Sunday, July 02, 2006

Kabbalah and Plato

Rambam quotes a Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer several times in the Moreh with wonderment and dedicates the whole Chapter 26 in the second part of the Moreh in trying to explain it. (See also in 2:30 where he refers to it in passing).

“IN the famous chapters known as the Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer, I find R. Eliezer the Great saying something more extraordinary than I have ever seen in the utterances of any believer in the Law of Moses. I mean the following passage:" Whence were the heavens created? He took part of the light of His garment, stretched it like a cloth, and thus the heavens were extending continually, as it is said: He covereth Himself with light as with a garment, He stretcheth the heavens like a curtain" (Ps. civ. 2)." Whence was the earth created? He took of the snow under the throne of glory, and threw it; according to the words: He saith to the snow, Be thou earth" (job xxxvii. 6). These are the words given there; and I, in my surprise, ask, What was the belief of this sage ? Did he think that nothing can be produced from nothing, and that a substance must have existed of which the things were formed? And did he for this reason ask whence were the heavens and the earth created? What has he gained by the answer? We might ask him, whence was the light of His garment created? Or the snow under the throne of His glory? Or the throne of glory itself? If the terms" the light of His garment" and" the throne of glory" mean something eternal, they must be rejected; the words would imply an admission of the Eternity of the Universe, though only in the form taught by Plato… In short, it is a passage that greatly confuses the notions of all intelligent and religious persons. I am unable to explain it sufficiently. I quoted it in order that you may not be misled by it.”

What we are discussing is Creation. There are three basic schools of thought as to creation according to Rambam. Aristotles believed the universe as we know it existed eternally parallel with God. Plato believed that God created the universe at some point in time from a substance that existed eternally parallel with God. The Torah according to Rambam teaches that, God created everything from total nothingness, in time. (I will discuss this at length as I go along.)

Rambam cannot accept R.Eliezer’s statement because it seems to imply that he held like Plato and not according to Torah. He tries to kvetch a pshat into it but does not really accept it because four chapters on, in 2:30, he refers back to R. Eliezer as Platonic. He therefore dismisses R. Eliezer as he did in this quote and there again:

“The above saying is, in my opinion, certainly of the same character as that of R. Eliezer," Whence were the heavens created," etc., (chap. xxvi.). In short, in these questions, do not take notice of the utterances of any person. I told you that the foundation of our faith is the belief that God created the Universe from nothing; that time did not exist previously, but was created: for it depends on the motion of the sphere and the sphere has been created.”

Now let us see how the Mekubalim read R.Eliezer. In Kitvei Haramban R. Chavel has a Pirush on Shir Hashirim that had been attributed to Ramban but Chavel shows that it is from Rabbi Azriel a Chaver of Ramban. On Shir Hashirim 3:9 he quotes R.Eliezer and comments; (my translation)-

“This is according to the opinion of Plato who says that it is an impossibility for the Creator to create something from nothingness, because there is a matter that exists [eternally] which is metaphorically, like the raw material for an artist or like iron to the smith to create whatever he wishes, so too the Creator blessed be He, creates from a matter heaven and earth and sometimes He will create other things. (I am not sure what he means with the latter). Do not wonder and argue that this sets limits to the Creator’s omnipotence by saying that He cannot create something from nothingness. It is the same as Him not being able to create incongruous things, for example a rectangle whose side is the same length as the diagonal, and to gather two opposites at the same time.”

He goes on to show that Shlomo Hamelech had the same opinion. There is nothing wrong with this opinion and as Rambam says it can accommodate the whole religion, but that is not what he believes nor what the Torah teaches. (I am simplifying to stay on subject). Rambam goes to great length to dissuade us from this opinion and shows that Shlomo Hamelech was not Platonic.

Ramban in Chumash is very cagey and the Ritva in his Sefer Hazikaron comments on it and is baffled (see Ramban on Breishit 1:1 – 1:8 (where he addresses R. Eliezer creating more confusion). Clearly Mekubalim were not as convinced as Rambam that God created everything from nothingness in time – in time being the key word. This position led to the development of the later theories of Tzimtzum and Tehiru which were the key to Arizal’s Kabbalah.

