Sunday, May 21, 2006

Magnets, Kabbalah, Meron, Uman and other superstitions.

A commenter on an earlier post, Gil Kobrin, among other very insightful comments, laid out a very important point that I have been trying to make, very succinctly:

However, we do not understand the "act" of God's Creating, nor do we truly understand anything about God Himself; therefore, the relation to God via causality is one-way, and we have no way frame of perception by which to gain an iota of understanding of how (if) God "relates back" to us.The Kabbalists attempt to do this with the idea of "emanation" - atzilut - but such a concept is false as it is impossible for human beings to understand anything from God's "perspective" (including how He "created").”

I have been harping about this idea of the unknowability of God, because it is the foundation of Judaism, and any other understanding borders on idolatry. It is a fiction that Avodah Zara does not exist today. The Members of the Great Assembly might have dampened the Yetzer Hara for it, but they certainly have not eliminated it. To really clarify what I am talking about I must spend a little effort explaining where the current Kabbalah comes from.

Ramban in Toras Hashem Temimah and in his commentary on Devarim 18:9, states that magic is a science. As we can see the earth is under the influence of the stars which we can objectively verify when we look at the tides and the influence the moon has on them, how rain is impacted by the heat of the sun and such other natural phenomena which can be traced back to the forces that emanate from them and the stars. Rambam sees that influence as a purely physical thing and does not give them any supernatural powers. Ramban however could not differentiate between the natural and supernatural. To him science was incomprehensible and when he saw natural phenomena that he could not understand he was convinced that some extra-physical force was causing the event. Ramban brings several examples for his position but to illustrate vividly the contrast between the two thinkers I will quote a Rashba responsa regarding a certain type of amulet that was used during his time and whether it is permitted.

זה באמת מה שלא יקבלוהו השכל כי באמת הדברים הפועלים בסגלה אין פעולתם בפלא מהם אלא בטבע מסגל, רצוני לומר בטבע לא ישיגנו עיון החכמים ואפילו החכם שבחכמים לרוב העלם הטבע ההוא מכלל המין האנושי מצד שהוא אדם, כסגלת אבן השואבת שהברזל קופץ עליה ויותר מזה מורגל בירדי הים באניות תוחבין מחט בחתיכת עץ צף על פני המים ומראין לו אבן וישוט על פני המים עד שיפנה אל פני הסדן ושם ינוח - ולא ישיג עיון טבע זה כל חכם שבחכמים אלו של חכמת הטבע. ואם כן אף כל המינין בעלי הסגולות בטבע הם פועלים כסמים והמסעדים ואין בהם משום דרכי האמורי כמו שאין בדברים המפורסמים המועילים לפי העיון הטבעי של אלו החכמים. (תשובת הרשב"א א:תיג, סוף התשובה)

Rashba is saying that nature cannot be grasped even by the smartest of man because he is man (man qua man). No one can explain why a magnet attracts metal, nor can they explain why a needle inserted in a piece of wood when placed in water always turns in one direction ( I am not sure that he refers to a compass but it is the closest I can figure this out. Maybe someone can enlighten me.) That being the case, Rashba concludes, the same applies to amulets and other such magical phenomena. Supernatural forces cause them and they are part of nature. Reading him carefully we see that Rashba is equating science with metaphysics (“man because he is man”). There was no clear demarcation and once that line was crossed, the relationship between man and the supernatural, was changed. Man could influence the supernatural; he could try to understand how God related back to him. It was no different than trying to understand natural phenomena. Ramban therefore developed a very different understanding of man’s relationship with God. God was still transcendent but much more accessible than Rambam’s God. One could try to explain how God created the world through a process of emanation which eventually led to the Zfat Kabbalist’s theory of Tzimtzum and the rest is history. (This process did reduce God’s transcendence and in truth I am not sure they still see Him as such notwithstanding their strident insistence to the contrary).

