Sunday, June 14, 2009

Did the Gra believe in dybbuks?

It is an interesting question. The Gra was a kabbalist, and yet he avoided claiming to have learned Torah from maggidim, doesn't value much revelations from the ascent of the soul, and refuses to deal with dybbuks. Some (see the book, to the right) explain that he was offered knowledge by maggidim, and himself experienced revelations, and acknowledged that dybbuks exist, but did not want to deal with sitra achara. It is a plausible explanation, within his worldview.

Of course, we know that dybbuks don't exist. Just as there is no demonic possession which an exorcism by a competent priest can remove. The evil spirit which entered the man in Vilna was just the man having some sort of psychotic breakdown. I think, with my limited knowledge of the Gra's positions, that a plausible theory is that this is a way of opposing without forcefully opposing, directing himself and his followers not to tread these paths (such as maggidim), not because they were false and the people engaged in them were superstitious (even though that was the truth), but because it is possible that could come from the sitra achara and mislead people.

Whether or not the Gra believed this, is seems a "useful" approach.

17 comments:

E-Man said...

I agree. We have seen the kabbalistic approach ead too many peope astray.

Yosef Greenberg said...

There you go trying to rationalize the GR'A. I find it easier to agree with the first position.

Your rationalization seems come from your worldview, similar to some Chasidic Rebbes who tried to "mysticize" the Rambam's Moreh.

Where do you find that the GRA didn't believe in dybbuks?

I'm aware that you didn't write that; but from your explanation it seems that it would have to be that way.

Coming from the teachings of the Arizal, I find it hard to believe that he didn't believe in it. Hence my position.

Yosef Greenberg said...

`"I agree. We have seen the kabbalistic approach ead too many peope astray."

We have also seens the rationalist approach lead many (more) people astray.

Start way back to the Rambams war with these who disagreed with Techiyas Hameisim, on to R' Yosef Ya'avetz who writes that chokrim were the first to shmad when forced rather than die and end off with the Haskalah movement.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't be a rationalist; all I'm saying that that you have to tread carefully. There's a reason why its not the mainstream orthodox view today. (My take on it.)

joshwaxman said...

:)

"There you go trying to rationalize the GR'A. I find it easier to agree with the first position."

it certainly is a possibility, and i recognize this about my suggestion. however, i often do recognize apologetics when people engage in it. see how he deflated maggidim while carefully not attacking rav yosef karo. this set of positions smells like apologetics.

"Coming from the teachings of the Arizal, I find it hard to believe that he didn't believe in it"
and what was the position of the Gra in terms of the Arizal?! He argued on him all the time, such that people "slandered" the Gra that he did not highly regard the Ari. (see the same book, page 24, together with the explanation/apologetics.)

kt,
josh

Yosef Greenberg said...

Exactly. He would have argued with him on this issue as well had he disagreed. I'm not well versed in the GR'As (and for that matter the Arizal's) writings. But I'll take this side of the argument at least as an equal.

Interestingly, DovBear writes on the arguing of the Ramban on the Ibn Ezra as possibly coming from the great respect that he had for him; hence the need to disagree when appropriate. (As opposed to someone who is irrelevant.)

Personally, I would venture to say that it came from the GR'As unwillingness to engage in anything kabbalistically inclined in public. Part of his issues with chasidim was that they were publically dessimating the teachings of the AR'I to unworthy people. Its called nistar for a reason.)

The GR'A would therefore hide any public kaballistic deeds.

He would discourage talk of maggidim for a similar reason. His position probably came as a result to Shabsai Tzvi, who did purportedly avails himself of one. (My position?)

joshwaxman said...

"Exactly."
that's a pretty neat about-face! the fact is, in certain environments it is difficult to express ideas without being thoroughly delegitimized. there is a principle of Da lifnei mi ata omed, and realizing just how far you can lead people before they dismiss you as someone not to be followed at all. it is called picking your battles. look, he was already being "slandered" by the chassidim for not being frum enough. otherwise, indeed, he would become irrelevant.

my take on it is that maggidim, ascension dreams, and dybbuks divert the guidance of the Jewish people from the rabbanim, who KNOW, to the common and ignorant folk, who don't know. because ANY lunatic can be a dybbuk, and any hysterical and foolish woman can have a dream, as we see nowadays. shabtai tzvi could claim a maggid. who would know otherwise, to oppose him?

of course, multiple readings are possible, and I do not know enough about Gra. but this reading of his various positions strikes me as possibly being guided by this.

kt,
josh

joshwaxman said...

btw, i have an end-game in mind for this. whether or not you agree with my reading of Gra, I would guess that in the end you will be mildly entertained...

kt,
josh

Yosef Greenberg said...

