Monday, July 6, 2009

Shabbos at the Oxford Chabad

I spent Shabbos at the Chabad at Oxford and was hosted by Rabbi Eli Brackman. Since I regularly go to the Chabad at Ohio State, I figured that it would make for a fun comparison. Small Jewish world, Rabbi Brackman knows Rabbi Zalman Deitsch of Ohio State. (I wonder if they are, even now, exchanging notes on me. “So who exactly is this Chinn guy and what is his deal?”) There was a guest speaker, Dr. Aharon Giamani of Bar Ilan University in Israel. Dr. Giamani’s field, which he spoke to us about, is in the history of Yemenite Jewry. I was fortunate to be able to speak to him over Shabbos and I am grateful to him for allowing me to hold the conversation in my rather poor conversational Hebrew.

Due to a conversation about Jewish philosophy with one of the Chabad people about, I was presented with the tenth chapter Sha'ar ha-Yichud ve'ha'Emunah in the Tanya, the foundational text of Chabad thought. The essential point of this chapter is that God is one with the sephirot. The analogy used is that of the relationship between the sun and the rays of light it gives off. This may be the medievalist in me, but when I hear the analogy of the unity of the sun and sunlight I think of the classical apology for the Trinity that uses this same analogy. I raised this issue with Rabbi Brackman and he was remarkably non-pulsed about it. He agreed that there was a parallel here and that it was probably written like that on purpose. Rabbi Brackman went on to argue that the difference would be that the Tanya does not take any of this literally. Rabbi Brackman went on point out the basic tenant of Chabad theology that God literally includes everything and that individuality is simply an illusion. I had a similar experience with another Lubavitch person a few years ago who, when I asked him what the difference between the Chabad belief that human souls are literally part of God and the Christians doctrine of the Incarnation beyond the fact that Chabad would multiply the problem billions of times over by turning every human being into their own Jesus Christ. My Lubavitch friend responded that he did not know, but that anyway it was not a problem.

If we are going to go with the classical understandings of Jewish thought as found in Saadiah Gaon, the Kuzari, Maimonides and medieval Jewish anti-Christian polemics, the rejection of the Trinity and the Incarnation are critical parts of Judaism. A Judaism in which one cannot give a coherent reason for rejecting the Trinity and the Incarnation is one in which Jews might as well start lining up to the baptismal font. Yet we have Chabad rabbis nonchalantly throwing around arguments that are almost identical. Put it this way, if what Chabad believes about the nature of God and him being one unified entity with the sephirot and all human souls is not heresy then I do not know of any coherent argument against the acceptance of a classical Christian understanding of the Trinity and the Incarnation that will hold water for more than five minutes.

I know people who have or are in middle of converting to Judaism. Last I checked, unless you can give a straightforward NO to the question of whether you believe in the Trinity or the Incarnation with no equivocations or scholastic discourses, you will not be accepted for conversion. This applies equally to the most conservative Satmar court as it does to the Reform movement, making this one of the few things that the entire spectrum of Judaism actually agrees on. Prof. David Berger wishes to argue that Chabad is heresy because of the messianic beliefs held by many in the movement. In truth it goes much further, into the fundamental doctrines of the movement found in Tanya.

The Lubavitchers that I know, I like and respect for the most part. Considering that I have been living outside of a major Jewish community, dealing with Lubavitch is sort of a practical necessity. I find the implications of Berger’s proposed ban too frightening to seriously consider. That being said, I must admit that it is a real problem.

Shabbos did not end here in the southern part of England until a quarter to eleven at night, so much for doing something on Saturday night. It must strange trying to raise children in such a situation. “Alright kids, go to bed now. Shabbos will be over when you get up in the morning.”


Anonymous said...

Christianity came after Judaism... no wonder Christianity is going steal some things and distort it a bit from Judaism.

Anonymous said...

There is an important issue one can redefine idol worship so it is no longer idol worship. In other words not all Christianity is the worship of 3 distinct entities. There were forms of Christianity that redefined the trinity so it would be monotheistic. One could redefine anything so it changes meaning.

From a Jewish perspective it would then be false but not idol worship. Just like Islam.

The Moslem thinkers kalam and the medieval Jewish thinkers discuss the challenge of attributes.
Whenever you discuss attributes you have this issue of G-d’s oneness and his non limitations
Even if you discuss the wisdom as the Rambam does you have a problem. “He is the knower the known and the knowing”
Is G-d wisdom? Ok it is a different type of wisdom but it is still a definition
If you say G-d is good is that it a form of super good is G-d.
Does this not limit him?
Some make peace with this.

The kabalistic approach is different it holds on to both ideas G-d is without definition, without limit but he is one there is no power in the world that is separate from him.