Rambam in contrast sees the same phenomena, magnetism in a completely different perspective. Discussing his proofs for the existence of a First Cause, Rambam describes how the physical universe operates. We see a system of causation, and there always is some outside impetus for change within an object. There has to be a physical influence even when one is not immediately noticeable. In Moreh 2:12 he states:

In Physics it has been shown that a body in acting upon another body must either directly be in contact with it, or indirectly through the medium of other bodies. E.g., a body that has been heated has been in contact with fire, or the air that surrounds the body has been heated by the fire, and has communicated the heat to the body; the immediate cause of the heat in this body is the corporeal substance of the heated air. The magnet attracts iron from a distance through a certain force communicated to the air round the iron. The magnet does therefore not act at all distances, just as fire does not act at every distance, but only as long as the air between the fire and the object is affected by the fire. When the air is no longer affected by the fire which is under a piece of wax, the latter does not melt. The same is the case with magnetism. When an object that has previously not been warm has now become warm, the cause of its heat must now have been created: either some fire has been produced, or the distance of the fire from the object has been changed, and the altered relation between the fire and the object is the cause now created. In a similar manner we find the causes of all changes in the Universe to be changes in the combination of the elements that act upon each other when one body approaches another or separates from it.”

I will leave to the reader to decide who understood nature better.

Ramban’s theory for some reason took root much stronger than Rambam’s understanding. It is only in the last century or so, that scientific advances have shown how prescient Rambam was. However Ramban’s theology has been so deeply embedded in our religious thought that anyone who denies that Kabbalah is correct and “Misinai” is considered a heretic while the obvious truth is quite the opposite. Believing in all the magical and supernatural influences is Avodah Zara precisely because it is irrational. Irrational is the definition of Idolatry. The fact that Ramban and his followers believed in it does not mean anything. They thought they were seeing things rationally based on the science of their time. Had they been in our times, these great thinkers would have repudiated and banned all the superstitions we have integrated into our day-to-day religious praxis. It is painful to see the things that we have accepted; magicians in the cloak of Rabbis and Kabbalists who hand out amulets and magical potions, turn Mitzvos into medicine, mezuzahs into spirits, rebbis into Moshiach and God. The sacrilege that Meron and other supposed tombs, kevarim, have become, the fact that thousands travel to the Uman shrine on the Holy Days, when instead of Teshuvah and distancing from Avodah Zara, they go and practice it, all these outrages are the direct and indirect results of this erroneous concept of the world.

I believe that anyone who looks objectively at how different the two views of religion are, the basis for them and the consequences we observe from the adoption of one them, he must conclude that Rambam’s derech is the only one that can stand up in the real world. It is the only one that has relevance to our religious life and can teach us how to view the world from a Jewish perspective. It is therefore important to really absorb Rambam’s great insight and assimilate that there is a limit to our knowledge. We cannot understand God, how He acts, how He thinks, how He knows nor how He does anything. All we can do is infer that He exists and infer from the result of His actions what He wants from us.

22 comments:

  1. You say: "(This process did reduce God’s transcendence and in truth I am not sure they still see Him as such notwithstanding their strident insistence to the contrary)."

    Are you saying from this statement that you believe the Ramban and others who believed to have Kabbalah would still keep to their beliefs with regards to this whole thing?

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  2. I am rather new to the whole subject. I was wondering if you could recommend any literature that would contrast/ compare the rationalist view with kabbalistic/mystic perspective. Again, I am not asking for primary sources but rather books that lay the arguments out for the reader. Thanks.

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  4. >Are you saying from this statement that you believe the Ramban and others who believed to have Kabbalah would still keep to their beliefs with regards to this whole thing?

    I am not sure I understand what you mean by this whole thing. All mekubalim claim that God is transcendent and the Mahus is unknowable. The question is where do you stop? Where is the limit of human knowledge is the question.

    Because he thought the spiritual was really part of nature Ramban and his followers tried to understand and describe beyond the physical which beacme Kabbalah.

    Kabbalah per se is not as people think, something that came down from Sinai. It has developed and changed by man and time. At some point in time at the end of the 1200's there was introduced a concept of new divine inspiration which allowed for unbridled growth and new development. Remak and Arizal where already coming up with new concepts and things have continued from there.

    Read Gershon Scholem, Moshe Idel, Yeshayahu Tishbi, Yosef Dan and more who have shown all this at length.

    hg: I don't know of any book that compares rational thought to Kabbalh. There is a fascinating book that was published recently by Lawrence Fine , Physician of the soul healer of the cosmos on Arizal, which is an eye opener.

    I recommend you read some of the authors mentioned above and you will get a good idea of what Kabbalah is really about.

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  5. Basically, my question is what do u mean by this statement you made?

    "(This process did reduce God’s transcendence and in truth I am not sure they still see Him as such notwithstanding their strident insistence to the contrary)."

    Do u mean by this statement that the Ramban and his followers would still view God in such a way as u mentioned EVEN if they lived today or would they agree with the Rambam?

