Emunah Peshutah vs Machashavah

A basic problem when approaching Jewish philosophy is the appropriateness of studying it altogether. As Prof. Sholom Carmy wrote on Avodah:

The people who keep insisting that it’s necessary to prove things about G-d, including His existence, seem to take it for granted that devising these proofs is identical with knowing G-d.
Now if I know a human being personally the last thing I’d do, except as a purely intellectual exercise, is prove his or her existence.

Focusing on the Philosopher’s G-d makes it difficult to see the Personal G-d. On the other hand, without theology, our picture of G-d is blurry, and often wrong.

So the question is, what is the appropriate balance between the two?

I found a variety of opinions:

1- The Rambam seems to belittle emunah peshutah. Yedi’ah is the key to olam haba. The hoi palloi may have to settle for the vague approximation of emunah peshutah, but the philosopher’s machshavah amuqah is superior.

2- The Baal haTanya invokes a mystical resolution. The conflict is a function of pursuing machshavah amuqah from a source other than the Yechidah Kelalis. (The one sage each generation who is like “Moshe in his generation”.) Through the unity of the national soul’s yechidah, a single view of G-d emerges even at both planes of existance.

3- At the other extreme, Rav Nachman miBreslov discouraged the study of theology, placing all value on having a relationship with HaQadosh barukh Hu. The philosopher’s G-d, while logically sound, is cold, transcendent and incomprehensible — very unconducive to this natural parent-child style relationship which is at the center of his definition of “deveiqus” and man’s tafqid.

4- The Brisker approach is to avoid the whole subject. As Rav Moshe Feinstein put it, it’s a hashkafah of not studying hashkafah. It differs from Rav Nachman’s position not so much in that they feel it’s wrong, but that it’s pointless. The ikkar is learning halakhah and man’s duty in this world.

R’ YB Soloveitchik puts forth this position in his essary Qol Dodi Dofeiq: The Jewish question [of tragedy] is not “Why?” but “How am I supposed to respond?” Rabbi Soloveitchik simply wasn’t curious about theological questions. His philosophy has an existentialist agenda. It doesn’t deal with questions of how G-d is or how He runs the world, but rather he presents a detailed analysis of the human condition and the world as we see it. Because our dilemma is part of the human condition, he discusses it as a dialectic. Rabbi Soloveitchik has no problem with the idea that we simultaneously embrace conflicting truths. However, he leaves little record of his own personal confrontation with the tension of this particular dialectic. I believe it’s his Brisker heritage.

The problem with positions 3 and 4 is that they do not have the support of either the scholastic rishonim (eg: Rav Saadia Ga’on, the Rambam, R’ Albo), the antischolastic rishonim (eg: R’ Yehudah haLevi), the kabbalistically inclined (eg: the Ramban), nor the Ramchal, the Besh”t, the Gra, R’ Chaim Vilozhiner… Their nature is that only an explicit discussion of our particular problem would turn up antecedents. One can’t argue from silence that some rishon agreed with them because perhaps he simply chose to commit his time to publishing in other areas.

5- When thinking about this further I realized that I assumed a different stance when writing AishDas’s charter. I think it warrants mention because I believe it’s the position of the Mussar Movement. It reflects the approach I see utilized by Rav Dessler in Michtav MeiEliyahu.

R’ Lopian defines mussar as dealing with the space of an amah — getting ideas from the mind to the heart. We often think things that don’t reflect how we feel and many of the forces that influence our decision-making. Akin to RYBS’s dialectic, we embrace different ideas and motives in different modes of our consciousness.

As for our contradiction, the question is one of finding unity between mind and its ability to understand and explain, to philosophize about G-d and His governance of the universe, and the heart and how we feel and react toward Him.

Emunah, bitachon, ahavas Hashem, yir’as Hashem, etc… are middos. They are not acquired directly through study, but through the tools of tiqun hamidos. (With the observation that constant return to a subject operates on both levels.) There is a reason why the kiruv movement is built on the experience of a Shabbos, and not some ultimate proof of G-d. (Aish haTorah’s “Discovery” program, the only counter-example that came to mind, is intended to be a hook, to pique people’s interest to get them to that Shabbos, not kiruv itself.)

