Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tour Europe and Practice Idolatry at Over 400 Graves

What particularly caught my attention was the passage: "In places that are not visited as frequently you can often have your prayers 'heard' more readily in the merit of the Tzadikim that are not visited as often." I am glad that they put the word "heard" in quotes. I would hope that they meant that God does not literally hear prayers since God is not a physical being with ears or even affected by sound. Most probably they meant to merely acknowledge that God is aware of everything and does not hear things more readily or less readily.

None of this gets this company off the hook for idolatry. Usually one can cover for praying at graves by saying that the righteous person is incidental just that if you are going to pray you might as well go to a place associated with a righteous person. One can even argue that there is a special merit in praying in a place where many other people are gathering (hence why we have synagogues in the first place) or even to pray in a place where many people have prayed at in the past. In this case we are choosing to pray at a place specifically where there have not been many prayers said. This trip only makes sense if we accept the theological premise that God wishes for human beings to honor deceased righteous people by praying at their graves to such an extent that he counts it as a special merit to those who find out of the way graves of righteous people to pray by. Hence the focus is not God. At best God only comes in as the Santa Claus at the end of the tunnel with his bag of goodies. This is about venerating dead rabbis as not just righteous people to be imitated, but spiritual forces in their own right. This is idolatry.

As a historian and a religious Jew, I strongly support touring Eastern Europe and tending the graves of Jewish leaders. These are historic landmarks for the Jewish people and just as the Bible records the locations where the Israelites traveled in the desert so to should we record the locations of past Jewish communities and the important figures that lived and were buried there. I would make a special effort to seek out those graves that have been forgotten. I would even make the effort to pray and recite Psalms there. God forbid out of any belief that they have power or any desire to make use of that power to "manipulate" God, but simply to include them within Jewish memory.


David said...

Hi Ben Zion,

I used to feel the same way as you do about worship at Kevarim but think that even tapping into what might be considered 'primitive' or 'idolatry' is a way to fit in different understandings of divinity into one Orthodoxy. That said, I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph.

From a sociological perspective, it is interesting note that a good portion of the revival of European kevarim is comprised of Israeli Sephardim and Mizrahim. I have heard modern piyuttim that talk about The Baal Shem Tov and his influence on figures like the Baba Sali and Rabbi Haim Ben Attar. I don't think there is a real difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi/Mizrahi folk beliefs but it does seem like that it might be powering this more commercial approach.

Look forward to commenting more and hope to have my own blog up and running in the near future.

Izgad said...

I am familiar with the Ashkenazing of Sephardim in a general way. (Sephardim wearing black hats and jackets.) I did not know that Sephardim were doing the grand tour of Eastern Europe thing.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I disagree about the need to tour Eastern Europe. As my father repeatedly says when someone tells him about March of the Living: I couldn't wait to get away from that place and you're paying to go back!?
One of the neat things about God is that in order for him to hear our prayers, however you define "hear", one needs a sincere heart and a strong desire to be heard. That's pretty much it. You don't need to be next to the grave of some sainted Rav who lived in eastern Galicia not by choice but because that's where life stuck him.
This is not much different that what the makers of the golden calf had in mind.

R' Daniel said...

Visiting the gravesites of righteous individuals (saints) isn an archetypical truth found within practically all religious traditions. The notion that the place of repose of a righteous individual is an auspicious, sacred space for the reception of prayer by the Divine is found within practically all religious traditions.

Within Middle Eastern society, this is especially true. Muslims, for instance, would not only vist the gravesites of Sufi mystics and great scholars, but would also pray at the gravesites of Catholic and Orthodox saints, as well as many mekubalim and tzaddikim (tzaddikim, especially when understood according to Kabbalah and Chassidus, differ little from the Catholic teaching on saints- notions of intercession especially abound. Therefore, the notion of the cult of saints is not a uniquely Catholic doctrine, but is one that manifests itself in Judaism and Islam as well, albeit in different forms. See Josef Meri, " The Cult of Saints among Muslims and Jews in Medieval Syria," for a good understanding of the intellectual and cultural history of this phenomenon. Another great work on the topic is Issachar Ben Ami's "Saint Veneration Among the Jews in Morocco," as well as Emily Loubaton's thesis on this phenomenon among Jewish women).

I can understand your own knee-jerk, visceral objection to a program such as this, I think that our tradition makes clear that this is a practice we have understood to be true.

In Numbers 13, Caleb davened at Maarat HaMachpela. Sotah 34b (and this is cited by Rashi) says that the reason why he was successful in remaining faithful to Moses when all the other spies (who were originally spiritual people) failed, was because he went to pray for assistance by the gravesite of our Patriarchs.

The Bach in Yoreh Deah 217 says that praying at the grave of one's ancestors in times of difficulty is meritorious, as their merit can intervene to help avwert an unpleasant decree.

The Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 49:7 says that Racehl was buried on the highway in Bethlehem so that her descendants in golus could daven there and so in turn she would be able to intercede for them.

I can go on and on with sources, but the truth is that this is a Jewish practice substantiated by millennia of both mimetic and textual support. It should be noted that Jews don't pray to the dead tzaddik, neither do Catholics pray to the dead saint (Francis, Anthony, Therese of Lisieux, Padre Pio, etc.) They pray that the merit of the deceased would be a "melitz yosher" and that the deceased in heaven would pray to God on behalf of the living person making the request. (See Clement of Alexandria's Miscellanies and Hermas' "The Shepherd," twho Church Fathers who explain it this way for Catholics.)

The Zohar itself says that the world stands on the intercession of tzaddikim.

R' Daniel said...

However, gadflys such as yourself and Rabbi Yuval Cherlow do raise caution about this practice, granted the materialism that accompanies it.

Rabbi Cherlow wrote a teshuva saying that those who generally go on trips like this are seeking a good deal, and they donate money to a rabbi without any change in ritual practice or ethical practice. They try to use this as a surrogate for living a halakhic and moral lifestyle, which he condemns, and I condemn as well.

Even Chabad urges you to do mitzvos after submitting a prayer to be said at the Rebbe's ohel.

Ironically, amongst Masorti Israelis, who are traditional Mizrachim, usually, the practice of donating to a rabbi or going to a kever seems to be the sort of guilt offering Rabbi Cherlow is referring to. People are guilty over not living as observant Jews and thus try to make recompense with their wallets.

This practical concern should be taken into consideration, but that does not reverse Jewish textual and legal precedent. That is what a good posek does- they weigh the needs of the human condition against what the texts say.

I would pasken that the practice should remain- it is textually supported, and perhaps those who are non-religious will be inspired to embrace more and more mitzvos and become aroused by their experiences. And for those who don't, than at least this remains a source of connection between them and their tradition and helps keep the pintele yid going.

Izgad said...

R’ Daniel

I do not deny that praying at graves has a long tradition in Judaism and Islam. (Even “ecumenical” gravesite prayer) There is even a tradition for the kind of prayer at graves that I would view as idolatry. (Again I have no problem, in of itself, with reciting psalms by graves as long as it is clear that the departed do not have any actual power. Asking the dead to pray on your behalf is also out.) The fact that Jews have historically done something does not make it okay. King Ahab and King Manasseh worshipped idols and according to the rabbis they were great Torah scholars.

I operate with a fairly Maimonidean understanding of monotheism so I have no problem with saying that the majority of Jews have been and are idol worshippers. I does not help if you quote the Zohar, because I will look at quote like the righteous people hold up the world and say that if it means anything beyond God keeps the world in existence for the minority of righteous people in it (the ten righteous people who were not in Sodom), it is idolatry.

Thanks for the source material.

R' Daniel said...

Don't you think that is a bit bodacious of you, to claim that Jews are mostly idolaters and that the Rambam would oppose this practice?

You cannot paint the Rambam with a broad rationalist stroke. Obviously, academics may tend to do that, since arguing that the Rambam would oppose vernacular practices has an air of sensationalism and academic elitism to it. The Rambam was not opposed to Kabbalah, and as such, to claim that he would find these practices objctionable is a bit of a stretch and reeks of gaavah.

Izgad said...

There is certainly is a mystical element to Maimonides. There is no contradiction between being a Maimonidean “rationalist” and sitting in a cave meditating on the oneness of God in order to achieve union with the divine as Avraham b. Harambam and other descendents ended up doing. Kabbalah is a very loaded term and we need to be careful with it. By the way, I was introduced to this side of Maimonides in an academic course given by Dr. Alan Brill. The fact that you associate academic with straight rationalism, apparently unaware of over half a century of mysticism being a legitimate academic subject says something about what you know about academic scholarship.

You say that Maimonides would not cast off the majority of Jews as idolaters. Have you seen how he treats the masses particularly in the Guide?

R' Daniel said...
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Izgad said...

Keep in mind that Maimonides point blank called Shiur Komah idolatry. As a historian, any belief system that has attracted Jews, including Communism and Jews for Jesus, is part of Jewish history and must be studied as a Jewish tradition. (If you have a difficult time conceiving how converts to Christianity can be placed in the Jewish narrative take a look at Elisheva’s Carlebach’s Divided Souls on converts in early modern Germany.) That being said I have the right to be a bit more selective as to what I am willing to accept as legitimate Judaism in terms of who can be a legitimate Jewish authority. I have the right to go along with Maimonides and literally write all followers of Shiur Komah out of legitimate Judaism. I can do the same thing to anyone who claims that rabbis have intercessional power. Thus the Haredi leadership can have no claim over me and the issue of why I would not go along with them can never be raised.

