Response to a reader regarding Kabbala and the Zohar

Shalom Rav

There are points on which we agree. Briefly:

  1. We are in agreement regarding the period of time the Second Miqdash stood. You are perturbed by the fact that Hazal were mistaken about certain historical facts and the overall chronology of Bayith Sheni. Hazal were indeed mistaken with regards to certain historical events, but this need not concern us. Hazal were not historians; they did not have the wherewithal to know of certain things. In general they were unfamiliar with the entire Persian period. Indeed, to this day our knowledge of that period is very sketchy. By the same token, Hazalic statements pertaining to physical and scientific issues based on the flawed knowledge of their time need not concern us; Hazal were not scientists. Science in the modern sense did not exist at that time; it was all a matter of speculation and opinion, or received wisdom which was not infrequently spurious. To the extent that certain Halakhoth are based on such misinformation, or that matters that could not be verified in the past can today be readily ascertained in minutes – such as determining if a widow or divorcee is pregnant or not in order to permit her remarriage – it is my view that such matters should be re-examined. Hazal were the students and disciples of the Prophets; their expertise was Tora and its implementation in the real world.

  2. We are in agreement that many of the statements of certain medieval Jewish philosophers are contrived and clearly the result of attempting to force the Tora to conform to preconceived notions, principally the tenets of the Aristotelian school. As a result many of their arguments are unsatisfactory. Some of their claims and "proofs" are simply based on the flawed pseudo-science of their day. Regarding this last point, the same can and must be said regarding the Zoharic literature and most M'qubalim. Having said this, there are many profound insights in these very same works of philosophy and Qabala. The m'lekheth mahsheveth is to distinguish between the grain and the chaff.

  3. There were other Jewish philosophers who, while fully recognizing the great value of the writings of philosophers such as RaSaG and Rambam, were nevertheless aware of their intellectual and spiritual inconsistencies and shortcomings, and therefore adopted a very different but equally rational approach based on the plain meaning of the Tora together with rigorous logic, common sense and enlightened intuition. I refer to Hakhamim such as R. Y’hudah HaLewi, R. Yisshaq Abarbanel, R. Yoseph Elbo and R. Hisdai Crescas. You may not identify with or approve of their views, but their philosophical systems are immune to most, if not all, the criticism that may legitimately be directed at Rambam’s system. To my mind, they present philosophical-theological-ideological systems more compelling than those offered by the various schools of the M’qubalim. It is no coincidence that R. Yisshaq Abarbanel disproves certain chronological claims of Hazal in Sedher 'Olam Raba (e.g. see Abarbanel to Sh'muel I, 8:1 regarding the age of Sh'muel HaNavi at the time of his death). According to Abarbanel and like-minded Hakhamim who accepted Hazal’s authority and fully recognised their profound wisdom, we can never ignore the plain meaning of the T’nakh, nor may we switch off our faculty of critical thought. We do not find a similarly rational and objective approach in the works of the M’qubalim.

  4. In modern times, we have been blessed with the writings of several great philosophers: Rav Hirsch, Rav Kook, Rav Yoseph Dov Soloveitchik and Shabtai Ben-Dov, to name a few. It is true that Rav Kook was a great Qabalist; it is equally true that one can subscribe to almost everything he writes, or reach similar conclusions, without accepting any system of Qabala. As for the others, none were Qabalistically inclined. I do not feel that any one of these great thinkers produced a system which is complete and perfect in and of itself; each one tended to deal with different aspects of Jewish existence and thought. I would add that I consider the poetry and other writings of Uri Ssvi Grinberg to be much, much more than poetry; in my eyes he was a great artist and thinker. I most certainly do perceive the need for a Tora-based philosophy and ideology for the Jewish nation and the Jewish individual of the present and future generations. To my mind such a philosophy would be a synthesis of the systems of these and other great minds. I hope one day to commit to writing some thoughts regarding such a philosophy.