Look, the Bais Yosef did claim to have a maggid and wrote a whole sefer recording his interaction with it/him. (Maggid Meisharim)

I don't think he was hallucinating.

Now I'm not bringing proof from that. What I'm saying is that I simply don't see the Gra disregarding it completely; hence my need for another explanation.

I understand you second paragraph above above and fully agree with your conclusions. But it doesn't tell me why the Gra would oppose it in private.

I'm not sure what you mean in the first paragraph, though. Are you writing from your, mine or the Gra's perspective?

joshwaxman said...

"Look, the Bais Yosef did claim to have a maggid and wrote a whole sefer recording his interaction with it/him."
indeed. i read through that sefer a few times. IIRC, it was discovered (after Rav Yosef Karo's death) and published by the uncle of Nathan of Gaza, Shabtai Tzvi's prophet.

it probably is for real, though. the question is what to do with it. The Gra has a neat trick (I'll discuss next post).

I would note the following different tacks one can take.
1) As Rav Karo himself describes, he often experienced this maggidic revelation on Friday night after drinking six cups of wine and while staying up all night learning Mishna.

2) Based on Rav Karo's language in referring to the maggid and sometimes to himself in the writing, I would interpret much of it as automatic writing, a method where you put pen to paper and free-associate. See here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_writing
Perhaps a precursor to facilitated communication, since both work via the ideomotor effect.

3) Shadal explains this as Rav Yosef Karo writing in code. If you want, I could point you to his lengthy defense of Rav Karo in the Vikuach.

Indeed, the Gra did not dismiss it outright, just reinterpret the phenomenon such that the present location and time could not lead to good and sure results. Thus sapping the life from it. And effective dismantling via reinterpretation.

from whose perspective? first paragraph? if the first, something i am attributing to the Gra but without any solid evidence.

kt,
josh

גילוי said...

The stories of the GR"A's experience with the spiritual plane are plentiful. Obviously you won't find this in beiur haGR"A on the Shulchan Aruch. See the hakdamah of Rav Chayim miVolozhin to the GR"A's peirush on Sifra diTzniuta.

The GR"A didn't want the help of maggidim because he wanted to learn all of the Torah and its secrets by his own efforts, even though in most cases he was worthy of heavenly help.

There are stories of him dealing with people that had something that could be called a dybbuk. I believe it is brought in Kol haTor chapter 3.

Yosef Greenberg said...

Using the rationalist methodology; how would you (or rather Shadal) explain what the Shlah brings from R' Shlomo Alkabetz regarding the voice that came from the Beis Yosef's mouth on Shavous?

(I'd link to the page but HebrewBooks is crashing Chrome now.)

The story has some problems; for example the location. But it also has multiple credible sources as well.

Yosef Greenberg said...

`that's a pretty neat about-face! the fact is, in certain environments it is difficult to express ideas without being thoroughly delegitimized. there is a principle of Da lifnei mi ata omed, and realizing just how far you can lead people before they dismiss you as someone not to be followed at all. it is called picking your battles. look, he was already being "slandered" by the chassidim for not being frum enough. otherwise, indeed, he would become irrelevant.

Are you agreeing with me here by saying that had the Gaon practiced kabballah openly he would have been accused by the chassidim for being a hypocrite and therefore delegitimized.

Sorry if I misunderstood you but its a neat idea. I tend to stick to the Shabsai Tzvi model though.

Also, you're claiming with option 1 and 2 that R' Yosef Karo was hallucinating when writing the sefer. Just clarifying.

