Monday, February 02, 2009

Between the Rationalist and Mystical Viewpoints

After a regularly scheduled study session on דרשות הר"ן this past Saturday night, I felt the need to clarify my positions regarding the spiritual world. First, of course, I believe there is one. I believe that there is a God, and that we are all possessed of a soul. This is not the discussion. However, as a tangent to our discussion that night regarding prayer to dead souls, one of our group touched on the question: do I believe that the souls of dead people can hear or see or relate to the goings on earth-side. The answer that I may not have made clear enough is: "I do not know."

Allow me to explain in just a few lines what I mean. There are real philosophical issues that, throughout history, have been brought up, and different streams of philosophical thought answer them in various ways. There is the more rationalistic stream, and the more mystical, kabbalistic one. I see great benefit to aspects of each stream, and also drawbacks to each stream. I see questions that are answered more satisfactorily by the rationalists, and some that are more acceptable when answered by the mystics. To paraphrase Rabbi Carmy in class regarding something completely different, each pathway must overcome different obstacles. Some issues will be answered apologetically by one stream, and other issues will seem to flow naturally, while the opposite will be true for the other stream. Neither flows perfectly, and I do not even know if that is a deficiency. Often-times, the tension between the two may uncover or even catalyze ideas and dualities of phenomenal beauty and truth.

I am able to see the merits in the Rambam's view, just as I can hear the view of Abulafia and other Kabalists. I know that Jewish thought lately may tend towards one extreme. However, I do not feel confident enough in the issues to decide definitively about the issue. Perhaps the nature of these issues precludes anyone's really deciding the question.

In Halacha, the questions flow from the text; there is a halachik reality which imposes itself on the world, and we use our texts and minds to decide how it will be applied. Therefore, for example, I can be very sure as to how Rabbeinu Tam explains the passage in the Talmud discussing the length of the wait between milk and meat. I can feel confident enough about the issue to decide definitively, because I have all the facts before me. However, the question of philosophy is often one of reality, of fact. Unless you choose (as I often do) to read the chassidut, kabbala, and other sources metaphorically, it often comes down to a simple question, to wit: "does olam han'shamot function in such a way that the souls of the dead are intimitely interested in the goings on on earth, or are they in spiritual rapture with God such that the temporal, mundane world below is of no interest to them (or perhaps they have no way of relating)? I can easily see both sides of this question, and feel that it is simply a question of fact, of מציאות, one which I can appreciate on both sides, but do not have the tools to decide definitively.

As another of our study group noticed, often I lean to one side or the other. When studying something academically (including "learning"), I may tend towards the rational explanation, or the explanation which requires less assumptions to be complete (think Occam's Razor). However, on an emotional level, I often tend towards the other pole. Perhaps this is really why the range of views exists!

One personal example: the question of theodicy is one which I may feel is easier answered by the more rationalistic approach sometimes. However, after personal brushes with tragedy, I have found myself only comforted by extremely mystical explanations. The concept of gilgul may not appeal to me so much when learning the Ramban or Rambam on Iyov, but when tragedy strikes, it is the only thing that I found to assuage the pain. So, far different than not knowing which is true, I find invaluable benefit in both views.

This is what I meant when I said, "I can entertain the possibility of souls praying to God on our behalf, but don't feel it is true at this point." I think everyone fluctuates, to some extent, between these poles throughout their religious lives.