Sunday, September 02, 2012

For Barry: The Value of Kabbalah

This is a long conversation, but that's not necessarily a reason not to begin.

One of our problems in Yahadus is how to relate to Hashem, with Whom - with the exception of Nevi'im - humans cannot experience a tangible relationship (for this purpose, one that takes place via one of the five senses).

There are many reasons why one would want to pursue such a relationship. Perhaps most importantly, because our relationships with the other humans (and non-humans) are supposed to be in emulation of our relationships with Hashem.

Kabbalah, with its Sefiriotic system, provides us with tools by which to appreciate our relationships with Hashem - and also with tools by which we can recreate those relationships in our interpersonal interactions.

Kabbalah also deepens our understandings of the roles played by great human figures. Thus, the correlations of the seven lower ("emotional") sefiros to seven great leaders grants us both a more profound understanding of their personalities - and their personalities in turn grant us a more profound understanding of the modes of relationship they each represent.

That's just a conversation-opener...


  1. While I appreciate the effort to discuss things, but please don't be offended if I argue strongly or ask extremely difficult questions.

    I should repeat the following paragraph from earlier thread. It is more or less a general template for any field that is probably used in every thesis, journal article, conference talk, etc. If necessary, we can elaborate on why each of these is important to cover.

    What I have learned from the academic world is we start from scratch. Define the problem you came to discuss. Explain why that problem is important. Review what previous work has been done in the field. Why has that work been insufficient to address your question. Say what novel approach you have taken, and show data to prove that it better addresses the question at hand. Make a conclusion to review what you have contributed to the field that was missing until now.

    So it seems that you are indeed attempting to address the first step, which is to lay out the problem kabalah is trying to solve.

    You state that the main problem is how to relate to Hashem who is intangible. But I have 2 objections thus far.

    First, do children who no nothing about kabala have a problem relating to Hashem? When they say shema with their parents and are taught breishis in school and learn to make brachos, and experience shabbos, are they not relating well to Hashem?

    Second, there is a Rashi on the pasuk about uvo tidbak or ldavka bo (don't remember), that asks, can we be misdabek beshchina? It is a burning fire. Rather, we must emulate the Shechina, mah hu rachum, af atah rachum, mah hu malbish arumim, af atah malbish arumim, etc. The RBSH may not even expect us to relate to him, as we can't grasp him. Rather we should be good to others, like he is.

    So I can't say for sure that so far you have defined a clear problem that needs (or has) a solution. Of course in later steps, you would have to show that kabala is the best solution and that previous approaches do not provide a satisfactory solution.

    Sorry for nitpicking, but this is a very very difficult area for me.

  2. I know I can be a real pain in the neck, but if one is going to say that system A allows one to relate better to Hashem than system B, we ought to devise some rating scale that allows people to objectively determine how successfully they are relating. Then we can compare systems. So one first needs to define what it means to relate to Hashem altogether.

    Now I realize that relationships are not a hard science, but even in the social sciences there are scales in rating the severity of certain conditions like depression; or benchmarks for how well adjusted a child is when it comes to diagnosing him with any possible learning or behavioral disorder, etc. So one must have some concrete way of measuring success or lack thereof in his relationship with Hashem.

    You can of course argue that this is not possible here, but then how do we determine whether kabala is improving or harming his relationship with Hashem?

    I might add to my first post that suppose a bunch of friends somewhere in any town, we can call it West Hempstead for arguments sake, just to give it a name, might get together in the Sukkah of a Rabbi, say Rabbi Meyer Fendel, just as an example, and make an informal mesibah and sing songs and exchange vortlach on Yontof. Are they relating well to the RBSH?

    Anyway, please don't feel rushed to respond. Take a day or week or whatever. These are tough questions.

  3. I am not sure this defense of Kabbalah is consistent with the claims of Kabbalah.

    I recognize that in 2012 America, we need to package everything as a mechanism for personal fulfillment but must that extend to Kabbalah itself? Need we turn "devarim ha'omdim berumo shel olam" into a "tool" by which to appreciate OUR relationship with Hashem?

  4. James, welcome to thread. We are only at beginning of conversation, and true, maybe RYGB may want to switch tracks later regarding the nature of the specific benefits of learning kabala.

    But the rules here are to analyze the subject in a rigorous and rational manner. But to clarify, this is not about teaching kabala itself, but to define what it is and what benefits a person can obtain by learning it.

