Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Prayer at a time of crisis - Repentance or superstition?

In view of the call to prayer in the community, with many Shuls saying Tehilim for what is happening in our Holy Land, I was reflecting trying to understand the meaning of this activity and how a religious Jew should view this.

Rambam and Ramban have a very basic argument about the Mitzvah of prayer. Ramban holds that Tefilah is a rabbinic obligation while Rambam holds it to be a Mitzvat Asseh. However Rambam counts two separate Mitzvot for Tefilah, one as part of the obligation to worship God in Mitzvah 5 and another one in Mitzvah 58 as prayer in time of peril. The first kind of prayer is a constant obligation to worship God and reflect about Him on a daily basis without requesting anything other than reasserting His attributes as they relate to us. The second type is an obligation that arises on certain occasions when bad things happen. The idea is to introspect, analyze where we went wrong, repent and not repeat our earlier mistakes. Rambam in Hil Tanyot legislates:

א מצות עשה מן התורה, לזעוק ולהריע בחצוצרות על כל צרה שתבוא על הציבור, שנאמר "על הצר הצורר אתכם--והרעותם, בחצוצרות" (במדבר י,ט)--כלומר כל דבר שיצר לכם כגון בצורת ודבר וארבה וכיוצא בהן, זעקו עליהן והריעו.

ב ודבר זה, דרך מדרכי התשובה הוא: שבזמן שתבוא צרה ויזעקו לה ויריעו, יידעו הכול שבגלל מעשיהם הרעים הרע להן--ככתוב "עוונותיכם, הטו אלה" (ירמיהו ה,כה) לכם, וזה הוא שיגרום להם להסיר הצרה מעליהם.

ג אבל אם לא יזעקו, ולא יריעו, אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם אירע לנו, וצרה זו נקרוא נקרית--הרי זו דרך אכזרייות, וגורמת להם להידבק במעשיהם הרעים, ותוסיף הצרה וצרות אחרות: הוא שכתוב בתורה, "והלכתם עימי, בקרי. והלכתי עימכם, בחמת קרי" (ויקרא כו,כז-כח), כלומר כשאביא עליכם צרה, כדי שתשובו--אם תאמרו שהוא קרי, אוסיף עליכם חמת אותו קרי

I find this Rambam fascinating. Everything in this world is a result of cause and effect. If a bad thing happens it usually is because of a decision made at some time whether in the near past or long ago, that resulted in this outcome. Attributing tragedy to chance is cruel because it almost certainly insures that it will repeat itself. The only way repetition can be avoided is by introspection, pinpointing the problem, changing our approach and thus the outcome. The prayer is part of repentance. Praying one reflects on our goals, the goals set out by HKBH for us in the Torah, and reviewing whether our actions were always geared towards reaching that goal. Were we influenced by other more mundane goals? Were we greedy, egotistic, power hungry or other such human foibles? How far have we deviated from our primary goal? This type of prayer falls under the rubric of repentance.

Taking the above into consideration, the prayer in Israel by its inhabitants, the place the current tragedy is happening, should be reflecting on the decisions made during its short existence. Was the goal always clear? Did the people and their leaders keep in mind all the time that the purpose of Eretz Israel, is to provide a haven for the Jewish people to live in peace to allow the nation to develop, without interference, as a people who know God? Were all the decision made with that in mind? It is not our place, living in comfort in America to even dare judge the issue but it certainly is an important exercise that Israelis have to undertake. Doing that they will know how to deal with this crisis and insure that this type of tragedy does not reoccur.

For us in Galut, our prayer should make us introspect and think if we have done enough to support in deed and in spirit, our brethrens who live there and are our vanguard? Have we used all our influence to make sure that the countries we live in support Israel? Have we supported the country enough financially? I am not talking just Tzedakah but economically, with investments and other such activities? What should we be doing going forward?

Tehilim is composed of many chapters dealing with introspection. Reading it and reflecting on the meaning of the words should direct our thoughts to review our activities and decisions.

