Dare To Believe! A Kabbalist and a Maimonidean go Head-to-Head in Search of Truth


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"Consider this, you who are engaged in investigation, if you choose to seek truth, cast aside passion, accepted thought, and the inclination toward what you used to esteem, and you shall not be led into error."
- Moses Maimonides, The Guide For The Perplexed, 1:76
Our journey began the week before Passover, 2019. I was connected to my new friend, Rabbi Jonathan, via - of all things! - a small class reunion. That aside, we've grown together in knowledge, wisdom, and perhaps unlearned some mistakes along the way. Today, we've taken the bulk of that conversation, and present it to you, unedited, unabridged, for the first time. Neither of us have seen the following issues presented in the form of a lively one-on-one debate, for the current generation, and yet, they seem to divide the Jewish world. A world which, of all places, needs repaired the most.
Though we will have our differences (I'm a mystic, he's a rationalist), the Talmud usually ends with, "These and these are the words of the living G-d." So, both, in their own way, are dedicated paths to Him. It's not the journey which counts, but the destination.
Please, enjoy.
Round 1
July 11th, 2019

Dear Jonathan,

    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,

Yitz Goldberg

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--> @RationalMadman
Ah, but that is perhaps a misunderstanding of the origin and meaning of purpose.
I think it won't hurt to discuss it here, if you and I will try and find it together.
What is purpose? See if you can answer that one. I will try.
The first definition I find on google says it like this:
"the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists."
This definition makes sense as with anything that is created, it has a purpose. Take computer programming for example. Every program (game, bank account, calculator...etc) has a purpose for existing. This debate site for example has set purpose as an open debating platform purposed for thoughtful debates.
If we take this truth to God, than we see that his "program" of creation also has purpose. Science is the most obvious way we discover nature's various purposes. All life lives like a computer program, purposed to grow, reproduce, and die. Every atom, cell, and other components of life contains various purposes like the different parts of a program.
A leaf for example contains veins that bring nutrients and converted sunlight to a tree. The roots of a tree bring water to the tree. The seeds of a tree are purposed to spread the tree's DNA(a fascinating world of complexity in its own) in order for it to grow in other places and etc...
What about us? If God's creation has purpose as demonstrated, then we too must have purpose. Religion (The study of man's response to God) is how we can explain our purpose, but that is a topic for another time.
What do you think?
To Truth!
--> @logicae
no we don't. If god exists then god, and by extension everything god 'assigned to us' as a role or destination in life, are all themselves without any real purpose or destination.
god is as meaningless as the atheist's universe, neither more nor less.
--> @RationalMadman
I'm glad we agree then that the destination is required for the journey. But you seem to question the meaning of life and, importantly, the existence of God. Our ultimate journey, our life, requires also a destination that will determine whether or not we have meaning.
If God exists, than we have purpose to live our lives to a meaningful end created by this all powerful creator.
If God does not exist, than our journey ends at the grave and ultimate meaning is illusory.
The question becomes "does God exist". A question for another time.
It was nice discussing this topic with you RationalMadman. I hope you well in your own journey and that you blow off all that steam you acquired on this site. (I haven't done anything close to as many debates as you have and am still tired of it!)
Rest well my friend,
To Truth!
--> @logicae
I have genuiney made my case, in full. There is simply nothing more to it. To understand my philosophy and what I see life as in terms of journey vs destination, look to Taoist philosophy and check out some 'Sadhguru' lectures on YouTube.
I don't want to sit and explain the philosophy of 'not overthinking something that is blatantly true' in life but if you actually want that explained. See Eastern philosophers, especially Taoists or Hindu-esque philosophers and you'll understand a lot more about my attitude to life.
