Monthly Archives: June 2012

Korach & Moses’ Meritocracy

Guest Post by Rabbi Avraham Bronstein
Rabbi Bronstein serves as North American Development Executive for Ohr Torah Stone. From 2006-2011 he was Associate Rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue. He tweets at @AvBronstein and launched a new blog,, where the following is cross-posted.

This is an adaptation of a sermon I delivered last week at a modern orthodox synagogue in the greater NY area. It is reworked slightly to include some material from other discussions and talks from Shabbat and beyond, and also eliminates some of the sermon filler. In conversation, I found that many people saw Korach as a sort of spiritual socialist, sort of a classic cold-war era sermon topic. I tried to make the discussion more contemporary.

Imagine a nation run as a meritocracy, where leaders rose to the top as they proved that they were brighter, more motivated, more assertive — true “leaders,” in every sense of the word. Things started well – there was a period of rapid growth and development, and everyone seemed to be sharing the rewards of the superior decisions and leadership that were coming from what was, by now, a trusted elite. Then, from out of the blue, something went very wrong. The leadership made a terrible collecive mistake, an epic misjudgment so out of line that the people assume they were collectively guilty of criminal negligence, if not outright corruption. As the grim, full reality of the disaster sets in, it becomes clear that all of the previous gains have essentially been erased, and the whole generation itself will go down in history as a wasted one.

Now imagine that, through it all, the meritocracy remains intact. The same leaders remain in charge, demanding the same levels of trust and of faith as though nothing had happened, with no effective safeguards in place to keep it from happening again. We would naturally expect the rise of popular movements to voice the people’s loss of confidence in the failed status quo. The truth is that this scenario actually happens quite often. In 2010, their motto was, “Don’t tread on me.” In 2011, they chanted, “We are the 99%.” And in last week’s Torah Portion it was Korach challenging Moses, insisting that “the entire community is holy, and God rests among them, so why do you lord yourself over the congregation of God?”

Continue reading

An Aspiring Mekubal-An Interview Part II

Continued from An Interview Part I- here
Now is your chance to ask questions on Tanya, science, magic, and kavvanot, but still within the frame of reference of his Lurianic tradition.

First, here are some gleanings from his blog. Here is a great story of his early meetings with Rav Kaduri.

[F]or the second time, I went to meet with Rav Kaduri. I had initially seen him when I was there on a Birthright trip, this time I went to his Yeshiva by myself to seek his blessing in my upcoming exams. When he found out that I was staying in a hotel, he insisted that I move into one of the apartments at the Yeshiva. It turned out that I didn’t get a lot of touring done on that trip, aside from one Shabbat away, and the days I took my exams, I pretty much stayed at his Yeshiva and learned, some with him, some on my own.

One day as I was learning Tanya from my copy of Chitas the Rav came over and stood by my shtender, just staring over my shoulder. After a short while, I realized he wanted to say something to me. I asked him if there was something he wanted or needed. He asked me what I was studying and so I told him. Then he said, “There are some errors in the sefer, if you want I will fix them(make a tikun sofrim) for you.” I knew there were possible errors in Tanya, after all the Alter Rebbe(or is it one of his sons) says as much in his own introduction. So I responded that I would be thrilled if he would correct the sefer for me. How often do you get the chance to have the greatest living Mekubal fix the errors in a Kabbalah sefer for you? He asked me several times if I were sure that I wanted him to fix it, and I continued to respond that I was.
He took the sefer and walked off. A half hour later he returned with it, handed it to me, and said, that it was now Kosher. It felt a bit light. As it turns out he sliced out entirely the Tanya and the Sihot of the Rebbe.

His image of a kabbalist as an ordinary individual is important for understanding his aspirations:

It never ceases to amaze me that on any given day you may walk right past some of the greatest living mekubalim in the street, or be standing next to them in the shuk, and unless you knew who they were you would never know it. When the Eipha Shleima(a major mekubal of past generations) first came to Eretz Yisrael to learn in Yeshivat Beit E-l, he had to hunt down the Rosh Yeshiva, at the time R’ Eliyahu Mani. He found him in the shuk, carrying his shopping home to his wife. He was amazed that a Rav of such stature should be dressed so plainly and doing such a menial task.

As a follower of the Rashash tradtion of the Ari, our aspiring Mekubal rejects the panentheism of Chabad, similar to the critique of the Vilna Gaon of Hasidism.

The Ben Ish Hai, Rav M. Sharabi, Rav Kaduri, Rav Darzi, Rav Attias, Rav Hedayya, Rav Shalom Shmueli and Rav Tzion Berakha all consider the Tanya to contradict the Eitz Haim.
The Arizal goes to great lengths to state that there is no connection between the Ein Sof and the created order. Nor is there any connection between the Or Ein Sof and the created order, rather only a “reshimu”(Eitz Haim Sha’ar 1:4). According to the Rashash(found on 14b of the Eitz Haim) states that even that “reshimu” known as the Kav Or Ein Sof, only extends to the world of Atzilut.
His grandson the Divrei Shalom(24d), and his chief student the Torat Hakham(72b) go on to explain all of this at length as to why even this reflection of the radiance of the Ein Sof, cannot descend below the realm of absolute spirituality. See also the Shemen Sasson’s commentary on Eitz Haim.
Kabbalists saw a great difference and separation between the One G-d, and the created order, so that even the means by which He interacts with the world is only through a hyper-spiritual created order that acts as a bridge of sorts between himself and his creation.
Regarding whether it is my derekh to search things out in Chassidic seforim, my answer to that is no. A qualified no, in that Rav M. Sharabi, Rav Hedayya and Rav Kaduri instructed their students not to study Chassidic works for various reasons. My first Rav in Kabbalah was Rav Kaduri, since then I have come to learn in Nahar Shalom(Rav Sharabi’s yeshiva) so in following in the instruction of my own Rabbanim, no I don’t open Chassidic seforim.

1) Isn’t believing that visualizations or kavvanot will cure people a form of anti-scientific superstition or a form of magic?