I believe that this approach is the correct one. There is no advantage in praying to God and expecting Him to listen without action on our part. That prayer is a superstition and like all superstition is meant to assuage personal anxiety and cover up for lack of responsibility and inaction.

Let us hope we make the correct decisions and peace will come to our land, the ultimate home of our people.

43 comments:

  1. Loved the line:
    "For us in Galut, our prayer should make us introspect and think if we have done enough to support in deed and in spirit, our brethrens who live there and are our vanguard?"

    Your post really made an impression on me, as I try to do what I can here in the States. Tehillim are nice, calling elected officials is important, but what about miseras nefesh? I think that is what Hashem wants from us. Of course, each person's way of being moser nefesh is different.
    Thanks again.

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  2. HalachickMan7/19/2006 1:39 PM

    I have been "lurking" on your blog for quite some time now and its time to come out of the shadows...

    YASHAR KOACH! Your posts are always insightful and well presented and I commend you on your "rational" and true approach to Torah and Halacha.

    With respect to this post, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Not only is there no advantage to saying tehillim or tefilla for that matter without some introspection or even reflection on the meaning of the words, I feel that it is actually extremely harmful to the individual and to klal yisrael as a nation. It is a distortion of the true purpose of Torah which is the perfection and growth of an individual. How does saying words that one doesn't think about or even understand lend to that growth and change. And if we are not growing and changing, why should God help us at all? Judaism is about growth and change especially when faced with a tragedy. The Rambam tells us that with regards to a fast day, the true idea of the fast day is Teshuva and the fasting is only there as a means to spur us to reflect on our actions in in order to realize the wrong and change. Judaism is not a "mumbo-jumbo" religion. Furthermore, if this was an effective method of approach for tragedy, then I believe that somewhere in Tanach we would have had mention of tehillim groups, or amen groups, or bracha groups, or red string groups, or any of these things that people seem to have attached themselves to today in the absence of understanding what Yahadus is really about. It is very disheartening to me when I see intelligent people following these methods.
    So... thank you for your post and the work you do for Klal Yisrael. May God give you the strength to continue.

    Respectfully,

    HalachickMan

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  3. Neil and Halachikman, Thank you.

    It feels good when one says Davar Hanishma.

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  4. There is power in prayer just in doing it, even if your not introspective.

    For the non-mystical, one of those powers is just the fact that you take the time out of your day to do it, and if you go to a minyan, others see you there and it enchances the feelings of community.

    There is an interesting book called "A call to the Infinite" which is just a collection of sources regarding Prayer, why we do it, when we do it etc.

    One of the more peculiar lines is a Rabbi in the Talmud who says that bad things sometimes happen, so that you will pray, because your prayers are needed.

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  5. halachickman7/19/2006 4:19 PM

    Who needs our prayers?

    Do you mean to say that God would make calamities happen to Klal Yisrael just so they can recite prayers?
    Does that make any sense?

    What is this "power in prayer" - Judaism believes that only God has power - we don't ascribe power to anybody or anything else...so what is this power?

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  6. Irviner Chasid, the only good thing in a prayer you describe is for the person who prays. It makes him feel good and insures that he will not introspect.It not only is fruitless but harmful.

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  7. No, it also has benefit to the people around the person who prays. They feel unified and feel they have support from other people in the community, which allows them to carry on with whatever struggles they are in.


    What I read was the following. Why did G-d send Yakov and his children to Egypt? So that they would cry out to Hashem.

    If you don't like the implications of that, argue with the Midrash.

    Not to compared G-d to a child, but it is said that soemtiems when a child is Ignored, they will lash out, so that they can be punished and no longer be ignored.

    I have no clear idea what it means, but our tradition is riddled with such statements.

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  8. irviner chasid,

    You did make a cogent statement by virtue of the fact that those around the person praying will be imbued with a sense of community and that is worthwhile, but there's no magic or power there, its just a psychological truism.

    By your own admission, you don't know what these statements mean - and it seems somewhat disturbing that you would still presume to define them a certain way.

    In addition, God is an altogether different existence and we have to be careful about assigning infantile meanings to things associated with God - you're correct in that you cannot compare God to a child and subsequently the statement made about how a child would act really has no relevance here.

