Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dybbuks, Gedolim, and adding to ikkarei emunah via makchich magideha

Judaism has several axioms, called ikkarei emunah. Rejecting these axioms puts one into the category of heretic. Yet there are few of them. There are many other beliefs in Judaism, and someone who rejects any of those might be grievously wrong, and an idiot, but not necessarily a heretic. This despite how these beliefs have always had, or have gained over time, common acceptance, including among great rabbis. The Rambam says that there is no pesak in hashkafa, which would compel one to follow the majority or precedent. E.g:
וכבר אמרתי פעמים רבות כשיש מח' בין החכמים בסברת אמונה אין תכליתו מעשה מן המעשים שאין אומרים שם הלכה כפלוני

As I already wrote many times when there is a dispute between the chachamim on a matter of faith that has no relevance to action we don''t say the hakacha is like Ploni.

And indeed, it seems that he argued with Chazal in certain theological matters, such as in the existence of sheidim or about the precise nature of Divine providence.

Yet in a theological debate, there is great temptation to turn one's frum position into an ikkar, an axiom. That way, you are automatically right; no one can question the foundations of the axiom, and you are not forced to grapple with its foundations yourself. Furthermore, your disputant need not be engaged. He is a heretic for daring to say this, and one should not engage with a heretic! And proof that he is an oisvorf whose words and proofs should not be considered is this position he is putting forth.

Thus, as an example, the belief in the integrity of the transmission of the Oral Torah is expanded to include the integrity of the Zohar, despite it being revealed / having been invented in the 13th century. If someone argues that this is not part of Oral Torah, and has proofs of late authorship, this should not be considered. After all, he is a heretic, according to Rambam! This even though Rambam did not agree with certain kabbalistic beliefs and considered them nonsense.

One way of expanding the axioms of Judaism is via appeal to authority, combined with the idea of makchish maggideha. Thus, for example, Rav Tzadok Hakohen writes:

וכבר מפורסם אצל כל ישראל דברי חז"ל וכל קדושים מחכמי האמת, עניני מעשה מרכבה מה הם. [ואין צורך להשיב כאן על דברי המתפלספים הקדמונים, בפירוש מעשה מרכבה (גם כן) שהוא בהשגת חקירות הפילוסופים בחכמת הטבע ושלאחר הטבע, שכבר תמהו עליהם חכמי הדורות דאם כן כבר נגלו לקטני אומות העולם המסתכלים בספרי חכמיהם, יותר ממה שנתגלה לגדולי הנביאים ברמזים וחידות: ואין צורך להאריך מזה לכשרי ישראל עתה שנתפרסמה חכמת האמת בעולם, מוסכם בפי כל חכמי ישראל האמיתים. וכל הכופר בה הוא מכלל האפיקורסים, וכמו שיתבאר במצות לא תסור, וכמו שכתב בתשובות הב"ח הישנות (סימן ה') דהמלעיג על דברי חכמים ומדבר דופי על חכמת הקבלה, שהיא מקור התורה ועיקרה וכולה יראת שמים, פשיטא דאין לך מזלזל בדברי חכמים גדול מזה שחייב נידוי, עיין שם]:

Rabbinic consensus, such that an idea is muskam befi kol chachmei yisrael ha'amitim {=true Scotsmen}, creates a new axiom, such that one who argues upon it is a heretic, because he is mocking the words of the chachamim. Thus, according to this, there is pesak in hashkafah. This is, in effect, using makchish magideha to make rabbinic consensus into pesak and into an ikkar.

Yet I don't think Rambam held this, as he held that there is no such thing as demons, or real magic.This despite Chazal maintaining the existence of each of these. And despite widespread contemporary rabbinic consensus that certain impossible midrashim were absolutely literal, Rambam maintained that they were allegorical, and considered those who thought otherwise to be fools.

Similarly, there is a rather silly "debate" raging at Rationalist Judaism, in which someone is arguing that one cannot say that Rambam was influenced by Greek philosophy which moved him from the masorah -- despite that this is what some of the most prominent Rishonim and Acharonim indeed say -- because that would be makchish magideha.

What about belief in dybbuks? There is indeed some precedent in early Jewish sources for demonic possession, or possession by an evil spirit, though this is not necessarily the same as modern dybbuks. But suppose I follow Rav Saadia Gaon and don't think dybbuks are real. Am I a kofer, because this is a widespread Jewish belief among chareidi rabbonim and rabbonim in general in recent generations past? Since the Chofetz Chaim (purportedly, or thought he) saw a dybbuk, and the Gra saw a dybbuk, by saying that dybbuks are not real, would I be makchish magideha?

