:

TEXT

אהוביי אחיי ורעיי מאהבה מסותרת תוכחת מגולה לכו נא ונוכחה זכרו ימות עולם בינו שנות דור ודור ההיתה כזאת מימות עולם ואיה איפוא מצאתם מנהג זה באחד מכל ספרי חכמי ישראל הראשונים והאחרונים להיות מנהג ותיקון לשאול בעצה גשמיות כדת מה לעשות בעניני העולם הגשמי אף לגדולי חכמי ישראל הראשונים כתנאים ואמוראים אשר כל רז לא אנס להו ונהירין להון שבילין דרקיע כ”א לנביאים ממש אשר היו לפנים בישראל כשמואל הרואה אשר הלך אליו שאול לדרוש ה’ על דבר האתונות שנאבדו לאביו כי באמת כל עניני אדם לבד מדברי תורה וי”ש אינם מושגים רק בנבואה ולא לחכמים לחם כמארז”ל הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים

TRANSLATION

“My beloved brothers and friends,

From my hidden love for you comes an open rebuke. “Come now and let us reason together” (Yesha`yahu 1:18). “Remember ancient days, consider the years of every generation” (Devariym 32:7). Was there anything like this from ancient days? Where therefore have you found this custom in any of the books of the earlier or the later Sages of Israel that it should be the the established custom to ask advice about mundane things, about what should be done in matters related to the physical world? Even to the early Great Sages of Israel [such questions were not asked], such as the Tanna’iym and the Amora’iym, to whom no secret was withheld and to whom the paths of the heavens were illuminated, but only to actual prophets (le-nevi’iym mamash) who lived in Israel, such as Shmu’el the Seer to whom Sha’ul went to inquire of HaShem concerning the donkeys that his father had lost. For truly all human affairs, with the exception of halakhic judgments and that which is related to the fear of Heaven, are not apprehended except through prophecy, [as it says] “there is no bread for the sages” (Qoheleth 9:11), and as Hazal said, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven” (b.Berakhoth 33b).

What are we to conclude? Is “Daas Torah” a virtue or is it a vice? Should we have an attitude of “live and let live” and “to each his own” regarding those who promote it? To Dr. Stanley Milgram, the “agentic state” (a psychological term roughly equivalent to “Bitul Daas” in my opinion) was not virtuous, but was disastrous, and the mechanism that made the Nazi machine possible, as well as the horrors perpetrated by them. When normal and basically decent people decide to negate personal responsibility and give over their will to another, human suffering is inevitably the result. What other use is there to demand such compliance? What purpose can it possibly serve other than the personal interests of those in such autocratic positions of authority?

If we are honest, “Daas Torah” and its “Gedolim” have been responsible for countless cases of corruption, abuse, and even the shielding of molesters. They are largely racist and bigoted, having intensely elitist attitudes toward other segments of religiously “orthodox” Jewry. The institutional poverty that now has become a full-fledged theological position is vigorously defended by them, allowing hundreds of thousands of their followers to believe that they are above the dignity of working for a living and that their learning Torah requires that others support them and thereby halakhically misappropriate millions of dollars in charity funds. This is not to say that there are not human problems among other Jews in communities outside of the “Daas Torah” spectrum, however the reality is that there is a marked concentration and higher incidence of such abuses, made possible by masses of followers entering into the “agentic state” and “merely following orders,” among Haredim in particular.

All things considered, “Daas Torah” seems to be a vice and not a virtue…and certainly not meqori.

For further reading:

Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View by Dr. Stanley Milgram (1974)

Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority by Lawrence Kaplan (1992)

What is “Emunat Hakhamim”? by Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch (2007)

Perhaps more later.

Best,

YB

Did Anyone Question the Authenticity of the Zohar?

The Zohar literature, including the Zohar, Zohar Hadash, and the Tikkunei HaZohar – along with their respective books and sub-divisions – was published over the course of almost 300 years (approx. 1300-1587 CE) and straddles the periods of the late rishonim and early aharonim; with the era of the former generally held to have been during the 11th to 15th centuries, and that of the latter from the 16th century until the present time.

Although there was much written on the subject of the Zohar and the authenticity of its content, only a minority of what is extant was authored in the narrow window between the publication of the Zohar literature and the end of the period of the rishonim. Much of what exists in this genre was written in the period of the early aharonim and remains very valuable to anyone engaging in a historical study of the Zohar. The main reason for the lack of earlier literature is that the Zohar, even after its initial publication, was not a very widespread or well-known book.