    You have used terms which you haven't defined. Just what are the "claims of kabalah" you mention? What does it mean omdin brumo shel olam. Note, I believe gemara brachos uses that phrase for tefila, not kabala.

    Finally, why would I want to learn kabala instead of some other area of Torah. If you are a salesman and are selling a machine, you would not start by saying what high quality material went into the machine, and how all the wires are routed so cleverly. You would first start by saying what it does, and how it will benefit the business. That is all we are asking here. We can even leave the technical details to the engineer or to the mekubalim. We just want to know what I would gain if I decided to become a mekubal. What would it enable me to do or to know?

    Not meaning to be sarcastic at all, but there is the proverbial expression, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" If that would be what kabala is about, then why would I want to study it, as I am not an angel, and how can I even verify for myself that the answer gives the correct number of angels. How would I test it? So it is more logical to assume it has something to do with me directly. What would that be? That is what we are asking.

  5. I see from James' comment that I must assign a prerequisite for this course.

    Barry, James, et al, can you please read at least the section on Chassidus, if not the whole essay, at


  6. I do not have a fundamental problem with Qabbalah as a description of the human condition and consequently of how we perceive and relate to Divinity.

    I do have a problem when these entities are then given their own reality. (Something I think the Ramchal doesn't do.) Because then we get until metaphysical causality.

    Physical causality implies that some things happen that aren't perfect implementations of the tension between Divine Mercy and Justice. For example, it takes much more sin to fall pray to danger when in a safe location than when hanging out at night among derelict buildings (or another maqom saqanah).

    But one can justify physical causality. Hashem chose not to be fully in control so as to give us an arena in which to exercise free will. Predictable physical laws allow us to both (1) choose our actions based on which outcomes we wish to make more likely and (2) forget Hashem's presence when planning things against His Will. If every sin's negative consequences were manifest in this world, sin would be a much dumber choice.

    Neither justification works for metaphysical causality, a system one can only buy into if they are maaminim who study Torah.

    So then why would Hashem create metaphysical rules other than the one which we perceive as a tension between Chessed and Din? Why reduce the opportunities for hashgachah peratis?

    As I have repeatedly asked on Avodah:

    Suppose someone hung their mezuzah according to halakhah and checked it according to halakhah. However, unbeknownst to any person, a letter cracked and a piece fell off.

    Is there justice in him getting less Divine Protection just because some metaphysical cause wasn't met? Didn't he do just as much of what Hashem asked of him as someone whose letter didn't break?

    Similarly, what if someone accidentally ate treif? He followed all the rules of halakhah, but some chazaqah or rov that he relied on happened not to be true of this particular piece of meat. Would he experience timtum haleiv (a callousness of the heart)? He too did everything Hashem asked of him -- where is the Divine Justice?

  7. I realize my question may not resemble Barry's, but this comment chain was moving too slowly for my patience.

  8. Micha, your points are interesting, but would help if you would at least define unfamilar terms like physical and metaphysical causality before using them, although I believe I understand from context.

    As far as question about Mezuza, someone recently wrote a long article on that and also on netilas yadayim contrasting the kabbalistic and traditional approaches. Both I think are available on R. Slifkin site.

    I agree would not make much sense tha someone is punished for circumstances beyond his control. The Lubavitch idea of check your mezuza is probably more symbolic than causative.

    I am more troubled by the story of Uza who was killed only because he tried to help steady the Aron, something we all do if a sefer torah wobbles during hagbaha. My Rav said his death was due at that moment anyway, and it just happened concurrently at that incident to teach people the lesson of Aron nosei es Nosav. Similarly if a letter is found posul after a tragedy, it may not mean one caused the other, but that both were caused to happen for symbolic reasons the RBSH wanted.

  9. A child can be punished for a father's sins. Is that more understandable to you?

  10. James, Joseph, Barry - can you please take a look at the Forks essay. Reb Micha and I use its terminology for shorthand, and it familiarity with it would help us move this conversation higher, quicker.

  11. Joseph asked: A child can be punished for a father's sins. Is that more understandable to you?

    I don't see the relevance. The Holocaust isn't understandable to me, neither are chuqim. The fact that I don't understand one thing doesn't mean that I should simply multiply the mysteries. (That way lies 3=1...)