It gets better than that. Forget general belief in dybbuks, which can take us on several tangents. I will grant the reality of dybbuks in the general case. What about in the particular case? Let us say several prominent chareidi rabbis, dubbed Gedolim, attest to the reality of a particular dybbuk. What if I then say that this is likely, or certainly no dybbuk, and that the fellow needs the assistance of a psychologist or psychiatrist? Am I a kofer for saying this?

I would assert that I am not, and that to claim otherwise is hashkafic overreach.

Let us consider the case of the present-day dybbuk. I will cite Rabbi Shternbuch, but we should not hide behind Rabbi Shternbuch. As the Daat Torah blog puts it:
I showed Rav Sternbuch various press releases which asserted that he had placed the Brazilian dybuk in  niddoi to protect R Batzri.  He categorically denied the story. He added this is not a case of a dybuk but of mental illness. He expressed dismay that thousands of people believed that this was a dybuk and were involved with R Batzri's ceremony. He urged me to please write an article regarding his denial and emphasized the urgency to publicize his denial of involvment with the proclamation of nidoi and that he viewed this is a case of mental illness.
Thus, we can simply say that we are relying on Rabbi Sternbuch. And I've heard some people say this, thus holding like one legitimate side in a machlokes. But that is not all that Rav Sternbuch said, that this was a case of mental illness. Rather,
He expressed dismay that thousands of people believed that this was a dybuk and were involved with R Batzri's ceremony.
Why should he be dismayed at these thousands of people believing it. After all, at the time, no prominent rabbinic authority came out to say that it was mental illness. Rav Shternbuch only spoke up because of the nonsense attributed to him. So any random person of those thousand -- how could they not think that it was a dybbuk? What permission did they have to think for themselves, when other Gedolim had spoken in its favor? The answer is that people can and may think for themselves, and they should not be gullible and superstitious fools. When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. And the horses in this case, for non-superstitious, sane people, is mental illness rather than evil ghostly possession. So think it is not a dybbuk, but think. And think so before Rav Sternbuch has to say it.

But before Rav Sternbuch said it was mental illness, various Gedolim (purportedly) went on record that it was an actual dybbuk. And this made it difficult and awkward for the more rational among us to assert it was mental illness.

Which Gedolim? Well, there is Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Shteinman:
The community rav was notified, and he contacted HaGaon HaRav Chaim Kanievsky Shlita, with whom he maintains contact. Rav Chaim was briefed at length, leading to many questions, until he began probing seforim, ultimately announcing “this is a real dibuk”. Rav Chaim explained that the Chafetz Chaim and the Chazon Ish knew how to expel a dibuk, but in our generation, there is only one man, sending them to Maran HaGaon HaRav Aaron Leib Shteinman Shlita. “Tell him that by all the signs, this is a genuine dibuk. Perhaps he will know what to do,” Rav Chaim is quoted as saying. 
Rav Shteinman also probed and questioned, as well as investigating in seforim, coming to the same conclusion, adding there is a man in Yerushalayim by the name of Rav Batzri who knows how to remove a dibuk, and “perhaps he will know what to do”.
Thus, for a non-Gadol to say that it was no dybbuk would be to argue on the Gedolim. Which we certainly can and may do, though people think we may not, and that to do so is a breach of Emunas Chachamim.

I would assert that this was also the reason that the dybbuk made the Gadol-tour upon arriving in Eretz Yisrael:
The Yid was brought to Eretz Yisroel over the last few days. He visited the homes of various rabbonim and gedolim, including Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Levi Rabinowitz (author of Madanei Hashulchan), Rav Yaakov Meir Schechter, Rav Zundel Kroizer and the Amshinover Rebbe. The visits to the gedolim were arranged at the recommendation of Rav Batzri, who said that prior to the attempt to banish the dybbuk, the Yid should visit gedolei Torah and get brachos from them.
That is, though the purported reason was to get brachos from them, I would guess that Rav Batzri's reason was to effectively get the haskamos of all these Gedolim, such that their followers would be forced to concede the reality of the dybbuk, and not assert that it was a hoax, just as the woman from Dimona with the dybbuk about 10 years ago confessed, after Rav Batzri performed a well-publicized exorcism. Though that is my jaded suspicion, rather than something provable. I think that was also why the false report about Rav Shternbuch putting the dybbuk in niddui surfaced.

Must we give way to the determinations of Rav Kanievsky and Rav Shteinman (even where they did not see the person, just as Rav Shternbuch did not see the person)? It is either dybbuk, mental disorder, or hoax. Can they tell the difference?

