We concluded the Three Weeks this past Sunday, the Ninth of Av, commemorating the 40-year desert sentence prohibiting the first generation of Jews from entering Israel. Due to their corruption revealed in their fear that God could not defeat the inhabitants of Canaan, God designated that date for the destruction of both Temples. Talmud Sanhedrin 104b states God’s sentiment, “You cried an unwarranted cry, [therefore] I will establish for you a cry throughout the generations.” Thereby, God instructed all generations about that, which it is truly fitting to cry: back then we cried due to the consideration of our physical might alone – God’s promise weighed none. Therefore, God destroyed the Temples to awaken us to what must be our true consideration: God’s exclusive and absolute reign, and our relationship with God. Witnessing the dual tragedies on the same date, we admit of no coincidence, and learn that God caused the downfall and destruction of our temples and our nation. God is truly in control. Our words in the desert were foolish, ignorant, and demanded a response. Tisha B’Av was that response.
When we realize this loss – and not before – we might merit the construction of the third Temple. We are also to recall the cause of our sins during the two Temple eras, which demanded God’s punishments: we were idolatrous and we expressed hatred towards one another. “Hatred” is why I mention this introduction.
In our last issue of the JewishTimes, we continued our series of articles addressing Judaism’s Fundamentals. And when I refer to “Fundamentals”, I don’t mean Maimonides 13 Principles alone, but many other primary truths, which contribute to the definition of a “Torah Life”...a life rooted firmly in, and immovable from realty. These truths include ideas, mitzvos, values, Moses’ words, morality and proper thinking. Yes, proper thinking is a fundamental of Judaism. For upon it, all else rests. If one’s thinking is corrupt, how can his life be of value? What this all has to do with hatred, is that one must follow what the Rabbis taught, “All arguments for the sake of heaven will ultimately be sustained. Which arguments are for the sake of heaven? Those between Hillel and Shammai. [i.e., Torah disputes]” (Ethics, 5:17) This statement endorses such arguments.
Many people feel all arguments must be avoided. This is because people’s egos are frail, and they wish to be liked by others, over all else. Arguments, they feel, will cause rifts in their relationships. But this only unveils the fragile nature and worthlessness of their friendships. If a friendship cannot withstand the concerned rebuke of one party for the other, then the goal of such a relationship cannot be truth, and the value of such a relationship is questionable, at the very least. The Rabbis teach differently: they wish to see truth, and they know that conversing or hotly debating an issue with a peer in the study hall does not lead to personal attacks. Truth is the goal, and when it is reached, both Torah students leave as friends, no different from when they entered, or debated. One must argue, if he is to arrive at truth, for we all possess misconceptions, and argument is the method for ruling our fallacy and arriving at truth. Furthermore, if one hears a false idea being taught or expressed, he would be cruel to others to allow them to believe it, if he possesses the ability to prevent them from error. He must speak out.
This was the case recently. On radio, a Rabbi publicly claimed many ideas in the name of Torah, supported only by others who vocalized the identical view. He offered no reason for his views, assuming his claims sufficed that others accepted. This Rabbi said suicide bombers are actually “victims”, not villains. He said God’s justice is different than ours as his justification for this position. He said that one of our greatest thinkers; Rabbi Saadia Gaon meant the exact opposite of what he wrote in his works. This Rabbi possessed no rational argument. He claimed that the belief in reincarnation is an essential part of Judaism, a belief never voiced by Rambam, and a belief Moses’ objected to, along with Sforno (Deut . 30:15,19):
“Behold, I place before you today; life and goodness, and death and evil.” “…and choose life, so that you and your seed live.”
Moses says there are two options, and one is mutually exclusive to the other. That is, if one dies, he does not receive life, and if he receives life, then he does not receive death. If one receives death, and therefore, it is not life, does this not refute reincarnation? It most certainly does. Moshe tells the people that by choosing one, you cannot obtain the other. Therefore, choosing death means the absence of life: no reincarnation. Sforno, in explaining the words “life” and “death” in this verse says one identical word for each: “La-ed,” or “eternally,” thereby teaching that the “death” Moshe describes here, is eternal…no reincarnation. Most of all, reincarnation is condemned as “stupid” and “absurd” by Saadia Gaon…through rational arguments. (Reincarnation must not be confused with techiyas hamasim, “resurrection”. The former is the absurd belief in an ongoing transmigration of souls from man to man, man to beast, and beast to man, while the latter is a one-time event supported by Scripture where the dead will be revived.)