First and absolutely most importantly, this is all based in faith in HaShem. The Baba Sali used to say, that anyone with simple faith could perform the miracles that he did. Visualizations/Kavvanot of say a Pidyon Nefesh are complicated. In a simplistic sense, as much as they may or not be doing something in upper worlds, they are providing a very real crutch for a person’s faith. People used to come to Rav Kaduri for all kinds of things, and 9 times out of ten, yes he would pray for them, but he would tell them to drink Rosemary tea. I asked him once why he told everyone to drink Rosemary tea, the way he prescribed it, you would have thought that it was a cure all. He said, “Because if I told them simply to pray to a HaShem, they wouldn’t have faith, but they boil some rosemary in some water and drink it, they will think HaShem will answer them, and besides it’s good for the digestion.”

Kabbalah definitely teaches that these visualizations do barely comprehensible things in the upper worlds. The truth is you can do all the visualizations you like, without simple faith in HaShem, none of it will work. Is faith in HaShem superstition? My own faith bids me say of course not. However, as it is faith, I have no way of proving that assertion either.

2) What makes Rav Kaduri more real and less magic than many of the wonder workers out there who earned millions of dollars?

Rav Kaduri never took money for miracles. There were no miracles for a price by him. That may seem like a small thing, but it is a bond of trust between a Rav and a supplicant. I’ve seen chilonim, rationalists and chareidim, and everything in between come to visit Kabbalists in their time of utmost need. People are incredibly vulnerable then, and thus easily taken advantage of. I remember once a parent coming to Rav Kaduri, completely distraught, their child had been diagnosed with a horrible disease. Even before they had finished telling the Rav their tale of woe, they already had the check book out. Rav Kaduri held up his hands and said that he would not take their money, he couldn’t guarantee anything other than a sympathetic ear and some prayers and he could not charge for either. Whether that is more or less real… again that is a matter of faith. However, I feel it is more honest.

Kameaot are tricky things. A Kamea is, according to Kabbalah, a spiritual tool. It affects spiritual things. Thus in the very very narrow scope of things that we are allowed to write Kameaot for, and it is rather narrow, there are some prerequisites. First the person who is going to get the Kamea has to be completely shomer mitzvot. Second they have to have searched their own deeds to see if there is something there that can be causing whatever problem they want to remedy. Finally if we can determine that the problem has to be spiritual, then one may make use of a kamea. Then you need someone who will write a kamea, a true kamea, for you. Depending on the Kamea, it can require any number of added measures of prishut by the writer in order to attain the necessary holiness to write it. Generally speaking the writer will have to fast day and night from food and water and wear sackcloth upon his body the entire time. Then on the third day recite the viduy hagadol, and then write the kamea with all sorts of special prayers and things. Finally it has to be done entirely for the sake of seeing the person’s problem remedied and without any expectation of gain. So I say you have to be emotionally close to a person to do that, because that is the only way that you will fulffill all the stipulations.

If a person is charging you money for a Kamea, they are most likely a fraud. Most of what get passed off as Kameaot these days are worthless than the lucky charms found in the children’s cereal by the same name. At the least the latter are edible (and kosher the last I checked) and thus have some questionable nutritional value.

3) Isn’t the practice of kavvanot just an imaginary game like dungeons and dragons?

You know I used to be a dungeons and dragons fan when I was a teen… Anyway, the answer to that question is really a matter of emunah hakhamim. If you don’t believe the many many Rabbanim who said that the Kabbalah of the Ari was true, then I guess you could say that. If you trust in our mesorah on the other hand then you would have to say no, they are very real.

4) When you visualize shemot, is there an psychological difference between shemot and imagining anything else?

Yes definitely. The pure reverence that Jews afford the various holy names gives them an inherent subconscious value. If I were to say Chesed, that is just a word to you, even if it is also a sefira. However, if I symbolize that word Chesed with a holy name(or even several as the case is in the Kavvanot) now suddenly it has gone from the profane to the sacred, by merit of those holy names alone. Show a Kabbalistic siddur to someone who knows nothing about Kabbalah and they will look on in awe, and sometimes fear, because of all the holy names.

5) Should beginners use the kavvanah for the mikvah in the name of the Besht and Ari translated by Kaplan?

First let me say that you are touching on a rather basic machloket between various schools of mekubalim as to whether or not someone should use the various kavvanot before they understand them completely(if that is even possible). My own teachers have said yes, that they should.

As far as the Yichud of the Ari that Kaplan brings, it depends on which one you are talking about. The one he brings for the mikvah, is only for Erev Shabbat, and thus it is lacking half of the Yichud/Kavvanah which is the part that we do every day. It is written in the Kitvei, Shaar HaKavvanot Drush Erev Shabbat, that the kavvanot for the mikvah erev shabbat must follow the normal weekday kavvanot found in Shaar Ruah Hakodesh 9d, yihud 12.

As far as the next ten Yichudim that he brings, those were initially brought by Rav Dweck in his siddur to be performed every morning to purify the soul. I see no harm in doing them. The Yichud that is brought from the Besht, that seems to be more of a specific use Yichud to raise one’s prayers. In that sense it is a beautiful Yichud, and thus should probably be used accordingly. Meaning either after morning tefilot, or if one rises early to make private personal supplications before going to minyan, as part of that ritual.
(site editor- be sure to check Kaplan against the Hebrew, there are many typos in his kavvanot.)

6) When you visualize the kavvnaot, they are in the foreground of your mind, what is in the background?

When praying with the Kavvanot of the Rashash there are essentially three things that we are concentrating on. (1)The simple meaning of the word. (2)The various holy names and what they represent. (3) And the interaction that is caused or taking place by our saying these words and visualizing these names. Ideally, no other thought would enter your mind. Hence it is contemplative prayer par excellence.

7) On your blog you wrote: The Nefesh HaHayyim explains that since man contains within himself the energies of all the created beings, he has the capacity to draw Divine bounty down to them all by saying Perek Shirah (Nefesh HaHayyim, (1:11). What do you answer to someone who would consider that superstition and magic?