Catholics also believe in demonic possession and exorcism. See here. To cite:

This widespread explosion of interest in exorcism was confirmed by aWashington Post article (Feb. 10, 2008) titled "Exorcism makes a comeback in Europe: Citing modern ills, hundreds of priests have trained to expel the devil." In that anachronistic news report, a Catholic priest in Poland routinely conducting twenty exorcisms per week explains, " ' there is a group of people who cannot get relief through any other practices and who need peace.' " Another priest who holds a doctorate in theology and serves as the resident exorcist at a psychological counseling center outside Warsaw, states that "the institute realized they needed an exorcist on staff after encountering an increase in people plagued by evil.' " The article notes that, in keeping with current Vatican policy, exorcists regularly consult with psychologists and psychiatrists in an effort to differentiate mental disorders from bona fide demonic possession.
That is, they believe in demonic possession, but they also acknowledge mental disorder as a possibility. And, believing in New Testament UMadda, they will consult with psychologists and psychiatrists in order to differentiate the two.

Did Rav Kanievsky or Rav Shteinman consult with psychologists of psychiatrists? Nope. According to the report, they relied on a second-hand description, and consulted sefarim. There are probably particular signs in such sefarim, but I do not think that Rav Kanievsky or Rav Shteinman are equipped to recognize mental or emotional disorders as well as a trained psychologist.

That is right. I do not think that either of these two rabbis are infallible when it comes to topics touching on science. That is why Rav Kanievsky had to look at a grasshopper up close in order to understand matters pertaining to chagavim. (A good thing, BTW, though I don't think that story has been really proven true, despite Rav Kanievsky's first-hand statements. I'll have to explain in another post, how what Rav Kanievsky said in that interview is not at all what was reported, and how there are important differences.) That is why Rav Kanievsky thinks Jews differ from gentiles in number of teeth, and that an anti-Semitic dentist in the US counts his patients' teeth, and will not work if there are 32. (And that was after consulting someone he thought was an expert!) And that is why Rav Shteinman was unable to understand just why facilitated communication for autistics is nonsense in many or most cases, and supported it as a real phenomenon, with disastrous results. Unless they actually consulted experts on the matter, I would not grant much credence to these Gedolim's diagnosis. Nor to the other Gedolim on the Gadol-tour.

Now, it is unclear that Rav Kanievsky and Rav Shteinman actually said it, even though people were leveraging their approbations to frumly shut up any dissent. For example, this comment:
R’ chaim Kanievsky And R’ Yehuda Leib Shteinman both said that he should go to R’ Dovid Batzri. That implies that they know he’s legitimate and not one who can be fooled into thinking that anyone can say there’s a dibuk. Why, then, are many suggesting that this is a hoax? 
I saw a comment, which I cannot track down at the moment, asserting (after the failed exorcism) knowledge that Rav Kanievsky and Rav Shteinman just referred them to Rav Batzri, but did not confirm that it was a dybbuk. And more than that, based on an article in the Hebrew Mishpacha magazine, Yachdus now reports that:
Rav Chaim Kanievsky has dismissed it as a mental case
I don't know whether that means that he changed his mind as more information came to light, or whether his support was fabricated in the first place.


yaak said...

R' Josh,
Since this post is likely an outcome of our previous discussions, I'd like to make a clarification.
Just to set the record straight, I never called you, nor do I think you to be, a Kofer, ח"ו. Adderabba, you're a truth-seeking individual with solid foundations to your views.
As long as the rabbis from both camps are not looked down upon with mockery or disdain, we'll have to leave it as an Eilu Ve'eilu situation.
Although I vehemently disagree with some of your views, you have a right to believe them. As do I.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

When you ask about "we" and "us," I think you're touching on another point: must "we" heed Rav Elyashiv et al in general, or do we have another approach and other leaders? Rabbi Adam Mintz has an interesting, albeit ultimately disappointing to me, lecture on his shul's web site about just this specific question, "Must we listen to Rav Elyashiv?" He runs through various conceptions of rabbinic authority and of past and present rabbis, and ultimately (disappointingly for me) concludes that we do not for the sole reason that "we" are under the authorit of R. Soloveitchik, and that our entire kat is legitimate solely because of him.

Yosef Greenberg said...

"New Testament UMadda"

Love it!

joshwaxman said...

thanks for the clarification, and thanks for the sentiment as well.

to hopefully reassure you, i wasn't taking it as that. rather, i often find that when tackling an issue, i will either make a post on my blog or else argue it out in the comments in another blog. so when all this dybbuk stuff was going down, i was noting all this stuff in your comment section, rather than making it into a post. i noted some of them in response to things you said, in terms of ordering my thoughts, but i would have noted them anyway. and so the "kofer" business was sparked by comments i saw there, and nothing that you particularly said.

the following consists of random, disjointed comments -- thoughts about this bouncing about me head, which i did not organize into a nice ordered post. i apologize in advance.