    I would presume that certain calamities are tests for us as I believe you meant to say. In that vein, I cannot imagine that the most proper response to that test would just be to mumble a few words without any meaning or introspection even taking into account that community value or the "feel good" value for the individual.

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  9. irviner chasid saud:
    "There is an interesting book called "A call to the Infinite" which is just a collection of sources regarding Prayer, why we do it, when we do it etc."

    Rabbi Kaplan's book is excellent, but it's more about quotes about different aspects of tefillah. Prayer is meant to be reflexive. For me, I've get a lot out of reading PRAYING WITH FIRE (Artscroll).
    We cry out to our creator so that we will change.

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  10. What is the difference between a "psychological truism" and a "Metaphysical truism"? The only difference I see is that the former is more likely to be believed by more people than the later.

    Our Tradition tells us that there is a metaphysical truism that happens when we pray, just as there is a pyschological truism that when we gather in a community it makes the individual stronger.

    Most of the prayers we say, are not inherently intorspective.

    What behavior should one change when they are praying that the bombs don't blow up people?

    I agree that it is best for one to grow from thier prayers, however I do not agree that a lack of change of behavior is harmfull.

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  11. >I would presume that certain calamities are tests for us as I believe you meant to say.

    This is wrong. I will write about it. It is inconceivable that God would make a person suffer just because He wants to test him.

    >Our Tradition tells us that there is a metaphysical truism that happens when we pray,

    You make sweeping statements blaming Tradition. You misinterpret what Tradition means as you do what the supposed Tradion says. Keep on reading my posts and read earlier ones and you will understand.

    The rest of your comment is nonsensical and does not warrant a reply.

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  12. Can you explain to me how reaading "return the house of David" improves me as a person and leads me to repentance?

    Can you explain the book of Iyov? It clearly states there that G-d punished Iyov for a test, and he was otherwise not deserving of being punished.

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  13. Also, if the words of prayer themselves do not mean anything, then why is the halacha that it is preferable to pray in Hebrew?

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  14. >Can you explain to me how reaading "return the house of David" improves me as a person and leads me to repentance?

    Why is not here if not because of wrong decision we and our forebears have made? If you will understand that maybe we will figure out how to change and by doing that bring it back.

    Re Iyov that is a long story but it is not a teast as you understand it. I will get to it when i do providence. First i have to tackle Will, prophecy,and then only can I address Schar veonesh and Hashgacha. Are you fluent in Hebrew? If yes get "Hakdamot Harambam" by Rabbi Ytzchak Shilat.

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  15. http://www.jewishexponent.com/article/1119/

    This isn't related to prayer exactly, but I think its a curiosity worth investigating.

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  16. How we react to the calamities that befall us is the test. A reason cannot be ascribed to a calamity because we don't know how God operates, however our reaction to that calamity is what defines us as people. If we use the words of chazal to turn inwards and reflect on ourselves to see how we can become better, than we are showing that we understand our role in the world. If we simply turn to God and say some words (even though these words are tefilla)without any change in ourselves, than we are relating to God much like a child reacts to his or her parent(pls do something just because I say these words - like saying you're sorry and then going and making the same mistake again, obviously the sorry didn't mean much).

    A lack of change in one's behavior is harmful only insofar as they have somewhat of an incorrect understanding of their role in the world and their relationship with God. In addition, its even worse if you assume that the words themselves have some sort of power.

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  17. This is wrong. I will write about it. It is inconceivable that God would make a person suffer just because He wants to test him.

    It is not inconceivable. It is just not what the Rambam holds but it is clear from the sugya of yesurin shel ahava that chazal conceived of situations when suffering is not a result of sin.

    I would like to suggest a model of prayer which is not completely introspective. Perhaps the idea of prayer is not just an internal process but rather a process of making that which is the essential of a person's self explicit. Proper prayer is when a person learns how to express those unique qualities that only exist in him in a manner which in-line with the national destiny of the Jewish people. That is, that expression of the individual within the community which preserves both the sense of self AND the sense of community in a non-contradictory manner.