The point I am trying to make is that although the accepted opinion in the Orthodox community is that Kabbalah is Kodesh Kadashim and anyone that doubts it is suspect, it is a great distortion of the truth. If anything Kabbalah stands on wobbly legs and the burden of proof is on it to show that it is legitimate. The argument that so many great people believed it as authentic has no value, just as the numbers of his opponents did not dissuade Elijah at Har Hacarmel. There are very many theories of why this has been accepted by so many great Jewish thinkers. One of those is the article by rabbi Buchman in Hakirah which is a must read - U-madua lo Yeresem -
http://hakirah.org/Vol%202%20Buchman.pdf .

24 comments:

  1. I can't get the pdf article to open. Do you have an html link to it?

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  2. Again, even if I accept your theory that mekubalim as a group accepted the concept of a primordial matter, how does this differ in any way from the Rambam's accpetance of aristotalean concepts?

    Since both of these Greek philosophers (unlike Epicurus) had systems of meta-physics, it is expected that there will be some overlap with Torah thought.

    I just don't understand how you can claim that kabbalah is just a platonic philosophy while pretending that the Rambam is somehow a unbroken part of the messorah. If we take academic opinion into consideration, it generaly considers Kabbalah to be a far more original idea than the Morah which most of academia regards as an work of apologetics (I do not regard it as such).

    Also, in the previous thread, you claim you would drink my wine. Why? If you are trully of the opinion that my belief in the system of sephirot, olamot, tzimtzum and such is AZ, then you are obligated to take that to its logical extreme.

    You need to understand, science has not changed much regarding the fundumental issues at hand. All the arguments of the kuzari, Gra, (and most of the Ramban's) still apply today. Also, the rationalists have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer that will allow one to simultaneously concieve of a personal God and one Who is completely trancendant.

    I could go on, but I trully do not feel comfortable discussing many of these issues on the net.

    In any case, I will leave you with a joke based on your own post:

    The argument that so many great people believed it as authentic has no value, just as the numbers of his opponents did not dissuade Elijah at Har Hacarmel.

    Well, if Eliyahu was a rationalist, why does he keep apearing to mekubalim and teaching them essoteric Torah???? :)

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  3. >Also, the rationalists have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer that will allow one to simultaneously concieve of a personal God and one Who is completely trancendant

    That is the problem. You understand that there is a need for a personal God to serve man and make him feel good. That is the basis of AZ! God serves man. The torah teaches that man serves God - period. Marx's comments about religion were based on the former and they were correct.

    I agree that there are limits fpor Kabbalah on an open forum because it is dangerous to everybody.

    Re your joke, that proves it. They never saw Elyahu!they encountered their fertile imagination.

    Re Rambam vs Plato, Rambam never claimed he had Messorah. He sais that he is trying to reconstruct the thinking of the earlier Jewish thinkers. In fact he believed in an evolutionary Judaism that taught over timre proper beliefs. I have posted about that and will do so further on. He however believed that it was bounded by human limitations. Kabbalah does no such thing. It is based on Platonic philosophy but has integrated much of the Mutjkallimum's ways where there are no bounds to the imagination.

    Liora, if you email me I will send you the article.

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  4. >Also, in the previous thread, you claim you would drink my wine. Why? If you are trully of the opinion that my belief in the system of sephirot, olamot, tzimtzum and such is AZ, then you are obligated to take that to its logical extreme

    You are asking a good question. I consider you all Shogegim and Tinokot Shenishbu. I would however have a problem drinking from Arizal and RCV wine.But so would they from mine!

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  5. You understand that there is a need for a personal God to serve man and make him feel good.

    Stop twisting my words. A personal God does not mean one which serves man. I mean a God which is relevant to man's life and with Whom man can have a relationship such as the Torah demands. That is almost impossible to accomplish with the rationalist model.

    Re your joke, that proves it. They never saw Elyahu!they encountered their fertile imagination.

