Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reading Mevakshei Panecha - Part 1 - Secular Knowledge and The Torah Jew

My Israeli friend Mechel recently gave me as a gift the book Mevakshei Panecha, an interview of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein by Rav Chaim Sabato. It is not an easy read although Rav Sabato is a writer par excellence. Rav Lichtenstein has developed the dialectical method to an art form and some chapters leave the reader in a state of confusion – at least that was the case with me. The effort to read is however well worth it as we get a glimpse of the workings of a great mind and a Gadol Betorah, one of the greatest of our time. I am about half way through the book and I want to share/discuss some points that I found enlightening and interesting. As the book is in Hebrew, I will translate the pertinent excerpts.

In a chapter discussing how to relate to values that come to us from outside the Torah:

“There are people including gentiles whose historical mission is one of creativity – literary or moral creativity. These are people that you see in them greatness whether greatness of the soul or moral greatness. How can one not be impressed with Samuel Johnson  ?  A man who started life in the London gutter and climbed to a level of Gemilat Chassadim that I wish I could reach. Should I ignore this just because he was a gentile? …. What nobility, what fear of heaven and dedication are projected and the final lines of the wondrous sonata of Milton regarding his blindness! Why should I ignore this?”

We are not talking about TIDE (Torah im Derech Eretz) which is generally seen as a utilitarian approach to secular studies but rather a fundamental appreciation of that knowledge and the creativity found in that world. An appreciation that sees it as part of the basic education needed to make us into perfected human beings and Jews. However Rav Lichtenstein does set some limitations.

“One has to differentiate between the ideal and the practical. In practice, one must be careful when importing values from the outside by looking at two issues. One issue is self-suspicion. When I am searching for values outside the Torah I must ask myself: what propels me to look for universal values? Why am I not looking for them in our own sources? Am I truly looking? Is the search occurring only after I have fully evaluated everything that is written in the Torah about these values without finding them, to the point of having to look outside? Is there another reason that I am compelled to look in places other than the Torah? … The second issue one must investigate is where these external values come from. Are they possibly coming from sources that from our standpoint are unreliable and unwanted? Having concluded these two analyses I find myself confronting a universal question and not necessarily a Jewish one. It is told that the Caliph Omar Ibn Hatab, one of the famous Caliphs in the middle Ages ordered the burning of the famous great library in Alexandria. He argued that if what is written in this library is true it must be found in the Koran and if it is not found there it must be false…”

Rav Lichtenstein subtly points out that the standard Yeshiva world argument that anything not found in the Torah must be false is an old argument developed by other religions. As he points out further this argument was quite common in 17th century England between the Puritans and their more enlightened opponents.  Rav Lichtenstein then fleshes out the immediate questions one has to confront when going out to look for external values. First we have to determine how well grounded the person that embarks on the search is. Is he easily swayed or is he self-confident and has a firm footing in his thinking?

“We then have to focus on two additional issues. One is the environment the person is in. When I say environment I refer to two things. First is to analyze the social, financial and cultural environments. The whole environment could be so different from what it once was, that the sources do not address the current situation. We have to however caution; the fact that the circumstances changed does not mean that one has to automatically expect a changed stand. Not every circumstantial change forces us to modify our thinking or outlook. But we must at least be aware of the changed circumstances. I always ask myself whether the situation I am in now is a mirror of the situation and circumstances that is presented in the words of Chazal and the Rishonim. Second, even if the environment has not changed, I have to ask are the tools that I have now different than those that were available to the past. And even if there is no change in either the circumstances or the tools, sometimes there is a change in the weltanschauung that I have to things, which may not be exactly the same it was once….”

Rav Lichtenstein is very sensitive to the changes that have occurred over time and the effect they have on how we look at them from the Torah viewpoint. We cannot let the Torah viewpoint become ossified to the point of making it irrelevant. Rav Sabato asks him if his father in law, RYBS Z”L was influenced by external sources.

“A certain person once asked me if Rav Soloveitchik was influenced by Kierkegaard. I understand that one who asks this question does so with a critical undertone, as if saying that should the Rav have been influenced by Kierkegaard, woe is to us!   I answered him that if the question was whether the Rav read Kierkegaard, of course he did!  But if the question was did he take anything from him? I don’t know for sure but I suspect the answer is positive too. Of course, a great person like the Rav, who learned Torah all his life, who is rooted in its world, its opinions and its values – such a person when he is confronted by a book by Kierkegaard, if after a careful inspection he discovers that the things he read in there are true, moral and deepen our understanding of divine worship, does he have to ignore them? Does he have to turn away from them? Why? Just because they are based on Kierkegaard? If the notion is true, he will take it and if not he will ignore it, not because it comes from Kierkegaard but because it is wrong... There is a problem that many people nowadays have, including Yeshiva students. They lack the ability to dive into stormy seas. They live in a world of fear. They are afraid of everything. A part of the Yeshiva world suffers from this disability. True, in some matters they are right, but in many other things, and not necessarily literary matters, they are not right…”

