Letters June 2009

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Chassidus & Human Deification

Reader: I just finished reading your article on Chassidim. First let me say that I agree fully with your comments on the originations of Chassidus, the Besht and the importance of not embracing such a movement. I also find such calls of tolerance very dangerous and think they are partially what Avtaliyon was warning of in Pirkei Avos ("Chachamim HizHaru..."). I have a few thoughts and issues: 

1) Putting aside the argument of if magic exists or not, these "miracles" that people claim various Rabbis have performed sound like they would be the textbook case of magic. In theory they are breaking the laws of physics by pure will, not by asking Hashem to do it for them, and therefore would be prohibited. Of course a more in depth discussion would be needed into exactly what magic is. 

2) The possibility of someone having an "ability" Moshe and others did not. You wrote in the article "Against Chassidic opinion, the Besht could not read minds. Moshe didn't read minds, so to say the Besht did, actually denies the stature the Torah speaks of in regards to Moshe, and makes Moshe less than the Besht. Another impossibility." 

And in one of your Q&As you wrote, "In fact it is impossible that workings of the mind have any effect on physical objects or events."

We know for sure the mind can indeed have an effect on physical reality, such as the mind over body effect of placebos. Scientists even think they can generate thought by mixing chemicals in the brain they observe when a person has a thought, an idea I think they have backwards and that it is actually the thought causing the chemical reaction. Even a person's emotions can have an affect on another person close by, without any physical contact. The connection between the mind and physical world exists. That being said, on a purely hypothetical level, it would possible within the constraints of our physical reality for one's mind to use this same interface to affect the physical world beyond the body. All it would take is the body's ability to translate the minds commands. More specifically when you wrote it would show a lacking in Moshe if the Besht did have the ability to read minds, you are making a connection between that ability and Moshe's greatness that I don't think is necessary. We don't have any proof of Moshe being able to do a headstand, but I can. Also we know Moshe had a lisp, but I don't. These do not mean I am better than Moshe, just that I have a physical ability that he may not have had. It didn't impede his perfection in any way. If it is possible to read minds it would just be another physical ability, but would have nothing to do with Moshe's perfection, his connection to Hashem, or his intellect. 

Rabbi:  Thank you for writing. I wish to make 2 comments: 

1) One's mind cannot affect anything outside his own body. I agree: our mind does affect our body, such as stress causing stomach cramps. This is because a physical connection exists between the mind/brain link, and the following brain/body link. But the mind's affects stop there. Mind reading does not occur as no physical link exists between my mind, and anyone else. 

2) When I suggest that Moshe was greater than all others, I do not refer to head stands, but to the sphere of intelligence and prophecy. Mind reading – if it were true – would fall into one of these. Moshe 

Reader: Referring to your numbers 1 and 2 above, I ask the following:

1) If we know there is a point where mind and physical reality meet, why assume it's impossible for the mind to affect reality 'outside' the body? Is there any logic to back up the assumption? I'm not saying that it does occur, but that there is no inherent reason it couldn't.   

2) Why would the ability to hear someone's thoughts be any more of an intelligence or prophecy issue than communicating without a lisp? In theory, we're not talking reading Hashem's mind, and it wouldn't affect His intelligence.  

Rabbi: The "logic" you request that rejects the theory that one's mind – a metaphysical phenomenon – affects the physical world, is called "nature". Natural law rejects your assumption. When no proof exists for any assumption – like this one – we do not say it is possible. We say it is not a truism. Once a law is witnessed, "only then" do we say it is so. 

Reader: Why would the ability to hear someone's thoughts be any more of an 'intelligence' or 'prophecy' issue, than communicating without a lisp?  

Rabbi: Since it is impossible to read minds based on my first answer above, the only method to learn someone else's thoughts is prophecy – i.e., not a natural attainment of knowledge, but a divine means. This approach is actually used by Rabbi Eliezer (Tal. Megilla 7a) to demonstrate the Megilla is prophetic. The Megilla's verse "And Haman said in his heart" could not be known to Mordechai without prophecy. That is, the Talmud admits that Mordechai who authored the Megilla, could not know know Haman's thoughts without prophecy. 

Chassidic Garb

Reader: If the Jews were distinct in their clothing, names and language in Egypt in order to preserve their identity in a foreign land, wouldn't that justify the dress of the chassid, since those outside of Israel are in foreign lands, and, moreover, in a state of exile?

