Monday, June 9, 2014

Focus on the intellectual knowlege about G-d results from the loss of the intimate experience of G-d

One of the important issues for a religious Jew is the disappearance of a direct sense of G-d and its replacement with an intellectual knowledge about G-d or focus on a strong text based understanding of halacha. This is described in the selection cited below from Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik's essay "Rupture and Reconstruction".  However this is not just a recent phenomena but in fact is something that has kept reappearing throughout Jewish history.

רב קוק (שמונה קבצים א:תסג): האנשים הטבעיים שאינם מלומדים, יש להם יתרון בהרבה דברים על המלומדים, בזה שלא נתטשטש אצלם השכל הטבעי והמוסר העצמי ע"י השגיאות העולות מהלימודים וע"י חלישות הכחות וההתקצפות הבאה ע"י העול הלימודי, ומ"מ הם צריכים לקבל הדרכה בפרטי החחים מהמלומדים. והמלומדים צריכים תמיד לסגל לעצמם, כפי האפשרי להם, את הכשרון הטבעי של עמי הארץ, בין בהשקפת החיים בין בהכרת המוסר מצד טבעיותו, ואז יתעלו הם בפיתוח שכלם יותר ויותר, וכן הדבר נוהג אפילו בצדיקים ורשעים שישנם רשעים כאלה, שהחלק הטוב שנשאר אצלם הוא מבונה בכח טבעי עצמי וטהור כ"כ, עד שצדיקים במעלתם העליונה, וכן הדבר נוהג גם בכלל האומות ביחש כל אחת מהם לחבירתה, וביחוד בין אוה"ע לישראל.

רב קוק (שמונה קבצים (א:עה): אסור ליראת שמים שתדחק את המוסר הטבעי של האדם, כי אז אינה עוד יראת שמים טהורה. סימן ליראת שמים טהורה הוא כשהמוסר הטבעי הנטוע בטבע הישר של האדם, הולך ועולה על פיה במעלות יותר בגוהות ממה שהוא עומד מבלעדה. אבל אם חצוייר יראת שמים בתכונה כזאת שבלא השפעתה על החיים היו החיים יותר נוטים לפעול טוב, ולהוציא על הפועל דברים מועילים לפרט ולכלל וע"פ השפעתה מתמעט כח הפועל ההוא יראת שמים כזאת היא יראה פסולה.

The story of Choni HaMaagel [Taanis 23a - Maharsha] is a good illustration in which someone who lived during the period of the First Temple - characterised by a direct experience of G-d - fell asleep and woke in the Second Temple period. That period was characterised by an intellectualized abstract religion and focus on texts. He was unable to deal with this change as he prayed, "Either companionship or death" and he died.

When I lived in Far Rockaway, there was a wise tzadekes - Mrs. Pauline Gingold - about 100 years old that I used to visit on a regular basis. We studied Tzenah U'Renah and Menoras HaMeor together. Rabbi Friefeld and his family also visited her and he knew her well. He told me, "Pay attention to the way she speaks about G-d. She talks to G-d as a real being - as one would speak to his father. That is the way they spoke in Europe - but it is very rare today."

Rabbi Friefeld confided that he was jealous of the bachur who davened next to him in the yeshiva. "When he davens he cries." That ability for tears is typically lost as one becomes more learned and develops a sophisticated theology.

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik(Rupture and Reconstruction- Tradition Summer 1994): I have discussed the disappearance of a way of life and the mimetic tradition. I believe, however, the transformations in the religious enclave, including the haredi sector, go much deeper and affect fundamental beliefs. Assessments of other peoples' inner convictions an always conjectural and, perhaps, should be attempted only in a language in which the subjunctive mood is still in vigorous use. I can best convey my impression — and I emphasize that it is no more than an impression — by sharing a personal experience.

In 1959, I came to Israel before the High Holidays. Having grown up in Boston and never having had an opportunity to pray in a haredi yeshivah, I spent the entire High Holiday period—from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur—at a famous yeshiva in Bnei Brak. The prayer there was long, intense, and uplifting, certainly far more powerful than anything I had previously experienced. And yet, there was something missing, something that I had experienced before, something, perhaps, I had taken for granted. Upon reflection, I realized that there was introspection, self-ascent, even moments of self-transcendence, but there was no fear in the thronged student body, most of whom were Israeli born. Nor was that experience a solitary one. Over the subsequent thirty-five years, I have passed the High holidays generally in the United States or Israel, and occasionally in England, attending services in haredi and non-haredi communities alike. I have yet to find that fear present, to any significant degree, among the native born in either circle. The ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are now Holy Days, but they are not Yamim Noraim—Days of Awe or, more accurately Days of Dread –as they have been traditionally called.

