Friday, March 07, 2008

Rav Soloveitchik's Confrontation With Mysticism

Prof. Menachem Kellner recently published a book titled Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism in which he attempts to demonstrate that there were two distinct trends among medieval Jewish scholars: the mystics, including R. Yehudah Ha-Levi and the Ramban; and the rationalists, foremost among them the Rambam.

In his provocative and thoroughly documented way, Prof. Kellner addresses multiple topics and shows the divergence of opinion regarding them that serve as evidence for his overarching theme. In the Afterword, Prof. Kellner makes the explicit point that contemporary Jewry in Israel rejects the rationialist Maimonidean approach in favor the mystical view, and he openly bemoans this fact and prays for the day when rationalism will reign supreme -- when "the earth will be full with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters covers the sea" (Isa. 11:9; Kellner, p. 296). The book is thoughtful and provocative, to the extent that Lander Institute in Jerusalem will be having Prof. Shalom Rosenberg and Dr. Esti Eisenman review the book this Sunday night (8 Am Ve'olamo St. (off of Kanfei Nesharim St.) at 7pm). Ultimately, though, I wonder if the dichotomy is too neat. While I am no scholar compared to Kellner, I suspect that the divergence is less than he makes it out to me. But I cannot prove it.

Click here to read moreIn chapter 3, Prof. Kellner addresses the issue of "holiness". According to mystics, holiness is an inherent quality; a place is holy, a time is holy, an object is holy. The rationalist view, however, is different (p. 88):

Maimonides, I will show, held a different view of holiness. Holy places, persons, times, and objects are in no objective way distinct from profane places, persons, times, and objects. Holiness is the name given to a certain class of people, objects, times, and places which the Torah marks off. According to this view holiness is a status, not a quality of existence. It is a challenge, not a given; normative, not descriptive. It is institutional (in the sense of being part of a system of laws) and hence contingent. This sort of holiness does not reflect objective reality; it helps constitute social reality. Holy places, persons, times, and objects are indubitably holy, and must be treated with all due respect, but they are, in and of themselves, like all other places, persons, times, and objects. What is different about them is the way in which the Torah commands that they be treated.
This is a very provocative and unfamiliar concept of holiness. Prof. Kellner proceeds to adduce at length many proofs from the Rambam's writings to this thesis.

I recently saw an essay by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in which he adopts this rationalist approach and argues that holiness is not something intrinsic (link): "It is not objects that are holy. It is human action and intention in accordance with the will of G-d that creates holiness."

Upon thinking about this, my inclination was to believe that R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik adopted the mystical approach to holiness based on his well-known (and documented below) attitude towards the inherent holiness of special days. This also made sense to me because of his affinity towards the mystically inclined Ramban. However, as we will see below, the case is not that clear cut. It seems that R. Soloveitchik plays on both teams, which can either mean that he was sloppily inconsistent or that Prof. Kellner's dichotomy is not as clear cut as he makes it out to be. Indeed, on the first page of this chapter (p. 85), Prof. Kellner points out what he considers to be a contradiction on this subject in the writings of R. Soloveitchik's son-in-law, Prof. Isadore Twersky. Perhaps a more nuanced analysis of this subject, which I am unqualified to perform, will reveal that the divergence is not nearly so wide as Prof. Kellner claims.

Now for some quotes.

The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways, p. 211:
In Yahadut, time is something substantive. It has attributes. There is "good time," Yom Tov. There is something called yom kadosh, "holy time." Indeed, the whole concept of kedushat ha-yom is reflective of our approach. It indicates that there is substance to the day that can be filled with sanctity. Days and hours are endowed or saturated with holiness. The day is a substance of which I can predicate a variety of adjectival designations. The Ba'alei ha-Kabbalah, for example, based on the Gemara in Shabbat (119a), said that the Sabbath day is personified by the Sabbath Queen. The day is not just a number. It is a creation in and of itself.

Out of the Whirlwind, p. 90:
However, when we shift out attention from halakhic thinking to halakhic feeling, from halakhic topics to axiological themata, we suddenly find ourselves in a new dimension, namely that of kedushah, holiness. Suddenly the Sabbath is transmuted or transformed from an abstract norm, from a formal concept, into a "reality," a living essence, a living entity; from a discipline in accordance with which one acts compulsorily into a great experience which one acts out spontaneously...