Due to the gravity of this Rabbi’s statements, and sanctioned by the Rabbis’ writing in Ethics of the Fathers 5:17 above, I will contend with his words so others are not mislead, and hopefully he too will admit his error. We must be careful not to speak from hatred, but to address the issues. This type of dispute is warranted, and must ensue. As the Temple’s objective is to be the seat of Torah wisdom, may our endeavor contribute to the rebuilding of the third and final Temple.
To briefly recap, the Torah is firmly based in this fundamental: “What God is, so shall you be” (lit. “Ma Hu, af atah”). This principle and value system is the basis for our middos, our character traits. We learn from here that just as God is a “rachum”, a “merciful” One, so too we are to reflect His perfection, by mimicking His mercy. We become more in line with reality, when we mimic reality, i.e., mimicking God. This applies to all traits we see God exemplifying in His Torah. Therefore, the Torah is unequivocally stating that God “is a certain way” as far as man’s mind may comprehend. There is no room for claims that God is the opposite, that He views suicide bombers as “victims”, and not villains. God tells man to kill the enemy many times, such as Amalek, and this clearly teaches that God wishes man to share in God’s evaluation of Amalek’s evil. The Rabbi who said suicide bombers are “victims” speaks against God. God called them evil, demanding their immediate death, while this Rabbi expresses sympathy for those who blew up his fellow Jews.
Much of the Rabbi’s false position is Kabbala-based. Again, I recap what my good friend Rabbi Myers cited regarding Kabbala study:
“Into that which is beyond you, do not seek; into that which is more powerful than you, do not inquire; about that which is concealed from you, do not desire to know; about that which is hidden from you, do not ask. Contemplate that which is permitted to you, and engage not yourself in hidden things.” (Bereishith Rabbah, 8:2)
The Rambam, after discussing deep ideas regarding Maaseh Bereishith and Maaseh Merkava, writes:
“The topics that we have discussed are known as Pardais (lit. “garden”, or higher matters). Even though the Tanaaim were great, brilliant people, they did not all have the abilities to fully understand Pardais. I maintain that one should not visit the Pardais until he is first satiated with “bread and meat”, which refers to knowledge of the Mitzvot. Even though the greatest knowledge is that of Pardais, the former knowledge must come first because; 1) it is “M’yashaiv Daato Shel Adam Techila,” teaches one to think clearly; and 2) it is the good that God has given to all of us to observe in this world and reap the benefits in Olam Habah, the afterlife. Everyone can partake of this revealed Torah, the young and the old, men and women, geniuses as well as average individuals.”
“Most people who involve themselves in Kabbala prematurely suffer great Divine Retribution.” (Vilna Gaon, the “Gra”)
“One must not learn Kabbala because our minds simply are not deep enough to understand it.” (Beer HayTave)
I will now quote additional words to comment on what I see are Torah violations:
Rabbi X: I read with interest your response to some comments published in your Jewish Times (vol. 4, no. 42). Your denial of reincarnation is very disturbing. Do you realize this denial of Divrei Torah and rulings of the Rabbis places you outside the parameters of kosher Judaism?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: The perfection of Moses is validated by God’s incorporation of his words as Torah, and the genius and precision of Maimonides’ mind are unparalleled: “From Moses to Moses, none have arisen as Moses.” Neither Moses nor Maimonides suggested truth to reincarnation, let alone this baseless position that reincarnation forms “Divrei Torah” or a fundamental of Judaism. As Rabbi Reuven Mann taught, Moses would not conceal something that forms a fundamental of Torah, nor would God. Yet, our Torah doesn’t mention reincarnation. It only mentions resurrection, which will happen at a specific moment in time. Additionally, Sforno and Saadia Gaon denounce reincarnation, and Saadia Gaon goes so far as to call it “absurd” and “stupid”. But I will not simply quote a source. I will quote Saadia Gaon’s reasoning so no room is left to entertain any possibility for reincarnation. For once something is shown to be foolish, an intelligent person will disregard it.
You also err by referring to the area of Jewish philosophy as subject to “ruling”. Only in Jewish law do Rabbis have jurisdiction, as stated in Deuteronomy 17:11, “In accord with the Torah that they teach you, and upon the statute they tell you, so shall you do, do not veer from the matter that they tell you, left or the right.” From here the Torah teaches that Rabbis have authority only in areas of law, but not in mandating a philosophy.
