Sunday, August 17, 2014

Tzamah Nafshi- A second attempt at articulating my thoughts on mysticism for moderns

One could, if he so desired, break down the idea of love, to a combination of biological and physiological urge. Mix in some psychology and some evolutionary development, and love could be stripped of all of its romantic tendencies and notions. Thankfully, for those of us who are romantics, such reductionist thinking would be correctly understood to be missing the forest for the trees. I would contend that Modern Orthodoxy, in emphasizing rationalist approaches to Judaism, to the exclusion of mystical approaches, has made the same reductionist mistake.

Allow me to begin by making one thing clear. I do not believe in the metaphysical or theurgical claims of Kabbalah. I do not learn Torah to create heavenly worlds, and I do not see myself as a puppet whose strings can manipulate the Puppeteer. Still, I have come to believe that in rejecting the factual claims of mystical thought, Modern Orthodoxy has gone to far and thrown out the creative and passionate language of Jewish mystical thought.

Rambam describes the mitzvah of Ahavas HaShem as being analogous to a man who is in love with a woman and can’t keep her out of his mind. Echoing the words of Dovid HaMelech, he says that a person reaches the level of “taavah”- desire, to know HaShem. Even parts of the Moreh Nevuchim have language that can be called mystical, and Rambam’s son, Rav Avraham, certainly went in that direction.

Professor Shalom Rosenberg has gone so far as to suggest that the difference between rational and mystical notions of Ahavas Hashem, as being analogous to the difference between romantic and erotic love. While the latter term may seem, to some, to be out of place, in a religious discussion, the desire for ultimate closeness to God may be experienced and felt  through the singing of Lecha Dodi, Yedid Nefesh, or Tzamah Nafshi, the latter of which was written by Ibn Ezra (!).

I would suggest that, living in a post-modern era, the recognition that we can never objectively know Truth (with a capital T) frees us us up to use language that talks of God in ways to which we can better relate. Rav Solovitchik once noted, after it was made clear to him that his talmidim did not want to hear shiurim from him on Tanya, that his students only wanted his brain, as opposed to his soul. Since that time, for most of the Modern Orthodox world, things have moved even more in the overly-rational direction. One does not have to look to Kabbalah to find mystical language within our tradition as it can be found in parts of Tanach, and within some words of Chazal. To the degree that we keep such ideas and language out of the classroom, we cheat our students out of a possible way to engage passionately with God and his Torah.

Although much of Modern Orthodox thought speaks to me, too often I find it expressed in overly clinical ways, devoid of passion. By ignoring the mystical language that can be found in Tanach, Chazal, Rishonim and some of the greatest and most creative modern Jewish thinkers such as Rav Tzadok, Rav Kook and Rav Hutner, we run the risk of making Torah and mitzvot into a scientific and dispassionate pursuit. We have already seen the costs of such an approach, and it is time to turn things around before more damage is done.


  1. I very much agree with what you wrote, Pesach. When we don't use the word love and describe feelings that we have towards Hashem we, by default, minimize the Yiddishkeit we live, practice, and give over.

  2. One doesn't need either Qabbalah or mysticism in order to evoke passion. They might be useful for some, but they aren't necessary components of experiencing G-d Personally. In fact, I would argue that the only necessary step is to try -- the whole point is the experience, the first-hand event, not some thought system. As the Breslovers recommend, the way to start doing hisbonenus is to start doing hisbonenus. After a while, talking to one's Father in heaven the way one would one's other parents, or one's Beloved, or one's... will stop feeling so weird and that sense of connection gains reality.

    (I would point out that your invocation of the Rambam proves my point about not needing mysticism to have passion, BUT... I think the Rambam transvalues the word "ahavah" rather than using it in the plain sense when he writes of "ahavas Hashem". E.g. Yesodei haTorah 2:2, his introduction to why he includes his metaphysics in the Yad:

    והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו ויראתו בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו הנפלאים הגדולים ויראה מהן חכמתו שאין לה ערך ולא קץ מיד הוא אוהב ומשבח ומפאר ומתאוה תאוה גדולה לידע השם הגדול כמו שאמר דוד צמאה נפשי לאלקים לקל חי וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו ויפחד ויודע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה עומדת בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות כמו שאמר דוד כי אראה שמיך מעשה אצבעותיך מה אנוש כי תזכרנו...)

  3. Fifth time trying to post this...

    R JB Soloveitchik made some relevant points in one of his early yahrzeit shiurim. Te year was 1943, and American Jewry was reeling under the realization of the scope of the Holocaust. RJBS writes about the replacement of heart ("reishis chokhmah yir'as Hashem") with intellect, and what this meant to the new anti-semitism.

    The first part of this section of R' Basil Herring's translation from the Yiddish touches upon our topic here