You keep saying a destination is 'needed' but I never said that the journey has no destination, I said what matters in religion and theology is the journey. Wars have been fought for millennia over one side thinking their God or politics were the 'one true destination' in such thinking. I don't support that, only tyrants and/or terrorists do. For me, it's about the discussions, the search, the yearning. You want God, she/he/it will find you in its own way. You don't want God and are happy with out the concept entirely, then atheism will find its way into your heart. Either way, the pleasure of the journey and intricate twists and turns it takes are the entire beauty and 'power' of religion to someone.
--> @RationalMadman
Perhaps you missed my answer. I didn't say that one who falls in love has a goal of falling in love. I said that:
"Someone who falls in love has the end goal of meeting his love."
It is clear that lovers want to act on their love, that is the end goal of love.
"inexplicable" means un-explainable. I think what lovers do is pretty well known and doesn't need explanation.
"and what comes along with it." -This is precisely what the destination is.
"I am not sure you're 'thinking' rather just out to 'prove' a semantic tautology."
I'd hope not (please show why this is the case), but I could simply counter assert this ad hominum fallacy to you. Since it proves nothing but a character attack, I think it is best left in the mud.
To Truth!
--> @logicae
No it isn't. You do not ever fall in love to fall in love, that is never the goal. the goal is actually inexplicable but in the short term is everything other than the falling-in-love itself and what comes along with it.
You speak a lot about needing goals and use Cambridge Dictionary to discuss deep philosophy... I am not sure you're 'thinking' rather just out to 'prove' a semantic tautology.
--> @RationalMadman
To "live for" something means you have a goal in mind, that something is the goal.
It is an oxymoron to say "You live for the near-future with no real goal". If you live for nothing, you do not have a journey. Your journey is only what you make of it.
"the destination in mind when falling in love with someone is to experience the love, there's no real destination for wanting it or pursuing it beyond it, in itself"
-Someone who falls in love has the end goal of meeting his love. That's the goal.
"the same goes for the stages in training and every day you get out of bed to do it just because you want to no sleep your life away or deteriorate, regardless of whether or not you end up as a wrestler."
-The journey is not guaranteed to reach the destination, correct. But the end goal is still to become a wrestler, "whether or not you end up as a wrestler".
To Truth!
--> @logicae
The destination in mind when falling in love with someone is to experience the love, there's no real destination for wanting it or pursuing it beyond it, in itself. the same goes for the stages in training and every day you get out of bed to do it just because you want to no sleep your life away or deteriorate, regardless of whether or not you end up as a wrestler.
--> @logicae
Yes, it is a journey. You live for the near-future with no real goal overall just a series of tactical moves where you know all strategies lead to death.
--> @RationalMadman
I am perplexed by this statement:
"You can have a journey to nowhere."
How can you?
I can simply do everything in life in vain, but is that a journey?
We need to understand that a journey is moving with a purpose to an end goal.
Dictionary.Cambridge states that the definition of journey is:
to travel somewhere:
Notice that in "journey" we have a destination in mind. You have to have a destination, a reason, for going on a journey or else it is not a journey but instead a stand still.
To Truth!
--> @logicae
It's clear to me with your 'never' and 'no one ever said' that you're far more familiar with traditional Western and Arab philosophy than Eastern or Pagan philosophy.
--> @logicae
You can have a journey to nowhere. That's exactly what life is.
--> @RationalMadman
There was no journey.
You cannot have a journey to nowhere, but anyone on a journey must have a destination in mind.
For a college student it is a degree for example.
"Equally, a terrible journey can appear at first to have a great destination but the very horror of the journey snowballs into a hatred of having become trapped in that destiny."
Agreed, it is important that we recognize that there is a destination. No one ever said "I'm going nowhere" as an answer to explain their journey.
--> @logicae
But the destination changed in all the scenarios I brought up and yet the journey continues and was so worth it regardless of their failure to become the wrestling pro they wanted to become.
Equally, a terrible journey can appear at first to have a great destination but the very horror of the journey snowballs into a hatred of having become trapped in that destiny.
--> @RationalMadman
True, but they have a goal in mind, a reason for training. No one trains for something without first figuring out what that something is.
My question for you is 'do best' in what? If you do something for nothing, then everything you do has no purpose.
To Truth!
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