Thoughts on Judaism

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Hashkafa 101

This is copied from the site of the blogger formerly known as Godol Hador. I DO NOT AGREE WITH ALL OF IT AND ITS APPEARANCE HERE DOES NOT IMPLY THAT I AGREE WITH ANY PARTICULAR PART OF IT. However, it is an excellent and succinct statement of the rationalists' mind today, the types of questions, the attempts at resolution and so forth. It is a starting point for discussion, and all of its questions are patently obvious to anyone who lives in reality and Judaism simultaneously. It is required reading for anyone who thinks, (or thinks that they think). Lots of you ain't gonna like it. Neener. Neener.

If the point of the religion of Judaism could be summed up in a sentence, then this would be it:

To take the physical and mundane, and invest it with spirituality and meaning, and by doing so set an example to the rest of the world.

This is why we indulge in the physical and and make it holy.
That is why we take goyish customs and turn them into minhagim.
That is why our Jewish purpose in life is to set an example to the goyim.

That is why we have the Jewish Religion. Because the Jewish Religion takes a people and invests them with holiness, thereby illuminating the fact that the rest of the nations can be holy too.

That is why Shabbos is a fundamental of Judaism. Because Shabbos takes a day and invests it with holiness, thereby illuminating the fact that the rest of the week can be holy too.

That is why the Bes Hamikdosh is/will be a fundmental of Judaism. Because The Bes Hamiksdosh takes a place and invests it with holiness, thereby illuminating the fact that the rest of the earth can be holy too.

This gets distorted by the fundamentalists in the following ways.

They lie about the origins of the customs.
They look down on the goyim and feel they are just background players.
They ignore the meaning and focus entirely on the externalities.

Most importantly:

They confuse the point of Judaism with the point of life.
These are two entirely different concepts.

The Point of Life

I finished off the last post with the following comment:

They confuse the point of Judaism with the point of life.
These are two entirely different concepts.

I then omitted to explain the point of life. Sorry.

The point of life is to become a better person.

What does it mean to be a better person ?

We can roughly divide this into 3 areas, roughly corresponding to the 3 amudim of the world. However it should be realized that these are not 3 completely distinct categories, but are somewhat intertwined.

1. Man to Man = Gemilus Chasadim
Clearly you need to be good at bayn odom lechavero. This can be a lifelong struggle. However you may ask, is this the true goal, or just the foundation for the goal ? Thats debatable. Based on numerous pesukim, I could construct an argument showing this is the true goal, or at least a significant part of it. But thats for another time.

2. Man to G-d = Avodah
You need to get a close connection with G-d, bayn odom lamokom. This is a spiritual, non physical, devekusy type of thing. As I have posted previously, I am have a semi-yekkish, semi-litvish, intellectual type of background, so I have no real concept of what this means. If I feel G-d is in my head, does that make me spiritual, or just certifiable ?

3. Man to himself = Torah
One needs to perfect / improve ones internal self, which basically means the mind i.e. the neshomoh, since your body is going to decompose one day. This can be done through Torah, maddah, intellectual speculation etc. Similar to the Rambam's philosophy of what makes someone a tzadik. However the Rambam stressed this above all else, I would take a more balanced approach.

Now here comes the interesting part.

Ask any UO whats the point of Judaism, and he will most likely answer 'learn Torah and do Mitzvos'. Then ask him 'whats the point of life', and he will look at you somewhat confused, and repeat 'learn Torah and do Mitzvos'.

But thats not it. G-d put man on the earth for a purpose. Its a bit cryptic in Breishis, but you can get the rough gist of it. You need a lot of medrashic help and good dose of drush. But things didn't work out so well. So G-d decided to create the Jews as a special people to set an example. (Note whether or not this actually happened is besides the point somewhat. Either way I contend that this was the idea of Judaism).

The heavy focus in Tenach on being apart from the goyim was in order to create an identifiable people. The heavy focus in Chazal on dislike of the goyim was because, well Chazal disliked the goyim. They were only human (chas vesholom). I am not advocating intermarriage, but the anti-goy attitudes are more due to 2000+ years of persecution then any notion inherent in the religion. The neviim were often quite universalist. And some of them made it into tenach.

So Judaism is composed of a number of elements, designed to show mankind the types of things one needs to do to become a better person, thus fulfilling the universal goal of life.

