Monday, June 15, 2009

Did the Gra believe in maggidim?

This excerpt also from The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image. Now it may be that I am simply reading my own values into the Gra, and rewriting the man in my own image. But the trend seems plausible, and the words read to me like clever apologetics to dissolve practices without declaring them nonsense head-one. He did this for dybbuks, for maggidim, and messages had in dreams. The excerpt to the right is about maggidim.

Note that he does not claim that they are not real and that those who experience them are lunatics or liars. For to do that would be to condemn Rav Yosef Karo and Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto.

Rather, he claims that they are certainly real. And there is no "sour grapes" here, where he is condemning something because he himself does not merit it. Rather, many maggidim wanted to teach him Torah, and one even implored him greatly. But he rejected it. And he instructed his student (Rav Shlomo Zalman) to ignore the overtures of a maggid as well.

Thus, none of his own Torah may be attributed to maggidim. And he claims that his own Torah is better, as it is not through an intermediary. And maggidim might be serving the sitra achara, and thus misleading.

But will he slight Rav Yosef Karo? No, he answers (in instruction Rav Shlomo Zalman) with an apologetic of nishtaneh hateva! Of course Rav Karo's maggid was entirely holy, with no sitra achara. But that was in Eretz Yisrael and when the generation was fit. But we, with yeridas hadoros, and living outside Eretz Yisrael -- of course we should avoid maggidim, because it is impossible that there would not be some admixture of the sitra achara.

Does this not seem very much like an excuse? If I knew that my kabbalistic followers were not ready to dismiss this superstitious, and if I did not want to insult those who had used maggidim in the past, I would come up with such an explanation which insults no one but still entirely deflates the practice going forward in the future. "It was OK for them, but not for us." Does that line sound familiar?

Of course, it also is possible that he meant exactly what he said. But of course, I do not believe that dybbuks are anything but psychotic episodes, and that maggidim are hallucinations or fictions. So I don't see how the Gra could have discussed this with them. (Of course, mystics would have no issue with this.)

11 comments:

גילוי said...

The matter of Eretz Yisrael should not easily be seen as an excuse, as it shows up elsewhere in his approach regarding Kabbalah. I have heard it quoted (I don't recall if a source was brought) that the GR"A's shitah is that one should not pray using kavannot outside of Eretz Yisrael.

joshwaxman said...

well, that would be a good way of preventing people in general from using kavanot, which would be a good thing. ;)

you make a good point. on the other hand, i'm sure that some of the time people used nishtaneh hateva / yeridat hadorot and really meant it, even though in other contexts it was surely used as apologetics.

at any rate, whether the Gra meant it or not, it can be a "useful" position for us.

kt,
josh

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

"Of course, it also is possible that he meant exactly what he said. But of course, I do not believe that dybbuks are anything but psychotic episodes, and that maggidim are hallucinations or fictions. So I don't see how the Gra could have discussed this with them. (Of course, mystics would have no issue with this.)"

So your point basically boils down to "anyone can read what they want to read into this Gra." Your insinuation is that from your skeptic perspective, the mystics are on no better ground with the Gra than you are.

But without any prejudices we should always assume it is more likely that someone means what he says! Not just as "a possibility"?

Isn't the burden of proof automatically and clearly on you to SHOW the Gra may not mean what he says, instead of spinning your preferred scenario into it?

joshwaxman said...

do you always mean what you say? i got the impression from some of your comments that certain shitos should not be put forward in modern times, not because of their untruth, but because of their possible side-effects on the emunah of the hamon am.

here, i am seeing a trend in three related fields (dreams, maggidim, dybbuks), where there are possible and indeed actual harmful repercussions. take a look at the continuation in the book, where he elaborates on how the maggidim can lead people astray. the gra refers obliquely to those who "broke out" as a result of maggidim, and was either thinking of Frankists or chassidim.

kt,
josh

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

To me, the question is, why is it Josh's preferred scenario? It seems to me that Josh is one of the few denizens of the J-blogosphere who really endeavors to maintain the commitment to not reading himself into others. Obviously there are many people who Josh admires who held views different from his own, and he has learned to make his peace with it (if it was ever an unsettling issue in the first place) so why do you say that he prefers the Gra to really agree with him?

That said, I agree that this kind of reading, especially where we don't otherwise have a confession of a kind of dual-truth approach, can be sketchy. However, there is no doubt that this kind of approach is sometimes meant to marginalize a view or practice ("yes, it's the holiest of holies, but you can only do it if you're 73 years old, on every 11th Thursday of years ending in a prime number, on the continent of Australia. But, of course, it's super holy!") without being open about it.

Also, taken in overall context, everyone sees the Gra as essentially a pashtan, a scorner of pilpul and, most importantly, a battler against mystical excess. So it's not an impossible reading; it's not like making the Rambam a mekubal, or making Rebbe Nachmon a rationalist. Still, I understand the reluctance to read him that way.

michael said...

I actually take another approach, that the GRA was a so called skeptical kabbalist. i.e. he really did believe in the esoteric, but was extremely skeptical about the validity of certain 'revelations', especially as they contradicted 'received' (kabbalah) halakha of Ashkenaz. That may be the reason that he is so critical of the ARI, and his effect on Chassidut. If I am not mistaken, he even made corrections to the Zohar( I am not sure of this, but I heard it somewhere).
Maybe he understood the Maggid as a revelation of someones 'Genius' or in our modern jargon 'superconscious mind', therefore not infallible (otherwise it would be Nevuah)?

Michael said...

Maimonides the Mystic,

Although Rambam was not a kabbalist in the modern sense. He certainly had his own mystical-meditative side.
I believe that PART iii: chapter 51of The Guide is Rambam's mystical vision.

Yosef Greenberg said...

Okay, we now have a new brand on the scene. Rational mysticism. :)

Seriously, is it not possible that the Beis Yosef thought that this kind of revelation is Hashem way of conveying the message?

joshwaxman said...

seems possible to me... :)

kt,
josh

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

"To me, the question is, why is it Josh's preferred scenario?

I don't think Josh left any room to speculate he said exactly why:
"But of course, I do not believe that dybbuks are anything but psychotic episodes, and that maggidim are hallucinations or fictions."

So since these phenomena simply do not exist acc. to Josh, his bias tells him the Gra also knew "the truth".

joshwaxman said...

fkm:
no, that is not the reason, as much as you love to attribute motivations to other people. if that were so, i would similarly be biased to say, for example, that Chazal did not truly believe in sheidim. I think that sheidim do not exist and did not exist, and yet do think that Chazal believed in them.

the Gra *could* have experienced a maggidic revelation, in which case (a) I would be wrong about their reality, (b) he hallucinated them after working himself into a different state of consciousness, by fasting and being helped by the power of suggestion.

so why is this my preferred scenario? it is a good question. if i were to focus on internal motivations rather than on the facts one way or another: in small part, to annoy you. ;) but also possibly as a reaction to an apologetic trend i sensed in this book in explaining away all the evidence and recasting the Gra in the chareidi image. also perhaps because i've seen such apologetics from frum people many times (whether they convince themselves of its truth or not), this *reads* like a convenient apologetic, in which one states that a practice (insert problematic practice here) is not valid for nowadays, but *of course* other people in the past, who could not do it any more, were not wrong to maintain this. (much like the views of Rishonim on whether Chazal could err.)

However, as I acknowledged in the very second sentence of this post, "Now it may be that I am simply reading my own values into the Gra, and rewriting the man in my own image."

kt,
josh

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