Forums Jews and Judaism Jewish Thought: Talmud Torah, Musar, Kabbalah and Hasidut.

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    • Brother Gilbert Joseph
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        Jewish Thought: Talmud Torah, Musar, Kabbalah and Hasidut.

        Hilary Putnam a Jewish writer has written about Rosenzweig, Buber and Levinas as some of the foremost influences on modern Jewish thought as a guide to life.[1] The ideas of these Jewish thinkers also influence many Christian writers, thinkers, philosophers and theologians. These Jewish writers and many others draw on Jewish sources for the genesis of their thought. The ideas of Buber and Levinas provide a good contrast to how these Jewish sources are used.

        I would divide Jewish thought into four main areas of Talmud Torah, Musar, Kabbalah and Hasidut. Levinas draws extensively on the teachings of Talmud Torah and Musar. Buber draws extensively on the teachings of Kabbalah and Hasidut. In differing ways Levinas and Buber bring Jewish thought to a wider and universal non-Jewish audience. These insights influence both Western philosophy and Christian theology. The Mitnagdim or Litvak tradition is mostly concerned with Talmud Torah which is the intensive and often legalistic study of the Talmud’s teachings on the Torah.

        The Musar movement under the leadership of Rabbi Salanter and Rabbi Broida[2] remedied the tendency for the study of the Talmud to become more of a legal and intellectual endeavour than an encounter with God. Musar stressed the inner light of the laws and ethical living.[3] It was a move from head to heart. The writings on Musar by the Chofetz Chaim is today one of the greatest influences in the Litvisher world.[4] Kabbalah is the name given to the Jewish mystical tradition but many Kabbalists started to intellectualise Kabbalah[5] so that it became another purely intellectual pursuit rather than a heart encounter.[6] In order to remedy this, Hasidism arose as a movement that used the insights of Kabbalah as praxis to daily living from the heart perspective.

        Levinas belonged to the Jewish world of Modern Orthodoxy which is in the Mitnagdim or Litvak stream of Judaism. Levinas states that being Orthodox Jewish is the study of Talmud and mitzvot. [7] Levinas emphasis on ethical transcendence is drawn from the tradition of Musar which also focuses on the priority of the ethical. Buber on the other hand has been influenced by Hasidism in his youth and shares the delightful and insightful stories of the Hasidic Rebbes with the academic world. He especially was drawn to the tales of the Baal Shem Tov who founded modern Hasidism and those of his great grandson Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

        All four strands of Jewish thought are needed to give fullness to Judaism. Talmud Torah and Musar are at the level of Peshat (simple literal meaning) and Drash (homeletical and ethical meaning) while Kabbalah and Hasidut are at the levels of Remez (allegory/ Aggadah) and Sod (Mystery/ Secret). These four strands have always been a part of Judaism and the modern movements of Musar and Hasidut are revivals of this at a time when they had been hidden from view. Head and heart, faith and reason, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, male and female must always go together in harmony.

        The study of the Talmud and Kabbalah without Musar and Hasidut soon leads to spiritual dryness and sterility (the waters of Miriam’s well dries up). The study of Talmud then becomes an activity of intellectual pride and Kabbalah descends to the manipulation of powers focused on the ‘self’. Musar and Hasidut leads to humility and littleness and a focus on the other. The Rabbis of Judaism associate Miriam’s well (beer) with Torah insights and understandings (biur). When Miriam dies (when we lose the feminine heart dimension of interpreting Scripture) then the spiritual waters of the well (rock struck by Moses) dries up and we are only left with a dry and sterile intellectualism. Rabbi Yaacov Haber of the Litvak tradition writes:

        …Miriam brought the well, the Be’er. And this is the Biur, the deeper understanding of life. She brought the insight that emerges from low and dark places, and from which perspective you can suddenly see how things fit together. The sweetening of bitter waters is the achievement of a new, deeper and broader perspective…[8]

        Hasidism itself has many different groups called dynasties. Some writers divide them into two groups Chabad and Chagas.[9] Chabad is the Hasidim of the Divine Head (Chokmah/ Binah/ Daat) and Chagas is Hasdim of the divine Heart (Chesed/ Gevurah/ Tiferet). Lubavitch Hasidism is the only survivor of the Chabad school and most other forms of Hasidism are classified under Chagas. However there are major differences between the Hasidic dynasties within the Chagas grouping. Lubavitch and Breslov are the most open to outsiders and are the fastest growing movements of Hasidism.