What is available exists in two types:

[1] independent works authored specifically on the subject of the authenticity of the Zohar literature, and [2] quotes from Hazal, geonimand rishonim (e.g. Rasag, Rashi, Tosafot, Rambam, et al) whose explicit statements in times prior to the Zohar are directly contradicted by, and in many cases preclude, explicit statements made later by the Zohar and its commentaries.

Works in the period of the [later] rishonim which dispute the Zohar and its authenticity:

  • Sefer Behinat HaDat – Rav Eliyahu Del Medigo (15th Century CE)
  • Sefer HaYuhasin, account of Rabbi Yitzhak de-min Akko – Rav Avraham Zakuto (15th Century CE)

Works in the period of the aharonim which dispute the Zohar literature and its authenticity:

  • Sefer Ari Nohem – Rav Yehudah Aryeh DeModena (17th Century CE)
  • Mitpahat Sefarim – Rav Yaakov Emden (18th Century CE)
  • Shu”T Hatam Sofer (6:59), referring to the work of Rav Emden – Rav Mosheh Sofer (18th Century CE)
  • Teshuvah Me-Ahavah (1:14) – Rav Eli`ezer Fleckeles (19th Century CE)
  • Milhamot HaShem – Rav Yihya Shelomo Al-Qafih (19th Century CE)

These are by no means exhaustive lists, but they do comprise the majority of what is available.

The following are examples of literature prior to the publication of the Zohar which discuss similar topics:

  • HaNivhar Emunot ve-Deot by Rav Sa`adyah Gaon (10th Century CE) – This work is a comprehensive compendium of explanations that not only sets forth the hashkafah of Torah Judaism on many topics, but also includes the arguments of detractors and the basis for their being rejected. The interesting thing about this work is that it deals with almost every major theme which was to emerge under the later “Kabbalah” which became embodied in the Zohar literature – and it roundly rejects them as not being authentic or based in Hazal. These topics include the idea of multiplicity or aspects as relates to the One Transcendent God, Reincarnation, and Emanation (atzilut אצילות), among others.
  • Moreh HaNavokhim by Rav Mosheh ben Maimon (Rambam – 11th Century CE). THis work details the necessity of intellectual and rational approaches to the Torah and the Prophets, as well as explaining the meaning of many mitzvot and the various reasons behind them. It also deals with concepts which were later embodied in the “Kabbalah,” such as “secret” mystical names of God and amulets, which are roundly rejected as superstitious, idolatrous, and foolish.
  • Ma’amar Tehiyat HaMetim by Rav Mosheh ben Maimon (Rambam – 11th Century CE). In the first section, the Rambam accounts for the misunderstanding of his own teachings regarding the resurrection from the dead by bringing an example of a gross misunderstanding of God’s own words in the Shema (Devarim 6:4). He refers to the “belief of the dualists” who believe that the three mentions of the Divine Name in the Shema (i.e. HaShem, Elohenu, HaShem) are three separate forces/entities/modes of the Divine (halilah) that supposedly comprise some sort of composite unity. The Rambam flatly rejects this reading of the Shema in his statements there. However, the Zohar (2:53b) espouses just such a nonsensical interpretation. Ironically, this passage was used by later Christian Hebraists, and even the Catholic church, in justifying the supposed validity of their belief in a “Trinity” from “Jewish” teachings.
  • Rashi and Tosafot on b.Megillah 9a (11th, 12th-13th Centuries CE). In an interesting passage about the request of King Ptolemy (Talmai HaMelekh) that the hakhmei HaSanhedrin write for him a copy of the Torah in Greek, the Gemara explains that several deliberate changes to the text were unanimously made by them during their translation in order to avoid certain polytheistic errors by Greek readers. Two of the notable changes were made in Bereshit 1:1 and 1:26 – the former being that instead of the text reading “Bereshit bara Elohim” they wrote “Elohim bara bereshit,” and the latter being that in place of “Na’aseh adam” they wrote “E’aseh adam.” In the first instance – since syntax in the Greek language often puts the most important noun in the sentence first and sorts out the meaning and parts of speech via case endings – the hakhamim did not want the Greeks to think that “Bereshit” was the name of one deity which created a second deity named “Elohim” (halilah) and that there are thus multiple powers in Heaven (halilah), so says Rashi. The Tosafot add to this by saying that “Bereshit eino shem kelal ela ba-tehilah” meaning that the term “bereshit” is not a name at all, but is rather just the Torah’s way of saying “In the beginning.” The second change was made due to the presence of the plural form (i.e. “Let us make man”), lest again the Greeks think that the Torah promotes polytheism and that multiple gods created mankind (halilah – see Rashi there). However, the Zohar – in commenting on these very passages – adopts the mistaken and erroneous views which these changes were specifically intended to negate. On Bereshit 1:1 the Zohar says that “Reshit” is the name of a partzuf/sefirah and it creates/emanates another partzuf/sefirah named “Elohim” which it can then inhabit. On Bereshit 1:26, the Zohar depicts two of the partzufim (faces/personalities which supposedly make up the Divine), “Abba” and “Imma,” arguing whether or not they should make man – “Abba” is con while “Imma” is pro – and in the end “Imma” says that although mankind will sin against us “Let us make man” anyhow. The implications of these interpretations in light of the Gemara and its commentators are both shocking and wide-reaching.