These elements include the following aspects. Again these are not completely distinct, but are somewhat interwoven.

1. Gemilut Chasadim = Improve Your Character
There's a lot of this in the Torah, many obvious examples. The whole point here is to improve your character.

2. Avodah = Improve your spirituality
I would include tefilah and possibly shabbos in this category. The whole point here is to become more spiritual and get a closer connection to G-d.

3. Torah = Improve your mind
The concept of learning for intellectual improvement and refinement. The whole point here is to improve your mind.

However, by neccessity, Judasim also had to include a 4th element:

4. Jewish Identity = Keeping the Dream Alive
Yomim Tovim and associated Mitzvot, Tzitzit, Kashrut etc. All the things that set us apart. The whole point here is to maintain our Jewish identity.

Number 4 is where people get confused. Number 4 is the unique set of additional commandments that the Jews have which the goyim don't, nor do they need to. These are required to maintain a strong sense of Jewish identity and purpose, or else the notion of peoplehood will be lost and the goal of Judasim will fail.

So the point of life is to become a better person through 1,2 and 3 above. These apply equally to everyone on the planet, Jews and Non-Jews alike. Remember that the saying is 'On 3 pillars the world rests', not the 'Jewish people rests' but 'the world rests'. The 3 pillars are universal.

The point of Judaism is to set an example in 1,2 & 3 type things to the rest of the world. To do that we have a bunch of 1,2 & 3 type mitzvot which assist us in demonstrating these things.

The point of 4 is to maintain Judaism as a viable concern, so that we can continue with our goal. However 4 is a means to an end, not the end itself. Jews, especially frum Jews, tend to confuse 1,2,3 and 4, and the various goals, and think that goal of being Jewish is to be Jewish and seperate. This is almost the opposite of what the point of being Jewish is.

Thats my philosophy. But if you don't like it, I have others.

The Point of It All Executive Summary

Especially for consultants and high level executives.

The point of life is to improve yourself, and thereby the world. Or maybe the world, and thereby yourself. Either way you want to think of it is fine, as it amounts to the same thing, since we are the world.

How do you do this ?

1. Improve your character = Gemilas Chasadim = Bayn Odom LeChavero
2. Improve your mind = Talmud Torah = Bayn Odom Leatzmoh
3. Improve your spirituality = Avodah = Bayn Odom LeMokom

We can argue over which of these is just foundational and which is the ultimate goal. There are ample statements in Chazal stressing each of these individually, plus many movements over the years which focused on one or another. For example, 1) Mussar Movement 2) Litvish Yeshivah 3) Chasidim. A broad perspective of Jewish history shows that a synthesis of all 3 is most likely where the truth lies.

All of humanity have this task, and all of humanity are equal with regards to this task. However they were not doing too well at it, so G-d chose one people to be his ambassadors and show how it could/should be done. Consequently Judaism has copious amounts of rules and regulations for 1,2 and 3 above.

In addition, Judaism has a unique 4th component:

4. Keep it going = All the things that make Jews unique = Yomim Tovim, Kashrut etc etc

This is a very important component, because without it the Jewish people would be lost. Plus it is demonstrative in its mechanisms and produces good effects in 1,2 & 3 above too.

One of the key mechanisms in Judaism is symbolism = taking the mundane and making it spiritual.

Unfortunately many people, espcially fundamentalists, confuse all this, and believe that 4 is the ikkar, the external ritual / physical aspects of 3 are to be focused on, and 1 is simply a nice-to-have, but not that mandatory, especially when it conflicts with the other aspects.

In addition, they narrow the definition of 2 to the point at which it becomes an exercise in not using your brain, making up lies, and ignoring facts, thereby thwarting the whole objective.

For more detail see below.

Everything I know about UO Theology I learned in Kindergarten

One of my commentators declared that I had a 'Kindergarten level grasp of UO theology'.

Well, he might be right. Even though I went to a UO day school, a UO high school, and spent 4 years in UO yeshivot, there was never any attempt at all to provide a systematic course of theology / religion / philosophy.

I spent years and years learning baba kamah and baba basrah, but never once was Moreh Nevuchim, Saadia Gaon or The Kuzari even mentioned. I didn't even know these guys existed until I was in my 20's.

And it wasn't just the rational 'Modern Orthodox' philosophers who were ignored. The Chazon Ish, The Besh"t, in fact everyone and anyone and their views on hashkafah were entirely ignored almost all the time. Except for the occasional shmooz, or possibly if there was some aggadatah dealing with a philosophical / theological issue.