    However, the question you ask bothered Chazal. Berakhos 7a:
    והא כתיב "פקד עון אבות על בנים" (שמות לד:ז), וכתיב "ובנים לא יומתו על אבות" (דברים כד:טז) -- ורמינן קראי אהדדי? ומשנינן: לא קשיא. הא כשאוחזין מעשה אבותיהם .בידיהם, הא כשאין אוחזין מעשה אבותיהם בידיהם

    Someone who could have learned from their parents' mistake is held accountable for not doing so. They are being punished for their own actions, not their parents'. It's a statement about the limits of the concept of tinoq shenishba.

    So, it would seem we do demand a greater immediacy to Justice and Mercy than I feel is left after asserting a metaphysical set of laws (other than Mercy and Justice themselves) and causality.

  12. RYGB,

    The Forks Essay equates Kabbalah with Chassidus. I do not. Chassidus is but one derech in understanding the Ari and, IMO, the least authentic.

    The Ari does not speak in terms of devekus. He is not focused on what Kabbalah can do for us. The Ari speaks in terms of bringing shefa into the world. When the BY fell asleep in the Ari's shiur, he was told that his soul was not geared toward Kabbalah. If Barry is not drawn to Kabbalah, let him focus on other matters.

  13. Read the assigned essay. Very well written and interesting. However, states that originally only holy people coul attain deveykus, and this was by means of kabala. Chassidim invented other methods suitable for the simple Jew.

    But again, we have all kinds of superlatives describing kabala--holy, exalted, elevated, deep, awe-inspiring. But what is it about?

    James, I am not against kabala or not drawn to it. Just want to know what it is.

    Now, suppose one argued that there are secrets in mayseh breishis, which are alluded to in Chagiga, and these are expounded in kabala. It teaches us how the RBSH created the laws of nature and the world, and all scientific knowledge is contained in it. Believe me, I would be first to jump in, since there is so much scientists don't yet know. But if that were the case, then why don't we find many mekubalim today who are actually knowledgeable in science. We would expect they would be way ahead of standard science, but mostly they are way behind. (I am not saying that therefore kabal can't contain this knowledge, but I just wish somebody could demonstrate it.)

    But it seems that RYGB is saying it is a way to get emotionally connected to G-d. So how does it differ from reading tehilim? What about reading the various piyutim which have all kinds of colorful and grand descriptions of the Aibershter.

    Nobody has yet given a definition of exactly what the subject matter is about, but are talking around the issue.

  14. Barry, I tried to define terms. I said that Qabbalah can mean two things:

    1- A description of the human condition and thus of G-d-as-He-is-Perceived and of reality-as-perceived (Kant's phenomenological universe). This description, like all of Oral Torah, grows when people realized the implications of what was accepted. From Seifer haYetzirah and heikhalos, to the Zohar, to the Ari's model of creation.


    2- The descriptions in #1 can be taken as ontological, and therefore of the process of creation and the resulting implications of how G-d causes metaphysics which in turn causes the empirical.

    I then proceeded to say I have little problem with #1, until someone asserts it's the only valid model for understanding Judaism and how to become a holier person. However, I have real problems understanding #2, since it introduces a whole spiritual mechanics that explains events in ways that distract from "kol de'avad Rachmana, letav avad."

  15. Here is my take on a definition of Kabbalah:

    Kabbalah (and by that I mean the system of the Ari) is a description of the process by which divine providence supports the world.

    We speak of Brisk as trying to understand the "What" and of other systems focused on the "Why" of Torah. I think Kabbalah focuses on the "How".

  16. Beginning of Innerspace, may be of interest:

  17. WADR to R' Aryeh Kaplan, who I've heard shiurim from live... Innerspace opens with the usual etymology: "The word "Kabbalah" stems from the Hebrew root "kabal", meaning "to receive". The term implies that it is a certain kind of wisdom that is received.

    The Mishna says: "Moses received [
    kibel] Torah on Sinai and [subsequently] transmitted it to Joshua...

    "Qabalah" as "that which was received".

    I would suggest that "Qabbalah" is being used as the sheim hape'ulah (name of the action) and means "the art of receiving".

    Anyway, in terms of the concept rather than the origin of the word... RAK zt"l defines Qabbalah as the Maaseh haMerkavah, the secret of nevu'ah, as explained by generation after generation of recipients who then added layers of conceptual modeling to make it progressively more transparent.