There are many more things which could be listed here, but much of it is already written in the works mentioned above.

More on this later,

Kol tuv,

YB

Why is the Zohar Considered Authoritative? – A Mekori Perspective

According to the hakdamah of the Mishneh Torah, it seems that any book(s) or commentary(s) which may have arisen after the hatimat ha-talmud (“the sealing of the Talmud” – see there) – such as the writings of the Geonim (or even the Mishneh Torah itself) – are measured by their faithfulness to the halakhic and aggadic literature which was bequeathed to us by Hazal and their students (i.e. MishnahTosefta, Mekhiltot, Sifra, Sifre, Bavli, Yerushalmi, and the Tannaitic midrashim/baraitot). Much like the prophets were tested against the collective mesorah up until their time, and by abrogation of it they themselves were rejected, so also are books composed since the close of the Talmudic age are in need of similar such “testing.”

Now, granted that there are two types of potential errors in such books:

  1. Unintentional errors of interpretation or logical understanding, etc. – In other words, a certain talmid hakhamim codifies the halakhah as he sees it and explains hashkafah as he understands it from Tanakh and Hazal, but perhaps the halakhah is not like him or perhaps he misunderstands such issues as the nature of suffering or the function of sekhar ve-onesh (or similar issues). These types of potential “mistakes” do not necessarily disqualify the author. Rather, we see that the attempt to understand Torah is a process wherein one is obligated to accept that different views of Torah from the sources is not only possible but probable.
  2. Departures from mesorah or attempts to replace it/abrogate it – Should a new book or treatise be written that stands in opposition to the halakhah or hashkafah as expressed by Tanakh and Hazal – especially that which seeks not to understand but to supplant – is to be rejected. Examples are “new revelations” that, rather than seek to understand the statements of Hazal in aggregate, attempt to make the case for “secret teachings” or “hidden meanings” that are in contradiction to established mesorah – such books and their authors are to be rejected.

[NOTE: I am aware that the above are fairly general and that it could be discussed in more detail, such as when to set aside midrashim in favor of peshat or outdated “scientific” ideas in order to incorporate new ones. However, for now these definitions should suffice for this discussion.]

Each of the above certainly has limitations. For example, and perhaps most importantly, there are ideas about which alternate views are not acceptable and cannot be tolerated, such as the nature of the yihud HaShem, or the fact of a physical (read, bodily) resurrection, or the permanence and immutability of the Torah. Diverging from such foundational tenets (and those like them) define apikorsim and minim, and the Rambam – drawing on both the text of the Mishnah and the logical outcomes of rational monotheism – composed his 13 Foundations of Jewish faith to show us where our speculation may go before it is undone and we undermine ourselves (cf. Hilkhot Teshuva 3:14-17).