Rabbi: The Jew today in almost any land is not under attack or forced into slavery to an idolatrous people, as was so in Egypt. Our enemies are of national opposition, not so much of religious opposition. Nor are we coerced into alien religious doctrine and practice as was so during Channukah.  Thus, when no opposition is present, there is no need to "shield" one's self...for there exists nothing from which to shield ourselves. So in New York City today, the Jew need not dress different than anyone else. Based on this, the chassid has no grounds to differentiate himself from others. 

But is the chassid 'wrong' to dress as he does? If he dresses as he does out of personal preference, he is free to do so. But we can immediately discount this as true, for a "personal" preference is not something that permeates all members of a group. "Group" phenomena indicate ideologies are the cause. And if the chassidic dress is a religious phenomenon, it violates Torah, for one feels he is fulfilling some Torah value in such dress, whereas Torah never says this. Torah law prohibits the alteration of itself (adding/subtracting), and Torah says the only types of dress that are prohibited, are forms of dress used in idolatrous practice, immodest dress, or cross-dressing. Nothing else. This means that the Pope's garments or those of a cardinal or priest are prohibited, as are short skirts, or women wearing men's clothes and vice versa.  But if the Pope wore t-shirts or blue jeans while playing golf, such garments are not prohibited since he is not wearing them for "religious" reasons and we are in violtion of Torah to suggest they are prohibited.

The question is: is the chassid seeking to dress different than the other nations...or other Jews?  We have shown that no basis exists to dress different than other nations, unless they dress that way for religious reasons. So, is there a basis to dress differently than other Jews? Radak on Tzafania 1:8 actually prohibits this and calls it "evil". And this makes perfect sense, for dress cannot improve one's soul, and differentiating one's self from other Jews is purely egotistical...and the Torah says we are to be humble. (Micha 6:8) Furthermore, wearing completely black suits may even violate dressing like a priest.

The Jew represents God. He must dress with respect for God, and "respectable" dress is defined by the time and place in which one lives. Looking like an outcast, or odd, does not honor God and His Torah.  Chassidim should keep their beards well-kept, and wear suits and ties. Deuteronomy 16:22 prohibits the erecting of monuments. Rashi says that although the patriarchs erected monuments, however, once idolatrous peoples did so for religious reasons, monuments then became prohibited and "hated" by God as that verse says. Similarly, chassidic garb may have been the forerunner, but now that the Amish and priests wear black and white as ideological expression and even religious practice, it make sense that chassidim should not copy them.

No Truth in Popularity or Reputation

(A gentile reader asked that I comment on e-mails she has received from a "Writer")

Writer: I am sorry but I must protest. You simply cannot say that so many religious Jews, rabbis included, are doing something that the Torah forbids. It is arrogant for you to assume that you know better than so many great rabbis. Now, I offer a caveat: I personally do not endorse the wearing of red bracelets, or lucky charms such as the hamsa (hands) or eyes. I would not allow my children to wear them as I believe that they were introduced from alien sources. By the same token, I cut my son's hair before he turned three because I believe that the custom some have to not cut a boy's hair until he is three also comes from outside sources (and the explanations offered are post facto.) BUT, I would never accuse those who follow these practices as doing something sinful. Far too many great rabbis have endorsed these practices so it is not for me to say they were all mistaken. 

Rabbi: Tosefta Shabbos (chap 7) says red bendels ARE sinful and are referred to as "Darkay Emori", heathen practices which the Torah commands we do not commit. Rabbinic endorsements do NOT make these practices permitted. Your fear of calling a Rabbi wrong is causing you to err. The truth is that man errs and many men can err – Rabbi or not. 

Writer: If the Ari and the Ramban, amongst many others, subscribed to a belief in reincarnation, it is mindbogglingly out of line for you to say their belief is not a part of Judaism. As I have said before, this belief is not required and those who do not believe in reincarnation are no less spiritual and observant than those who do believe in reincarnation. For some reason, you seem determined to do all you can to eradicate this belief and I must stand up to defend the honor of the great and saintly rabbis against your attack.

Rabbi: And Saadia Gaon said reincarnation is foolish. Thus, both opinions cannot be correct.  What can we do when faced with two reputable Rabbis who dispute each other? We can no longer abide by the method of "respecting a reputation". This would force a contradiction. In fact, we must NEVER following reputation, but instead, we must follow what makes sense to our minds. And since in the arena of philosophy (hashkafa) there is not such thing as Psak, (ruling) each person is left to decide for him and herself.

We arrive at truth in only one manner, and this is how it has been since the beginning of humanity: our mind says so. No Rabbi or number of people can convince me it is day, when it is night.