Rather than seeing this as a dilemma, I saw it as a need. We can embrace both because each involves a very different component of self. And since avodah must be bekhol nafshekha, we actually MUST study both machshavah and mussar. Meaningful avodas Hashem must require involvement of both mind and heart.

Other Tines on the Fork

The hashkafic fork in the road that I’ve been referring to repeatedly has two approaches: sheleimus / temimus, the perfection of the self, and deveikus, cleaving to G-d. If you’d like, derekh Hashem as following the path G-d takes, and derekh Hashem as taking the path to G-d.Within Chassidus, one finds Chabad, acheiving deveikus through wisdom, insight and knowledge, and other forms of chassidus which focus more experientially. As Lubavitch calls them, Gachas chassidim. This is after the next three sefiros after Chabad: gevurah (strength and restraint), chessed (kindness and giving), and tife’eres (the splendor of their harmony.Within the sheleimus camp there are numerous approaches: Hirsch’s synthesis of Torah and derekh eretz, i.e. working within the world and advancing society in Torah ways, being a pefect Mensch-Israel; Mussar’s perfection of personality; the Yeshiva world’s perfection of mind through knowing G-d’s Torah, etc…

Other possibilities exist and similarly could have become movements.

The Ramchal’s position is a fusion of the two. In Derekh Hashem he writes that the ultimate reward is G-d Himself, and therefore man’s goal is one of deveikus. However, since G-d Himself is a Creator, to experience G-d Himself we need the experience of being creative beings, to earn our reward. Thus, Hashem created two worlds, this one in which we perfect ourselves, temimus, and the world to come in which we experience deveikus.

However, the Ramchal’s definition of temimus is entirely shaped by the fact that the point of that temimus is to be a being capable of as much deveikus as possible. Which is why he writes Mesilas Yesharim as structured around R’ Pinchas ben Ya’ir’s ladder to ru’ach haqodesh. His temimus is about a totally different set of midos than those in Cheshbon haNefesh or Orechos Tzadiqim. It’s a path that’s fully defined by both tines of the fork.

This might be why the Ramchal’s philosophy is so popular today, being most like the “default position” most Orthodox-from-birth Jews pick up in their childhood.

A fourth option is common in some Orthodox academic circles. Note that Hashem doesn’t enter into a beris with us as individuals; the covenant is between G-d and the Jewish people. Therefore the role of mitzvos is not personal wholeness or personal closeness to G-d, but our part within the role of the Jewish people in the world.

This approach has the advantage of only requiring that mitzvos make sense as norms, not for each individual to which they apply. Gender differences don’t have to fit every man and every woman, but can be explained in terms of the value to the Jewish People of having this standard, given propensities amongst men and women as a whole.

Last, if we look at the second mishnah in Avos, we find three pillars: Torah, Avodah and Gemillus Chassadim. Or, as the Maharal puts it (Derech haChaim ad loc): perfection of one’s relationship with oneself within the world that is our minds (Torah), perfection of our relationship with G-d within Shamayim (Avodah), and perfection of our relationship to others who we encounted in the physical world (Chessed).

The deveikus approach seems to say that one can make Avodah primary, and from that everything else will follow. The temimus approach makes Torah (as the Maharal explains it) primary, and a perfect self naturally will be one that serves Hashem and is generous to others. However, what about a chessed centered Judaism? It sounds to be Hillel’s message, when he says to the prospective convert that all of the Torah is “that which is disturbing to you, do not do to others — the rest is commentary.”

When I noted the lack of such a movement on Avodah, Rn Chana Luntz suggested that perhaps the Beis Yaakov movement is founded on this principle. It seems so.