    All layers of sub-prophetic and prophetic mental life depends on the imagination (which is not a bad word outside of the Rambam's philosophy). Now, that imagination can not be allowed to run wild and never be subject to the rational faculties of man but it is an integral part of religious life, nontheless. The very fact that such great tzaddikim and halachists as Rav Yosef Karo, Ramchal, the Gra, Rav Chaim Volozin, and the Baal HaTanya record and testify to their own sub-prophetic experiences should give you pause as to the legitimacy of their testimony. You just have to accept that most thinkers do not accept the Rambam's empirical ontology (and for that matter, most gentile philosophers of the past 150 year reject it as well).

    In any case, I think we are going in circles. Please give me your comments as soon as you have a chance to get and read the Ish Shalom book, I am interested in your opinion. (I am bracing myself for what you will say about Rav Kook after I see what you say about Rav Chaim Vital and the Ariz"l) :)

    Kabbalah does no such thing

    But it does! The only two Jewish thinkers of the past 100 years which have extensivly written about Judaism as a dynamic and developing force which evolves over time while still remaining loyal to halacha were Rav Kook and Rav Tzaddok and they both did it completely based on Kabbalah. I frankly have a hard time seeing how you fit such a view into the Rambam's view but I would LOVE to see where this is derived from in the Rambam. As I said earlier, the idea that Kabbalah was recieved at Sinai is mostly a contemporary popular belief. Most people who are in the know see the awareness the mekubalim had of their own innovations. This is definitly true for everyone after the Ari and is really also true for the earlier Kabbalah as well. You are not doing Kabbalah justice by reducing it to red strings and folk beliefs. It is much more than that.

    I consider you all Shogegim and Tinokot Shenishbu

    I don't think that works for AZ.

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  6. We are going in circles.

    I see that I have to explain two things ;

    How a rationalist relates to God.
    Where Rambam talks about developmental judaism. (the last one is easy - I am surprised you do not know it as you seem quite familiar with his philosophy - I also posted a little about that)

    I will get to it at my slow pace. I want to address Creation next via angels and prophecy.

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  7. the last one is easy - I am surprised you do not know it as you seem quite familiar with his philosophy

    I mean it is pretty implicit in that he inovates so much. I just didn't see him say it explicitly.

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  8. Chardal, just read 3:32 again for one. Other places in Moreh. iggetret Techyat Hametim how it took until Daniel for the idea of Techyat Hametim to be introduced. there are more I can't think of offhand. (in Yad too)

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  9. jewishskeptic7/03/2006 3:21 PM

    Chardal wrote:
    >"As I said earlier, the idea that Kabbalah was recieved at Sinai is mostly a contemporary popular belief. Most people who are in the know see the awareness the mekubalim had of their own innovations. This is definitly true for everyone after the Ari and is really also true for the earlier Kabbalah as well. You are not doing Kabbalah justice by reducing it to red strings and folk beliefs. It is much more than that."

    This,IMHO,isn't true.
    The kabbalists & the masses believed that the Zohar & subsequent Kabbalistic lit.contained 'sodot' that could have only originated from God to Moshe on Har Sinai.
    To argue otherwise is to rewrite history.
    Also notice that whenever the Zohar is mentioned it's followed by the adjective *hakkadosh*,which is not usually used with the Talmud!
    We say HaTorah ha'kedoshah,haZohar hakkadosh,but not Hatalmud h.
    It was considered of greater kedushah by the Kab.,though maybe not for Halacha.

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  10. The kabbalists & the masses believed that the Zohar & subsequent Kabbalistic lit.contained 'sodot' that could have only originated from God to Moshe on Har Sinai.

    While it is possible that some kabbalists believed this, many if not most were fully cognizant of the originality of their ideas.

    The Ari, Rav Chaim Vital, Ramchal, Gra, and the early chassidic masters constantly speak of the "gilui" of this idea or that idea happening at a certain point in history. There is almost no getting around it.

