From Metaphysics to Psychology

People react with great surprise to hearing that I very much enjoy Rav Zadok Hakohen from Lublin’s Torah because they wonder what attracts a card – carrying rationalist to a Hasidic rebbe. In truth, the question does not get off the ground. We should avoid a black and white view of the world in which anyone on the other ideological team has nothing to contribute; profound thinkers, no matter what their affiliation, merit attention. As we shall see, R. Zadok’s deep insights transcend the intellectual divide for me in a way that the thought of other Hasidic masters does not.

That being said, I do find myself engaged in an act of translation when I teach R. Zadok in which I move from his metaphysical perspective to the realm of human experience. Now, many scholars claim that the development from Kabbala to Hasidut was precisely a tendency to move from metaphysics to psychology. In his famous critique of Martin Buber’s approach to Hasidut, Gershom Scholem wrote:

Thus Buber is right in saying that gnostic theologumena when taken over by Hasidism are transformed. Into what are they transformed? Into statements about man and his way to God. Cabbalistic terminology which originally referred to divine mysteries is interpreted by the Hasidic writers as referring also to values of the personal life of man and his relation to God, and great emphasis is placed on this “moral” reading of the old vocabulary. In the writings of Rabbi Baer of Mezritch—the 18th-century pupil of the Baal-Shem who actually organized the movement—we find a whole string of pages where Cabbalistic terms are almost systematically taken up with a view to explaining what they mean if understood as guiding principles in the personal life of the devotee. They are not robbed of their original meaning, which indeed continues to play its part; rather they acquire an additional one.  (Commentary October 1961)

The contrast between two famous kabbalistic works conveys this point. R. Yosef Ibn Gikatila’s Sha’arei Orah explains the meaning of different names of God in terms of different modes of divine governance without applying the analysis to human conduct. Conversely, R. Moshe Cordovero’s Tomer Devorah utilizes each of the sefirot as a model for human behavior. For example, chapter seven shows how the sefirah of tifferet ideally leads humanity to avoid arrogance in three different contexts. Granted that Cordovero precedes Hasidut by some two centuries, this example illustrates the difference between the two modes of kabbalistic writing.

If Scholem and Buber are correct and Hasidic writers already transported the ideas to the human realm, what further move am I making when studying or teaching R. Zadok or other more mystically inclined voices? Furthermore, how do teachers of texts deal with the challenge of not sharing the background assumptions of those texts’ authors? Seeing a few examples of my interpretive method will answer the question.

The concept of reincarnation is a good starting point and we begin with a random example. Several Hasidic thinkers state that Reuven was a gilgul of Kayin, meaning that the soul of Kayin reentered this world in the body of Reuven (Tifferet Shlomo Vayeshev). Yet someone who rejects the concept of gilgulim can still benefit greatly from this idea. Both Kayin and Reuven faced the difficult challenge of being usurped by a younger sibling. While Kayin reacted with murderous rage, Reuven courageously attempted to save Yosef from his violent brothers. The notion of “tikkun” for a previous transgression works with or without belief in reincarnation. Other suggested examples of gilgul similarly inspire interesting analysis about the relationship between disparate biblical characters.

R. Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook expressed a panentheistic viewpoint in which the entire cosmos is a part of divinity. This perspective helped fuel his optimism and tolerance leading him to extract the positive from every movement and ideology. The discerning viewer can find divinity everywhere (Middot ha-Ra’aya Sovlanut). R. Kook saw tremendous good in secular Zionism and even located some truth in the philosophies of Spinoza and Schopenhauer. A classical monotheist who, contra panentheism, sharply divides between God and the rest of creation, can still identify with this Kookian impulse. He may simply find that this approach to the world rings true when noticing how even deeply problematic philosophies contribute toward our understanding.