  5. Just as you admit that there things that you cannot satisfactorily explain, I too admit to the same. The difference is the nature of the unexplained matter. If I am unable to explain the Tora's instructions regarding Ssara'ath, I simply admit that there are misswoth that I do not fully understand (even where some partial explanation is possible). This does not invalidate the entire Tora, just as the entire corpus of physics is not invalidated by phenomena that are currently beyond explanation.

  6. We agree that "Popular acceptance or not of any particular work is irrelevant to whether its teachings are true or false."

I do not, however, agree with many of your arguments and claims. For example:

  1. I reject your claims regarding the redaction of the Talmud, the conclusions at which you arrive, and the connection you somehow perceive between these issues and the authorship and validity of the Zohar. I do not follow your argumentation. I endeavoured to explain my position, but you think otherwise. To my mind, the questions you raise do not invalidate my position; to your mind they do. We do not and shall not see eye to eye on these issues.

  2. Regarding issues pertaining to historical chronologies: I have already stated that Hazal were not historians and that it seems plain that they were sometimes mistaken. In addition, it is well-known that in the T'nakh the genealogy for the same person appears in one place in long form and in another in short form (with certain generations left out). I consider it quite possible that this phenomenon exists in Hazalic texts as well. In general, when Hazal did not have firm facts, they tended to contract the time frame by linking and often juxtaposing two known facts or events. Such contractions are common in Seder 'Olam Raba; the aim was to avoid untidy gaps. (I might mention here that I know a certain brilliant mathematician, originally from Russia and a ba'al t'shuva, who has developed the most ludicrous set of ideas based on bogus interpretations of the T'nakh and his capacity for mathematical reckoning. One of his rules of thumb is that where one event is related in the Tora on the heels of another, and the text does not make it plain that it took place years later, we are to understand that it transpired immediately. This somehow bolsters his strange understanding of and belief in Tora and Hazal. His conclusions are inane. Nevertheless, his methodology is occasionally reminiscent of Hazal's contractions; both are attempting to plot a comprehensive and precise time line where this is impossible due to insufficient data.)

  3. One more thing regarding historical chronology. We cannot state with certainty who Shim'on HaSsadiq was and when he lived. There are two possible candidates, and some and perhaps all of the issues you mention can be explained on this basis. All this, however, has nothing to do with the question of the authenticity of the Zohar. This, at least, is my view.

  4. You wrote: "The fact that the Zohar appeared in the 1200s is irrelevant." I disagree. Anything that suddenly appears ex nihilo is suspect. When, upon examination, it becomes evident that it is a forgery, and a rather sloppy one at that, it's an open and shut case.

  5. I disagree with your estimation of R. Ya'aqov Emden. So does everyone else I've ever heard of.

  6. The RaMaQ's statements in Or Yaqar regarding T'kheleth speak for themselves. Your attempt to change the subject by suggesting that a) I have not studied RaMaQ's other works (untrue, and something which you cannot possibly know), and b) that RaMaQ's statement in Or Yaqar cannot be understood by anyone less expert than yourself in Qabala, do not constitute an argument and do not change the facts.

  7. Regarding Rav Kook z'l: there are many examples in his writings of contradictory statements. Sometimes he simply changed his mind. Not infrequently Rav Kook explains one facet of an issue in one place, and elsewhere elucidates another facet. That is life, that is reality, and that is Rav Kook. This matter is deserving of an in-depth discussion.

  8. You feel that Qabala almost magically explains many misswoth and Hazalic statements, and that this serves to prove its essential truth. I do not know if you heard this line of argument from Rav Zilberman z'l, but I know that I did. About 20 years ago I attended a shiur where Rav Zilberman claimed that the best proof of the essential truth of Qabala is the fact that it succeeds in explaining many disparate statements of Hazal which are otherwise inexplicable. He likened it to a magical master key which opens all locks, and stated that no human being could have invented such a master key. I am unconvinced by this argument. Firstly, many of these "magical" explanations are simply not credible and strike me as contrived. Secondly, and despite the foregoing, Qabala is indeed like a master key – a key that has been created from the locks which it is designed to open. Qabala is holistic, intuitive, vague and elusive, and yet sometimes profoundly insightful. This does not prove that it is the authentic and sole underpinning of Tora as you claim; it is indicative of the fact that it is the result of many great Tora-inspired minds working together and separately, over many centuries, a fact reflected in the many profound truths that it expresses. Over time this evolved into an immensely complicated system described by a very versatile terminology. The resulting system is so fluid and elastic that it can be made to say and mean almost anything. Thus Qabala can be explained in such a way as to support both the teachings and actions of Shabtai Ssvi sr'y, as explained in great detail by the brilliant Nathan of Gaza, or be employed by those who opposed everything Shabtai Ssvi stood for. It therefore lends itself to exegetical endeavour more than any other philosophical system.