For that I would have to ask then what is the purpose of man? Why did HaShem in that view create man? I know it is a bit of a logical fallacy, but in a way the automatic rejection of anything metaphysical is a slippery slope, as HaShem is purely metaphysical. HaShem put Adam HaRishon in the garden in order to tend it. The Rabbis further tell us that it did not rain because Adam HaRishon had not prayed. Now the question naturally becomes whether that was physical rain or describing a metaphysical reality. Most Kabbalists look at it as a metaphysical reality. Not just through Perek Shira, but through all mitzvah observance. Perek Shirah is simply one example of that.
As far as it being against science, I am not sure how you can actually say that. Especially given that there is so much that science doesn’t know. I find it curious that there are people who will in the name of science make very broad and strong declarations about what simply cannot be, when science itself is relatively silent on the issue, and there is so much that science simply does not know about even its most basic laws.
So to say something is against science simply because science has yet to find a way to measure and quantify it, seems to me to be against science. Take for instance the atomic bomb. If you were to tell people even just two hundred years ago, that if you collided two marble sized rocks, even to very special and specific types of rock, together at sufficient speed you could create an explosion that would level an entire city, people would have told you it was magic, superstition, even nonsense.

8) What are the top 3-5 English books not in Kabblah that have left an impression on you?
Uh oh another of those questions that could seriously affect my children’s shidduch and schooling prospects.
Les Miserables, Don Quioxte, The Count of Monte Cristo, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Grapes of Wrath.

Review of Benny Brown’s book on the Hazon Ish by Etkes

Etkes has done a review of Benny Brown’s book on the Hazon Ish focusing on the historical elements, not the halakhic. Etkes picked out from the nearly 1000 page tome how the Hazon Ish gained his following, what role he played in the construction of simple faith and unscientific theology of Haredi Judaism, and how he related to Ben Gurion. Etkas has a great line in the review that gedolim tales “do not have the power to transmit true greatness. Readers are meant only to internalize the pat moral lessons derived from these rewritten lives, without doubting their veracity.” Etkes also points out the moral lesson of Brown that people want rabbis to address their halakhic issues and to be sensitive to the world they live in- lenient or strict is less important that sensitive and understanding. Hence, the need for contemporary hagiography to falsify that he was understanding of the need for physical work, an essential part of life in the early years of Israel.

Hehazon Ish: Haposek: Hama’amin Vemanhig Hamahapekha Haharedit ‏(The Hazon Ish: Halakhist, Believer and Leader of the Haredi Revolution‏), by Benjamin Brown (Magnes Press ‏(Hebrew) ‏951 pages,

Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz, popularly known as the Hazon Ish ‏(meaning “vision of man,” the title of his most well-known book‏), played a highly significant role in shaping ultra-Orthodox Jewish society in the second half of the 20th century. Benjamin Brown’s book, however, is the first comprehensive work to examine this formative figure in ultra-Orthodox society in a critical and scholarly light.

An intriguing question is how this Lithuanian religious scholar, who lived from 1878 to 1953, became a “gadol hador” − literally, one of the greats of a generation, meaning that he is a widely esteemed authority on Jewish religious law who attracted a large following… The process was gradual, with no indication in the early stages of Karelitz’s life that he would become so renowned. Until he was 55, the Hazon Ish never left Lithuania, where he devoted himself solely to the study of Jewish texts and halakha (religious law).

The revolution in Karelitz’s life began when he immigrated to Palestine, in 1933. Make no mistake about it: He was not a Zionist and he had reservations, if not downright hostility, about the Zionist movement.

The first thing that concerned him upon arrival was the resolution of halakhic doubts about legal strictures related to life in the Land of Israel. At the same time, the move awakened him in a way that led to his involvement with public life.

At first, he served as a religious authority for farmers in communities organized by the Haredi workers’ political party Poalei Agudat Yisrael, giving guidance on questions about, for example, milking cows on Shabbat and adhering to the religious restrictions of the shmita ‏(fallow‏) year. His rulings tended to be strict. He did, nonetheless, become sensitive to the difficulties facing religious farmers, and tried to be of assistance. After a few years, when he had won a reputation as an independent and authoritative arbiter, he began to make rulings in a variety of fields.

Still, it was only after World War II that the Hazon Ish really became a public leader. The destruction of centers of Torah learning in Eastern Europe and the death of leading rabbis, whether naturally or in the Holocaust, created a vacuum in the ultra-Orthodox world. The Hazon Ish attempted to fill the vacuum by building yeshivot anew in Palestine
ironically, of the sort that characterizes the way Hasidim relate to their rebbes. Masses of people crowded his doorstep seeking advice about work, health and matchmaking.

Why the Hazon Ish? The answer appears to be simple: He was seen as truly brilliant. That blazing intelligence, combined with a humble lifestyle and a willingness to receive all comers, bestowed on him an aura of righteousness.
On the other hand, he was a pragmatist, who knew how to be flexible and distinguish between goals that could be achieved and those that could not.

Karelitz’s pragmatic flexibility can be seen clearly in his willingness to work with adherents of the Musar movement after he moved to the Land of Israel. Karelitz was highly critical of the movement, which was founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter in the mid-19th century and focused on improving one’s ethics and suppressing the “evil inclination,” because he argued that Jewish law should be the sole deciding factor in whether moral conduct was good or bad. All the same, the Hazon Ish worked with followers of the Musar movement, including its most extreme adherents, to rebuild yeshivot in Mandatory Palestine after World War II.

There were also other character traits that may have contributed to the Hazon Ish’s ascendance. He was a scholar with tendencies toward intellectual elitism, but he also showed compassion and understanding in his relations with the public. Another quality that may explain his appeal is his profound inner conviction of the righteousness of his way, and the perfect congruence between the religious ideal he represented and the way he lived.

As Brown makes clear, for all of Karelitz’s abilities as a scholar with a deep understanding of Jewish texts, he was not much of an original thinker and was not particularly interested in theological questions. At the same time, the Hazon Ish did have a religious worldview − what Brown calls an “unscientific theology” that wasn’t made explicit or applied methodically but that is nevertheless the key to understanding his inner world and public works.

