July 11th, 2019
I want to thank you in advance for accepting this debate, and I'm sure you're as tough as you look. All jokes aside, I would appreciate a challenge. It's why I thought this the best opportunity suited to discuss some of the stringent issues which divide Jews today. I guess in that way we're sort of like Catholics and Protestants. Growing up, I used to think that title partly belonged to Karaites, but as we both know, they no longer really exist.
Jonathan, did you know our challenge goes back a ways? I'm sure you're aware of it, anyone who studies Rambam has to be. But actually, it starts even earlier than that. So, would you be surprised to learn that we can trace it back all the way to Moses? It was the Egyptian priests who thought Moses merely used some source of trickery to manifest that staff into a serpent. Of course, that wasn't so. You last said on the phone that the gods of Egypt were meant to be metaphorical (as if representing natural law), so I feel my interpretation here is valid.
As planned, we'll touch upon the issues which put a wedge between mysticism and rationalism, between authentic Judaism, and upon loads of history and scholarly writing from both rabbis and Gentiles alike, enough to make your daughter's wedding cake look like it was meant for Peter Dinklage. Okay, I hope that wasn't offensive towards either of you, and I'm sure you spent good money on that cake!
But the thing I won't be is competitive. We can each learn a lot from our respective approaches to Judaism, but mere antagonism alone would uproot our objective: that of searching for the truth. Therefore, let us do our very best to care for each others' well being. There are too many hotheads, too many trolls, and they rule social platforms with an iron fist. Or try. You will get none of that here, not from me, nor from others. I will make it my top priority to respect you, and your beliefs, while at the same time, questioning those beliefs. This only works if we make each other "think." The Rambam, of all people, would have agreed. It was him who said one had better prepare to abandon previous thought in search of genuine truth. In short, let us bring down the wall Pink Floyd talked about.
Before I make my case for Kabbalah - that is, its application, not its origin (we can get into that a bit later if you'd like) - I just want to point out that while I will be defending it, there are, no doubt, many expressions of Judaism. G-d forbid that I alone have the "truth" (are there not seventy faces to the Torah?). We need Reform Jews, Hasidim, Modern Orthodoxy, even atheist Jews. It's like going into a factory, you've got the blue-collar guy, the white-collar guy, the supervisor, and when all do their job, production shines. I think this a good analogy for the Jewish world, we need to work together to really be a light to the nations. And speaking of the nations, even the Gentiles have said a thing or two which made me. . . flinch. Flinch because, in the past, it was all about that very word I know despise in respectful dialogue. Competition. But today, I still flinch, but now, it's at the beauty of their words. Throughout our holy Torah, there have been an uncountable number of righteous Gentiles who've also worked for world peace and still do (while nothing will ever be perfect, that's the idealism humans need to strive for). Many Jews forget that, especially in my tradition, where the concept of a Pintele Yid (the Jewish spark), is often misunderstood. But I go off on tangents sometimes, you've been warned!
As I said above, all forms of Judaism deserve to exist. That was the genius of the whole endeavor. That's why we, as a people, have been flexible enough like a reed in the marsh to survive. We haven't been blown aback by the winds of time, nor have we remained stubborn to the core. Yes, we are a stiff-necked people, but not as stiff as the Amish (I hope the Amish aren't reading this)!
It was this flexibility, Jonathan, which provoked Jews of all shapes and sizes to band together as one. We share a history, a bloodline, a Torah, and yet, to this very day, we play "family feud" with interpretation. With truth. We're not bulletproof to error, biases creep in, mistakes are made. How can man - a finite being - have any sense of what's authentic Judaism? I believe there is an answer. Two, actually. One is through secularism, such as the sciences. That offers us a natural truth. The other is through Torah, and it's only found in Judaism, in the hands of the Jewish people. Many have bled for that Torah, we should at least recognize that fact before we jump into the ring in this debate. So we walk along a tightrope towards truth - we don't wish to fall, but we don't wish to cross the other side at the expense of the other either. It's a difficult balancing act. I'll admit, I'm not perfect at it. I fall all the time.
With that said, I'll state my case.