The Fall of Mimeticism and Forks in the Hashkafic Road

In a famous article in Tradition titled “Rupture and Reconstruction“, Dr Haym Soloveitchik describes a change in how we relate to Judaism from pre-war Europe to post-war US and Israel. The rupture in Jewish life caused by the Holocaust forced a reconstruction process. Pre-war religion was largely mimetic, i.e. based upon what people do and how they respond. A transmission of the tradition by culture. In order to reconstruct, we turned to texts, to halachic codes and other formalizations.This fits with a saying of Chazal. “‘Listen, my child, to mussar avicha — the tradition of your father, and do not neglect toras imekha — the Torah of your mother.’ Do not read ‘imekha — your mother’ but ‘umasekha — your nation’.” Mandatory formal education is an obligation of the father, mussar avikha. The Torah learned by absorbtion, at the mother’s knee, by breathing the culture of our nation, is toras imekha / umasekha.I find this characterization ironic, given the identity of the author. His greatgrandfather and namesake, R’ Chaim Brisker, was famously textualist in his approach to halakhah despite living pre-war. Nor was Brisk the first: the Vilna Gaon often ruled based on theoretical argument in contradiction to mimetic tradition. Chassidus could not have emerged if people weren’t looking at the traditions and looking for a new justification for them.

And this isn’t simply true pragmatically. Philosophically as well, we started looking for movements to justify our lifestyle. The aforementioned Chassidus, Hisnagdus, Mussar, Hirschian neo-Orthodoxy were all trying to provide a basis rather than relying on Tradition, as Tevya the Milkman would have.

In distinction to Dr Soloveitchik’s thesis, I would instead speak of two ruptures. The first was the Haskalah, and with it the fall of mimeticism. However, the response to this in the 19th century was primarily to find new derakhim to give depth and meaning to our lives. (This is even true for Brisk’s hashkafah that halachah stands on its own, and hashkafah is to be played down, and the Hungarian approach of banning change. Asserting that structure must come from halakhah, or that one must manually preserve that which was hitherto part of the Jewish preconscious, are themselves textualist, formal changes.)

The Alter of Novorodok, in the first essay of Madreigas haAdam, speaks of various eras in human history. From the tanna’im until the haskalah was the period of the yeshiva. With the haskalah, the ir, the city, went out of sync with the yeshiva. Therefore there was a new need for Mussar, for the conscious inculcation of those values and reactions that until then would have been transmitted unsconsciously. In our terms, toras umasekha no longer tracked mussar avikha. It now had to relayed textually and formally, in the manner of mussar avikha.

It was therefore after the haskalah that the Ashkenazi world faced a fork in the hashkafic road, between sheleimus (self-completion, walking in G-d’s image) and deveiqus (cleaving to G-d, walking to Him).

The shift after the Holocaust was, in my opinion, the loss of direction. Rather than trying to fill in the gap with a formal philosophy or a program for tikkun hamidos and/or deveiqus, we’re just in a vacuum. We’re not just textualists, we’re focused almost exclusively on halachic texts. Aggadita is limited to nice truisms that can be repeated at the Shabbos table. And ironically that gives us fewer tools for halachic resolution. How does one decide which pesaq is right amongst those justified by the sources without focusing on a pre-halachic definition of “right”? And so we “play safe” or invoke the rules of doubt. A 19th century Chassid had a priority system by which his poseiq could decide which issues warrant chumrah, which qulah.

Uncoinicidentally, it was after WWII that Rav Dessler said we need to pursue a fusion of the two paths. That our generation is too poor to select Mussar or Chassidus (being the movements that extended sheleimus and deveiqus to their maxima) exclusively, that we need all the tools at our disposal.

Aspaqlaria

I’m sure a reasonable number of readers are wondering just what is an Aspaqlaria anyway, and why would someone choose it as the name of a blog?

The gemara contrasts Moshe’s prophecy as being as though he saw through an “aspqalaria hame’irah”, while those of other prophets was as through an “aspaqlaria she’einah me’irah”. Similarly levels of wisdom between the earlier generations and the later are likened to the “aspqalaria hame’irah” and “aspaqlaria she’einah me’irah”. Last, the gemara uses this contrast to describe different levels of experiencing the Divine Presence amongst the deceased in heaven.

The Arukh defines “aspaqlaria” as lapis specularis, a relatively transparent mineral used in ancient times for windows. It’s a loan word whose root is the same as the English “spectacles” or “spectator” — to see.

According to Rashi (Sukkah 45b) the “me’irah” here refers to a mirror. However, that could be a lens that is as clear as a mirror, or a mirror itself.