Neither philosophy nor mysticism − two approaches that greatly influenced Jewish thought and the Jewish sages − held much appeal for the Hazon Ish. So what does characterize his religious thinking? Brown’s answer: “simple faith.”
The only religious conclusion demanded by the Holocaust was the obligation to rebuild the centers of Torah study that had been destroyed.

Over the last few decades, dozens of such works have been published about the lives of people called, in religious parlance, “gedolei Yisrael” or “the gedolim,” the great Torah scholars. This is a continuing effort to create a pantheon of great rabbis by mythologizing their lives. The process is connected to an idea that has taken hold of the ultra-Orthodox world in recent generations and expressed in the term “da’at Torah.” According to this concept, these Torah scholars have the power and the insight to tell their followers what to do even on non-halakhic matters, without having to cite the basis of their instructions in halakhic sources. Moreover, these instructions have the force of Jewish religious law.

And so the writers, editors and readers of these biographies are completely unable to plumb the depths of their subjects or understand their considerations and motives. Those books don’t have the power to transmit true greatness. Readers are meant only to internalize the pat moral lessons derived from these rewritten lives, without doubting their veracity.

Since the Hazon Ish has come to be seen as one of the great rabbis of the Haredi world, it is no wonder that one of the high points of the mythology surrounding him is his conflict with someone perceived as a dire threat to the ultra-Orthodox community − none other than Israel’s first prime minister, the secular Zionist David Ben-Gurion. In December 1952, when the ultra-Orthodox were conducting a campaign against national service for women, Ben-Gurion visited Karelitz’s modest home in Bnei Brak and presented his host with the following question: “How can we, religious and non-religious Jews, live together in this country without having it explode from within?”

Ben-Gurion did not receive a real answer. But nonetheless, the religious biographical literature has made a choice meal of this meeting. Although there were only three people present ‏(Ben-Gurion’s aide Yitzhak Navon was the third‏), ultra-Orthodox sources provide details of the heroic stance of the Hazon Ish against the Zionist enemy. These include the story that when Ben-Gurion entered the room, the Hazon Ish removed his eyeglasses so he would not have to look evil in the face.

One mark of Brown’s success is the sharpness of the Haredi response to his book. It seems that more than anything else, the ultra-Orthodox cannot forgive Brown for saying the Hazon Ish − whom they consider one of the inspirations for the creation of a “learning society” in which Haredi men learn Torah all day instead of working, regardless of their scholarly aptitude − never believed that men must do nothing but study Torah, and that he was not opposed to army service or participation in the workforce.

Prof. Immanuel Etkes is a historian of religious movements among the Jews of Eastern Europe in modern times.

Everybody talk about pop Jewish, Talk about, pop Jewish

In our age of cruise ship Judaism and rock and roll shabbat, we have a new website called Pop Jewish:Hip Rabbis Weigh in on the Zeitgeist. There are so many interesting things about it. First, the pulpit rabbis are half Orthodox and half Conservative or other. We see that the word Jewish applies to all Jews back the way it was in the 1980’s. We no longer have several discrete denominations that do not, and cannot, work together. Second, we have pop culture as the new medium to reach Jews, unlike peoplehood of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The different denominations do not have different traditions and understandings of Snooki and Lebron James. The pop culture shiur has replaced the medical or business ethic shiur. Third, issues of the age represented such as GLBT Jews. Fourth, it will shift the balance of power back to pulpit rabbis from Roshei Yeshiva or seminary spokespersons. Finally, some of the representatives were the candidates not hired at WSIS or Beth Jacob, but are still seen as the live wires for pulpit rabbis today. “Shoobie doobie do wop, It’s all around you; Pop pop shoo wop, Gonna surround you…pop Jewish.

From their about page

The PopJewish Blog: Where Jewish Wisdom and Pop Culture Meet

This blog focuses on Jewish ideas and themes from television, movies, music, art and sports. All blog posts contain pop culture references and Jewish wisdom from the perspective of 21st century rabbis.

Popular culture affects us all. It permeates the air we breathe. Though certain segments of our Jewish brethren shun pop-culture to preserve Jewish values, we will take a more integrative route. Instead of enjoying pop-culture strictly as escapist entertainment, we will merge it with our religious sensibilities in holy matrimony. Our mission entails extracting and infusing Jewish wisdom, theology, and lessons in popular culture and sharing these ideas and dialogues with you. So continue to consume the gifts and enjoyments of pop culture, (as long as it’s something you enjoy and does not compromise your spiritual growth) and we will, with you, infuse; better yet- we will lift out the Jewish wisdom found within all spheres of pop-culture.

Any thoughts? Let’s talk about it.

Now, listen
Talk about,
Pop pop pop pop Jewish


And for something completely different:
I received in my email this morning a broadcast from someone “inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh” who sends out reports taking technology news and applying kabbalistic metaphors to it. Now, one can read Wired or other tech news and claim it is Torah.

From here
One way to expand our understanding of events is to show the commonality between two seemly distinct happenings. As we’ve stated previously, the word “Kabbalah” itself means to parallel one thing to another. Our blending exercise this week will include two ingredients from the recent news: Microsoft’s new line of Windows 8 hardware offerings and a functional Apple 1 motherboard that sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $374,500.

While Apple first started making computers commercially in 1976, Microsoft’s recent foray into hardware has brought about similar sentiments. Once there is a revelation of God’s concealed essence, there is a drawing down of physical plenty (i.e. the product that cases the concept). But after we receive the physical, we immediately revert back to its source in God above.

In order to bring light to the city of technology, there needs to be a revelation of God’s essence. Each of us has the potential to reveal this essence. Whether we find ourselves drawn to a computer made in 1976 or 2012, the dream of Steve Jobs was a vision of a connected world. While he sought to take creativity to every home, our role now is to take the lights of the city of technology, and return them back to their source within God’s essence.
While the term “computer” relates to Wisdom (Chochmah), the start of manifest creativity, the final expression is Speech (Kingdom/Malchut). Ultimately the outcome of our “personal computing” concept is that we should all be connected by means of communication.