This kabalistic approach says G-d in his essence is without attributes. In his essence “Atzmus” is just that the infinite without definitions The power of all. He chooses to interact in the world so he limits his powers in a fashion that allows kindness to flow , severity etc. These are the sefiros and the limitations that allows the flow to take different forms is the power of tzimtzum contraction and limitation.
The sefiros are then his flow of himself through his own limitations

This is not Chabad this is one of the basic beliefs of kabbalah.
Kabbalah has been accepted as normative Judaism by all of the codifiers.
The doctrine of sefirot is very widely accepted

Izgad said...

Granted there are versions of the Trinity that could be acceptable. I would have no objection to a Christian who told me that he believed that God was One but that it is sometimes useful, when talking about human perspectives on God, to talk about human beings seeing God as if he were Three. If the Christian threw in that he believed that Jesus was God simply in the sense that he served to make certain aspects of God manifest to human beings and that Mosaic Law was still relevant to Jews then we would be well on our way to having no meaningful theological differences. In theory such a Christian could be accepted both by traditional Christians and by Jews.
You are right that Chabad’s understanding of God is well rooted within Kabbalistic sources. Kabbalah itself is very problematic, let us openly acknowledge that. Chabad takes these problematic elements and digs in deeper, making this worse.

Anonymous said...

problematic to whom?

it has become accepted into the warp and woof of Judaism

yosef karo
vilna gaon
even yaakov emden who has issues with elements in the zohar accepts 99.9% of its teachings

Over the last 500 years for sure it has become accepted as the theology of the Jewish people

Izgad said...

To be clear this is not a blanket condemnation of Kabbalah. One can accept many of the propositions of Kabbalah and still be a believing Jew. In theory one can even believe in some form of Sephirot as long as one took the pain to keep it within an acceptable theological framework. Of course one can do the same thing with the Trinity. I would therefore argue that anyone who talks about Sephirot has a presumption of heresy since why else would he use such a problematic model.
We are used to the fact that for the past two hundred years there has been such a thing as Reform Judaism where Jews, claiming the title of rabbi, deny fundamental principles of Judaism. Let us extend this narrative further and acknowledge that this problem goes back much further. Take for example Isaac Luria. There are claims made about Luria, in Shivchai Ha-Ari, that are not different from Christian treatment of Mary and saints. I have no problem with throwing Luria on the scrapheap, along with Sabbatai Sevi and Abraham Geiger, as people who have no place in the Judaism that I believe in.
Let us be clear on this, what I am doing takes out most of the past five hundred years of Jewish thought. Just as most Orthodox Jews have no problem with excluding Reform and Conservative Jews, I have no problem with taking out most Orthodox Jews. This does not bother me. I can have a very satisfactory religion with the likes of Saadiah, Ha-Levi and Maimonides.

Miss S. said...

I think there is a very important difference between how Orthodox Jews exclude Reform and Conservative (and other types of) Jews; and the type of exclusion you are proposing. Most Reform and Conservative Jews have arrived at their decision to practice there form of "Judaism" as the result of an intellectual exercise. Basically, they feel that halacha either does not make sense or is no longer applicable and all of them have pretty much internalized that. In regards to Orthodox Jews who believe in sephirot, kabbalah, and tanya and the like, most are relient on such teachings to be brought down to them by other learned Jews (Rabbis). The accepted protocol is not that you study these things yourself (isn't study kabbalah forbidden by some opinions until the age of 40?). Rejecting or questioning the teaches means you lack respect for mesorah. Not that I myself believe that, but many Orthodox Jews feel that way. They also do not know what to question or even how to question, any theological issues they may encounter.

Due to the present environment where Orthodox Jews are struggling to survive, I do not think you can blame them for not being so lucid to these theological quandaries.

Izgad said...

This would be an argument in favor of tolerating Reform and Conservative Jews. Truth is I do not have much respect for Reform and Conservative laymen either. To believe in something requires that you can clearly articulate what you believe in. For example, we cannot say that infants believe in anything. So all those people who spout words without being able to explain what those words mean is not a believer in anything. Faith requires a great deal of intellect, a level that is way beyond that of most people.

ShanaMaidel said...

Be aware that I am on good terms with your Rabbi Brakcman's Brother and sister and law (full disclosure)

BZ, we carry on a textual tradition that is very old. However, the strict conception of ikkar is considerably late compared to early legal and mystacl texts that were included in the cannon, early legal and mystical texts that were not included in the cannon but that we do know about, and texts they we suspect only because of the commonalities between non-cannon and cannon works of the early period (Such as why does the Work of Ben Sira, totally non-cannon, doing as inspiration for the amidah?)

You do realize that Youa re supposed to read the Book of Enoch (3) in parrallel to rest of the Merkbah- and that we use it's words for the kedoshim parts of the amidah as well, which is creepy.

Kabballah and mysticism has its places. If you want to avoid the water, that's fine, by not everyone should nor can live a life like that.