in terms of Elu veElu, i agree. and at the same time, i disagree. i think certainly for an outside observer, the answer may well be elu veElu. but at the same time, i think that it is legitimate for someone to think me, or others, a kofer, for differing with the Gedolim. (hey, meta-Elu veElu!) while i don't subscribe to that hashkafic understanding, different groups define kefirah in different ways, and who says everyone needs to agree to the Rambam in this restrictive definition of ikkarei emunah? and from the other perspective, does the Rambam (or his followers) need to respect the alternative position? can rambam call his opponents (regarding the issue of literal aggada) fools? must rav yosef karo refrain from calling shlugging kapparos a minhag shtus?

joshwaxman said...

there is a habit i picked up of attacking the foundations. thus, in this case, dismiss dybbuks despite some kabbalistic and earlier similar sources, at times by questioning those sources. this has the nasty side-effect of reducing all such disputes into the standard rationalist / mystical divide. but i think that one can argue it as being questionable, even within the mystical shitta. i just don't argue it so as not to grant the assumptions. thus, i would guess both rav shternbuch and rav kanievsky admit to the occasional reality of dybbuks, as grounded in kabbalistic belief, yet they still maintain it is a mental case. particularly why this is so is certainly interesting, and perhaps i should have tried to argue it like that...

there is another danger, in reducing it to Rambam vs. anti-Rambam. and that is, as you said, that I have Rambam and Saadia Gaon to rely upon, while you have many, many other great rabbis to rely upon.

however, here is my "out". i, too, don't like to think that my only basis and defense is that i have Rabbi X to rely upon. Whether that is the Rambam, or as Mississippi Fred MacDowell said above, Rav Soloveitchik. Rather, what I think I am relying upon is the Truth. And I hope I would be courageous to maintain what I believe to be truth even if I did not have Chazal, Geonim, or Rishonim to back me up.

If it is a dispute about truth, then having rabbis on either side is sometimes irrelevant. is there elu veElu about flat-earth vs. round earth, or geocentricity vs. heliocentricity. in the extreme example, about the number of teeth?

so i don't think it always reduces to a case of each side being able to rely on their rabbis...

Thanks. I'll try to check it out. And indeed.



Yerachmiel Lopin said...

This was a good post. Thank you.

An additional aspect of this problem is that rabbonim are too willing to lend their names out and even when they don't, they are regularly misquoted.

I would say that one is not a gadol if one is not willing to buck the trend.

yaak said...


Regarding the Rambam calling people fools, I believe that was OK for the Rambam to do - not for us. There are so many various Minhagim which have lasted through the test of time. To suddenly call such actions foolish is an affront to the previous generations, who have had halachic backing for these minhagim. (If the halachic basis is shaky, then we can call it a Minhag Shetut - not a Noheg Shoteh.) The same with R' Yosef Karo calling something Darkei Emori, where the practice was relatively new as opposed to our day where it's been through the wringer and has come out as a valid minhag anyways. You have a choice to not do it and to even encourage others from not doing it, as there is halachic basis for that too. You cannot nowadays call people foolish for doing it, though.

Regarding this issue, you've transfered it from the mystical/rationalist divide to the "Do we hold like the Yerushalmi or like the Midrash regarding אפילו על שמאל שהוא ימין ועל ימין שהוא שמאל?" argument, which I'm not in the mood to get into again.

joshwaxman said...

cheftza (as gerund) vs. gavra is an interesting point. but rav yosef karo came around several hundred years after the ramban, who tried to eliminate it for the same. (see also this post, about the heading of minhag shtus.)

in terms of shifting towards the divide of אפילו על שמאל שהוא ימין ועל ימין שהוא שמאל, that is only if we take the minority position of the sefer haChinuch that it applies to Gedolim, rather than the vast majority opinion that this statement in Bavli refers only to rulings of the Sanhedrin. and even for the Sanhedrin, i suspect that the phrase was intended as rhetorical exaggeration, but really about psak halacha rather than about hashkafa or more importantly physical reality. if the Sanhedrin declared that right was actually left, or that the sun rises in the west, would we be obligated to follow them? i strongly doubt it.

and in terms of the Sifrei, i think the words אפילו מראין בעיניך are much more important than they are commonly taken, namely that it refers to false perception, rather than actual reality. and the gemara (Bavli) in Horayot itself puts limits on what constitutes a valid psak, such that there are aspects of zil gmor. and so on and so forth.

you are right. it is a very detailed sugya, and now isn't the time to get into it...

and besides, this arrives back at wrestling with methodological questions about whether we are permitted to say X or Y, which is what i think one should avoid. frankly, i think the correct path is that if a particular religion requires us to *believe* falsehoods, then the religion is false, and is not worth practicing.



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