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  6. >Do u mean by this statement that the Ramban and his followers would still view God in such a way as u mentioned EVEN if they lived today or would they agree with the Rambam?

    5/21/2006 6:45 PM

    The latter. Of course they would agree with Rambam. They were great thinkers and anshei emes. they based their thinking on the science that they understood at the time. It was proven erroneous so they would back away. Unfortunately that objectivity is no longer extant.

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  7. so who were u referring to in that statement? it sounds like you believed they would still stick to their beliefs because u state "that ur not sure they still see Him as such notwithstanding their strident insistence to the contrary."

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  8. We cannot understand God, how He acts, how He thinks, how He knows nor how He does anything. All we can do is infer that He exists and infer from the result of His actions what He wants from us.

    Well, I'm sure you've heard this question from many people before, but if we don't know anything about God, how do we know what His actions are? If we don't know what his actions are, how can we make any inferences from the results of His actions? For that matter, how do we know that He even DOES actions?

    On the other hand, if it is possible for us to infer what God wants from us (as you suggest), then I would have to say that by almost any definition of "knowable," God is definitely knowable. What would it mean for me to say, for example, that my teacher is essentially unknowable, but I happen to know that he wants me to hand in a 5-page essay by Tuesday at 5pm? Clearly, it would mean that I have a massive inconsistency in my application of the term "unknowable". This is why I urge the use of formal methods, which can help clear up such confusions.

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  9. >so who were u referring to in that statement? it sounds like you believed they would still stick to their beliefs because u state "that ur not sure they still see Him as such notwithstanding their strident insistence to the contrary."

    I was saying that the Kabbalists that followed Ramban and developed their theories, although professing God's transcendence and unknowability, don't really accept it de facto. I cannot reconcile their words with reality. For example Maharal is just as popular now as he was in his days. His shita is a more recent development of Ramba's school. If youi really read him properly he says that we cannot grasp anything about HKBH's essence but then when it comes to Yediah, which is His essence, he sets limitations. See my post on the Ohr Sameach in Hil Teshuvah. http://yediah.blogspot.com/2006/03/r-meir-simcha-choses-rambam-over.html

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  10. >Well, I'm sure you've heard this question from many people before, but if we don't know anything about God, how do we know what His actions are?

    I may not have been clear enough. We don't know His actions but we can know the result of His actions. That is our environment, the universe we live in.

    > For that matter, how do we know that He even DOES actions?

    We don't know and you are correct I should have thought better about my choice of words.

    >This is why I urge the use of formal methods, which can help clear up such confusions

    You are right and that is why Rambam composed his Biur Milos Hahegoyon. However I am making a conscious effort to use normal language because for the longest time formal language was the barrier to my reading philosophical works. When i did finally manage to, I found myself using words that had become cliches and my thought process became superficial. I therefore prefer to take the risk, talk in normal human language and I will work on being more precise.

    Please keep me honest and keep on watching me. I will post on this soon so that everyone is aware of my thinking.

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  11. Some Guy,

    I just reread my post and I did say "the result of His actions" is known His actions are not. I think that is clear enough.

    Formal language would not have helped. But I will post about that anyway because I see peolple should be made aware of my thinking in this.

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  12. jewishskeptic5/22/2006 8:48 AM

    >"All we can do is infer that He exists and infer from the result of His actions what He wants from us."
    And how do we that? Maybe by observing his handiwork-which is "red in tooth & claw" & emulate Him? This indeed has been tried by all religions,including the Hebrew-Jewish(read the Bible)!

    You want to excise a major part of Jewish history by claiming that Judaism is a pure & rational religion,only the Zohar & Kabbalah corrupted it.

    1) It's over 700 years since the Zohar was supposedly found.That's a quite a chunk of history,not to be lightly dismissed.
    except for a few minor rabbis (e.g. אליהו דל מדיגו- "בחינת הדת",
    אריה די מודינה- ארי נוהם,
    יעקב עמדן- מטפחת ספרים, and he only doubted parts of the Zohar & was a kabbalist himself,& even claimed that his grandfather the Chacham Zevi created a golem.How do you like that for rationality!)
    All the others Ramban,Rashba, Ritva, Abravanel, Crescas,Albo,down to the Vilner Gaon.They & many,many more all believed in the Kabbalah & most of them in the Zohar,& you want to do away with all that?!
    Even your hero rationalit Rambam paskens that שן השועל ומסמר הצלוב
    is permitted for medicinal uses!!

