Tradition vs. Kabbala

Many years ago when I was in kollel I asked R’ Sholom Schwadron a question about the mechanics of Divine providence that was then bothering me. He replied by asking me how old I was. (I believe I was around 28 at the time.) He told me to wait until I was 40 before worrying about my problem.

Well 40 is now a distant, fading memory and I’ve been thinking about R’ Schwadron’s comment. I’m sure he could have quickly offered me one or two approaches from among the rishonim who discuss the problem. But instead he felt it was a topic I should simply avoid for the time being. For the record, I ignored his wise advice and continued to dig into relevant sources. And for that same record, those efforts didn’t get me anywhere particularly useful.

I now suspect that the reason R’ Schwadron didn’t give me a clear and satisfying answer to my problem was because there is no clear and satisfying answer. Some topics resist clarity by their very nature. What one particular rishon might describe as obvious will be forcefully rejected by a handful of others. Something most or even all rishonim agreed to might be strangely ignored in the writings of many mainstream acharonim. And there are nearly always significant outliers from every era who felt free to head off all by themselves in entirely new directions. The intellectual history of Torah scholarship is not a tidy place.

28-year-olds might be bothered by this ambiguity and become disoriented when they can’t find easy answers for all their questions. But that doesn’t mean the ambiguity isn’t there. Dealing intelligently with ambiguity requires, as the very least, information. And information is what I plan to provide here.

In these essays I’m going to explore a fairly well-defined set of minhagim and the beliefs that have driven them. These particular minhagim, by and large, originated between the 16th and 18th Centuries and have since spread to nearly all corners of the Orthodox world.

This brief quotation from the introduction to ספר שני לוחות הברית (written by the author’s son), is a powerful illustration:

ראה זה חדש הוא, שחידש כמה דינים משכלו, והם כמה וכמה מאות דינים מחודשים

See how new this is: that he (the book’s author, Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz) innovated many laws from his own logic, and there are many, many hundreds of such innovated laws.

Bear in mind that Rabbi Horowitz’ work is indeed the primary source of many recent innovations, including התרת נדרים before Rosh Hashana, listening to 100 Shofar קולות on Rosh Hashana, and all-night learning on Shavuos.

They may be widely adopted now but, at their birth, innovations often attracted significant rabbinic opposition. In many cases they represent violent changes to the way we look at our relationship to our Torah and its Giver.

I’m going to try to imagine a Judaism without some or all of those minhagim. But for many reasons it’s not my goal to suppress their practice. After all:

  • How can I be sure those minhagim are objectively wrong?
  • Who gave me the authority to advocate for changing accepted minhagim?
  • Considering how few people would listen to me, what would be the point?
  • Even if my analyses were correct and I did somehow influence others, how can I know that my efforts wouldn’t lead to dangerous unintended consequences?

Instead, I would like to map out the status of some contemporary Torah attitudes and practices so I can understand where individual minhagim came from and where there might be conflicts with my mesorah and approach. You certainly don’t have to share all of my assumptions, but following me as I work through the process might help you assess your own position.

The Importance of Minhagim

One thing I most certainly do not recommend is casually changing existing minhagim. R’ Moshe Feinstein (או”ח ח”ב סי’ כד) famously wondered how the early chassidim had the right to create Nusach Sfard. The precise halachic status of specific minhagim is, at the very least, unclear, and they shouldn’t be treated disrespectfully. Just as it’s normally forbidden to abandon a valid minhag, all things being equal, it should be equally problematic to create new ones.

There are exceptions of course. A minhag based on a judgment error can be ignored (פסחים נא. תוס’ דה”מ אי אתה רשאי), as can a new minhag that’s מוציא לעז on earlier generations (שו”ע יו”ד רי”ד פתחי תשובה ס”ק ד).

But I believe that there’s another compelling reason for being careful with minhagim. The way you’ll come to integrate G-d into your daily life and exercise your moral responsibilities will, to a large degree, depend on the minhagim you keep. Simply put, they’re going to play a significant rule in defining the way we learn Torah and perform mitzvos.