In contrast to the topical Halakhah, the text which forms the main motto of the thematic Halakhah with regard to Shabbat would be, I believe, the mysterious passage in Genesis which concludes the story of creation: "And God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, va-yekaddesh oto" (Gen. 2:3). A twenty-four-hour period was sanctified and hallowed. It has suddenly become a metaphysical entity upon which the Almighty has bestowed a unique endowment, a very strange endowment, namely, that of blessedness and sanctity.

Days of Deliverance, pp. 106-07:
For Judaism, however, time is a living entity. There is substance to time; it has individuality and essence, and one can ascribe attributes to it in the same manner as one ascribes attributes to people. Just as one can speak of a good person, a handsome person, a holy person, or an evil person, so, too, one can speak of holy days, or of evil days and sad days. Modern man thinks that an "evil day" means a day on which an evil event took place. In Judaism, "arur ha-yom, cursed be the day" (Jer. 20:14; cf. Job 3:8) means that the day itself is evil and accursed. The same applies to positive attributes; when we call something a holy day, it means the day itself is predicated as holy...

The Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 150:
Kedushah, under a halakhic aspects, is man-made; more accurately, it is a historical category. A soil is sanctified by historical deeds performed by a sacred people, never by any primordial superiority. The halakhic term kedushat ha-aretz, the sanctity of the land, denotes the consequence of a human act, either conquest (heroic deeds) or the mere presence of the people in that land (intimacy of man and nature). Kedushah is identical with man's association with Mother Earth. Nothing should be attributed a priori to dead matter. Objective kedushah smacks of fetishism.

Halakhic Man, pp. 46-47:
Holiness does not wink at us from "beyond" like some mysterious star that sparkles in the distant heavens, but appears in our actual, very real lives... The beginnings of holiness are rooted in the highest heavens, and its end is embedded in the eschatological vision of "the end of days"--holy forever and to all eternity. But the link that joins together these two perspectives is the halakhic conception of holiness: holy upon the earth, the work of His might--the holiness of the concrete. An individual does not become holy through mystical adhesion to the absolute nor through mysterious union with the infinite, more through a boundless, all-embracing ecstasy, but, rather, through his whole biological life, through his animal actions, and through actualizing the Halakhah in the empirical world... Holiness consists of a life ordered and fixed in accordance with Halakhah and finds its fulfillment in the observance of the laws regulating human biological existence, such as the laws concerning forbidden sexual relations, forbidden foods, and similar precepts. And it was not for naught that Maimonides included these prohibitions in his Book of Holiness.

Holiness is created by man, by flesh and blood. Through the power of our mouths, through verbal sanctification alone, we can create holy offering for the Temple treasury and holy offerings for the altar. The land of Israel became holy though conquest, Jerusalem, and the Temple courts--through bringing two loaves of thanksgiving (Jerusalem) or the remainder of the meal offering (Temple court) and song, etc. [see Maimonides, Laws of the Sanctuary 6:11-16]. It is man who sanctifies space and makes a sanctuary for his Creator....

Family Redeemed, p. 64:
Judaism has always maintained that holiness is not something objective inherent in an object, prevailing independently of the way this particular sacred object is treated. We denied the idea that there is sanctity per se, a metaphysical endowment which persists irrespective of man's relationship to the object. Such an approach to the idea of the sacred would border on fetishism and primitive taboos. Sanctity is born out of man's actions and experiences and is determined by the latter. The very instant man adopts a coarse attitude towards the hallowed object--the moment of sacredness is eliminated. Sanctity expresses itself not in the formal quality of the object or institution but in a relationship between the latter and man. It is an experience rather than an endowment...

Family Redeemed, p. 171:
We must say that the whole idea of kedushah, of holiness, i its application to kedushat makom, the sanctity of a geographic spot (kedushat mikdash vi-Yerushalayim, the sanctity of the Temple and Jerusalem), or to some time entity (kedushat Shabbat ve-Yom Tov, the sanctity of the Sabbath and Festivals), to the personal status of some people (kedushat kohen ve-kohen gadol, the sanctity of the priest and High Priest), or to the act of hallowing life itself in accordance with the precept of "Kedoshim tihyu, you shall be holy" (Lev. 19:2)--the whole idea is nurtured by the awareness of the presence of the unseen Shekhinah. The departure of Shekhinah rescinds kedushah...

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