Many books have come on the scene – both pre-Talmudic and post – claiming to be authentic to our mesorah, or to be an extension of it, or even to replace it. Examples include the “New Testament,” the “Qur’an,” the “Kebra Nagast,” the books of the Shabbateans (followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, yimah shemo ve-zikhro), and many others. Many of these works were accepted by great and learned people. If Shelomoh HaMelekh could worship idols, if Elisha ben Avuyah (“Aher“) could accept the idea of ribbui reshayot from the books of the dualists, if Yohanan Kohen Gadhol could become a Tzaduki at the end of his life, if the Hakham Tzvi z”l could accept Shabbetai Tzvi (yimah shemo) as the mashiah, and if the Hafetz Hayim z”l could be led to accept the blatantly forged (supposedly lost) Seder Kodashin of the Talmud Yerushalmi (to the point of changing his halakhic practices based on it), then the fact that the Zohar was accepted by many great scholars when it first published should neither surprise us nor become the sure basis for its acceptance.

As an aside, one of the most common mistakes is the equation of “kabbalah” with the Zohar literature itself; if the latter is rejected, it is thought, then the former ceases to exist. Such an idea is patently false, but nevertheless demonstrates how entrenched in the minds of contemporary Jews is the idea that all authentic spirituality or “mysticism” in Judaism is inextricably linked to the ideas expressed in the Zohar. The truth of the matter is that the bodies of knowledge known as maaseh merkavah (“Workings of the Chariot” – i.e. metaphysics) and maaseh bereshit (“Workings of the Creation” – i.e. physics) – as mentioned in the Mishnah, Masekhet Hagigahpreceded the 13th century publication of the Zohar by [possibly] thousands of years, as did the Sefer Yetzirah. The Sefer Yetzirah is referred to and expounded by the Kuzari and Saadiah Gaon, among others – all before the Zohar. The Rambam himself makes veiled references to these same ideas in his Moreh HaNavokhim, expounding (where possible) mystical and philosophical concepts related to both maaseh bereshit and maaseh merkavah – again, all before anyone had ever heard of the Zohar.

But this leads to another fact that is often overlooked in the history of the Zohar – many kabbalists at the time of its publication (and afterward) also rejected it as being authentic. Rabbi Avraham Zacuto, in his Sefer HaYuhasin, relates the extant portion of an account written by the well-known kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak De-Akko (a talmid of the Ramban) who traveled to the home of Mosheh De Leon and offered to purchase the original manuscripts of the Zohar from his widow, whereupon she confessed to him that there were no original manuscripts and that her late husband had forged it and attributed it to Shimon ben Yohai in an effort to gain acclaim and a higher purchase price. Other well-known kabbalists who rejected the Zohar as an authentic book of mesorah were Rabbi Yaakov Emden and the Hatam Sofer (who was the student of the famed and intense mystic, Rabbi Nathan Adler). Their use of language is strong against the Zohar, using words like “forgery” and “lies” to describe it. All the while, however, these men and others maintained a highly-developed mystical system based on earlier literature.

The facts are clear to all who are willing to take an honest look: the Zohar contradicts a great many things which came before it in both the realm of halakhah and hashkafah – even contravening such things that are “off limits” halakhically, such as the nature of the yihud HaShem. And these things are well-known, they are not my invention nor the invention of secular scholars seeking to defame religion. They have been discussed and wrestled with for hundreds of years by rabbis and scholars in every area of Jewish literature. It has been proven that the Zohar borrows and incorporates sections of Rashi, Tosafot, the Rambam, and other works which preceded it. It also contains a vast amount of original material, much of which is controversial and contrdictory when compared to works possessing an established mesorah from Hazal.

Nevertheless, it is true that there are genuinely positive statements and spiritual truths expressed in the Zohar. However, it is also true that there are explicit statements of polytheism and dualism expressed there as well. So, the operating principle (it seems) is that anything valuable in the Zohar may already be found in uncontested and authentic works that preceded it, and anything questionable is of its own invention. Such an observation makes the Zohar superfluous and the attempt to incorporate it into the corpus of Jewish literature as being arguably more trouble that it is worth – a fact that is well-attested to by Jewish theological history since its publication in the 13th Century.

The continuous heretical movements which base themselves upon it (e.g. the Shabbateans) and the seemingly endless stream of charlatans offering miracle cures, instant wealth, and super powers of protection to those who embrace the Zoharic kabbalistic system are a proof that giving Zohar a prime place in Judaism has proven almost disastrous. It appears also to be the case that the positive parts of the message endorsed by hasidism (i.e. that every Jew is important, serving God with joy, etc.) could have been brought about without the aid of Zoharic literature – in fact, such ideas already existed outside the dark, pietistic world of the mitnagdim in other parts of the [non-Ashkenazi] Jewish world.

