Tuesday, March 18, 2008

If Kabbalah Is False, Does That Mean Gedolim Were Not Great?

What got me thinking about this was an exchange in the comment section with "Anonymous" on this post.

That is, Shadal is trying to prove that the Zohar is a forgery, that most if not all of kabbalah is at odds with the theology of Chazal, and that some aspects of kabbalah are idolatry. But how could we say that? We respect the gedolim of the past, as great talmidei chachamim and tzaddikim! How can we continue to do so if they were able to make such a deep error in matters of theology?

I think it is quite possible that the gemara addresses this very question. In Sanhedrin 102b, we read:
In the college of R. Ashi the lecture [one day] terminated at 'Three Kings.' 'To-morrow, said he, 'we will commence with our colleagues.' [That night] Manasseh came and appeared to him in a dream. 'Thou hast called us thy colleagues and the colleagues of thy father; now, from what part [of the bread] is [the piece for reciting] the ha-mozi to be taken?' 'I do not know,' he answered. 'Thou hast not learned this,' he jibed, 'yet thou callest us thy colleagues!' 'Teach it me,' he begged, 'and to-morrow I will teach it in thy name at the session.' He answered, 'From the part that is baked into a crust.' He then questioned him, 'Since thou art so wise, why didst thou worship idols?' He replied, 'Wert thou there, thou wouldst have caught up the skirt of thy garment and sped after me.' The next day he observed to the students: We will commence with our teachers [so referring to the Three Kings]. Ahab denotes that he was an ah [a brother] to Heaven, and an ab [a father] to idolatry. An ah to Heaven, as it is written, a brother [ah] is born for trouble,' and ab [father] to idolatry, as it is written, As a father loveth his children.
I don't think the point was that there was a yetzer hara for idolatry in those days, which Hashem removed, as goes the explanation I have heard. As Rashi says, "mippenei yetzer avodat kochavim shehaya sholet."

Rather, I think there is a point here about understanding other and earlier societies on their own terms. The sociology of the Jewish community had changed from the time of King Menasheh to the time of Rav Ashi, such that idol worship was not as understandable. It was not just people who were the dregs of society, and not just the ignorant, who could fall for belief in idols. Project Rav Ashi into such a society, and it is quite possible that he would have run after King Menashe to do as he did.

This does not make King Menashe's actions acceptable. As Rabbi Abahu says beforehand, "'Did they abandon [their evil course], that I should abandon [my habit of lecturing upon them]?'" But there is perhaps a difference between lecturing about their deeds and treating those people lightly, with disrespect. We have difficulty imagining ourselves in those times.

And I think we can say the same for kabbalists. Even if kabbalah is at odds with Chazal's theology, and/or is false and should not be followed, or turns out to be avodah zarah; even if the Zohar is a forgery and all these rabbonim followed it, that does not mean that they are not wholly righteous, or smart, or able to contribute wonderful and insightful Torah thoughts in the realm of halacha, aggada, hashkafa, parshanut, and so on.

It is so easy for us to stand here in the 21st century and pass judgment, and say that if they fell for X, they could not have been so great. But frankly, I have to realize that had I had a different upbringing even in the 21st century, in a more chassidic community; or even in the same community, but had a different education, I would be as convinced of the truth of kabbalah as they are. And even more so had I lived in their times, where kabbalah was assumed by everyone to be authentic, but it was Sabbatean kabbalah under attack, or Chassidism, etc., it is quite possible that I would have studied kabbalah, and produced kabbalistic divrei Torah, and so on.

But even though I disagree with them in one aspect does not mean I cannot respect the depth of their Torah knowledge, and their righteousness, in other areas. For example, I can respect the Rambam as a halachist and a theologian, even as I can reject much of Aristotelean philosophy and science as nonsense.


Anonymous said...

I don't understand.

Assuming that kabbalah is avodah zorah, or at least distorts aspects of halachah and hashkafah as taught by chazal, then it is difficult to say that the "only" thing the gedolim id wrong is believe in kabbalah - this is a major issue!

Can't this issue make a person evil?
Like it did Achav?

I think that kabbalah is destroying
Hashem's torah.

I would appreciate to hear your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

sorry for typo
id = did

Anonymous said...

To further expand:

Assuming that the kabbalah and zohar are false, why do you assume that the gedolim are still gedolim - can't this error turn them into reshaim? Or at least lower them to the level of a simple person.