Keeping the above lesson about revelation vs. essence in mind, say we were to approach an influential person (e.g. celebrity or a wealthy individual). If we view them as merely someone who is lit up with these external revelations, then it is doubtful that they would give us the time of day. But if we try to connect with them, with who they are, and maybe try to assist them in someway, then already they may start to take notice.

People buy Apple 1 motherboards and Microsoft Surface tablets for a similar reason. What does it means to envision a “computer in every home”? The same Steve Jobs who helped to personalize computers, years later reinvented the music industry with iTunes. While computing relates to Chochmah (the start of conscious creativity), the end result is communication (Malchut). The end-result of our drive to express creativity is that it should reach clear verbal articulation. The idea behind this concept is a term we call Natural Consciousness.

From here- he also has a parallel website were marketing and leadership books are given a kabbalistic veneer.

An Aspiring Mekubal- An interview- Part I

There is a blog called Aspiring Mekubal by someone studying in a traditional Sefardi Kabbalistic Yeshiva is the tradtion of the Rashash (Rabbi Sar Shalom Sharabi, 1720–1777). He studied under Rav Kaduri, Yeshivat Beit El under Rav Hedayya, and in Nahar Shalom (Rav Sharabi’s yeshiva).

The author, Michael El-Kohen describes himself as follows: “I am a good Jewish boy from New Jersey, a cousin to the Baba Sali and a descendant of the Ari Z”L amongst others, that after obtaining semicha made the daring leap of seeking to learn Kabbalah.” His actual story is much more of a journey.  He was raised secular/traditional in New Jersey.  He went to Temple University where he majored in Psychology. There he fell in love with Judaism through Chabad and acquired semicha in a Litvish yeshiva. He then had a very rocky period shaking his life, his observance, and his sense of self and future. He then found his way to Israel, sofrut, and a new life.  For interested, he has about a dozen confessional blog posts in a series called “Journeys of Life.” (for those who need a taste- here and here.)

To understand his basic orientation here is his list of how to get started in Kabbalah: Yosef Ergas, Shomer Emunim (hakadmon)-here, Eliyahu Manni, Kisse Eliyahu (a basic intro to the Rashshash world-here), Ramhal, Da’at U’Tevunot and then one doe the Ari–Otzrot Haim, Eitz Haim, and Sha’ar HaKavvanot.

If you want to discuss Kabbalah with him, make sure that you are not confusing chasidut, Habad, wonder-working frauds, or academia with his pristine Rashash position. Question will be answered within the thought of Eliyahu Manni’s Kisse Eyiyahu. Therefore: The rational rishonim agree with kabbalah, the medieval kabbalits agree with the Ari and Rashash, there is no development or periodization of the Kabblah in the academic sense. And the meaning of Emanation, Sefirot, inter-Divine structures, and Divien attributes is according to Ergas, Manni, and Ramhal- not your definitions from elsewhere.

[There will be a part two on science, amulets, Chabad, and the nature of the sefirot. so hold off on those topics]

1)        How did you decide to become a mekubal or study in yeshiva of mekuballim?

Kabbalah simply intrigued me.  It still does, so many years later.  If I were to analyze myself psychologically I would say it probably stems from my early association with Chabad, as well as my early reading of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.  The idea that there was an experiential level of the divine that was natural to Judaism, is what really drew me in.

2)         Why do you call it a “daring leap?” Shouldn’t it be a normal choice?

For ,many people it is a normal choice.  If you grow up in a religious home, and spend the majority of your life in cheder and yeshiva, then yes it is a normal choice.  For me it was a daring leap.  Why?  Mostly because I was a B”T.  Whenever I spoke to anyone about it, the most common answer was, “You are out of your mind, they’ll never take you.”  Getting into a Kabbalistic Yeshiva is not like getting into Aish, it is not something you can do via email and telephone.  So getting on a plane with the idea of trying to get into a Yeshiva that so many had told me would reject me outright… yeah that was I think a daring leap.   In a sense it is not so different from the stories we all hear of young kids getting on a bus to NY, LA or Nashville in order to become actors, singers and musicians.  It is a daring leap that is just as likely to end in heartbreak and failure.  From what I had been told at first, I didn’t stand any more chance than of those kids with stars in their eyes.

3)         You learned under Rav Kaduri, Beit El under Rav Hedayya, and in Nahar Shalom(Rav Sharabi’s yeshiva). What sedarim in kabbalah did you have at each Yeshiva?

Rav Kaduri’s Yeshiva and Nahar Shalom are much alike in this, in that they both learned Eitz Haim and Shaar HaKavvanot in depth, and the time was pretty much split equally between those two sefarim.  As in a two hours given each day to both in the Kabbalah Seder.  Beit El runs things a little differently.  They still have the Kabbalah seder which focuses on those primary texts, though they have added an additional hour to the morning(what would be Pshat seder in any other Kabbalistic Yeshiva) seder.  They still study Pshat(Shas and Poskim) for the standard four hours, however in that last hour they then learn bekiut the remainder of the Kitvei HaAri.  For instance Sunday would be Shaar HaGilgulim, Monday would be Shaar HaMitzvot, Tuesday would be Shaar Ruah HaKodesh, Wednesday would be Shaar Mamrei Rashbi, Thursday would be Shaar HaPesukim.

4) What do you tell the modern Orthodox person who thinks that kabbalah is a side show at best. They are say they are ideal Orthodox Jews and they don’t need it. What do you tell them?

Eilu V’Eilu devarim elokim chaim.  Belief in Kabbalah is not one of the 13 principles of faith, so you don’t have to believe in it. Truth be told, to be an ideal Orthodox Jew you need not study a single page of Kabbalah.   Kabbalah is only a path to help one grow into that ideal form of Orthodox Judaism, that doesn’t mean that it is the only path.  Rather it is the only path for me.