  9. For you, Qabala is a great illumination, a shedding of light on matters hidden. There is an element of truth in this perception. The Spanish school of Qabala was essentially a response to the works of Rav Sa'adhya Gaon and Rambam which were rooted largely in Aristotelian philosophy. R. Y'hudha HaLewi's Kuzari was also a response to Rav Sa'adhya Gaon. Many found the Aristotlelian approach unsatisfactory. This dissatisfaction begat a great wave of creative thought. When creative and perceptive minds strive, they are eventually rewarded with insight. This process is ongoing; we continue down the river of enlightenment which flows from the Tora. Every historical period and system adds to our understanding.

  10. There is another side to Qabala which you choose to ignore. I am completing this letter on the night of Lagh Ba'Omer. As I type bonfires are burning all over the country, polluting the nation's air, keeping up children of all ages till the small hours. Result: Schools will not open tomorrow. 100,000 Jews are in Meron to celebrate the supposed passing of R. Shim'on Ben Yohai on this day, despite the lack of any indication, let alone proof, that this is so (see Ben Ish Hai’s Da’ath UThvuna p.4). And if it were true, would this somehow explain the madness? What are they doing there? What does any of this achieve? Does anyone behave in this way on Moshe Rabenu’s yahrzeit? My point is that extreme and unhinged behaviour is intrinsic to the Qabalistic perspective on life, and its real world impact is generally negative. Time and again we see that so-called mysticism conduces to irrational and unhealthy behaviours. For example: Would people who cannot properly provide for their children somehow find the money to fly to Uman one, two and three times a year were it not for the Qabalistic significance that they attach to such a trip? Another example: Inserts included in newspapers for the last two weeks have been encouraging people to phone up and order their very own, personal Holy Qabala Candle. "Just send us a donation, and light this candle on Lagh Ba'Omer and pray to Rashbi for whatever you like….the mystical powers are incredible. Your life will change." Avodha Zara, pure and simple. I have the inserts on my desk, and I'm keeping them in case someone doesn't believe me. In the name of Qabala, Judaism has, for many, been turned into a circus, an orgy of primitive superstitions. And did I mention Shabtai Ssvi? The followers of Shabtai Ssvi were known as "Zoharisten" because they claimed their heresies and abominations were based on the Zohar. Anyone wishing to discuss Qabala must first be able and willing to look the reality of Qabala in the eye. It's not pretty.

  11. For a very select few, capable of conceiving of sophisticated constructs and analogies, Qabala can engender enlightenment. For most Jews, however, and for the historical collective of K'lal Yisrael, it has led to much that is pernicious. The most glaring example is the criminal passivity and delusional attitude towards Redemption that is evident wherever Qabala thrives. In this sense, Qabala and Zionism are diametrically opposed, and to the extent that Judaism in general was influenced by such thinking, particularly over the last 5 centuries, Zionism justifiably viewed itself as the antithesis of Judaism. And this is an immense tragedy, because the healthy aspects of Zionism – namely, that we are required to create G'ula by our own real-world actions as prescribed by the Tora – have always been part and parcel of authentic Tora Judaism.

  12. I firmly believe in the spiritual life, in the reality of spiritual and mystical experience. None of the foregoing should be misconstrued to suggest otherwise. We are not, however, required to believe in every claim, pseudo-science or text presented to us.

While I am willing to discuss nearly anything with you, it is apparent that we must agree to disagree on certain matters.


Rabbi David Bar-Hayim

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