If you have on the one hand someone who knows very little torah but doesn't believe in zohar and kabbalah, can't a good argument be made that he is much better than a godol who is a baki in shas and poskim but believes in kabbalah which might be avodah zorah and cause a distortion in the halachah and hashkafah as passed down from chazal?

Can't such a godol also be in the category of a choteh U'machti Es HaRabim? Like Yeravam ben Navat?

Isn't it possible that the destruction caused by kabbalah and zohar is greater than that caused by Yeravam?

Even if you will say, that they were sincere and well meaning, but lets say someone is sincere and well meaning and thinks that J is god?

Where do you draw the line?

joshwaxman said...

it's a good question, and I think I may have a good answer, but will need some time to write it up. be'ezrat Hashem and bli neder, soon.

All the best,

Anonymous said...


I am looking forward to reading your response. Hopefully as a full length blog post!

Also, I am just wondering, what is your opinion in regard to those who served the Baal in the time of Eliyahu. Does the Torah consider them Reshaim? Can they have a portion in the world to come? Are they basically good people but with just one flaw?

Anonymous said...

Also, let's not forget that even after Menasheh's excuse in the Gemara, the consensus opinion in the Gemara seems to be that he has no cheilek in Olam Haba.

joshwaxman said...

There are possibly too many anonymous commenters here. Are you the same anonymous commenter who prompted the this present post?

And are you asking in seriousness? Or are you arguing rhetorically?

Kol Tuv,

Anonymous said...

Hi Josh,

I apologize for any confusion.
I - Dovi - wrote all the anonymous comments here,but I was not the anonymous commenter that prompted this post. I am asking these questions very seriously and sincerely. I am deeply bothered by the frum communities acceptance of kabbalah. I am deeply convinced that kabbalah is a perversion of our Torah.
It is distorting many halachos and hashkafos, and I don't beleive that kabbalah is the Judaism of Abaye and Rava.

I would appreciate to hear your thoughts.

Kol Tuv,


Anonymous said...

How can the Chofetz Chaim's Mishnah Berurah bring down halachos based on the Arizal and kabbalah?

If they are really halachos then wouldn't the gemara teach it?

It is claimed that the kabbalah was kept secret and was around in the times of the Gemara. If it was kept secret, then Abaye and Rava should have made sure to teach us all of the halachos that are based on kabbalah since they couldn't assume we would learn it from kabbalah (since it was kept secret).


Anonymous said...

Hi Josh,

Here is another reason that I don't believe in Kabbalah:

Imagine if Josephus would mention that there is a form of martial arts (karate) called "badga" that the jews used when they fought their wars. If someone today would advertise in Israel that he is giving lessons in "Badga", and the proof that this is a real authentic ancient fighting art is that it is brought down in Josephus and other ancient texts.
That would be ridiculous, because who says that there is any connection between what the man today calls badga and what Josephus calls badga.
So too, even if we assume that there was once something called Kabbalah, there are so few ancient "kabbalah" writings around today - - that who says there is any
connection between the Arizals "Kabbalah" and ancient "kabbalah", and between Deleon's "Kabbalah" and ancient "kabbalah". And between any kabbalah from the 13th century and on and ancient "kabbalah".


joshwaxman said...

Funny you should mention it, but there is actually a modern person doing just that with a ancient kabbalistic martial art. Look up the Abir Warrior.


And some folks believe him.

We do have access to some ancient kabbalistic works - the heichalot literature, and mystical works throug various ages. So we can trace some of the development, assuming everything was revealed. Particularly for mystical wisdom, we would expect an Oral, and hidden tradition. Indeed, the gemara itself talks about how many people you can teach maaseh merkava to at once, or maaseh bereishit, two types of mysticisms. And the integrity of Oral tradition can indeed be there, as we see with our own Oral tradition. (Tefillin on the forehead as one concrete and provable example.)

The intersection between halacha and kabbalah is more complicated, and I can see how people can come up with answers to this, not that I agree with every possible answer. For example, this was for the mystically inclined. Or it really is in the gemara, but the kabbalah presents a specific way of *reading* the gemara. And so on. Eventually I'll get around to some posts on this subject.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate reading these discussions. I am not Jewish, so much is foreign to me. Hope that's o.k. If not I won't post again. Thanks, Jane

joshwaxman said...

there is no problem with you reading and posting.

all the best,


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