The rishonim on Keilim 30:2 (the Bartenura, Tif’eres Yisrael and Tosafos Yom Tov) define the aspaqlaria to be a mirror, and “hame’irah” would be “well lit”. A translation of “mei’rah” that is appropriate if it means “window” as well. A clear view vs. a murky view.

In Yaaqov’s dream, a ladder ascended from the ground to heaven. In Or Yisrael, R’ Yisrael Salanter explains that the ladder was Yaaqov’s own soul. As R’ Chaim Vilozhiner writes in Nefesh haChaim (1:6 and elsewhere), of all of creation, only man is a combination of all the forces; man alone connects the worlds.An idea found in Seifer haYetzirah which thereby influences Jewish Thought from R’ Saadia Gaon’s rationist philosophy (Emunos veDei’os sec.6) to the Zohar is that the self is composed of three elements/aspects/attributes of the soul: nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah. (Another topic that deserves much future treatment.)

As the Vilna Gaon describes them (Peirush al Kamah Agados, Koenigsburg ed. 11a), the nefesh is man’s connection to the world around him, a product of his soul dwelling in a brain, subject to hormonal tides, etc… The ru’ach is man’s will, his self-awareness, the ability to live in the world of the mind. The neshamah is man’s existance in the spiritual realm, our presence in heaven, higher realities and higher goals.

The hedonist identifies with the pursuit of physical pleasures. His ru’ach is adulterated with habits of the nefesh, so that he only sees himself as a an animal being subject to the rules of nature.

There is no reason why one could not bring the neshamah into conscious awareness. Someone could drop the barrier between what he experiences on a spiritual level and his awareness.

One way of understanding the navi is just that. And this was the model I had in mind when speaking of the aspaqlaria as a mirror. The navi, by being able to see his full self, can see beyond the physical world and the world of his mind, can see the activities of angels.

(Another element of this shift in awareness is a shift from living in a reality dictated by physical law to one dominated by moral law. Rav Dessler uses this idea to explain a notion of the Maharal’s about the nature of miracles. See my Machashavah Techilah column for parashas Beshalach.)

The Rambam’s understanding of that mishnah could be either; the Tif’eres Yisra’el’s understanding is that he says it’s a mirror, the Tosafos Yom Tov understands the Rambam to translate “aspaqlaria” as “lens”. Rabbi Bulman zt”l documents the linguistic and scientific roots of the disagreement.

The difference in the metaphor is profound. Is the means to prophecy and wisdom a lens to help us see a higher realm, or a mirror that helps us better see ourselves?

This touches on two topics I’ve written about before: First the hashkafic fork, as R’ YG Bechhofer put it, between the chassid’s focus on deveikus, on cleaving to G-d, and the misnageid’s notion of the primacy of temimus, self perfection. See also my Machshavah Techilah column for Lekh-Likha which finds this dichotomy in Hashem’s injuction to Avraham that he “his-haleikh lefanai veheyei samim — walk himself before Me, and be whole.”

Second, there is a debate between the Ramban and the Abarbanel’s unserstanding of the Rambam as to the nature of prophecy. According to the Ramban, the prophetic experience is the transmission of a truth to the prophet using a dreamlike metaphor as a medium. The Abarbanel explains the Rambam as saying that the prophet peceives events actually occuring in higher realms, which his mind then clothes in the familiar when trying to make sense of it. This goes to the root of what was the “Man” in the chariot in Yechezqeil’s vision. According to the Rambam, it had to be a created thing. According to the Ramban, the Man was a metaphor standing in for Hashem Yisbarakh. Again, this was discussed in a Machshavah Techilah column, this one for Mishpatim.

In Yaaqov’s dream, a ladder ascended from the ground to heaven. In Or Yisrael, R’ Yisrael Salanter explains that the ladder was Yaaqov’s own soul. As R’ Chaim Vilozhiner writes in Nefesh haChaim (1:6 and elsewhere), of all of creation, only man is a combination of all the forces; man alone connects the worlds.An idea found in Seifer haYetzirah which thereby influences Jewish Thought from R’ Saadia Gaon’s rationist philosophy (Emunos veDei’os sec.6) to the Zohar is that the self is composed of three elements/aspects/attributes of the soul: nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah. (Another topic that deserves much future treatment.)