On this point, a wise Rabbi once taught that no one might tell us to “believe something.” Blanket belief in a philosophical principle cannot be legislated, since it is impossible for anyone to demand you to instantly believe, that which you do not. Yes, a Rabbi can tell us how to “act,” but he cannot tell us what to think. Our thoughts, beliefs and ultimately convictions can only come about once we reason a given matter for ourselves. So again your position that a belief in reincarnation is “mandatory” is not only proven false, but also as impossible. To mandate a belief without availing us to reasoning for such a belief is not possible, and hence, it is not part of Torah. Thus, the Torah obligation to know God exists, and that He is one, is not commanded separately from a means to achieve this rationally. That is why God orchestrated Sinai. Until I reason for myself using a proof of God’s existence, I cannot say, “God exists”, or that “He is One” with any meaning. Therefore, reincarnation, which opposes Moses’ words, and which is refuted intelligently by Saadia Gaon, cannot form a Torah fundamental. Conversely, I have yet to see anyone offer a logical proof in favor of reincarnation. All that is heard are claims of reincarnation bereft of any proof. And when we have a no proof for something, we do not accept it as truth.
Rabbi X: The Zohar, Shulkhan Arukh and practically every other Sage for the last 800 years holds by the idea of reincarnation and you did not even bother to mention any of them in your material. This makes what you wrote one-sided and dangerous. I would go so far as to say that you are misleading fellow Jews by your apparent Christian oriented views.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: You just condemned yourself, as you omitted Saadia Gaon and Sforno who denounce reincarnation. Why did you not present their views along with others?
You must also accuse every Rabbi throughout time – including your own Rabbis – as equally “one-sided and dangerous, and apparently Christian” for they too wrote their view alone, omitting all others. In truth, if a person sees one idea as truth, and another as false, he will not teach others what he sees are falsehoods. To wit, Ramban condemned Maimonides’ words on many occasions. A concerned Rabbi desires what is best for others and therefore teaches what his mind tells him is the truth. Do you not see your glaring oversight? The very Rabbis you quote, themselves argued on others! Your 0wn Rabbis disagree with you.
But in fact, I disagree with your reasoning altogether. Numbers prove nothing. You must agree, either your sources are right, or Saadia Gaon is right, but both cannot be right. The question is, how do we prove who is right? According to your reasoning, I should also follow all the Kabbalistic Rabbis who tell Jews to wear red strings to ward off “evil eyes”, since this too has been practiced for a long time, and by Kabbalists. Yet, another idolatrous rite that has creeped into Judaism. But we read that the Talmud prohibits such idolatrous practice. (Talmud Sabbath: Tosefta Chap. VII) I cannot follow any Kabbalistic Rabbi when his words violate Torah. I say, what is truly Christian is this “blind faith” in reincarnation. For you have not demonstrated through any reasoning, using your Tzelem Elokim (intellect) any support for this belief. I am sure if you had any proof, you would have already mentioned it to refute me. Furthermore, you offer no argument against Saadia Gaon’s refutation of reincarnation.
Rabbi Reuven Mann critiqued your words: “Maimonides said that anyone (not only a Rishon) who found any error in his works should make it known.” Thereby, Maimonides validated this idea that the truth must be followed, not the person. Reputations are worthless, so 800 years of Kabbalists who have not matched Maimonides’ level can certainly be wrong. The ideas stand, or fall, based solely on the “idea”. Falsehoods are to be rejected, regardless of how many Rabbis or years of belief are on record supporting reincarnation.
Your support of reincarnation, based exclusively on quoting others who accepted it boils down to your inability to think for yourself. This is a grave problem with Judaism today: students are not taught to think independently. They are taught to blindly accept a great reputation, while Maimonides’ words above display him as real enough, and humble enough, teaching that anyone can prove even a great mind or Rabbi wrong. No man has a monopoly on correctness; we all err.
Think about this; at a young age, Ramban was not the great Ramban, but a mere youngster. His mind then developed, and then at a certain point years later, he challenged Maimonides on many areas. Now, what gave Ramban that right to challenge Maimonides, when after all, Ramban was not anyone recognized, until afterwards? We are forced to admit that Ramban, or any intelligent person, did not follow this path where “reputations must be feared and go unchallenged”, and “Rabbis never err.” Just the opposite is truth: all men make errors: “For man is not righteous in the land who does good and does not sin.” (Ecclesiastes, 7:20) Ramban was honest, and did not fear a reputation, if he felt that person was wrong. Can you admit that your Rabbis make errors, as King Solomon taught? I feel this is where the problem lies. In Rabbi Reuven Mann’s name, Maimonides stated in his Eight Chapters (intro to “Ethics of the Fathers”) this phrase: “Accept the truth from whoever says it.” On this point, Maimonides’ son Avraham wrote in his introduction to Ein Yaakove:
“We should not claim about Aristotle that – since he was the supreme master of philosophy and established valid proofs of the existence of the Creator, blessed be He, and other truths which he demonstrated or found in his encounter with the way of truth – he was also correct in his views that matter is eternal, that God does not know particulars, and other such ideas. Nor should we reject his ideas in toto, arguing that since he was mistaken on some matters, he was mistaken on all. Rather, it is incumbent on us, as on all understanding and wise people, to examine each proposition on its merits, affirming what it is right to affirm, rejecting what it is right to reject, and withholding judgment on what is not yet proven, regardless of who said it.”