    If you want to talk about the Zohar. Then there is the common idea that it was all authored by Rashbi. Many did believe this but I highly doubt the truth of that historical claim would have detracted from their view of the work. R' Yaakov Emden, for one, who wrote a whole book showing the Zohar is a late work, blasted anyone who doubted its holiness.

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  11. Also regarding the Zohar. Notice that the mekubalim always write that Raaya Meheimana was revealed through the SOUL of Moshe, not historicaly by Moshe himself.

    There is no way I can begin to get into the historiosophy of the mekubalim in a blog thread. I believe that if you study this more, you will see I am right.

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  12. jewishskeptic7/03/2006 6:09 PM

    >"The Ari, Rav Chaim Vital, Ramchal, Gra, and the early chassidic masters constantly speak of the "gilui" of this idea or that idea happening at a certain point in history. There is almost no getting around it"

    Yes,they believed that they were 'megalleh' the 'sodot ve'razim' that God gave to Moshe on H.S.
    Just like the Talmudic sages believed about their Halachot.

    כל מה שתלמיד ותיק עתיד לחדש ניתן למשה בסיני
    It's no different with the Zohar & Kabbalistic writings,except that they considered it of greater kedushah,dealing as it is with metaphysical matters,& not with 'shor sh'nagach et happarah...

    Individual kabbalists may have realized that the ideas originated with them,but the massess (including the great rabbanim)embraced it as Torah miSinai,certainly not less than the Talmud.
    The kabbalists did nothing to stop this view.On the contrary,they encouraged it!
    A good to read on Kabbalah from the Medieval A. is:
    בחינת הדת של אליהו דלמדיגו

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  13. "Ramban in Chumash is very cagey and the Ritva in his Sefer Hazikaron comments on it and is baffled (see Ramban on Breishit 1:1 – 1:8 (where he addresses R. Eliezer creating more confusion)."

    You wrote something along thse lines on hirhurim too, and I protest again this time. The ramban isn't cagey - he's clear the world is not kadmon. The ritva has questions on ramban, he thinks he is misusing philosophical terms, but none of it has bearing on this question that I can make out. This is really a strong claim to make about the raman, and I'm protesting that you're being cagey in making it, and with no real evidence.

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  14. Anon - Here is a quote from sefer hazikaron;

    Od kasheh li, ki bekan amar harav shezeh hayesod hachomer harishon shehayu kori'im oto hayuli, nivra min ha'efes hagamur, ulefanim baparsha kesheamar Veal yiksheh aleycha midrash R. Eliezer shamayim meheichan nivre'u me'or levusho ... katav Venatan la'aretz chomer acher veinenu bedakut harishon vehu sheleg shetacaht kiseh hakavod ki kisseh hakavod nivra, umimenu hayah hasheleg shetachtav umimenu na'aseh chomer ha'aretz vehineh hu shelishi babriah - ad kan. umeatah ein hachomer harishon min haefes hagamur ki im kiseh hakavod. Vedavar zeh Tzarich iyun.

    In other words he questions whether he meant creation was according to Ramban from complete nothingness.

    Sarah Klein Breslavy in her book on Breishit has a long discussion of the different terminologies used by medieval theologians on the word Bara, He'eder and He'eder hagamur and shows that there are major nuances and he'eder is more related to a particular thing. For example if I say it was made from he'eder it does not necessarily mean nothing else existed just that this particular thing had not existed. I believe that Ritva is addressing that problem and questioning whether Ramban really meant total nothingness. It is much more palatable after the quote of Rav Azriel in pirush on shir hashirim. See also R.Kafah's note on this in 2:26.

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  15. כל מה שתלמיד ותיק עתיד לחדש ניתן למשה בסיני


    If it makes you feel comfortable to reinterpret the words of chazal as well as those of the mekubalim, then go ahead.

    It is clear as day from several midrashim and definitly from rishonim and achronim that such statement dafka try to communicate to us that the authenticity of a rabbinic (or kabbalistic) teaching does NOT rest with its HISTORIC source at Sinai, but rather with it being one way or another linked to that historic moment by chain of messorah OR by later revelation.

