Thursday, July 3, 2008

Shivhei ha-Ari and the Decline of the Generations

One of foundations of Haredi ideology is the concept of yeridat ha-dorot, the decline of the generations. Every generation is inferior to the one that came before it. It is not just that the preceding generations were closer to biblical times, and therefore possessed a stronger tradition, or that we are bound by their precedent; Haredim believe that the people, particularly the rabbis, who lived in earlier generations were, in fact, superior to us. They were bigger, stronger, faster and, most importantly, they were smarter than us. This has many different ramifications, one of them being the authority of science when it comes into conflict with the rabbinic tradition. For Haredim, the view of Maimonides and his son, Avraham Maimuni, that the rabbis spoke based on their knowledge of the science of their day and that therefore, since science has advanced, we should reject the claims, found in rabbinic literature, that go against science as we understand it today, is unacceptable and downright heresy. As they see it, one most believe that the rabbis were smarter and knew more than any scientist alive today. If you are willing to accept the view of scientists over that of the rabbis then you have rejected Jewish tradition. The rejection of scientific claims, like the theory of evolution, becomes, therefore, an act of faith; one is willing to stand up for the tradition and for rabbinic authority even when faced with the full power of the modern scientific establishment. While there are many sources for this notion of a decline, I would like to point to a work that operates outside of this point of view, Shivhei ha-Ari.

Shivhei ha-Ari (Praises of the Ari) is a collection of legends, dealing with Isaac Luria, written by Solomon Shlomiel of Dresnitz in the early seventeenth century and is one of the main traditional sources on the life of Luria. The basic premise underlying Shivhei ha-Ari is that Luria was not merely a link in a chain, going back all the way to Mount Sinai, passing on the work of his teachers. For Dresnitz, Luria was a messianic type figure, outside of this world and outside of the chain of tradition. Luria was placed here on earth in order to bring about the spiritual salvation of the world by repairing the damage down to the saphirot by creation and man’s subsequent sins. As befitting his savior status (one could almost view him as a Kabbalistic Jesus Christ) Luria was privileged to receive information straight from heaven:

He merited that every night his soul went up to the celestial realms. The ministering angels would come and escort him to the heavenly academy and ask him which school he desired to attend. Sometimes he said to the school of R’ Shimeon bar Yochai , or to the school of R’ Akiva, or to the school of R’ Eliezer the Great, or to the rest of the Tanaitic or Amoraic sages or to the prophets. (Chapter 2. All translations are mine.)

These nocturnal study sessions gave Luria knowledge of “secrets, mysteries and treasures of Torah that had never been heard and were unknown even to the Tanaitic sages.” (Ibid)

Shivhei ha-Ari makes Luria to be a greater figure then even R’ Shimeon bar Yochai, who, according to tradition was the author of the Zohar, the foundational text for Lurianic Kabbalah. Luria understood of the Zohar surpassed even that of its author because, in his youth angels, he was taught the Zohar by angels:

Sometimes they told him in a dream that he understood the book of the Zohar, and it was according to R’ Shimeon bar Yochai, but there was in it a secret beyond him. Sometimes they told him that his understanding was correct, but it was not the intention of R’ Shimeon bar Yochai because of the errors that fell into the book of the Zohar. (Ibid)

Luria is given the authority to overrule a rabbinic sage like R’ Shimeon bar Yochai. To the extent that, even when Luria misread the Zohar, his misreading was really the correct understanding and it was the Zohar that was wrong.

As we shall see , the mystic’s claim to divine illumination, outside of any religious tradition, is not that different from the scientist’s claim to be able to go outside of tradition. The line between mysticism, magic and science is much narrower than you might think; particularly if you know something about the history of science and the origins of the Scientific Revolution.


Miss Shona said...

Perhaps this is from left field, but I love the writings of Dr. Gerald Schroeder...which discuss science as a function of religious teachings (I am oversimplifying, but he makes a good case of how the Torah and science to not in fact contradict each other).

As far as yeridat ha-dorot...I believe that to be true. Non-Jews have a similar concept in that in "the end of days" the world slowly but surely descends into chaos. It seems as if the Jewish take of the present (future?) situation is not as ominous though. Still, it's all quite interesting to compare and contrast.

Izgad said...

Gerald Schroeder was a major influence on me, back when I was in middle school, helping me accept evolution and a 13-15 billion year old universe.
Recently though he has gotten involved with intelligent design, which I am not happy about.

The concept of a decline in the generations was a basic part of Greco-Roman and medieval Christian thought. The concept of "progress" stands as one of the major shifts that created the modern world. As someone who deals with Early Modern Intellectual History I will tell you that this shift was a rather complicated process. There was much more to it than people waking up and deciding to be "rational."