    Hoever,the Kabbalah & superstitions go way back before the Zohar. The talmud is full of superstitions(in Masechta Gittin alone there are pages of them),& I am affraid it goes back to the Bible!(The miracles of Eliyahu & Elisha,etc.etc.etc.)
    So don't make out of Judaism something it never was & to prettify it. It's all wishful thinking.
    There never was such a Judaism nor is there one now!

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  13. >Even your hero rationalit Rambam paskens that שן השועל ומסמר הצלוב
    is permitted for medicinal uses!!

    He makes it clear that only for psychological reasons.


    >So don't make out of Judaism something it never was & to prettify it. It's all wishful thinking.
    There never was such a Judaism nor is there one now!

    You are vright and superstition unfortunately is still part of our praxis. That is exactly my point. We have to look for the individual great man and learn from them. There is avery intereting book by Moshe Halbertal, Bein Torah Lachochma which shows how the rationalists were stiffled and sidelined in the 12 to 14th centuries.

    I believe that the torah is a system that influences mankind over time. It took 3000 years alsmost for it to bring Western civilization into existence. It will take many more to get us all to a utopian society worldwide. As long as some of us keep our eyes on the ball and try to get others to be aware of that goal, we, humans will eventually get there.

    I sound like a starry eyed ideologue but so be it. i really believe we have to, each of us, work at understanding and follow in God's footsteps.

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  14. >The talmud is full of superstitions(in Masechta Gittin alone there are pages of them),& I am affraid it goes back to the Bible!(The miracles of Eliyahu & Elisha,etc.etc.etc.)

    That is why the Israelis used to refer to the babylonians -
    hani bavla'i dedaru be'arah de'chashucha. :-)

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  15. I taught this subject in my Moreh class a few weeks ago. It seems to me that there is another way to reformulate Ramban's argument in agreement with our science.
    The developments in scientific filds ahve much narrowed the distance between what was in teh past thought to be physical and what was understood to be spiritual. Now we have quantum physics, concepts of energy, space-time continuums, particles that are also waves, and many other concepts which are hard to understand on the basis of our experience. The distance between natural and supernatural has narrowed, which is basically the point of the Ramban and the Rashbo.

    M.Levin

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  16. Prof. levin,

    Thanks for visiting. Do you risk finding out in a few years taht what you considered supernatural is physical just like we found out that what Ramban thought as supernatural is now seen as mainstream physical science? Rambam did not understand gravity nor magnetism but observed that as they are part of and influence the physical world they are therefore a physical phenomena that he has not yet understood. In short , anything that directly impacts the physical has to be physical. To Rambam there is only one thing that is spiritual and considered such and that is God who is unknowable.( That is how I read his weak acceptance of RSG dovor nivra or Kevod Nivra.He seems to be saying if you cannot live without it so be it.) We stop right there. That is how i read him. others have read him otherwise but then are left with inconsistencies.

    I have a hard time understanding why explaining a phenomena as supernatural is more satisfying then accepting our limitations and remaining with the physical. Lo bashamayim hi.

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  17. We don't know His actions but we can know the result of His actions. That is our environment, the universe we live in.

    But David, not knowing anything a priori about God, how do we know that "our environment" is the result of His actions? Or even if everything we see is the result of his actions, how do we know anything about the circumstances of those actions. Perhaps our universe was the equivalent of God "scribbling". Or perhaps it was the equivalent of God "throwing up". How do you make inferences?

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  18. >But David, not knowing anything a priori about God, how do we know that "our environment" is the result of His actions?

    I think I discussed on earlier posts that we are forced to accept the existence of a First Cause which neans that everything that we know is a result of Him. See http://yediah.blogspot.com/2006/05/does-god-exist.html

    >Perhaps our universe was the equivalent of God "scribbling". Or perhaps it was the equivalent of God "throwing up". How do you make inferences?

    I guess if you woke up in a negative mood after the holocaust especially you could have that notion. However if you look at the universe the beauty of the biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy etc... you would have to conclude that God is quite great and you want to partake in His world constructively. ki Er'eh Ettzboeisecha Ma'aseh yodecha etc...

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  19. Why is it that you call you do not use "the" before Rambam. There is a reason why the minhag in Klal Yisroel was to call certian (most) rishonim with the word "the" before their names.

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  20. When I write in Hebrew i always say Harambam, in English Rambam. It just makes more sense. I guess Harambamn refers to his writings I see Rambam himself in front of my eyes. Vehoyu Einecho Ro'os es Morecho.:-)

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