Thursday, March 5, 2009

3 Essays

I, friends, have a few minor things of theological significance that have been swimming around in my mind here and there recently, like refuse washed up in a puddle after the rainfall, and although you know that it is not my way here to put things to writing unless I find myself brooding over them for an extended period, I feel these are worth putting to the pen.

1. Artificial Piety

While biking to the place of my education to-day, I was reflecting upon this video (I'm not sure if you've seen it, but rest assured it is entertaining): It is clear to most of us that the methodology this man employs to "battle evil spiritual forces" is at lest somewhat nonsensical. I mean to say, while it is clear that one must battle those forces—for they are real—, and that he is wise in engaging in such a struggle, his particular means are a bit "fanciful". There is no explanation needed for that. .
This reminded me of a discussion (which was previously discussed) that I took part in in Chicago this past summer. It was the American among our Green Bay Shoh'atim arguing with an American Chasid (a stress on "American" I guess) about weather Kabalah should be utlized by the masses as a means for spiritual enrichment. My opinions reflected that of my friend, that Kabalah has taken "too prminent a place in normative Judaism". I felt this way partially because, while I agree with the authenticity of the Zohar for the most part, I do admit that the Moshe De Leon story is a bit fishy, though there has obviously been a form of Kabalah extant in Spain long before De Leon. I was also influenced by my friend having just informed me that while Vital's "Etz Hayyim" discusses transmigration (גילגולים) at length, Sa'adia Gaon dismissed the idea centuries earlier. Yet the man insisted that forms of Kabalah brought people closer to G-d in a way they would not have been otherwise (which, I, in the Sephardi/Israeli community, was more than aware of). Based on these premises I told him something which I found to be somewhat memorable; "if someone gets "h'izuk" from reading comic books, then that's also a good thing" (but it doesn't mean the comics are theologically legitimate).

It was the memory of this incident that came upon me while biking, and reflecting upon the Breslov video. Through this comparison I came to the obvious conclusion that we stress exterior elements of "religion" to too large a degree. If things like wearing your tzitzit strings out, shaking while praying, dressing like a Polish noble or wearing a cowboy hat make you feel more committed to moral ideals, then by all means, but know that the point is the morality that they encourage.

In all honesty though, if one were to take this idea all the way it would lead to the sanctuaries of Secular Humanism, who have a similar complaint toward the religions: If associating with a religion makes you feel all fuzzy inside, OK, but the point is morality, and nothing else". So it's a slippery subject.

2. The Irrationality of Rationalism

(A title which could, by the way, not be more heretical as far as I'm concerned).

There is undoubtedly, friends, a certain friction that one perceives between ones religious ideals and secularist ideals when one studies nature, in all it's aspects, for when one studies nature they discover what a clockwork cause-and-effect system it is, which leaves little room for the notion of attributing events to a Divine source. This, I fear, is a fundamental problem for all "rationalist-religious" such as myself. It is a problem because one of the clear lessons the bible teaches us, and that the Oral Tradition enforces is that natural events, even if they do run in a natural way, are caused by G-d, and weather or not they will take place can be changed by Divine will. Now, I do not mean to say that this is any kind of real theological conflict, since we do not harbor doubt in these religious matters, but only that as a matter of perception it can, at times, be tricky.

The point I mean to bring out is that this "naturalist" way of viewing things can be quite harmful to the religious man (...or woman), for a man can be sitting by his Shabbat table, with his wife and children, in good health and eating good food and think "well, this is the natural course of events based on my actions and the workings of the forces of nature". Obviously, this man would be committing the grave sin of completely overlooking all the good that G-d has done on his behalf.

There was once an old gentleman who roamed around the Shor Yoshuv building engrossed in deep thought (as he had once been a Talmudic genius), but was now unfortunately more than a bit mad. I recall this gentleman once inserted the necessary amount of coins into a soda-pop machine, and lo and behold, out came the soda! This man expressed his gratitude to G-d for this miracle by saying "chasdei Hashem!". Is this a reasonable way to react to such an occurrence? Surely the machine was programed to deliver the soda upon insertion of the coins! This is obviously too enigmatic a question to actually discuss here, but according to "our" theology the answer is that this man was justified! For the laws of nature and the programing of a machine do not always work as one would hope. The evidence of Divine Providence in nature, to an extent, is G-d's occasional absence from nature! To the man with the family I would say: Yes, it is natural for you to have had this family, but how many men fail to find a suitable mate with which to procreate? And how many wives cannot bear? How many people become inexplicably unhealthy (רחמנא לשיזבן), how many families don't have sufficient sustenance, and how many times does the right soda not come out of the machine?!

3. עשה לך רב

I was just thinking of what seems to be a bit of a conflict in Judaic thought.

On the one hand, we are not Christians. One of the mainstays of Christian belief is that one cannot be "saved" by works alone, and certainly not by clinging to "the Law", but only by faith in the manifestation of G-d in this world (Jesus) and more so, to try to learn about, and emulate his ways, though this is decidedly a more Protestant version of things. Judaism is obviously of the complete opposite opinion; that it is mainly, if not only, works and the Law (תורה ומצוות) which have the potential to elevate one to perfection.

Yet this idea of "IMITATIO" has been and is practiced fully by adherents of the Jewish Chassidic sects, in regards to a full adherence to, and imitation of, the Chasidic "Master".

Yet on the other hand something that comes quickly to my mind is the Messilat Yesharim; Luzzatto is very individualistic when it comes to religion; in what to me was the most surprising part of the book, the last chapter, he seems to say that "his work is done" and that it is up to every Chasid (totally different meaning) to pave a path for himself. It should be noted, by the way, that more than being "in opposition" to the opinions of those who do not follow the mitzvot fully, the book is more opposed to the ideas of fully observant sects, namely the archetypal "Chacham" and "Chasid" (maybe one day I'll get back into that Mesliat Yesharim blog!).

But this is not the whole truth though, for the Mishna itself in many places says quite clearly that one aught to "make for himself a Rabbi" and attach himself to that person in every possible way, and learn from them as much as possible, which is somewhat more reminiscent of the Chasidic worldview. —?—. וצריך עיון

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