But there was certainly no systematic presentation, and of course it goes without saying no discussion of opposing views. Where did these institutions think I was going to get my hashkafah from ? And these were not in general lousy institutions. In fact they were very highly regarded.

So my view of UO theology ? I can sum it up in a sentence:

"Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere !".

Well, at least I got that part down okay.

The Sacred Cows of the Ultra-Orthodox

1. First 11 chapters of Breishis are literally true
2. Daas Torah / Emunas Chachamim
3. Yeridas Hadoros
4. Moshiach = Olam Habah = Miracles Galore = Grand Finale
5. Nissim bizman Chazal, Rishonim & Acharonim
6. Zohar Kabbalah is an authentic part of our mesorah dating back to Sinai
7. Chazal were all Chareidim (except for Acher)
8. Judaism doesn't ever change much
9. Men and women have different roles in Judaism
10. Jews and Goyim are fundamentally different in G-d's eyes

Cow number 1 is currently in the process of being slaughtered, and consequently Cow number 2 is not feeling too well either.

Any takers for the rest ? You can do it humanely if you like !

11. Gilgulim, Dibbukim and Golems

Talking of gilguls, I should like to quote a famous Chazal: letzonim afilu bemaysoson nikraim letzim.

Machshavah Cholent

It seems to me, based on my limited reading in such subjects, that machshavah, pnimiyus, jewish philosophy, hashkafah, kabalah etc, are all basically a similar phenomenon. Attempts by man to go beyond the mundane and create some kind of super-natural system of thought, either as a means to get closer to G-d, to understand G-d, or maybe just because its interesting.

Examples I can think of include the works of the Maharal, Rav Kook, Nefesh Hachayim, R YB Soloveitchik, AJ Heschel, all of Chasiddus etc. There doesn't seem to be much of this pre 12th? century though. Chazal did this a bit, but usually it was real short, just a pasuk and a quick 'homily'. Did no one before the Rishonim ever engage in this ?

Maybe some or all of this is somewhat divinely inspired, but its still a human creation. That doesn’t mean it doesn't have value, I just don't believe any of it came down from Sinai that’s all. When Rav Moshe Shapiro gives an awesome machshavah shiur for example, I am sure its valuable, but at the end of the day, its his invention, its not Torah Min HaShamayim. Take what appeals to you and leave the rest. (Maybe thats obvious ?)

The base side of this same tendency is all the stupid gilgulim / shaydim / kabalistic trickery / dibukim / superstition / mekubalim nonsense, which is also expressly forbidden by the Torah in my opinion, and has no value at all. Its amazing that the UO world is still so steeped in this. Are they still using pigeons in Eretz Yisrael to cure hepatitis ? Wasn't the whole point of Judaism to steer us away from all these kinds of things ?

The problem in the UO world is that they seem to be unable to distinguish between the good stuff and the bad stuff. The whole lot of it gets mushed together into one huge UO ideological cholent, and if you don't believe in any part of it, you are a kofer, or worse, a modernishe (chas vesholom).

Well, my advice is don't eat too much of that cholent, it's after effects can be quite, shall we say, unpleasant.

hareidi Ideology: Science Bad, Pagan Superstition Good

I said this in the comments to the previous post, but its something I have been wanting to say for a while. Chareidi ideology has become such a twisted cholent that they seem to have a problem in being able to distinguish the good from the bad.

Science is derided as being the treif product of 'atheist' reshoim, whereas all manner of pagan superstition has crept in via talmudic aggadatas read literally, kabbalah, mysticism, chasidut and the like and nobody says a word. Its unbelievable.

Dinosaurs are out, but devils, demons and dibbukim are in.

Is this really our religion ?

Machshavah Candy Mix

I recently blogged about Machshavah Cholent, an unpleasant stew of quality philosophical meat, mixed with a bunch of rather inferior ingredients, such as pagan barley and superstitious beans. Well, even if you are careful to avoid the cholent, its hard to avoid the candy mix.

In Machshavah Candyland, there are lots of enticing, nicely presented machshavah candies, and we are welcome to pick-n-mix as we like. A bit of Rambam liquorice here, some Ramban jellybeans there, some Chassidut, some GRA, some Kabbalah, some RYBS (but only if you are okay with that hechsher), and eventually we fill up our little Candyland 'sackit' with an inviting mix of delicious goodies.