As the Vilna Gaon describes them (Peirush al Kamah Agados, Koenigsburg ed. 11a), the nefesh is man’s connection to the world around him, a product of his soul dwelling in a brain, subject to hormonal tides, etc… The ru’ach is man’s will, his self-awareness, the ability to live in the world of the mind. The neshamah is man’s existance in the spiritual realm, our presence in heaven, higher realities and higher goals.

The hedonist identifies with the pursuit of physical pleasures. His ru’ach is adulterated with habits of the nefesh, so that he only sees himself as a an animal being subject to the rules of nature.

There is no reason why one could not bring the neshamah into conscious awareness. Someone could drop the barrier between what he experiences on a spiritual level and his awareness.

One way of understanding the navi is just that. And this was the model I had in mind when speaking of the aspaqlaria as a mirror. The navi, by being able to see his full self, can see beyond the physical world and the world of his mind, can see the activities of angels.

These topics are only being touched upon. They ought get a more full treatment in their own entries.

Welcome

We recently concluded Mesukim MiDevash, a weekly collection of divrei Torah on the subjects of machshavah, mussar, and the meaning of various teflillos. If you’re curious about what I was thinking about before starting this blog, many of the articles there are mine. Before that, mainly around seven years ago, I wrote the Aspaqlaria column you find in this directory. Most of those articles appeared in Yitz Weis’s Toras Aish.My current forum for sharing these kinds of thoughts is through public speaking. However, I wanted to spark a broader dialogue on the fundamental issues of our lives, so I started this blog. Feel free to comment, correct, and challenge the ideas in these “pages”. It is important to think about and grapple with these issues, even though many of them resist a full resolution. The intent behind this blog is to start the ball rolling, not to present prepared and simple answers to an inherently complex subjects.As I see it, the most fundamental things lacking from contemporary expressions of traditional Judaism are the philosophical underpinnings that give that observance context and structure, and the proper focus on tikun hamidos — realizing that the purpose of mitzvos is to enoble the self, and the goal of enobling oneself is to better one’s observance, to become a better eved Hashem.

Miqeitz: Time and Process

The parashah opens “Vayhi mikeitz sh’nasayim yamim — and it was at the end of a pair of years of days”. After Yosef spent two years in prison, Par’oh’s dream leads the wine steward to remember Yosef and eventually leads to his redemption. But why does the pasuk say “sh’nasayim yamim”, rather than just “shenasayim”? [1]

Second, why is the term used here for the arrival of the denoted time “mikeitz”, at the endpoint (from “katzeh”, edge [2])? How does it differ from saying that the “z’man”, or “eis” (both meaning “time”) had arrived?

This duplication of terms for time is echoed in next week’s parashah, when Ya’akov describes his age to Par’oh as “The days of the years of my travels…” [3] as well as at the beginning of parashas Vayechi, in counting out Ya’akov avinu’s lifespan, “… And the days of Ya’akov was, the years of his life…” [4] The repetition implies that there are distinct concepts. Yom and shanah refer to different things.

Most ancient societies viewed time as cyclic. Among the motivations suggested [5] for the building of the Tower of Bavel was the fear that the flood was part of a 1,656-year cycle, and they would need to prepare for a second flood.

The position is understandable. Plato [6] concludes that since our means of measuring time was the cyclic movement of astronomical objects so must the time they define be cyclic. The month and its cycle of phases, the year and its cycle of seasons define a cycle of time. The seasonal cycle also shapes the farmer’s lifestyle into cycles. Time cannot be measured without a predictable repetition of events, be it the falling of grains of sand, the swing of a pendulum, the escapement of a clock, the vibration of a quartz crystal or the waves of light emitted by cesium atoms.

