Sunday, July 26, 2009

Just Say No to Polytheism: Why it is Important to Believe in a Singular Non-Physical Deity (Part III)

Part I, II

My intention is far from picking on Christianity, even pagan Christianity. My real interest and the reason why I am writing this are those Jews who have the hypocrisy to attack Christianity while holding on to doctrines that are equally as problematic as the Trinity or the Incarnation. There is no way easier to have yourself thrown out of the Jewish community, whether it is the Haredi community or the most liberal Reform community, than to imply an openness to the Trinity. If this was more than just politics, we would expect equal thoroughness in going after certain other doctrines. These problematic doctrines are closely related to the Jewish mystical tradition, particular that of Kabbalah. This is not to say that all mysticism or all Kabbalah is bad; statements have to be taken one by one and judged before the bar of monotheism and those that fail must be cast aside.

The early mystical text Shiur Koma (Song of Ascent) was listed by Maimonides as an idolatrous book because it offers measurements of God’s body. For our purpose it is not enough to reinterpret Shiur Koma as a mystical allegory that is not meant to be taken literally. Our apologist would still have to explain how Shiur Koma serves to spread monotheist ideas more than it does to give people the idea that God has some sort of body, even an elevated preternatural one. If this person really believed that Shiur Koma was just an allegory he would have the good grace to recognize that, as with any explanation that requires more explaining than the thing it is trying to explain, it should be dropped. Thus we can assume that any Jew who actively supports Shiur Koma is either an open or closeted corporalist, thus a pagan, or is demonstrably lacking in proper monotheistic zeal. One way or another, such a person should not be allowed to hold any position of respect and authority within the Jewish community. Just as we would not allow someone who believed that God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, possessed a human body.

There is a whole body of early medieval Jewish mystical literature known as Merkavah texts. These texts deal with ascents into the heavenly realms by the use of various mystical names. They are premised on the notion of the heavens as a realm that can be traversed and that one can even reach the inner sanctum where God “dwells.” While one can reinterpret this as something innocuous, there is no doubting the inescapable premise that the divine realms are a place that can be conquered through the right secret knowledge. The moment you allow this you turn Judaism from a rational ethical religion to a magical and hence a pagan religion.

Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed is often blamed for the mass apostasy in Spain. The Guide was quite popular in Spain, but so was the Zohar, a body of mystical texts attributed to Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai and is the main source for the concept of Sephirot. Now I ask you what is more likely to get people to sincerely convert to Christianity, a book like the Guide that takes one of the most hard line stances imaginable against God being in any way physical or a book like the Zohar that suggests that God might have different parts to him? This is ultimately the same sort of territory opened up by the Trinity. Abraham Abulafia made the argument that the belief in Sephirot was worse than the Trinity as the Christians only had three persons in their godhead and not ten. It is not for nothing that early modern Christian Hebraists were so interested in the Zohar and the concept of Sephirot. If you accept Sephirot than you have no intellectual reason to reject the Trinity. In fact the Trinity can easily be worked into the Sephirot. God the Father could be the three highest Sephirot, Keter, Chochma, and Binah. The Holy Spirit could be six of the lower Sephirot. Jesus would then be the Sephira of Malchut. Malchut is special because it is the one Sephira that directly interacts with the physical world, a Kabbalistic version of the Incarnation. So what sort of person would support a book like the Zohar? Someone whose primary concern is not defending strict monotheism.

Zoheric concepts are developed into some of their worst features in the thought of Isaac Luria. Luria postulated an elaborate creation story in which the divine vessels were damaged in the very act of creation, leaving human beings with the task of tikkun olam, healing the world. At the heart of this theology are the notions that God is in some sense “imperfect” and in “need” of human aid to make himself perfect once again and that human beings have the power to affect the divine.

While books like Shiur Koma, Merkavah texts, Zohar and the Lurianic corpus are held in high esteem by most in the Haredi world, the group that has done the most to popularize such texts has been Chabad. This makes Chabad a logical target for someone like me who believes that such books, for all intents and purposes, advocate paganism. In addition, Chabad has its own sacred text, Tanya, which features many of the same problems as these other texts. So what do we assume about our Rabbi Eli Brackman, the Chabad rabbi at Oxford mentioned previously? If his interests are really in the realm of ethical monotheism than he would be spending his time trying to pass along the philosophy of Saadiah Gaon, Judah Ha-Levi and Maimonides. He would not be spending his time with Tanya. For that matter why, considering that Chabad has more and more become not just a side issue for Chabad Jews but the central issue of their Judaism, is Rabbi Brackman identifying himself with Chabad? Now Rabbi Brackman has denied having any polytheist intent; this leaves the conclusion that either Rabbi Brackman is just a closeted pagan or that he fails to appreciate the gravity of the situation, a common failing of so-called monotheists.

In conclusion, I admit that I have not offered a thorough discussion of Jewish mysticism nor do I claim to be an expert in the field. This is a more formal version of the challenge that I touched upon earlier and I hope that this could the start of future dialogue. My challenge to Rabbi Brackman or anyone else who wishes to defend Kabbalah in general and Chabad specifically is not whether they can offer acceptable interpretations of the texts in question but whether these texts offer something to ethical monotheism that can justify tolerating them in light of the very obvious heterodox lines of thought inherent to them.


jordanpenumbra said...

My brain still hurts absorbing this....
I had always thought that the main problem with Chabad was the semi-deification of the rebbi. Then again, I haven't tried to jump into Tanya.
Bringing back memories of the Hindu types vs. the Zen purists from my former hippie Buddist life.

Izgad said...

Thank you for being willing to wade through this. I see the Messianism issue as simply the end point of this deeper problem. How does someone end up so alienated from traditional Jewish sources that they think it is okay to say that the Rebbe is coming back from the dead or is in some sense divine? It is because they have already let go and betrayed Judaism from the very beginning.
You say you have experimented with Hinduism and Buddhism. I have little knowledge of Eastern mysticism though it is a subject that I am interested in learning more about. I am not hostile to all mysticism. I have no objection to the Sufi meditation tradition advocated by Abraham Maimonides.