    If we accept such a model, then the purpose of prayer during a time of crisis becomes very clear. It is not just a plea for divine mercy and providence, but also a call for all individuals to channel their unique skills and talents towards the success and well being of the community. Further, prayer is a declaration to Hashem that we recognize our mission and are re-dedicated to it-thus we beg that in His infinite mercy, He shows us the way and aids us in reaching that destination.

    Just some food for thought.

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  18. I have a hard time understanding the importance of davening in Hebrew, if the words themesleves, the specific words we are given to repeat over and over again, don't themselves have "power."

    Why an uproar about changing the words of davening, if the words are just means of introspection? Surely there is more than 3 ways of being introspective (ashkanez, sfard, sehphardi)

    I don't know what Rambam says on this issue, but I do know there are many other well respected thinkers who say that Hebrew, especially when davening, has its own merit regardless of kavana.

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  19. Let me try to make this a little clearer.

    The specific words of tefilla are very important and cannot be changed. The reason for that however is not due to the fact that they intrinsically have power. The words of tefilla are a medium through which we know how to approach God, our daily lives, and our own perfection. Through the phrasing and the meaning of the words, we are given a derech for life. Therefore, if one does not understand the words, then how can he or she be privy to the derech that the tefilla is showing us. Two, if you change the nusach of the tefilla than you may ultimately change the meaning and the derech.

    In terms of those other thinkers who say that davening has a merit even by just saying the words regardless of kavanah - what about a kofer or an apikores - would they get any merit or zechus by saying words to God that they themselves deny or don't believe in?

    Or what about the first pasuk of kriyas shema or the first 3 brachos of shemona esrai, where you're not yoztei at all and get no mitzvah if you don't have kavanah. How would they explain those halachos?

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  20. >It is not just a plea for divine mercy and providence, but also a call for all individuals to channel their unique skills and talents towards the success and well being of the community

    That sounds very much just like another way of saying to introspect and reset the actions to meet the goals. I accept that your presentation is alittle more poetic than mine. :-)

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  21. >Or what about the first pasuk of kriyas shema or the first 3 brachos of shemona esrai, where you're not yoztei at all and get no mitzvah if you don't have kavanah

    As yiou well know Kavanah has to be defined. Pirush hamilot, the general gist of the statements etc...

    Rambam in Hilchot tefilah explains that originally Tefila had no nussach. Each person said the Tefila his way. However there was a basic order of saying - praise, bakasha and hoda'ah. Afetr exile in Bavel, the hebrew language was forgotten and people lost the ability to express themselves properly, Anshei Knesset Hagedola decided to set down the text. thereafter one no longer may deviate from the nussach. Posskim are not all in agreement what exactly is considered deviation thus we are still stuck with many variations. the most important Tefilot are pretty similar though On the Main line just posted a very interesting comparison between Genizah and nussach ashkenaz. here http://onthemainline.blogspot.com/2006/07/geniza-amidah.html

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  22. Here is rambam
    אלא חיוב מצוה זו, כך הוא--שיהא אדם מתפלל ומתחנן בכל יום, ומגיד שבחו של הקדוש ברוך הוא, ואחר כך שואל צרכיו שהוא צריך להם בבקשה ובתחינה, ואחר כך נותן שבח והודיה לה' על הטובה שהשפיע לו: כל אחד כפי כוחו.

    ג אם היה רגיל, מרבה בתחינה ובקשה; ואם היה ערל שפתיים, מדבר כפי יוכלו ובכל עת שירצה. וכן מניין התפילות, כל אחד כפי יכולתו--יש שמתפלל פעם אחת ביום, ויש שמתפלל פעמים הרבה. והכול היו מתפללין נוכח המקדש, בכל מקום שיהיה. וכן היה הדבר תמיד ממשה רבנו, עד עזרא.