Now I want to address the “side show” comment.  First let me say that I understand how one could, unfortunately, come to feel that Kabbalah is a side show(or worse).  After all there are lots of strange things and happenings that are packaged as Kabbalah today that really have nothing to do with Kabbalah.  Whether it is Eastern mysticism dressed up in a Yarmulke, supposed Kabbalists who guarantee miracles for the right price, or back alley wizards, there are many things that today call themselves Kabbalah.  To the person who has no experience in Kabbalah, they have no way of knowing what is or is not legitimate.  For that I would recommend Rabbi Yaakov Hillel’s book Fatih and Folly.

Being a Kabbalist(or not) is ultimately a personal choice. Being a Dayyan is not obligatory, so why be one?  Being a Rabbi is not obligatory so why be one?  Because Kabbalah is so shrouded in mystery(whether for good or for bad) no one seems to know what the primary mission statement of a Kabbalist is.  Rabbi Haim Vital lays it out in his introduction to Shaar HaHakdamot, the Rashash and later mekubalim really pick it up, the primary purpose of learning Kabbalah is to aid Am Yisrael and Klal Yisrael.  They see themselves as sort of spiritual watchmen on the walls.  There that through their prayers, tikkunim and other things may guard Klal Yisrael and bring them spiritual good.

Hence the swine flu flight when mekuballim charter a flight for prayers as a tikkun that was unfortunately was leaked to the press.  While Mekubalim don’t make it a habit of going up in planes to perform tikkunim, they definitely make it a habit of performing Tikunim for their cities and nations.

More than a few avreichim join Kabbalistic Yeshivot, only to find out years down the line that they just aren’t built for it, and that their vocation truly does lie elsewhere.  It is sad.

4.      What do you think of the renewed interest in Abulafia? Even Rav Morgenstern cites Abulafian mediations. Do Abulafia and RaShaSh compliment or contradict each other?

Wow.  First I recommend Rav Hillel’s book and now I am going to argue with it in part, however I am following in the footsteps of my own Rabbanim.  I don’t see the renewed interest in Abulafia as a problem, in fact considering the amount of Abulafia that is copied over in the Kitvei HaAri. (Unnamed he brings several of his methods in the Eitz Haim.  By name he brings several of his methods in the fourth section of Vital’s Shaarei Kedusha.)

I see it as a logical progression.  I am going to say however, that would should have a pretty firm foundation in the Kitvei HaAri before progressing to the works of the earlier Mekubalim.  Much like we wouldn’t dump sophisticated Iyun upon a kid in a Beit Sefer who hasn’t even figured out Mishna yet, there needs to be a progression and laying of basic foundations. The Ari is a beginners step into Abulafia and other earlier mekubalim.  In practice I have found that it is much easier to understand the writings of the earlier Kabbalists once one has a firm foundation in the Kitvei HaAri.

5.      Why are so many people in Jerusalem turning to the Ari and Rashash? 

Are there really many turning to the Rashash?  I think part of it is that there is this new idea that everyone needs to learn all the time, and for some people a daf of Gemarra just doesn’t light their fire.

I think the biggest reason is that you can now find Kabbalistic Siddurim in your local Hebrew Bookstore. That was unheard of just 60 or 70 years ago, when they essentially were hand copied.  Another reason is that people are looking for spirituality. Some run off to India to seek it in another religion, some stay within Judaism, and decide to try their luck in a Kabbalistic Yeshivot.  Like I said there are numerous reasons that various people come to Kabbalsitic Yeshivot.  I’ve even seen some that want to learn because you can’t find a more chumradik style of Tefila(like I said, not all of their reasons are good).

6)      Y ou mentioned that you substituted for your teacher at Yeshiva. What seforim did you use to give a kabbalaistic shiur? In broad terms, what was the topic?

It was in the Eitz Haim.  We were in a rather difficult piece of the Eitz Haim in Shaar Arikh, dealing with various sofekot(uncertainties). Well the Eitz Haim obviously than it’s major commentaries.  I started with Beit Lehem Yehuda and the Kerem Shlomo.  From there I went on through the Shemen Sasson, Divrei Shalom, Eifah Shleima and Shem M’Shimon.  I finished off with the Remez, Torah Hakham and the Leshem.  Essentially progressing from what I consider to be the most pshat(simple) to the most Iyun(difficult and deep).

8.      Where can someone go to study with real kabbalists? What would it take to get in?

In Israel, especially in Jerusalem, it isn’t that hard, in some places there is a Kabbalistic Yeshiva on every street corner, literally every street corner.  Go to one of those.  As far as what it would take to get in, that would very much depend on the Yeshiva.  Some such as Yeshivat HaShalom, Beit El, and Nahar Shalom will take you so long as you are Orthodox, married, and can read Hebrew(speaking it will also be helpful).  Others are much more stringent on who many enter.  I would say the biggest key is that if you are turned away from one, don’t let that keep you from trying at another.

9)     Why do the kabbalists that you have studied under uniformly reject Gershom Scholem? Can you be specific?

There is a sect of living Kabbalists that one can go and interact with, see, hear, and learn from.  Rav Shalom Hedayya offered to instruct him, he declined.  (site editor- It was R. GershonVilner) He writes about sects/schools of Kabbalah that have either ceased to exist or have been subsumed within other schools.  It is hard at best to paint an accurate picture of what was going on there. Essentially bad scholarship. &nbsp.

10).     How long does weekday shaharit take with kavvanot? Shabbat shararit?

Average for a weekday Shacharit would be about 1.5-2hrs(that includes Korbanot and everything).  For Shabbat tack on another 45min to an hr.  Admittedly we also read the Torah at what most would consider a snail’s pace, so that slows things down considerably.  To give people a better idea, I would say that for the average person the Amidah takes about 20-30mins to get through.  . I prayed with a Minyan once that gave everyone a full 45-50min to do the silent Amidah and then the repetition was equally long.  That was almost painful.

The real marathon for us is Yom HaKippurim.  From Alot HaShachar until Tzeit HaKhokavim I think we have a total of an hour when we are not praying.  That really is an endurance event.  There have been times when I was so tired by the time we were done that I didn’t eat afterwards, rather I just went straight to bed.

To be continued in Part II- here

Part 2 of 7: Rav Soloveitchik- Religious Definitions of Man and his Social Institutions (1958)

Continued from part one here.