Jonathan, ask yourself: why do Jews go East in search of other spiritual traditions, traditions which their fathers have not known? This is no attack on anyone in particular, but some rabbis are just - gosh - boring. I mean, they're as boring as a snail (to use the cliche). All a lot of people ever get - the Judaism they ever experience - is dry. I'm not saying Brisker derech is dry, but all the mysticism Judaism has to offer has been sucked in a black hole. There's no light down there when you're in a hole. No connection to the outside world. No one to call for help. It is my understanding that Maimonides believed one couldn't pray to G-d. But that's deficient for the human condition. Psychologically, we need a shoulder to cry on sometimes, and maintaining that G-d doesn't pay attention to prayer leaves nothing but weighted concrete in a person's heart. Question it: is this really the G-d I believe in? It's an onslaught to the soul. It feels like. . . a huge rock has been placed on your shoulders, and last I checked, Atlas wasn't a Jew!
So I don't think we can blame 'em, Jonathan. I don't think Jews who go East are transgressors of Israel. They merely crave something warm. Something they can imagine. Something impossible. Love is impossible. So is it so hard to conceive of a loving G-d? Is it really a nail at the throat of logic and natural law? Jonathan, the world, not just the Jews, have lost that sense of the sublime. Just think of it, imagine how exciting the world must have been when we literally thought dragons could swoop over your head at any moment? No wonder we put that in Game of Thrones. We don't realize it yet, but we miss the supernatural. Now, it's debatable if any of this is true or not, after all, maybe someday they'll find a horse which has evolved into something of a unicorn out there in the deep recesses of space, who knows. And of course I don't believe in dragons, it's not Torah. But things in Torah, such as angels, an infinite G-d in the context of the Ein Sof, and the soul, those I do believe in with every fiber of my being, and why not? Perhaps we'll get to this a little more in-depth as we go on, but why would Moses have had to pay lip service to the masses, and state such things when he knew full well they didn't exist? Do you really believe that Moses knew angels were a hoax? The very fact that we - in fact, all cultures - thought up of G-d and such beings to begin with proves it's innate. That man in the cave building a fire a hundred-thousand years ago, what made him think that this natural world which he inhabited, this place where things die and are impermanent, was the creative act of a being so far removed from it, you couldn't even measure Him with time and space? I haven't got a clue, but I'm glad it happened. . . if it indeed happened that way. I believe the Torah was revealed through revelation, but I guess G-d had to tell someone before that. The first book in the Bible starts like that. G-d makes Adam, He tells him about creation. Whether or not you take that literally is not the issue, the point is that there was a connection at one point in time. A place where the Divine - it didn't have to, G-d could have easily forgotten us - touched-base with man. And if so, what a historic event! And yet, it's all forgotten today. We've turned it into a dream, it's not even a memory. And we have more atheist Jews today than observant ones, but the numbers are growing. I hear that within the next generation, there will be one Hasid out of every three Jews in the world. That's at least promising.
I hope I made it clear that religion isn't staring at a one-way mirror. We can connect with G-d, we can build a relationship with Him. He gave us emotions and intellect, it'd be only fitting that all had a source in Him. This is why I think Kabbalah is like poetry. The words of Torah escape reality, into the ether. Time and space are warped. The observer, in the middle, is trapped between this mundane life, and the promise of reward in the next. It's the bridge between two towers. But you can't merely get there alone, you need much study. I once heard it said in a beautiful way by Rodger Kamenetz that you've got to become a spiritual geologist. You've got to dig in the dirt with your fingers a little before you find that spark in yourself. That's real faith. The faith to test yourself.
Can I end with a question? One can argue that none of this is true because there are no pictures of angels flying about, but I'd argue that we don't need any of that. After all, how would you snap a selfie with G-d? He's not a form of material substance, and the same goes with angels. As a Kabbalist, I believe that G-d's angels are mere extensions of Himself; in a sense, they're one-the-same. So we're not talking about the difference between oranges and apples, because they're both oranges.
And yeah, I'll admit it, a lot of things in Torah don't make sense, so why should Kabbalah? No one can really tell you why Jews did sacrifices on a sublime level 2,000 years ago, and yet, they did sacrifices. But does it matter? If you never saw a tv before, and yet, found yourself engaged with one, would it matter much how all the parts were put together? No. Just because we don't understand something, doesn't make it invalid, let alone it's existence, artificial.
My friend, I think Kabbalah opens doors, not shuts them. If it dies, so does Judaism, for it is the life-force of our people. So here's my question to you: you reject miracles, right? Many Reform Jews also reject miracles. How are you, an Orthodox Jew, any different from them? I'm asking in essence, not application.
Well, I think I've said enough for one night. I wish we all take away something of value in the course of this debate, and at the very least, understand each other.
I wish you a happy Shalom Shabbat,