    ד כיון שגלו ישראל בימי נבוכדנאצר הרשע, נתערבו בפרס ויוון ושאר האומות, ונולדו להם בנים בארצות הגויים; ואותן הבנים נתבלבלה שפתם, והייתה שפת כל אחד ואחד מעורבת מלשונות הרבה. וכיון שהיה מדבר, אינו יכול לדבר כל צרכיו בלשון אחת אלא בשיבוש, שנאמר "ובניהם, חצי מדבר אשדודית, ואינם מכירים, לדבר יהודית--וכלשון, עם ועם" (נחמיה יג,כד).

    ה ומפני זה, כשהיה אחד מהם מתפלל, תקצר לשונו לשאול חפציו או להגיד שבח הקדוש ברוך הוא בלשון הקודש, עד שיערב עימה לשונות אחרות.

    ו וכיון שראה עזרא ובית דינו כך, עמדו ותיקנו להם שמונה עשרה ברכות על הסדר: שלוש ראשונות, שבח לה'; ושלוש אחרונות, הודיה; ואמצעייות, יש בהן שאילת כל הדברים שהן כמו אבות לכל חפצי איש ואיש, ולצורכי הציבור, כולן--כדי שיהיו ערוכות בפי הכול, וילמדו אותן במהרה, ותהיה תפילת אלו העילגים תפילה שלמה, כתפילת בעלי הלשון הצחה. ומפני עניין זה, תיקנו כל הברכות והתפילות הסדורות בפי כל ישראל--כדי שיהא כל עניין, ברכה ערוכה בפי העילג.

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  23. Afetr exile in Bavel, the hebrew language was forgotten and people lost the ability to express themselves properly,


    Are you claiming that there was no connection between forgeting Hebrew and being able to express themselves properly?

    Meaning, if they had forgotten Hebrew, but still knew the phrases, that the tefilah would not need to be written down?


    And yes, is an Athiest davens he gains merit for his davening. I thought that concept was clear in halacha. The only Kavana that you need, based on what I read, is the Kavana that you are doing a mitzvah, not kavana in the meaning of the words.

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  24. Oh, and can you translate that? I undertstand the gist, but I'm not fluent enough to understand nuance in his words.

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  25. I wish I could edit my comments, anyway..

    ה ומפני זה, כשהיה אחד מהם מתפלל, תקצר לשונו לשאול חפציו או להגיד שבח הקדוש ברוך הוא בלשון הקודש, עד שיערב עימה לשונות אחרות.


    As I translate that, I read, Before this, they each had thier own tefilah, they did not know how to ask, or they told stories of Hashem in the Holy language, but when they spoke in other languages...

    Then the next paragraph tells how they made the codified prayer.

    It seems to me, that Lashon Hakodesh is a very important part of the equation.

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  26. That sounds very much just like another way of saying to introspect and reset the actions to meet the goals. I accept that your presentation is alittle more poetic than mine. :-)

    Well, there is definitely overlap, but the idea is that the words have meaning and effect beyond the internal process. It is a process similar to the one described by baal haIkkarim, that the person after the prayer is not the same person as before the prayer - thus the "new" person is one who merits divine assistance (or does not).

    I think maybe the disagreement is here:

    Your post seems to imply that the introspection/effect of prayer is limited to intellectual introspection. I am saying that the act of prayer can ALSO have an intrinsic emotional/spiritual effect which also transforms the individual (I know you reject the idea of a separate spiritual component but humor me for a minute). That is, the non-intellectual experience of prayer can also be transformative on a level other than the intellectual and such a transformation can also merit divine assistance.

    Rav Aryeh Kaplan actually posited that prayer at its purest form is a meditative experience, and one which operates at a level above our normal cognition.

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  27. >Meaning, if they had forgotten Hebrew, but still knew the phrases, that the tefilah would not need to be written down?

    Where did I say that? Rambam is a little unclear but the gist is that apparently the hebrew was mixed with other languages and they could not express their thoughts properly. Ezra therefore set down the words so that the thought is expressed well.

    >And yes, is an Athiest davens he gains merit for his davening. I thought that concept was clear in halacha

    Chas ve chalila. Where did you get that idea?

    Re translation, sorry but I don't have the time. I will see tonight if I can direct you to translated text.

