Sunday 11 June 2017



Do some of our common 'religious' practices today fall under the category of rationalism, mysticism or possibly just plain superstition?


Rambam writes:

“ Anyone who whispers a charm over a wound and reads a verse from the Torah, or one who recites a biblical verse over a child lest he be terrified, or one who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over an infant to enable him to sleep, are not only included in the category of sorcerers and charmers, but are included among those who repudiate the Torah. They use the words of the Torah as a physical cure, whereas they are exclusively a cure for the soul, as it is written, ‘they will be life to your soul.'
On the other hand, one who is enjoying good health is permitted to recite biblical verses, or a psalm, that he may be shielded and saved from affliction and damage by virtue of the reading.” [2]
The last sentences is interesting because, although it is not the Rambam’s ideal of religion, it is nevertheless, still within the parameters of religion (as opposed to superstition), as it is G-d and not just the verses that one is appealing to - the verses are secondary and no longer have the urgency they would have had if one were to be desperate and unwell.
Rambam was known to have often offered ‘religious concessions’ to the populace. He even believed that the biblical sacrifices were only permitted as a means of accommodating the ‘ignorant masses’’ desire to infuse theology with ritual sacrifice – a sentiment which was common at that time – notwithstanding the fact that the notion of sacrifice was, in his view, never considered a true spiritual virtue. See KOTZK BLOG 68.


Rambam writes about Mezuzah:
“There is a widespread custom to write the word Shaddai on the outer side of the Mezuzah, opposite the blank space between the two sections. Since it is written on the outside, there is no harm done. On the other hand, those who write inside the Mezuzah names of angels or names of saintly men, some biblical verse or some charms, are included among those who have no share in the world to come. Those fools not only fail to fulfil the commandment but they treat an important precept, which conveys God's Oneness as well as the love and worship of Him, as if it were an amulet to benefit themselves, since they foolishly believe that the Mezuzah is something advantageous for the vain pleasures of this world.” [3]


Rambam didn’t believe angels manifested in reality, even though they are frequently mentioned in the Torah. He maintained that every encounter with an ‘angel’ took place in a dreamlike state. See KOTZK BLOG 110.


Rambam set out three guidelines we need to consider before accepting anything as religiously true:
1) It must be provable by human logic such as by astronomy, mathematics and geometry.
2) It must be perceivable by the five senses.
3) It must come down to us through the prophets or the righteous.


Rambam was such a believer in the necessity of using human rationale in the sphere of religion, that he even went against many of the teachings of the Talmud and Midrashim:
Writing about astrology, Rambam said “fools have composed thousands of books of nothingness and emptiness” – even though early rabbinic sources are replete with references to astrology.
In his Letter to Yemen, he writes that we do not have to take everything the previous generations wrote as being authoritative (except, of course when it came to matters of clear Halacha):
“Do not consider a statement true because you find it in a book, for the prevaricator is as little restrained with his pen as with his tongue. For the untutored and uninstructed are convinced of the veracity of a statement by the mere fact that it is written; nevertheless, its accuracy must be demonstrated in another manner.”
In Rambam’s view, anything that is written within rabbinic literature which contradicts rationale - outside of clear Halacha - has to be re-evaluated. This is because various statements may have been made within the framework of a particular historical and cultural milieu.
For many religious people today, this may appear to be a rather radical and untraditional view. Perhaps the best way to explain this approach is to understand that Rambam’s magnum opus, or masterpiece, the Mishneh Torah was a distillation of Halacha from the labyrinth of the Talmud. It intentionally left out, not just the discussion but even the derivation of the Law, and presented only the practical outcome.
In this sense, Rambam filtered out much of what he believed was not vital to the student of Halacha, so that he should not be encumbered by unnecessary and impractical information.  
He did the same with regard to what he considered to be ‘irrational’ beliefs common at that time and in that culture.
It is possible, to borrow a modern term, that Rambam regarded the Talmud as a kind of ‘internet’ of the day. It recorded whatever it could lay its hands on, for the sake of preserving the teachings for posterity, assuming the information and recorded statements would later be subjected to some measure of discretion by the readers.
It is also feasible that Rambam treated the Talmud the very same way as many today treat the Rambam himself. It is quite common for us to selectively take the Rambam’s Halachic writings (E.g. Mishneh Torah) and regard them with authority, while disregarding his Hashkafic or philosophical writings (E.g. Moreh Nevuchim). Rambam too, may have only regarded the Halachic aspects of the Talmud as being authoritative while disregarding some of the other values it espoused.
Understandably, not everybody was enthralled by his rationalist approach to Judaism:


There is a fascinating ruling in the Shulchan Aruch which permits a superstitious practice, under certain circumstances:
If someone is stung by a scorpion, it is permitted, even on Shabbat, to recite a charm over the victim, although such a thing is of no benefit whatsoever. Still, since a life is in danger, they (the rabbis) permitted it lest the victim suffer mental (psychological) anguish.

The Vilna Gaon comments on this:
This opinion (of the Shulchan Aruch offering a concession to use a charm on someone psychologically traumatised by a scorpion’s sting – although ‘there is no benefit whatsoever’) is the Rambam’s (view) as expressed in his Hilchot Avodah Zarah.
However, all subsequent authorities disagreed with him because of the (fact that) numerous charms (are) recorded in the Talmud.
He (Rambam) was drawn by the accursed philosophy, and that is why he wrote that witchcraft, names, charms, demons and amulets, are all deception.
But he has been thoroughly refuted on the strength of the innumerable stories found in the Talmud (concerning these issues)...
(P)hilosophy with her blandishments led him to explain all such stories allegorically and to uproot them from their literal meaning.
As for me, heaven forbid that I should accept any of those allegorical explanations.”
Thus the Vilna Gaon felt utterly compelled to distance himself from Rambam’s stance on charms and demons etc. by virtue of the simple fact that they are mentioned so often in Talmudic and other rabbinic literature. This clearly shows, in the Vilna Gaon’s view, that these concepts must be part of authentic Judaism, and he, therefore, has to reject the Rambam’s rationalist approach.


Here we have an extremely stark debate between Rambam and the Vilna Gaon (although they lived about five hundred years apart).
Rambam was prepared to dismiss a whole array of (non-Halachik) Talmudic teachings because he felt them to be out of step with rationalism.
The Vilna Gaon, a mystic by nature, could never contemplate such a notion, under any circumstances. We have to accept everything written in the Talmud as absolute religious truths.
- These are clearly two very different paths and the reader will, most likely, be drawn to one view at the exclusion of the other.
This is not necessarily a bad thing as Judaism has always meant different things to different types of people.


The question is – have we not abused the traditional mystical view and morphed it even further away from rationalism by creation a third category, namely that of superstition?
Religion is hard.

Honest religion leaves us with more questions than answers.

True religion finds us in a constant state of asking, probing and searching.

Superstition comes hidden behind a blanket of intense apparent religiosity. And much of the modern religious world today has bought in to this veiled superstition.

Superstition comes endorsed by very religious looking and sounding leaders who use catch phrases speak with the voice of authority.

Superstition makes Judaism easy. Wear a red band on your arm, check your mezuzah, bake a challah, make an Amein party or say Tehillim. Just make sure to get the Hebrew name and the mother’s name right and if the sick person still happens to pass away, well G-d just needed another angel in heaven. Or, that soul only had to come down for a short period of time to effect its tikkun – and then it is ruthlessly snatched away.

Superstition provides more answers than questions.

Rationalism and mysticism have always been two legitimate branches of Judaism with much historical precedent. Many say that the common approach to Judaism nowadays is more inclined towards that of the mystics – but that notion could be challenged. We may have created, instead of perpetuating traditional mysticism, a third branch of Judaism which comes disguised as spiritual mysticism yet, when unveiled is nothing more than common superstition.

It finds us in a constant state of reliance upon a certain type of populist religious leadership, and that intellectual subjugation and suspension of the intellect, leaves the practitioner in a state of mindless yet comfortable nirvana. 

But this nirvana may not be as deeply rooted within genuine Judaism as some would like us to believe.

[1] Many of the ideas in this article have been taken from Maimonides, Spinoza and Us: Toward an Intellectually Vibrant Judaism, by Rabbi Marc Angel.

[2] Hilkhot Avoda Zara, 11:12
[3] Laws of Mezuzah 5:4

No comments:

Post a Comment