Rabbi X: Please tell me, who is your Rav, by what authority do you hold? Would you like to continue to discuss this issue of the authenticity of reincarnation in front of a Kosher Beit Din, in Jerusalem, perhaps? No, this is not a threat, but your denial of Divrei Torah is fitting for the so-called Conservative and Reform crowds, and is not fitting for someone wishing to be accepted as an Orthodox Rabbi.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: If we all judge ideas as you do, based on distinguished lineage (yichuss) and Haskamas (third party validation) then Abraham – whose father was an idolater – and Moses’ offspring who served idols - would not past muster with you. Maimonides was correct: “Follow the truth from who ever speaks it.” Think about this: your method of inquiring of someone’s Rav, and not judging a person’s words based on their value, would disqualify Abraham, since his father served idols. Do you disqualify Abraham?
Rabbi X: If you wish to attack me personally, this is of no matter. I recite my forgiveness prayer every night as part of Kriyat Shema (and I forgive all those who have sinned against me in this reincarnation and in previous reincarnations; that is the language of the tefilah). However, your attack against me under the guise of quoting Maimonides and Saadia Gaon is unacceptable and wrong.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: You mean that I should not quote great Rabbis who disprove your point? I fail to understand what you just wrote.
It appears you are bothered that someone disagrees with you. But you should be more bothered by your lack of proof for your position. Your position is transparently weak, as you fallback to projecting your attack, onto me. You impute to me, exactly what you do. I used reason and proofs, and since you have none, you desperately wish to obscure your absence of reason, by moving the topic from facts, to personal attacks. Do you truly think I would not respond identically to anyone else claiming your exact views? Additionally, I don’t think Hillel and Shammai would resort to “personal attack” accusations and tactics as you do. When they argued, they did so to bring out truth, and did not defend themselves with statements like “you are attacking me personally”. You must, as a Torah teacher, remain loyal to the subject matter, and not bring in personalities.
Rabbi X: Maimonides never mentions reincarnation as he never mentioned anything Kabbalistic. This should not be interpreted, as Maimonides holding any views contradictory to Kabbalah, for this is an unsubstantiated opinion, as the writings of Avraham Abulafia attest.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Your thinking is not intuitive: you feel that if someone never writes about a topic, it means he may even support it? Isn’t it safer to say that when someone does not write about a topic, it is because he does not recognize it? Your attempt to support your view with a non-existent text is irrational.
Rabbi X: As for Saadia Gaon’s clear denial of reincarnation. This is not to be denied, but rather understood. First of all, Saadia Gaon was a Kabbalist in his own right. We have available today many of his Kabbalistic writings, including a Goral. As leader of Bavli Judaism and as a citizen living in the Moslem world, his works were read far outside the Jewish community. Indeed, many were originally written in Arabic. Islam, like Christianity believes reincarnation to be an abomination. If Saadia Gaon, the leader of the Jews were to come out and publicly endorse a religious position held blasphemous by the majority and authorities, he would have endangered his life and the lives of all Jews. If I were in his position, I might also have concealed knowledge of this sacred material, especially since the Halakha of the time was to never publicly reveal Kabbalistic material.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: You have just called Saadia Gaon a liar. You have violated “Mak-chish Maggideha”, “denigrating the Torah’s teachers”, and you have opened the door for anyone to say that any Rabbi never meant what he wrote, in fact, that he meant the opposite. Additionally, you commit this crime merely to uphold your pristine image of your Rabbis, with no honest search for truth.
Your response is quite dangerous, that Saadia Gaon didn’t mean what he wrote about reincarnation. One can equally say the same about those who support reincarnation. Your reasoning is 1) contradictory, and 2) allows anyone to say that any Rav who wrote anything, didn’t mean it, and meant the opposite! How absurd. Equally dangerous is your view that “suicide bombers are victims.” That is inexcusable and against any moral system, and certainly the Torah.