    There are kabbalistic ideas that prayer without meaning is actually the main prayer. It si found in nefesh hachayim by R. Chaim Voloziner. It is quite complicated. Notwhistanding it coming from a great man I think it is incorrect. Generally Kabbalah should be left to the few. There are very few legitimate mekubalim. most popular ones are questionable.

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  28. There are kabbalistic ideas that prayer without meaning is actually the main prayer

    That is quite a projection. I have a feeling that what you would call prayer without meaning is not what they would call prayer without meaning.

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  29. Chardal, i hear you. I have a problem with anything that is not cognitive. Rambam understands that if the sechel takes from the sechel hapoel and transmits to the medameh it is legitimate nevuah. The opposite is possibly AZ. If emotions are triggered by the sechel it probably si a good thing. If they are triggered by outside influences you end up with the Egel!

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  30. >I have a feeling that what you would call prayer without meaning is not what they would call prayer without meaning.

    No it is exactly what Rcv says. You have to look at the Otyot and just know you are satnding and talking to Hkbh. i will give you the source tonight.

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  31. just know you are satnding and talking to Hkbh

    This is WITH meaning.

    I have a problem with anything that is not cognitive

    I hear you as well. But prayer is primarily an Avoda SheBalev. I am not trying to completly remove the cognitive from the equation but I think that it is wrong to remove the other component. The rational faculties must always be the judge of the emotional ones but there is always the goal of the emotions being accepted by the sechel without them originating at the sechel.

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  32. Based on what I have learned, the shape of the letters themselves, must me contemplated, not just the meaning of the letters.

    There is cognitive meaning of language, and then there is "meaning" behind those letters and how they are constructed.


    I learned in, I think it was pesach, that if a man is force fed Matzah, he completes the mitzvah of eating matzah. If a man is force fed treif, he is not over on treif.

    Secondly, Mitzvah goveret(sp?) mitzvah.

    The flip side is also true, that if you do a mitzvah constantly without any kavanah you get diminished returns, but if you do a mitzvah just once, even without kavanah you get credit for it.

    My view on Kabbalah, is the same as the view on Women studying Torah. In our day and age, where concepts of Quatuam mechanics are well understood by many people, it its a shame to limit Torah Study to remove similiar concepts.

    I'm constantly amazed by the science that comes out, that reminds me of what I read in Kaplan's books 10 years ago.

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  33. >SheBalev

    In classical terms Lev is the location of sechel.Vayomer hashem el libo.

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  34. In classical terms Lev is the location of sechel.Vayomer hashem el libo.

    That is what the Rambam asserts. I think it is more appropriate to translate it as self. To the rambam the self IS one's cognition but that is not a definition that I accept.

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  35. I have NEVER heard that before.

    I can understand people saying, that speaking to your heart is the same as speaking to your sekhel, as seckhel can be the combination of your emotions and your strick intelect.. but I have never heard that the heart is the location of Sechel.

    Where do they propose emotion comes from?

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  36. I have to be honest though, I was taught Rambam from the perspective that he was aware of Kabbalah,(and those the code words are the same) so maybe my understanding is from a very different angle than yours.

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  37. That is what the Rambam asserts. I think it is more appropriate to translate it as self. To the rambam the self IS one's cognition but that is not a definition that I accept.

    Why not? You cognintion is not pure logic, like Spock or Data in startrek. Your emotions/wisdom/experiences/self define in part how you will interepret your direct data. Your "self" is the one that judges between the different ideas in your mind, as it is the heart that judges. But ofcourse, the most important thing is that your intelect becomes the "veto"

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  38. cognition is usualy associated with the rational faculties, not the imaginitive or emotional ones.

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  39. That would be the concept of Daat or Yodeah or Chachmah. Sechel, is usually used in terms of wit, and the "stuff Jews have" closer to Wisdom. Which is a mix of the intelect tempered by emotion.

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  40. But I didn't use a hebrew word but an english one which generaly conotates intelectual activity.

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  41. reread that- I see what what you mean now.

    Too many words meaning the same thing, but different things, and not enough acuracy in thier uses for me.

    I still don't see how one can say that cognition is rooted in the heart...

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