This is something you really want to get right. And “getting it right” will involve making sure that your minhagim are a good match with your Torah identity. Running around looking for red bendle-type segulos won’t work well if, like me, you’re a Hirschian. And I suppose avoiding most music because we’re mourning the destruction of the mikdash might not work well if you live in an active chassidic community.

What’s at Stake?

I wrote earlier about a “well-defined set of minhagim and the beliefs that have driven them.” Specifically, I’m referring to the explosion of innovation in Jewish practice that followed the introduction and popularization of the Tzfas school of kabbala. I might be wrong, but I can’t help thinking that a Jew from the year 1600, miraculously transported to a thriving Torah community in 2020, would wonder whether he was still among Jews. Everything would look, sound, and feel so different.

Let’s spend a few moments talking about how that happened and what it involves.

How it Began

The watershed event marking the beginning of the revolution was arguably the popularization of the Ari’s systematic reinterpretation of the Zohar. The Ari and his followers focused enormous energy on building a conceptual schematic design mapping the process of creation (in particular “tzimtzum”) and the ways heaven and earth come to influence each other. But the initial goal was to change the way we think about interacting with G-d, most specifically through the act of tefila.

As I describe later in “How Modern Kabbalists Would Have Us Pray,” the Tzfas ideology divides what we’ve traditionally described as “G-d” into multiple parts (“partzufim,” “sefiros,” etc) and claims, as the Ari himself wrote, that most of those parts – in particular “Ain Sof” – are indifferent to and unaware of our prayers and that Jews should pray only to the partzuf Zehr Anpin.

I note in that essay how alien all this is to someone influenced by the Rambam (and other rishonim). In “Between Frankfurt and Tzfas,” I also show how great Torah leaders like R’ Hirsch vigorously resisted these interpretations. It should also be noted that, over the last century or two, responsible mainstream kabbalists like the Leshem (see Sefer Hadeah Section 1, Drush 5, Siman 7) worked to actively suppress at least some of those ideas while remaining loyal to the general terms of the Ari’s system.

Paying attention to the shape of the modern siddur and researching the origins of much of its structure will give you a sense of how much came to exist only over the past few centuries. Think about Kabbalas Shabbos. Or about some other innovations that come from far darker sources. My feeling is that nearly all of the change can be traced, in one way or the other, to the hills and narrow streets of Tzfas.

Defining Limits

As I wrote, I’m not out to spark a movement towards casting off existing practices. But what I would like to see is a world where it’s normal and acceptable for a Jew to choose to live according to the traditional principles of pre-Tzfas Judaism. There should be room in such a world for other – newer – traditions. But loyalty to the innovations of Tzfas should never be a test for loyalty to G-d’s Torah.

The ultimate decision over whether some of the Ari’s teachings are or are not within the scope of acceptable Torah values is not mine to make. And I have surprisingly little interest in what shape such a decision might take. In fact, the odds are that a public discussion about such things will never take place, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s worth remembering the unspeakable chaos and destruction caused by the three great rabbinic conflicts of the 18th Century involving, respectively, Nechemya Chayun, the Ramchal, and R’ Yonason Eibschutz.

But it’s also worth keeping in mind that not everything that happens within an Orthodox community occurs with the full knowledge or sanction of Torah leaders. Sometimes lasting change just happens without anyone’s approval. That distinction will have a significant impact on this discussion.

Who Can We Trust?

One of the most unsettling parts of this whole process has been having to revisit my relationship with some beloved seforim. Can I, for instance, still “trust” the Mishnah Berurah? By that, of course, I certainly don’t mean I have any less respect for the precision, reliability, and clarity of the Chofetz Chaim’s scholarship, or of his powerful voice of moral authority. It does however mean that for all the many times he invokes the authority of the Ari and his talmidim when ruling on “our minhag,” that “our” might not include me. (We’ll see examples of this in a later chapter.)

Or consider that, despite the genuinely careful and balanced text of the Artscroll siddur, it’s been a while since I was able to automatically accept every choice they made. One or two interesting examples will appear later.

So, in an ambiguous world, I’m looking for a way to agreeably acknowledge my neighbors’ strange innovations while passionately embracing the traditional approach of Rabbi Hirsch.

Back to Finding Tradition in the Modern Torah World

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