This lecture is probably the most important in the series, in that it explores paths and ideas not continued in later versions.  This one has the core of his presentation of existential loneliness. Existentialism says that humans experience isolation, meaninglessness, and death. These absolute given elements in the human experience cause all of us to suffer in our lives. Whether you believe in a divine power or not, we do exist, and in our existence, we all experience pain and suffering. Existentialism offers us a way to discover our true, authentic selves through the pain and suffering.

The goal of Rav Soloveitchik’s project is to take legal norms and construct from them moral norms and religious experience.  Rav Soloveitchik arms himself with Emil Brunner’s Divine Imperative and Max Scheler’s On Sympathy, a pair of source books that are not on the shelves of his readers. From Brunner he receives the ideal that we need to reject Enlightenment individualism, but still keep the modern scientific dignity of man.  From Scheler, he took turning to God in our loneliness. He also takes his knowledge of Freud and critique of Freud.

Many years ago before I started a lecture,  I asked: What do Soloveitchik, Heschel, and John Paul  II have in common? Someone called out “They  were all born in Poland” which completely derailed my intended opening discussion of the fact that they all extensively used Max Scheler. In this lecture, we see Rav Soloveitchik considering positions closer to Heschel, such as the concept that the lonely God is in search of man and that there is a bond of sympathy. The difference between the two remains that for the latter the moment of sympathy is a prophetic peak, and for the former it reveals the depth of out suffering.  Here we have God as emotional and lonely; His very being is his aloneness. Humans reach out to the one being that can understand their loneliness. The later draft of Lonely Man of Faith does not entertain these ideas.

He developed his ideas on prayer in a series given the prior year of 1957 and in this talk we occasionally see the ideas from that earlier series breaking through. In my write up,  I collected these comments into a single section. There is a decent transcription of the prayer lectures floating around.

In this version, Rav Soloveitchik clearly cites his sources, albeit under his breath at times, and probably had full quotations with citation in his notebooks. However, there are unattributed citations in Lonley Man of Faith that are almost word for word. The question is where in the editing process did the text lose the quotation marks and then lose the citation?

To continue to drive home the sense of the era,  Thomas Clayton Wolfe (1900 – 1938) author of Look Homeward, Angel wrote an essay God’s Lonely Man (undated as an essay) Excerpt:

“The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people — not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul…we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.”

Once again, listen to it yourself here. Please post in the comments any useful observations on the Rav’s thought, the editing process, or explication. My notes are just tentative guides. First person here is Rav Soloveitchik. My comments have my initials.

Lecture #2

Part 1 The tension of the individual and community

Part 2 – The distinctive element of Judaism is our loneliness even in community.  Also anti medieval tangent

Part 3 – God is lonely

Part 4 Turning to God in our loneliness and suffering, Freud via Scheler

Part 5 Prayer

Part 6 Other psychologies

Part I The individual and the Community

The question that opens this lecture is the relationship of individual and community. Soloveitchik claims that In the classical period, they did not have community but only a universal philosophic sense. The Greeks were not about a state but rather the abstract principles of government.  His goal will be to try to interpret the Greek philosophy and classical influence asking translates into modern categories? And by modern I do not mean contemporary.

There are two doctrines of the relationship of the individual and community with which Judaism disagrees violently with both

The first is the Individualistic. For the Individualist, conceived by the Enlightenment, being is its own entity, the goal is freedom, and a person is not indebted to anything. (We hear an echo in the Declaration of independence.  In the beginning are the individual and people retain autonomy even after they join a community. The model is Robinson Crusoe alone on his island. Dilthey and Brunner have similar ideas and compare this approach to atomized matter and particles.

The opposite approach that we disagree with is idealism, a supra-individual.  Here the individual is subsumed as part of a bigger group-, class, mankind, or objective spirit of Hegel and Marx.

I developed last time that Judaism is not individualistic even if accepts logic of age of reason

[AB- Where is his characterization of the Greek polis from? Most books on Judaism in the 1960’s cite this critique of individualism in the name of Heschel. This explicit piece of Brunner is unattributed in Lonely Man of Faith.]

Part 2 – The Distinctive element of Judaism as loneliness in community & anti medieval

Judaism is a new idea. What are the distinctive elements in man?

The most important for Maimonides is the intellect. In Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhin it is first and foremost the intellect. However, Medieval philosophy of religion- Maimonides, Saadyah, Halevi, Bahye, they were children of their time and their thought was colored by Neoplatonism. Maimonides was a mystic and Neoplatonist. “Sometimes you are dealing with Maimonides as a Jewish scholar and he vanishes and you have Maimonides the student of Aristotle.”

Therefore the sources are not reliable as a guide of Judaism, halakhah is the  only source that is reliable Extraneous influences did not reach it “as much.” But it is preserved as laws, and we need to construct religious experience and personality from it. From halkahic sources we need to create philosophy and religious experience beyond legal norms.

We have to be modest – Judaism has not given much to [Western] culture and not given much to world.

What we have given to the world and we should take credit for it is that man is a lonely being, humans are lonely, and this is what sets us apart from nature. In contrast, the Enlightenment Individual theory of being is atomistic and has no differentiation and does not differentiate experiences.

To be dignified, we need to be specific as people and differentiated into difference (Brunner). According to Thomas Jefferson, we are all equal. But this is false, Judaism greatness is the uniqueness of each person.

Image of god is that man is lonely

We have estrangement from creation and the natural order in general. Even on the social level- even in midst of crowded Time Square, there is a huge gulf of the individual and the community

[AB  Emil Bruner says many of the same points about moving beyond enlightenment reason to loneliness and community on pages 211, 487, 509, 703. Brunner concludes that individual reason is opposed to the lonely life of faith which joins with others on community.

Part III – God is Lonely

Judaism is monotheistic therefore the Shema means that God is not just a numerical one but that He is only one, unique and solidary. But the real meaning is that Shema Yisrael – The Lord is lonely

Medieval commentaries- understood it to mean unique, even moderns like Leopold Zunz- also translated it this way.  The “one” for Maimonides when translated into modern terms is best done as Rudolf Otto’s numinous, negative theology is the numinous. We cannot saw anything about God, it is called negative theology- see Maimonides’ Guide I: 60 – page 88 and I:61

The attributes of God are mostly not the same as ours.  If he is not like us, then he is alone and lonely.