I grew up in a Jewishly non-observant community, and prayed in a synagogue where most of the older congregants neither observed the Sabbath nor even ate kosher. They all hailed from Eastern Europe, largely from shtetlach, like Shepetovka and Shnipishok. Most of their religious observance, however, had been washed away in the sea-change, and the little left had further eroded in the "new country." Indeed, the only time the synagogue was ever full was during the High Holidays. Even then the service was hardly edifying. Most didn't know what they were saying, and bored, wandered in and out. Yet, at the closing service of Yom Kippur, the Ne'ilah, the synagogue filled and a hush set in upon the crowd. The tension was palpable and tears were shed.

What had been instilled in these people in their earliest childhood, and which they never quite shook off, was that every person was judged on Yom Kippur, and, as the sun was setting, the final decision was being rendered (in the words of the famous prayer) “who for life, who for death, / who for tranquility, who for unrest.” These people did not cry from religiosity but from self- interest, from an instinctive fear for their lives. Their tears were courtroom tears, with whatever degree of sincerity such tears have. What was absent among the thronged students in Bnei Brak and in their contemporary services and, lest I be thought to be exempting myself from this assessment, absent in my own religious life too - was that primal fear of Divine judgment, simple and direct.

To what extent God was palpably present on Yom Kippur among the different generations of congregants in Boston and Bnei Brak is a matter of personal impression, and, moreover, it is one bout which opinions might readily and vigorously differ. The pivotal question, however, is not God's sensed presence on Yom Kippur or on the Yamim Noraim, the ten holiest days of the year, but on the 355 other—commonplace—days of the year: To what extent is there an ongoing experience of His natural involvement in the mundane and of everyday affairs? Put differently, the issue is not the accuracy of my youthful assessment, but whether the cosmology of Bnei Brak and Borough Park differs from that of the shtetl, and if so, whether such a shift has engendered a change in the sensed intimacy with God and the felt immediacy of His presence? Allow me to explain.

We regularly see events that have no visible cause: we breathe, we sneeze, stones fall downward and fire rises upward. Around the age of two or three, the child realizes that these events do not happen of themselves, but that they are made to happen, they are, to use adult terms, 'caused.' He also realizes that often the forces that make things happen cannot be seen, but that older people, with more experience of the world, know what they are. So begins the incessant questioning: "Why does . . .?” The child may be told that the invisible forces behind breathing, sickness and falling are "reflex actions," "germs" and "gravitation." Or he may be told that they are the workings of the "soul," of God's wrath" and of "the attractions of like to like" (which is why earthly things, as stones, fall downward, while heavenly things, as fire, rise upward). These causal notions imbibed from the home, are then re-enforced by the street and refined by school. That these forces are real, the child, by now an adult, has no doubt, for he incessantly experiences their potent effects. That these unseen forces are indeed the true cause of events, seems equally certain, for all authorities, indeed, all people are in agreement on the matter. When a medieval man said that his sickness is the result of the wish of God, he was no more affirming a religious posture than is a modern man adopting a scientific one when he says that he has a virus. Each is simply repeating, if you wish, subscribing to the explanatory system instilled in him in earliest childhood, and which alone makes sense of the world as he knows it. Though we have never actually seen a germ or a gravitational field, it is true only in a limited sense to say that we "believe" in them. Their existence to us is simply a given, and we would think it