  18. Micha, I have to apologize profusely, as I know you went to great lengths in your earlier post today of 9:13 am, but not being schooled in philosophical concepts, I am having a great deal of trouble understanding what you meant. If you might possibly explain it more in layman's terms, would be a great help.

    I would posit though that the reason most people study kabala is because they believe that it gives them the power to predict their future, and possibly even to control it, meaning they can change the outcome of a given situation from what it would have been.

    If this were not the case, then why worry about, as James put it "How"? Lmai nafka mina. If I do good, or if the Rbsh has ordained a good gezar din, I will get it somehow or other. It is only because people believe they can intervene or "game the system" that kabala is relevant to them. Otherwise, treat it as in engineering, a "black box". I don't need or want to know what circuits are in there, only what the outputs are for a given input, unless my job is to design black boxes for a living.

    But gaming the system brings up Micha's objection which is that how can there be indepndent entities or methods that seem to sidestep the notion of justice. And can a sheid hurt someone who has not committed any wrong? If no, then for all practical purposes he really doesn't exist to us. If yes, it seems like a belief in avoda zara.

    At any rate, why would knowing about sheidim and palm reading which is also mentioned in Zohar be a surce of emotional closeness and dveikus to the Rbsh. These are unsavory topics.

    And finally, if it is true that people are motivated to study kabala because of the power to game the system, then what is the real success rate of these people in achbieving their goals?

    Finally, I believe it says somewhere in Zohar one should not eat supper between 6 and 7 pm. Why not? The chumash and gemara have no mention that the RBSH said this is an issur. Ella mai, it is dangerous in some metaphysical way. How does that make sense that the RBSH would allow harm to befall an undeserving victim just because he ate supper at some unlucky time. I imagine this is what bothers Micha, too.

  19. It seems that when Kabbalah is reduced to writing it's reduced overall. That is, writings can't fully convey the experiential part in full fidelity. Someone who has merited to have the experience can sense it in the writings.

  20. 1. To Barry's first comment:

    I am not a scientist (as you know very well!). I am a poet. I am not a realist, but a romantic. I am not a pragmatist, but an idealist.

    So your entire approach doesn't resonate with me.

    But, for concrete evidence for the value of Kabbalah in emulating Hashem, jut pick up a Tomer Devorah by R' Moshe Kordevero.

  21. To Micha's "Mezuzah" question: The contradiction is very sharp in the realm of Chassidus. For, if Hashgacha Pratis is all pervasive, the mezuzah's inadvertent pesul should not redound to an otherwise righteous person's discredit.

    But in a Misnagdic closed system, a la Nefesh HaChaim, there are phenomena that are machishin pamali'a shel ma'ala such as keshafim and shedim. Why not pasul mezuzos?

  22. James -

    I definitely agree that Barry need not enter the world of Kabbalah if it does not appeal to him.

    I also agree that the Arizal's Kabbalah is very different than Chassidic Kabbalah. The Ramchal also is different in a similar fashion. It may well be that those systems - which are intensely mathematical and geometrical - will appeal to Barry's mindset on account of those traits. These are precisely the traits which made the slog through, say Sha'arei Ramchal, very Uninteresting to me.

  23. RYGB, you're missing my question. You ask, "But in a Misnagdic closed system, a la Nefesh HaChaim, there are phenomena that are machishin pamali'a shel ma'ala such as keshafim and shedim. Why not pasul mezuzos?"

    My question is more -- why would there exist anything that is machish palmaya shel ma'alah other than people's bechirah and the laws of nature necessary to have an arena in which bechirah is meaningful? IOW, my question about pasul mezuzos includes keshafim and sheidim. Assuming sheidim aren't "just" a way of speaking of the after-effects of sin in spiritual terms.

    I also disagree that universal, pervasive, hashgachah is distinctly chassidic. While the LR attributes the idea as a chiddush of the the Besh"t, the Sifsei Chaim (Pirkei Emunah ve-Hashgachah vol. 1 maamar 4, pp 87 on) says it's the shitah of R' Yonasan Eibshitz, Radal and the Gra.

    Actually, I think misnagdim would in general agree with the Ramchal that Qabbalah isn't discussing actual ontological (although metaphysical) "things". Or maybe that's just reading my own opinions back into my heros' works.