On Shadal; doesn't he seem to go too far in explaining away such issues sometimes? I think you wrote something like this in the past, IIRC. I think it would be easier to find every case of a rationalist Beis Yosef and explain it as mystical concept. :)

I never read Shadal's Vikuach. Maybe I'll get to it in the summer if there are no bans on it. :)

גילוי has another raya as well. I think R' Chaim Voloszhin is good evidence as well. (Although he wasn't as close a disciple as some would imagine.)

I'm waiting to hear the GRA's approach.

מֹשאל רפאל said...

The vision of the GR"A is very broad and very very high. He was bringing the Geula. The Geula of the Truth, not just that of the Jews. The aspiration is to bring mankind to a higher level.

Because the physical is epipheral to the spiritual, both Torat HaNigleh and Chochmot HaOlam, including the Sciences, must be epipheral to knowledge about the spiritual, Chochmat HaTorah. As long as this is not manifest, we did not reach the level we can reach.

If we could derive scientific knowlege from Chochmat HaTorah, there would not be much discussion about the value of "pnimius". The rationalists would rejoice. Not only because of the Sciences. Also because it would solve a serous Jewish predicament. The Binyan of Halacha would be founded on understanding rather than on rather vacuous legalism and quite unproven axioms... Remember: Avaraham figured out the Torah by himself.

michael said...

R. Josh,

Although I agree with your position on the over mystification of contemporary Judaism, i.e. Sgulot, Autistic prophets and other mumbo jumbos, i.e. think you are doing an injustice to the GRA by reading into him your own extreme rationalist position (which is by itself legitimate).
The belief in the existence of non physical entities (angelic or demonic) is not something distant from Judaism in the pshat,Torah or Talmud.
The reasons for the GRA not wishing to involve himself in these things is for other reasons.

joshwaxman said...

"Are you agreeing with me here by saying that had the Gaon practiced kabballah openly"
sorry, actually the opposite; had he opposed popular practical kabbalah openly by saying it was nonsense, rather than discouraged. much as some rabbis say nowadays that of course the autistic messages are real but that one should stay away from them nonetheless. of course, this is all my speculation.

"Also, you're claiming with option 1 and 2 that R' Yosef Karo was hallucinating when writing the sefer."
more so in option 1 than in option 2. much as in the ancient near east, the non-Jewish prophets regularly used mantic methods to spark "prophecy". but in option 1, not that he was chas veshalom a lunatic, but that he was a sane individual who reacted to such physical stressers in this manner. (he drank 14 cups of wine every shabbos because as the maggid noted, Hashem's name Shakkai stands for that on Shabbos you should drink that which is Day, sufficient, which is Yud Daled, 14 cups. 6 cups at night and 4 cups at the other 2 meals. As Shadal noted, he turned every Shabbos into Purim!)

in terms of option 2, this is also not a hallucination. automatic writing is a nice way of getting out the thoughts of your subconscious, which he might have regarded as his soul. certain language in maggid meisharim suggests that. would i call it hallucination? not precisely. would i call him a lunatic for this? absolutely not.

in terms of option 3, it is actually a pretty short segment of the Vikuach, in 9 parts, if you are interested. Here is a link to part 9, since i only have back links to previous segments and no forward links.

http://parsha.blogspot.com/2008/04/discussion-of-maggid-meisharim-pt-ix.html

There might indeed be other stories that would give me another impression, such as Gilui notes, assuming that those stories are not problematic or from
questionable sources that would (themselves) want to rewrite the Gra as the imagine a kabbalist should be.

To really hear the Gra's approach, we will have to wait until mashiach comes. (If Nava is correct, the 30 day wiggle-room until the apocalypse is in only a few days.)

michael:
it is certainly more than possible that i am rewriting the Gra in my own image. my question is just whether the given reasons are the true reasons. they read to me like apologetics, but that is me, and many times people believe their own apologetics.

the belief in non-physical entities, which are somewhat akin to dybbuks, may not be foreign to classical judaism; even so, that would not automatically make them real.

kt,
josh

גילוי said...

I don't quite understand, Josh. Are you saying that the GR"A was not a kabbalist? That he didn't write all the kabbalistic writings that he did?

joshwaxman said...

"Are you saying that the GR"A was not a kabbalist?"
no, of course he was a kabbalist. but there are different types of kabbalists, and different approaches to applied kabbalah.
kt,
josh

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