Similarly, one doesn't "believe" in God, in the other explanatory system, one simply takes His direct involvement in human affairs for granted. One may, of course, superimpose a belief in God, even a passionate and all-consuming one, upon another causal framework, such as gravity or DNA. However, a God "believed" over and above an explanatory system, functioning through it as indirect cause, in brief, a God in a natural cosmology, is a God "believed" in a different sense than way we now "believe" in gravitation or the way people once "believed" in God in a religious cosmology, a God whose wrath and favor were the explanatory system itself.
God's palpable presence and direct, natural involvement in daily life—and I emphasize both "direct" and "daily"—, His immediate responsibility for everyday events, was a fact of life in the East European shtetl, so late as several generations ago. Let us remember Tevye's conversations with God portrayed by Sholom Aleichem. There is, of course, humor in the colloquial intimacy and in the precise way the most minute annoyances of daily life are laid, package-like, at God's doorstep. The humor, however, is that of parody, the exaggeration of the commonly known. The author's assumption is that his readers themselves share, after some fashion, Tevye's sense of God's responsibility for man's quotidian fate. If they didn't, Tevye would not be humorous, he would be crazy. Tevye's outlook was not unique to the shtetl, or to Jews in Eastern Europe; it was simply one variation of an age-old cosmology that dominated Europe for millennia, which saw the universe as directly governed by a Divine Sovereign. If regularity exists in the world, it is simply because the Sovereign's will is constant, as one expects the will of a great sovereign to be. He could, of course, at any moment change His mind, and things contrary to our expectations would then occur, what we call "miracles." However, the recurrent and the "miraculous" alike are, to the same degree, the direct and unmediated consequence of His wish. The difference between them is not of kind but rather of frequency. Frequency, of course, is a very great practical difference, and it well merits, indeed demands of daily language, a difference in terms. However, this verbal distinction never obscures for a moment their underlying identity.

As all that occurs is an immediate consequence of His will, events have a purpose and occur because of that purpose. Rationality, or, as they would have had it, wisdom, does not consist in detecting unvarying sequences in ever more accurately observed events and seeing in the first occurrence the "cause" of the second. Wisdom, rather, consists in discovering His intent in these happenings, for that intent is their cause, and only by grasping their cause could events be anticipated and controlled. The universe is a moral order reflecting God's purposes and physically responsive to any breaches in His norms. In the workings of such a world, God is not an ultimate cause; He is a direct, natural force, and safety lies in contact with that force. Prayer has then a physical efficacy, and sin is "a fearful imprudence." Not that one thinks much about sin in the bustle of daily life, but when a day of reckoning does come around, only the foolhardy are without fear.

Such a Divine force can be distant and inscrutable, as in some strains of Protestantism, or it can be intimate and familial, as in certain forms of Catholicism. In Eastern Europe it tended toward intimacy, whether in the strong Marian strain of Polish Catholicism in the much-supplicated household icon, the center of family piety the Greek Orthodox devotion. And much of the traditional literature of the Jews, especially as it filtered into common consciousness through the Commentaries of Rashi and the Tzenah Re'enah, contained a humanization of the deity that invited intimacy. God visits Abraham on his sickbed; He consoles Isaac upon the death of his father. He is swayed by the arguments of Elijah or the matriarchs, indeed by any heartfelt prayer, and decisions on the destiny of nations and the fate of individuals, the length of the day and the size of the moon, are made and unmade by apt supplications at the opportune moment. The humor of Sholom Aleichem lay not in the dialogues with God, but in having a "dairyman" rather than the Baal Shem Tov conduct them. The parody lay not in the remonstrances but in their subject matter.

The world to which the uprooted came, and in which their children were raised, was that of modern science, which had reduced nature to "an irreversible series of equations," to an immutable nexus of cause and effect, which suffices on its own to explain the workings of the world. Not that most, or even any, had so much as a glimmer of these equations, but the formulas of the "new country" had created a technology which they saw, with their own eyes, transforming their lives beyond all dreams. And it is hard to deny the reality of the hand that brings new gifts with startling regularity.  There are, understandably, few Tevyes today, even in haredi circles. To be sure, there are seasons of the year, moments of crest in the religious cycle, when God's guiding hand may be tangibly felt by some and invoked by many, and there are certainly occasions in the lives of most when the reversals are so sudden, or the stakes so high and the contingencies so many, that the unbeliever prays for luck, and the believer, more readily and more often, calls for His help. Such moments are only too real, but they are not the stuff of daily life. And while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.

Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that individual Divine Providence, though passionately believed as a theological principle—and I do not for a moment question the depth of that conviction—is no longer experienced as a simple reality. With the shrinkage of God's palpable hand in human affairs has come a marked loss of His immediate presence, with its primal fear and nurturing comfort. With this distancing, the religious world has been irrevocably separated from the spirituality of its fathers, indeed, from the religious mood of intimate anthropomorphism that had cut across all the religious
divides of the Old World.

It is this rupture in the traditional religious sensibilities that underlies much of the transformation of contemporary Orthodoxy. Zealous to continue traditional Judaism unimpaired, religious Jews seek to ground their new emerging spirituality less on a now unattainable intimacy with Him, than on an intimacy with His Will, avidly eliciting Its intricate demands and saturating their daily lives with Its exactions. Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.