This mindset is alien to modern man. The contemporary western view of time is linear, a dimension — a progress from the primitive to the advanced. This notion that history progresses comes from Judaism, from our view of time as running from First Cause to Ultimate Purpose, a history spanning from Adam to the Messianic Era and beyond. This acceptance is an accomplishment of the Chashmona’i revolution against the Greek mindset. Linear time gives us a view of man in which he can redeem himself; he is not doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. On the other hand, Judaism simultaneously embraces a cyclic view of time. As the Hagaddah phrases the purpose of the seder, “A person is obligated to see himself as though he himself came out of Egypt.” Every Shavuos we are to accept the Torah anew. Our holidays not only repeat the cycle of the Exodus, they are tied to agricultural events and thereby the cycle of seasons. The holiday is both reliving the Sukkos of the desert as well as celebrating bringing in our crops. [7]

The Zohar [8] describes a system of grammatical gender follows the conventions of sexual reproduction: Biblical Hebrew uses masculine nouns for those things that we think of as initiators that start a process. Feminine nouns take that seed and develop it into something more complete and usable. “Yom”, being in the masculine is therefore an initiator. “Yom” represents a unit of progress. It is a unit of linear time, a progress from birth to death. The culmination of history is notably called “acharis hayamim” [9] and in the navi, “yom Hashem” [10].

In contrast, “shanah” is from the same root as “two”, “to repeat”, “to learn”, or “to change”, and perhaps even that of “to age” and “to sleep”, as in “venoshantem ba’aretz” [11].

Shanah speaks of a retreat. A person can actively embrace that retreat, use it as a chance to build on what one already has. Or, it can be a time when he simply is a victim of circumstance.

While there is a need for progress, there is also a need to step back, to review, to develop the idea into something we can incorporate within ourselves and can use as a basis for future growth. It can be a time to regain a balance between technological progress and one’s basic humanity and values. If he embraces and uses the time, then he has achieved productive review, “years of days”.

Perhaps this is why the Malbim [12] explains Ya’akov avinu’s reply to Par’oh as having two parts. To Par’oh’s question about years, he answers that he traveled this earth 130 years. About days, Ya’akov laments that he did not use his time as productively as did his fathers, “Few and insufficient were the days of my life’s years, and they never reached the days of the years of my forefather’s lives.” [13]

R’ Aharon Kotler zt”l commented to a student on the occasion of the birth of the student’s son about the phrase “The bris should be be’ito ubizmano”, using both “eis” and “z’man” to denote its proper time. Rav Aharon explained the difference. If the baby is healthy, then the bris is at the pre-decided time, on the eighth day. If not, then it will be at the right time for that individual baby. Ideally the bris would be at both.

A z’man is a time that comes according to a pre-scheduled appointment, ready or not. It is a point in a shanah, in cyclic time that runs its celestial heartbeat regardless of human action. And so, the repeat of the exodus is “Z’man Cheiruseinu”, our time of freedom. An eis is a landmark in the course of progression. And so, one is “kovei’ah ittim baTorah”, one sets aside times for Torah.

But neither a z’man nor an eis can represent the goal of the trip. Reflection without progress and progress without reflection as to its purpose does not get one to a meaningful goal. A keitz, an endpoint, can only come from both.

Yosef’s experience in the pit was not simply measured in years of survival, but also in personal progress. After the culmination, the qeitz, of shenasayim yamim, he was ready to emerge a leader.


Footnotes:

[1] We find the exact same turn of phrase in Shmuel II 14:28 and Yirmiyahu 28:3. In all three cases, the time measured is one in which someone (here — Yosef, Avshalom in Shmuel II) or something (the utensils of the Beis HaMikdash in Yirmiyahu) was in hiding.

[2] C.f. Shemos 36:33, “And he made the middle bar to pass through the boards [of the Mishkan] from the katzeh to the katzeh.”

[3] Bereishis 47:8

[4] Ibid. v. 28. Notable is the use of singular “hayah” referring to the days.

[5] Bereishis Rabba 38:1, third opinion

[6] Timaeus 36c-d

[7] Vayikra 23:39,43

[8] Pinechas 249a-b

[9] Eg. Sukkah 52b

[10] Eg. Malachi 4:5

[11] Devarim 4:25

[12] Bereishis 47:8

[13] Bereishis 47:9