Do you wish to be more specific with Dr. Brill? If you wish to challenge Dr. Brill you are going to have to do better than say that he explained Rashi in a way you do not care for.

R' Daniel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Izgad said...

The Torah uses anthropomorphism as a means of educating the masses. That is perfectly okay. The problem becomes when someone actually believes that God has some sort of body. “The Torah speaks in the language of men;” even Maimonides accepts this.

R' Daniel said...

Well, that is what I was referring to when I cited the Kuzari and the Rasag. Perhaps you should look up these sources- Rambam was hardly anything special in this area.

Izgad said...

I agree that Maimonides was not that special in regards to his beliefs about God. He was an extreme version of a tradition. This gives me all the more right to go with this tradition as my Judaism and reject all forms of Judaism that do not operate within that framework.

In regards to Dr. Brill, I will ask you to maintain a civil tone on this blog. You are free to challenge ideas. Personal attacks are not accepted.

R' Daniel said...

I am not attacking the individual- I am attacking the individual's ideas and errors.

Izgad said...

R’ Daniel

You are free and encouraged to challenge people’s interpretation of Rashi. You are even free to argue that saying something about gentiles in a Catholic setting is irresponsible. You have NOT been given license, certainly not on this blog, to accuse someone of trying to malign Judaism, of having questionable morals or make quips about someone having problems getting a job. In this economic climate it is in bad taste to knock anyone for their job problems. Academics, in general, are in a very difficult situation no matter the economy when it comes to jobs. This is something that I relate to on a very personal level.

I am giving you the opportunity to apologize to Dr. Brill. You may not have seen your words as personal attacks. Maybe you are used to other blogs where they do things differently. This blog is about respectful debate with those of a wide range of opinions. If you wish to insult me that is one thing, but I will take a stand for the respect of others. If you do not apologize, I will censor your comments and will in the future take a far more cautious position when it comes to letting your comments stand.

R' Daniel said...

No, I didn't take my words as being a personal attack. I am attacking positions, not people. I apologize as far as feelings may be concerned, but let's be frank here. These are ideas at stake, not emotions. I am not concerned with impugning integrity, I am concerned, however, when fallacious ideas are passed off, whether by your profeasor or otherwise. I apologize if feelings were hurt, but I am not giving anyone a free pass. People need to be held up to objective standards of truth. Torah demands no less. You do not interpreet Rashi. You translate it and the translation is either right or wrong. A kid in the second grade knows how to translate Rashi. More should be expected of a professor. I will apologize for hurt feelings, not for calling out wanton and careless errors where errors were made.

Izgad said...

R’ Daniel

Sorry, but you have done more than that. Out of courtesy to you, I will reproduce the non offensive parts of your comments here. I am erasing the rest:

"The Kabbalistic Rambam is a perspective one would obviously hear about generally only from Orthodox professors. Academic kabbalah is still fairly new and limited to people like Yehuda Liebes, Joseph Dan, Moshe Idel, and a few others. So no, I never did once say that academia was out of synch with kabbalah as a discipline. I did say, however, that knowledge of the mystical Rambam is still fairly limited in academic circles. After all, academic mysticism is still fairly limited and is not the focus of most academicians.

Sure, the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim may have railed against anthropomorphism, and yes, he did believe that one was a heretic for assuming that G-d had positive characteristics. However, that does not make this assertion completely correct. Just see Ravad's comments on this, as well as the tradition of Shiur Komah literature that has developed (in addition to the explanations of the Kuzari, Rasag, Rabbeinu Crescas, and others, who deviate from the Rambam's emphasis on negative attributes).

One needs to view the mesorah as a whole- you can't take what one source says without looking at other sources on the same issue, in order to be balanced and comprehensive in your understanding of a topic, in this case, anthropomorphism.

And as far as Brill is concerned, I cannot take him seriously, as there are serious loopholes in his work, including a pretty embarrassing failure to teitch Rashi correctly …

So you think that believing that attributing to G-d physical characteristics, which the Torah does, as a means of inspiring awe in people (Kuzari) and providing a mechanism by which humans can understand these divine attributes (Rasag) is idolatrous? That is a very narrow view to be taking.

Yes, I do have problems with someone who thinks that the first Rashi in Bereshis states that all gentiles are armed robbers. He did this in a paper on "Judaism and Other Religions" presented at a Roman Catholic college."

Here is the link to the piece in question ( I grant you that there is a problem. The text of Rashi that I am familiar with has the gentiles accusing the Jews of being robbers. Maybe there is a different version of the text or the original Mishnah. I will take it as an operational assumption that this is a typo or a goof on the part of Dr. Brill.