Ariel Mayse helpfully asked me how this differs from Rambam instructing us to “accept the truth from whoever says it.” While Rambam clearly found great wisdom in the thought of Aristotle and other gentile philosophers, he was also quick to dismiss the value of entire fields (history) or schools of thought (Kalam philosophy). R. Kook’s begins with a default position that each position includes something instructive. Those more attuned with classic monotheism who assume a chasm between humanity and divinity can still identify with this default position.

Let us now turn to R. Zadok. He utilizes a principle called זה לעומת זה to highlight cultural parallels between the Jewish and gentile worlds. When the Jews functioned with prophecy, the gentiles believed in paganism and magic. When the Jews moved over to human wisdom and the development of the oral law, non – Jews emphasized the rational achievements of the Greeks (Resisei Layla 56). R. Zadok likely meant that God decides to change the dominant forces guiding the world and this influences all peoples. We can also understand this in very human terms. Disparate cultures can influence each other; alternatively, they can simultaneously be influenced by larger cultural forces in the manner that modern technology impacts on all cultures today. Thus, we can accept R. Zadok’s insight with a less intensive sense of divine governance.

R. Zadok expresses a deterministic strand of thought which attributes all actions to God but leaves freedom in humanity’s internal world of emotions and attitudes. Thus, he defines wisdom as the desire for wisdom more than sheer intelligence or the amount of acquired knowledge. He writes that the ancient Greek understood this when they called their wise men philosophers (philo sophia = lovers of wisdom) and even (unnecessarily) adds that the Greeks must have stolen this idea from us (Mahshavot Harutz 7). Again, someone with a less deterministic worldview could still very much identify with R. Zadok’s position. Those with significant intellectual curiosity and a burning desire to learn often accomplish more than a person with greater natural intelligence but lacking that passion for knowledge.

Our final example relates to the principle of omnisignificance.  R. Zadok insists of eschewing technical explanations for various phenomena (talmudic placement and halakhic details) in favor of explanations pregnant with religious meaning. Aggadot about the destruction of the second temple belong in a tractate about divorce since the hurban represents a rupture in the marriage bond between the Jewish people and God (Pri Zaddik, Kedushat Shabbat 3). In an extreme example, R. Zadok posits that the mitzva to write a sefer Torah appears in siman 270 because the creativity manifest and the legacy left by writing a Torah scroll compensates for the sin of ער  (numerical value of 270) who wasted seed and refused to father children. R. Zadok does not claim that R. Yakov bal Haturim or R. Yosef Karo had this in mind when organizing the halakhic material but that divine providence guided their editorial hands (Mahshavot Harutz 15). Many contemporary readers with a less intensive sense of hashgacha can still value and validate the quest for deeper meaning. Indeed, several contemporary academics (Jeffrey Rubenstein, Yonatan Feintuch) find significant meaning in aggadic placement.

In all of our five examples, a reader who does not accept the metaphysical apparatus of reincarnation, panentheism, or deterministic divine providence can still identify with the insights and approach of R. Zadok and R. Kook. Is it somehow dishonest to endorse the conclusion without the metaphysical backing? Not at all! Presumably, these rabbinic greats thought these phenomena perceptible and manifest in the world of human experience. Those of us that relate to such ideas on a purely human plane pick up on the same experiences that drove some rabbinic writers to more abstract explanations.

This brings us to an answer to our opening question. Earlier kabbalistic works focused exclusively on divinity when discussing the ten sefirot and the Ein Sof, advancing views as to the nature of God and the functioning of the cosmos on a grand scale. Hasidic writers kept the metaphysical backdrop while seeking out implications in the sphere of human activity. As Scholem wrote about Hasidut’s relationship with kabbalistic concepts: “They are not robbed of their original meaning, which indeed continues to play its part; rather they acquire an additional one.” I am suggesting that moderns may drop the metaphysics altogether and find human wisdom on a psychological and experiential level. Indeed, those less mystically oriented can still discover immense intelligence in the writings of R. Zadok and R. Kook.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.