“Yet, I must say that I have found certain people, who call themselves Jews, professing the doctrine of metempsychosis (reincarnation) which is designated by them as the theory of “transmigration” of souls. What the mean thereby is that the spirit of Ruben is transferred to Simon and afterwards to Levi and after that to Judah. Many of them would go so far as to assert that the spirit of a human being might enter into the body of a beast or that of a beast into the body of a human being, and other such nonsense and stupidities.”
“This in itself, however, indicates how very foolish they are. For they take it for granted that the body of a man is capable of transforming the essence of the soul so as to make of it a human soul, after having been the soul of a beast. They assume, furthermore, that the soul itself is capable of transforming the essence of a human body to the point of endowing it with the traits of the beasts, even though its form be that of men. It was not sufficient for them, then, that they attributed to the soul a variable nature by not assigning to it an intrinsic essence, but they contradicted themselves when they declared the soul capable of transforming and changing the body, and the body capable of transforming and changing the soul. But such reasoning is a deviation from logic.
The third [argument they present] is in the form of a logical argument. They same, namely: “Inasmuch as the Creator is just, it is inconceivable that he should occasion suffering to little children, unless it be for sins committed by their souls during the time that they were lodged in their former bodies.” This view is, however, subject to numerous refutations.
The first is that they have forgotten what we have mentioned on the subject of compensation in the hereafter for misfortunes experienced in this world. Furthermore we should like to ask them what they conceive the original status of the soul to be – we mean its status when it is first created. Is it charged by its Master with any obligation to obey Him or not? If they allege that it is not so charged, then there can be no punishments for it either, since it was not charged with any obligations to begin with. If, on the other hand, they acknowledge the imposition of such a charge, in which case obedience and disobedience did not apply before, they thereby admit that God charges His servants with obligations on account of the future and not at all on account of the past. But then they return to our theory and are forced to give up their insistence on the view that man’s suffering in this world is due solely to his conduct in a previous existence.”
Saadia Gaon’s logic is impeccable. He refers to reincarnation adherents as only “called Jews”: “I have found certain people, who call themselves Jews, professing the doctrine of metempsychosis.” He calls reincarnation “nonsense and stupidities.” He wishes to exclude them, not I, from the title “Jewish”. Saadia Gaon says the exact opposite of what you say.
Now, once Saadia Gaon demonstrates – using clear reason – that reincarnation is absolutely false, there are 3 possibilities for your claim that “Saadia Gaon agrees with reincarnation”: 1) you did not read Saadia Gaon and lied that you did, imputing things that Saadia Gaon never uttered, or 2) you cannot comprehend what he wrote and fabricated matters in his name, or 3) you understand that he denies reincarnation, but you claim the opposite to meet your selfish and misleading agenda. Either way, you have erred and sinned greatly; either you lied, fabricated, or intentionally mislead others.
How you can say Saadia Gaon meant the opposite – when he supports his refutation of reincarnation with reasons and proofs – is incomprehensible. If something is based on reason and is proven, then it is impossible that it is false, and it is foolish for you to claim that he meant the opposite. Your position exposes your subjective agenda, and the absence of honesty. If I prove to you that 2+2=4, you cannot claim I meant the opposite, for I have demonstrated a truth about reality. So too, with his reasoning, Saadia Gaon transforms his subjective opinion, into an objective display of how the world functions: it is no longer “his view”, but is now recognized as “absolute truth”. Similarly, once I prove 2+2=4, it is no longer correct to say this is “my subjective view”, but now, it must be said that this proven equation “reflects reality”. And to deny reality is as ludicrous as suggesting that this proof, means its opposite.
I conclude with a repetition of these thoughts: the life God demands of us is a life where truth is never compromised, but holds the highest status. We must admit error. We must not be loyal to reputations, certainly, when they are proven wrong, as both Maimonides and his son taught. We must speak out against falsehoods that continue to misguide Jews towards a falsified and manufactured Judaism, and not the Judaism God set before Moses. We must not feel that a title of “Rabbi” earns that Rabbi an error-free life, as King Solomon taught us.
Torah is only perceived by the humble, “Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”. (Proverbs 1:7) Torah demands honesty in judgment, “From a false matter distance yourself”. (Exod. 23:7)
Let us all abandon our defenses and strive for truth, for the sake of truth, and let our arguments continue to reveal both falsehoods and truths, as was the pure goal of the praiseworthy debates of Hillel and Shammai.