Yahid means “only one,” In Deut 32:12 it means by God alone. God is the lonely one. He is a cloud-in Psalm 97 “Clouds and thick darkness surround him.”

[AB –Rav Soloveitchik translates Neoplatonism into Rudolf Otto’s- incommunicable. There was a parable written by Arthur Waskow, Before There Was A Before (with David Waskow, and Shoshana Waskow, Adama Books, 1984) about God’s loniliness, which he overcame through his chesed. Soloveitchik did not make any use of the rest of the verse in Psalm 97 “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.”]

Part IV Max Scheler on Sympathy- Freud, Heschel’s God in Search for Man

Freud and other psychologists seek to cure suffering. But there is no cure.  Loneliness is not just negative, it expresses the depth of human dignity and greatness. Loneliness is part of human greatness. In Psalm 8,  “what are mere mortals, that you concern yourself with them humans, that you watch over them with such care? Leads to “You made him but little lower than the angels, you crowned him with glory and honor,

Suffering, the inner depth type bases on human loneliness, leads to religious experience, there is a need for suffering for religion.

If God is not hidden from humanity then there can be no social development for humanity. Therefore God must be hidden and remain alone and hidden. God is lonely.God reaches out to man and man reaches out to God. God searches for man. It is God’s search for man.

Drama of greatness of human experience requires suffering. Man is lonely. We have our disgust with life and everything the good life offers man. We respond in lonely silence and quietude in offering ourselves up to God.

Freud claims that religion is infantilizing  Freud is right that the experience is as a child toward a father – that is the one who takes care of you when you are helpless. But he is wrong about the underlying sorrow, the insecurity and the need to cast ourselves to God when we are downcast. It is not childish but the correct response, see Psalm 55:23.

Freud is wrong because turning to God is the correct way for dealing with suffering and crushing defeat. I find shelter in God. Man cannot turn to another person because a person is also lonely. He can only turn to God who reaches out to him. [AB- Max Scheler’s Catholic students used this point to justify the suffering and love of Jesus.]

[AB- In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)delves into how religion is one of many modes of being that arise out of the need for the individual to distance and soothe itself in the face of the suffering that exists within the world. Freud claims that the ‘purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle but the”displacement of the libido” – instead of satisfying our libidinal desires, we channel them into creative endeavors.

Max Scheler responds in On the Nature of Sympathy of the the capacity to apprehend the pain, suffering, or signs of negative emotions and to respond to these with appropriate negative feelings. What the non-suffering person does for the sufferer isn’t as important as the fact that they do it with as much love as possible.]

V Prayer – Tangents from the audience after the mention of loneliness and prayer.

What is prayer?  Without loneliness we have no prayer. Plotinus described the “alone to the alone,” the  loneliness of prayer.

The Greeks only have aesthetic hymns and odes, not prayer. There are hymns in Judaism but they are not the main form of prayer. Jewish prayer concerns the suffering of man.We have distress therefore  we call out to God. Prayer is selfish, it is for our needs We need depth distress for prayer [AB- Rav Soloveitchik speeds up and talks animated about prayer. There is a gap in tape in this section.)

Prayer is dialogue with the lonely man- only two people are present man and God. Liberal Judaism did away with silent prayer because they think no one is lonely  I don’t want to preach Orthodoxy but this is what’s wrong with the family pew. Why is family pew wrong? The modern man wants to be confortable. He does not want crushing defeat; he does not acknowledge that he is a lonely individual, that ultimately he is isolated and alone without family. Therefore, we never let a child and father sit next to each other in shul. (He was asked for the source for this.) He answered that it is the Ram”a , “that one should not embrace or kiss his child in synagogue is the source. We all sit as lonely and defeated in shul. The Synagogue is not family time and is not community time. We need a place to prayer but not in a community sense.

We have knelling and bowing  in prayer to show that we fall in complete defeat before God. [Another gap in the tape.]

Prayer can be recited in every language-, but should be in Hebrew since translation is hard

[AB-notice how not kissing children is used as the philosophic equivalent of not siting together.]

VI- Other Psychologies

The psychological idea of “peace of mind” is wrong. It requires that I am successful and can avoid suffering. [AB- Joshua Liebman, a Reform rabbi wrote a 1950’s bestseller Peace of Mind – claiming religion as a peace of mind and a good family life is the goal of religion- it was used extensively for the explanation of the commandments by both Maurice and Norman Lamm.]

We Jews believe two types of crisis: environmental and being. –The former is famine/war/pestilence and the latter is the permanent distress of being.

When someone dies there is distress of grieving – we don’t share with the mourner the pain and suffering, we are not real in our grief. One can be a rabbi and pay a shiva call and not share the pain at all. One can, however, have a smooth tongue and be a big liar. Every must personally experience loneliness by themselves.

“I am beginning to become a bore” but only humans have a depth reality. A stone only exists in relations to others. But man exists for himself. (AB- cf Levinas where man exists for others, and Heschel where we exist in sympathy with God.)

Behaviorism , is a school of psychology that defines man just as his activities. It equates man and chimps There is more to man than his behavior. There is depth existence, selfhood, personal experience,

Read Henrik Ibsen – man is weak, women stronger. They have the depth of self.

Man is not captured by externally watching his actions. One cannot communicate the inner self. This teaching of the self is Judaism. One never overcome loneliness

AB-From the poet Carl Sandburg during the same years

When God scooped up a handful of dust, And spit on it, and molded the shape of man, And blew a breath into it and told it to walk, that was a great day. And did God do this because He was lonely? Did God say to Himself he must have company And therefore He would make man to walk the earth And set apart churches for speech and song with God? These are questions. They are scrawled in old caves. They are painted in tall cathedrals. There are men and women so lonely they believe God, too, is lonely. *** Carl Sandburg