But have you ever left one of those bags out in the heat for too long ? All the candies start to ooooooooooze together, and eventually you are left with one great big mass of inedible goo. Not pleasant at all, and a waste of 50 shekel to boot. Even my 2 year old won't eat that mess.

Seriously, this is what Jewish thought is in danger of becoming. Open any Artscroll, or listen to any shiur. All those great Jewish thinkers must be spinning in their graves. Rambam quoted on one page, on the next page some completely antithetical idea from the Ramban. The GRA here, the Besht there. Its one big heap of goo.

I can think of 3 responses to this:

1. Its all good
Judaism has evolved for the better. We are able to take opposing schools of thought and philosophies, and pick the good from the bad, synthesize thesis and antithesis, and ultimately it will all lead to a truer understanding of G-d, religion, or whatever it was that we were trying to understand in the first place.

2. Its all bad
We are a bunch of intellectual losers. Unable to distinguish one school of thought from another, we mix all sorts of incompatible ideas together, creating one heck of a mess. We need to decide whether we are rationalist Rambamnicks, or mystical Beshtnicks. We can't be both.

3. It makes no difference
All this machshavah stuff is man made anyway, so it really makes no difference whether we pick-n-mix or not. As long as we are thinking about this stuff and not wasting our time on movies, tv and other bittul zman, thats the main thing.

I honestly can't decide which of the above is correct. I recently went from 1, to 2 to 3, and now I'm not sure again. Maybe its 1. Or 2. Or maybe 3.

Darn it, I wish I could decide ! My sackit is geting gooey.

Systematic Hashkafah

I see dead people.

OK, to be honest, I don't. Except at management meetings, but thats different. Truth is, I don't think anyone has ever seen a dead person, or crossed over to the other side (except maybe Eliyahu Hanovi etc). I don't think anyone knows anything about what really happens after death.

A notion you read about a lot in literature about religion (as opposed to religious literature) is that one of the primary reasons for religion is fear of death. The theory is that mankind is so terrified of death that they made up religion to give them an afterlife.

I can't say whether thats true or not, however I am beginning to realize that our views of the afterlife are not exactly 100% either. There is plenty of machlokes about what actually happens. The Rambam had a very different view of things.

I remember all the immature questions we used to ask about techiyas hamesim. If you lose your legs in an accident, in techiyas hamesim do you get them back ? And if the answer is that you always get your original body back, then what about people who had abnormalities fixed or nose jobs ? Do they have to spend eternity with cleft palates, or worse, with great big honkers ? So maybe the answer is you get to choose your body for olam habah. But what if you lost your legs and then had a nose job ? Can you pick and mix ?

Okay, so maybe you get some kind of idealized spiritual body. But what happens if lets say chas vesholom you lost your spouse and remarried ? Then in Olam Habah your first spouse comes back and now you have a new one too. It will get very awkward. Especially for eternity. Maybe in olam habah you don't have a spouse. Hey, that might be heaven for some people !

Of course, the real answer to all these questions is we have no clue what really happens after you die. The Rishonim advance various ideas but they don't know for sure. And it seems to me that on many of the other big hashkafah questions there is plenty of machlokes too. Hasgachah Pratis is another good example. True, the current Gedolim / Chareidim have narrowed hashkafah down to one narrow set of 'acceptable' beliefs, but once you realize thats bogus, the whole field is wide open.

Perhaps thats why we don't get taught systematic Orthodox hashkafah in school or yeshivah. There isn't any.


  • Wow. An excellent post. Are you like my biggest fan or what. Maybe I should become a Rebbele.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:45 PM  

  • Maybe a link wouild have been sufficient?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:56 PM  

  • BFKAGH -
    I may have attached a name to your malady, rationalism. I refer to these points so often that it is hard to justify reinventing the wheel.

    After having lost so many friends and relatives to this,, methinks your 101 course is long overdue.


    It disappeared once, you know.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 12:03 PM  

  • it makes great sense to me. as i was brought up as atheist in communist country and in my process of returning le'tshuva a lot of things don't really jive. like above mentioned first 11 of Bereshit to be literally true. my first intro into judaism was a small book by some reform jew, specifically written for soviet jews. so, you can only guess what a mess i had in my head after reading it!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:49 PM  

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