    As I said before, it is not for a blog thread to discuss the chochma in nevua and the nevua in chochma. You trully do not understand the mekubalim (or chazal for that matter). The Kabbalah IS kodesh kedoshim and it is thus with or without being origination at Sinai. If you want to see more on this, I suggest you read up on Rav Kook and Rav Tzadok who both dealt with this issue extensivly.

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  16. >that the authenticity of a rabbinic (or kabbalistic) teaching does NOT rest with its HISTORIC source at Sinai, but rather with it being one way or another linked to that historic moment by chain of messorah OR by later revelation.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the statement except for the parentheses.

    I have read R. Tzadok and find him confusing and unconvincing. One needs to take great leaps of faith to accept what he writes. i am not big on faith as you probably know by now. Emunah is truth and knowledge not belief. I have not read much of Rav Kook because i was brought up in an anti kook world. I have his seforim at home but have not yet found the will to buckle down and read him carefully as Rambam is still waiting.

    So far whatever I have read in Kabbalh, although very beautiful when first read, turned me off upon reflection. One cannot use imagination in metaphysics - without falling outside the permissible gedarim. i agree it is not a blog discussion. It will however not hurt anyone not believing in Kabbalah and considering it baloney. It will hurt people who read it and end up a la madonna at worse, like Baba Sali or kaduri at best.

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  17. >by chain of messorah OR by later revelation.

    I just noticed- I do not accept the last two words either. lo bashamayim hi.

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  18. lo bashamayim hi.

    This is true in regards to some parameters of halacha but I can not imagine applying it to hashkafa.

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  19. >I can not imagine applying it to hashkafa.

    I say even more that one has only what the rational chomer bound man can understand. That to me is Panai lo Yera'u as opposed to Vera'ita et Achoray. You are stepping over the boundary between Panay and Achoray.

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  20. I say even more that one has only what the rational chomer bound man can understand.

    Because man is capable of transcending his chomer and grasping things beyond the limits of reason. This is the bridge which is impossible to cross for the rationalist and which must be crossed for the esoteric minded man.

    In any case, as you said earlier, we are going in circles. I would love to be able to discuss some of these things with you in a beis midrash setting. I feel very constrained by this medium.

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  21. jewishskeptic7/04/2006 2:56 AM

    >"כל מה שתלמיד ותיק עתיד לחדש ניתן למשה בסיני


    If it makes you feel comfortable to reinterpret the words of chazal as well as those of the mekubalim, then go ahead"

    I am not reinterpring them.you are!
    I take them כפשוטם.

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  22. >I would love to be able to discuss some of these things with you in a beis midrash setting.

    We have been toying with the idea to organize a Shabbat in Flatbush as a forum for suich discussions in large and small groups. The problem is the time needed to organize such a meeting.

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  23. Chardal,

    Reason is the highest element in man and is the only thing that can and should be used in search of truth. There is nothing higher than reason, so the burden is on YOU to show that there is, and we of course know there is nothing higher than reason.

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  24. "Od kasheh li, ki bekan amar harav shezeh hayesod hachomer harishon shehayu kori'im oto hayuli, nivra min ha'efes hagamur, ulefanim baparsha kesheamar Veal yiksheh aleycha midrash R. Eliezer shamayim meheichan nivre'u me'or levusho ... katav Venatan la'aretz chomer acher veinenu bedakut harishon vehu sheleg shetacaht kiseh hakavod ki kisseh hakavod nivra, umimenu hayah hasheleg shetachtav umimenu na'aseh chomer ha'aretz vehineh hu shelishi babriah - ad kan. umeatah ein hachomer harishon min haefes hagamur ki im kiseh hakavod. Vedavar zeh Tzarich iyun.

    In other words he questions whether he meant creation was according to Ramban from complete nothingness."

    He's questioning *what* was created from nothingness, the chomer harishon or the kisey hakovod, but it's sufficient for purposes of yesh meyayin that the kisa hakovod is created.
    He's NOT questioning that the ramban is committed to briya yesh meayin!!!

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