  1. You left out one important fact in your analysis: the people you mentionned as having a strong fear of Gd on the Yamim Noraim went through the shoah.

    So, certainly, an experience like the shoah will enhance your understanding of the true meaning in "fear" "fear of death" "fearing for one's life", which might be "beneficial" for the yomim noraim experience. But I wish on no-one to go through such times, and have rather less fear of g-d in youths who grew up in a secure and safe environment than more fear of G-d after a traumatism of unspeakable dimensions.

  2. Interesting point - but not necessarily true. I believe Mrs. Gingold did not experience the Shoah but came to America before WWII. The bachur that Rabbi Friefeld mentioned was an American bachur.

    Rabbi Friefeld once stopped me from reading a certain Mussar sefer. He told me it was written for European's who because they led a hard life - could only be reached by descriptions of Gehinom and punishments. In contrast he noted the American's are delicate and needed a positive approach.

    My understanding is that the attitude of the European - uneducated masses - was different and more intimate for those who believed.

    Rav Chaim Ozer mentioned that the Chofetz Chaim was not perceived as a gadol because he was such a big tzadik. He also noted that he was different in another respect, "While we believe that Moshiach is coming - the Chofetz Chaim - knows. He has a suit of clothing ready because Moshiach is an experienced reality - not simply an intellectual belief for him."

  3. The simple intimate faith of the masses is clearly described in the following story

    This was told by Rav Moshe Chagiz - the main opponent of the Ramchal

  4. "Focus on the intellectual knowledge about G-d results from the loss of the intimate experience of G-d"

    Prof. Soloveitchik's theory seems to be that people are trying to strengthen their experiential connection to Hashem by taking דקדוק בהלכה to an extreme. This is not so clear from the title. "Intellectual knowledge about G-d" can take many forms. Although אורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד, and so technically being מדקדק בהלכה is indeed focusing on "intellectual knowledge about G-d", the "simple Pshat" of the title, which most people would think it means (without reading on), is some time of חקירה באלקות - through Hashkafa, Kabbala, Chasidus, etc.

  5. The emotional, experiential, spiritual component of Yiddishkeit -- truly feeling love and yearning in one's heart for Hashem, among other things -- is very important, and we need to devote time and energy into improving our avodas Hashem in this area. Aside from chassidim and a few others, rabbis today very rarely talk about such things. One can go through an entire Jewish education and barely be exposed to it. Why is this? It seems to me that the reasons are 1) the idea that that stuff is for "more spiritual" religions, or for chasidim, not for us, 2) rabbis feel uncomfortable or embarrassed talking about such matters, since it is personal, perhaps also "not cool" or even a bit feminine -- not as masculine and meaty as, say, a difficult halachic problem.

  6. This post should perhaps be understood as an addendum to the "living on purpose" post which quoted some of the health benefits of living a purposeful life.

    While we're talking about the importance of an intimate experience of G-d, perhaps it would be constructive to add two pointers:

    1) Both the Shu"t Rashb"a 5:55 and Chovos Halvovos Shaar Hayichud Chapter 3, seem to imply that it is a mandatory obligation to seek this intimate experience. The Ramba"m in Hilchos Teshuva 10:2 also seems to imply the same, while at the same time stating that few actually attain a full level of Ahavas Hashem. The implication seems to be that SEEKING this personal connection is mandatory, although only a select few actually attain it fully. (The Yad Haktana clearly makes this differentiation).

    I'm not trying to use guilt here to drive home the importance of this issue, but rather to give ourselves ammunition against the all-too-common thought that we aren't such great "Baalei Madreikos" to seriously consider such a lifestyle change.

    2) Once we're convinced that such a lifestyle is indeed highly attractive, perhaps we should start investigation the actual mechanism HOW we can start feeling this "intimate experience".

    Most of us would probably opine that we've already tried - and failed - at any attempt in this area.

    It might be worth reading the Chovos Halvovos in Shaar Ahavas Hashem 3, where he clearly states that "One who aims for it [Love of Hashem] directly ... will not be able to reach it".

    He goes on to note certain "preliminaries" that are necessary...

    Just a thought, from struggling with these very issues...


  7. why is there a high divorce rate in the frum community


please use either your real name or a pseudonym.