Rav Lichtenstein interestingly starts the discussion by setting very clear parameters. One has to analyze and be suspicious of one’s motives. We first have to explore the whole Torah and try to find an answer to the existential question that is intriguing the searcher. He then admits that there are contemporary matters and issues that because of the environment, the culture, the tools we now have, cannot be solved by ignoring external sources. And then he turns to the Rav and how he did take out good ideas from secular culture and introduced them into Judaism.  The way I read the progression of his thought is that people of the caliber of the Rav are able to independently fish in the deep waters of secular thought and find the kernels of truth that advance the thinking of a modern Jew living in our world today. He does not say it, but it is clear that he sees himself as capable of doing the same. Lesser scholars and other interested students can then study their insights which help them navigate the contemporary cultural currents. The Yeshivot are so afraid of possible deviance that they prohibit even that, thus restricting their members from fully participating in the contemporary world. As we will see further, this respect for truth from whatever its source leads Rav Lichtenstein to a unique and extremely enlightening perspective on the secular Jews of our time. I will write about that in an upcoming post.



Sunday, December 04, 2011

Reb Zadok on Attribution -

Several years ago I read an article which referred to an interesting approach by Reb Zadok Hacohen of Lublin  regarding attribution. At the time I was lazy to look it up and promptly forgot where I had seen the quote and of course could not find in the writings of Reb Zadok.  This Shabbat I read an article by Professor Moshe Halamish and lo and behold there is the quote again. This time I went to the source and looked it up. It is quite interesting so I decided to translate it and post it. It is in Sefer Hazichronot page 68a in a discussion regarding the different trends in kabbalah. Reb Zadok explains that Kabbalistic insights cannot be developed solely through rational processes. Reb Zadok then continues to explain how these metaphysical insights are acquired intuitively and through deep contemplation by certain perfected individuals.

“For this apprehension is an emanation from above to prophets through prophetic processes and to sages through Ruach Hakodesh, each apprehending according to the status of his knowledge, apprehension and personal perfection.  Moshe rabbeinu in his vision of the burning bush first and his later vision when God passed all His goodness in front of him, was shown God’s true unity. However, unlike Yechezkel he did not see the chariots, the Chayot and the Ofanim; he had other visualizations according to his status…. These different visualizations varied according to each sage amongst them Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai [the protagonist of the Zohar] whose visualizations varied at different times. So too in the Sefer Habahir attributed to rabbi Nechunya ben Hakana, and Sefer Hatemunah, attributed to rabbi Ishmael the High priest, other visualizations are found where they speak in a completely different vein. So too  the kabbalah of the Geonim that we find in the Pardes and other holy books,  a selection of which is reprinted in a small sefer named “Selection of Kabbalah from Geonim” (Warsaw edition), a reader may notice that it is a  totally different approach to kabbalah then what is found in Sefer Hazohar and its companions.  That is so because it is based on the vision that was experienced by one of the Geonim, the head of their school …. There is also is printed a sefer Mayan Hachochma that is attributed to Moshe rabbeinu which is also quoted in Pardes, Pelach Harimon, in the introduction to Sefer Emek Hamelech and others. It appears to me that it is accepted by the earlier sages that it is a holy book and it seems to me that it was written in the days of the later Geonim or close to that time by one holy person who through his Ruach Hakodesh was able to apprehend what Moshe rabbeinu did receive from Sinai (!) for a Chacham is greater than a prophet as Ramban in Baba Batra 12a writes see there as quoted in Ayin Yaakov.  The beginning of that sefer is already found in sefer Haiyun by Rav Chamai Gaon parts of which is printed in the above mentioned Selection. It is also mentioned in sefer Hakana etc… It seems to me that Sefer Haiyun was in front of the author of sefer Mayan Hachochma and he followed along the same path a little though we find many additional novel things that he apprehended during his own contemplation. For those who visualize the Chariot do it via Ruach Hakodesh  gained through knowledge and rational thought, which is however supplemented by superhuman apprehension emanating from above through Ruach Hakodesh as explained by Ramban…     ”

Reb Zadok is referring to Ramban who explains the Gemara that Nevuah no longer exists, as limiting it to prophetic visions however Ruach Hakodesh that accompanies knowledge of great sages still continues to exist. Reb Zadok explains that to be a supplemental insight that emanates from HKBH and that is Ruach Hakodesh.  I have attached a scan of the pertinent page in the original Sefer Hazichronot.

This is a fascinating concept developed by a Chassidic Rebbe who was also a great scholar and thinker and who had a very keenly developed critical sense. He discerns the different schools of Kabbalistic thought. The amazing thing is that he understands that Kabbalah is a personal experience rather than something that is transmitted. There seems to be a basic philosophical thinking that goes back to antiquity but is reinterpreted by each visionary according to his personal state of mind and thinking. That tradition of personal intuition and insight seems to go back to the prophets all the way to Moshe rabbeinu.  A sefer attributed to an earlier sage may be written by someone else at a later date and attributed to the earlier person if it supposedly was based on his thinking.  Is that what happened to the Zohar? Was it Rav Moshe de Leon’s insights according to Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai? Reb Zadok does not say so but can we infer so from his way of thinking?