        Kabbalah in the last 30 years has seen an incredible revival as a living prayer and meditation tradition of Judaism. Even among many Hasidic groups the meditation side of Kabbalah had been obscured or forgotten. Pearl Besserman a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov writes:

        …it appears that Jewish mysticism is enjoying a renewal. Thanks to a scholarly revival, lucid translations of the ancient texts have made the practice accessible to a new generation of students…Ancient rituals will be charged with new life, as old cultural norms are expanded to embrace new ones. The practice of Hitbodedut will be open to anyone who aspires to become one with No-thing… [10]

        The wonderful translations and books on Jewish mysticism and the Jewish practices of meditation and contemplation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan have paved the way for this renewed interest in Jewish mysticism. This has drawn Jews and Judaism even closer towards Catholicism which is also experiencing a renewed interest in mysticism and meditative and contemplative prayer. Rebbe Nachman’s mystical teachings on Hitbodedut (the Jewish Holy Hour of Prayer) are finding resonance outside the bounds of the Breslov movement.

        Orthodox Judaism is not uniform and monolithic but has a rich diversity of groups and organisations which combine the different strands of Jewish thought in interesting mixes. When I lived in Israel I studied at Aish ha Torah Yeshivah (which faces the Western or Wailing Wall (the Kotel)), that mixes aspects of the Litvisher world with aspects of Hasidism. Rabbi Noah Weinberg the founder of Aish ha Torah (Fire of Torah) was himself the product of the Lithuanian academies (Litvak Yeshivot) and a grandson of the Black Slonimer Hasidic Rebbe Avraham Weinberg. Here and elsewhere I studied Kabbalah with Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser an Aish ha Torah trained Rabbi who became a Karliner Hasid. Rabbi Glaser is also into extreme sports and surfing.[11] Recently Menachem Herman a Breslov Hasid who is a famous Jewish rock musician joined the seminarians from Aish ha Torah to produce a song for Rosh ha Shana.[12]

        Many people side-line Haredi and Hasidic forms of Judaism by dismissing them as ultra-orthodox. However, these groups are growing and they are reaching out to the younger generations in a way that Catholics could learn much from them. Their use of contemporary music forms and dancing united to Hasidic style music and dancing is attractive to many. The simplicity and joy of the Breslov Hasidim as shown in the Israeli movie “Ushpizin” was also attractive to many people both Jewish and non-Jewish. The mixture of learning and life is intoxicating to many of the young today.

        Among the younger generations the differences are becoming less between the Haredi and the Modern Orthodox as the younger Modern Orthodox are becoming more stringent in observances and dress.[13] Michael Kress in an article titled “Orthodox Judaism Today” comments:

        …But in recent years, the line between haredi and Orthodox has blurred. Many Modern Orthodox Jews are increasingly stringent in their adherence to Jewish law and express a growing sense of alienation from the larger, secular culture. Some scholars have even referred to the trend as the “haredization” of Orthodoxy, and some believe that Modern Orthodoxy is essentially dead…[14]

        Even among the Messianic Jewish groups there is a move towards more Torah and Jewish observance in the younger generation of Messianic Jews and Hebrew Catholics. Among the practicing and devout younger gentile Catholics there is also a move to more traditional customs, practices and morality.

        It is from these communities of spiritual life that Jewish thought will continue to develop rather than in academic elites who are mere voyeurs of the faith of others. Today we need theologians and philosophers who are themselves people of vibrant faith who confront the secular culture as a sign of contradiction. Liberal Judaism and Liberal Christianity are very old and tired and dying a slow death as it compromises with the ‘Culture of Death’. It is from the living tradition of the four strands of Orthodox Judaism that further authentic Jewish thought will develop, which will in turn fertilise Christian thought and theology as well as Western philosophy.

        The future generations of believers may find certain aspects of Levinas and Buber’s thought useful in the new age of Faith that is coming, beyond the nightmare of our rationalistic and secular technological age. If they do, it will be because of their drawing on the wellsprings of truth[15] found in the ancient but ever renewing traditions of Judaism. Over two millennium Jews and Christians have influenced each other knowingly and unknowingly with their spiritual movements and insights. In the third millennium, which Pope John Paul II foresaw as a ‘millennium of unifications’[16], will we see the rise of a new mystical and humble Catholic Church with Judaism at its heart as the Mother form[17] of the church and its two lungs of East and West breathing in perfect union[18]? Soloviev a famous Russian Orthodox mystic and writer believed that it would be the mystically awakened Jews in the Eastern and Western Churches that would bring about the reunion of the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches.[19] Will this be the fulfilment of the Election of Israel as a light to the Gentiles? Will Jewish thought reach its greatest ‘fullness’ when it is reunited and restored to the very heart of the Church in the service of the Messiah and His kingdom?

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