The historical Jewish response to the Zohar can – in my estimation – be divided into three basic approaches:

  1. Full acceptance – The full acceptance of the Zohar and its attendant literature as being 100% authentic is most aptly characterized by the Hasidic movement(s) and the North African Sefaradim. Such adherents hold it to be the holiest text in Judaism and that it should be used to “correct” (read, supersede) all other texts – especially those which came before it – which are viewed as being “ignorant” or “unaware” of the secret tradition that it holds.
  2. Modified acceptance – This approach, most commonly associated with the Gr”a and his talmidim, is to effectively accept the Zohar, but to reject its commentaries. In other words, the Gr”a took great liberties to “re-read” (however, I am sure that he himself did not see it that way) the text of the Zohar in order to make it fit into the established mesorah. By doing so, he rejected many of the ideas of Lurianic kabbalah, and sought new readings (many of which are either based on his own emendations of the text or forced readings of the plain meaning of the Aramaic) to remove conflict and controversy. However, in doing so, the Gr”a also “re-reads” the text of the Gemara in certain places, and in some cases he reverses generations of clear and uncontested pesak halakhah from the Gemara to accommodate the clear “ruling” of the Zohar to the contrary (one example of this is the wearing of tefillin on holo shela-moed).
  3. Full rejection – Characterized most aptly by the 19th-century Dor De`ah movement in Yemen led by Rav Yihyah Qafih z”l. Rav Qafih authored a book entitled Milhamot HaShem (“The Wars of HaShem”) wherein he effectively demonstrates (like other hakhamim before him) that the Zohar simply cannot be a product of Hazal and their students, is subsequently not an authentic work of mesorah, and therefore must be rejected. He brings a myriad of proofs for this.  The Darda`im (i.e. adherents to the teachings of Mori Yihyah, also known affectionately as “Mori HaYashish” z”l) and other groups choose to rely instead on the works of previously established authors for spirituality, such as the Rambam (Moreh HaNavokhim), Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (Kuzari), Rabbi Bahyah ibn Pekuda (Hovot HaLevavot), Rav Saadiah Gaon (Pirush al Sefer HaYetzirah and HaNivhar Be-Emunot Ve-Deot), and others.

We have a principle of “lo ba-shamayim hi“, i.e. that the Torah is not “in heaven” and therefore we do not base our belief in any certain book or teacher based on purported “miracles” or claims of special “revelation” or “prophecy.” Instead, we are charged with being faithful to the texts and the mesorah that we have to judge all that comes after it. This is why the latter two approaches (i.e. any approach beyond blind acceptance) take measures to study the relevant sources in order to formulate their opinions, rather than seeking a sign or relying on the fact that the likes of the Arizal gave it their approbation.

The Zohar has been accepted – and continues to be so – based almost solely on “mob rule” as it were. In other words, since it has been read and used by a lot of Jews for a long time, most Jews simply assume that it “must” be true. In reality, however, there is no basis for its acceptance, but rather to the contrary. And as has been mentioned, there is nothing on the part of its supporters to substantiate their claims other than dogmas and the attribution of “special powers” or “revelations” or mystical “prophecy” on the part of those famed historical figures who did accept it, while attributing error and arrogance to those scholars who argued against it. It is no different than the many false religious movements that have arisen in world history; they begin with charismatic and bold claims based essentially on nothing and demand blind obedience from all with whom they speak. But in the end, their claims are empty and their reasoning is circular. And, more importantly, they are out of line with the authentic mesorah of Hazal.

Have you ever wondered why those who merely question the authenticity of the Zohar are threatened with excommunication and charges of heresy, while those who propose that a section of the Gemara should be emended (and other such normal acts of Torah scholarship) are met with none of these? Le-aniyut da’ati, it seems that those without truly substantive arguments have nothing left but threats of Divine judgment and ad hominem attacks. Sound familiar?

And PLEASE do not take my word for it – go and see for yourself. Investigate the matter thoroughly and with an open mind. If you come thereby to different conclusion, then you will have no threats and suffer no humiliation from me. And I certainly will not threaten you with a charge of “arrogance” for not seeing things the way that this or that scholar has seen them.

UPDATE: Rabbi Berel Wein (may he live and be well) gives an honest historical talk on the subject of the Zohar. HERE is the link to a short version and HERE is the link to the full lecture. They are both well-worth watching.