Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Difference Between A Mekubal and a Researcher

The title of this post could equally be called the difference between a Yeshiva Rabbi and a Talmud Researcher

I The Mekubal

I would say (at least one of) the major cornerstone of traditional Orthodox "scholarship"whether it be in the study of the Bible, the Talmud or Kabbalah is the concept of a Mesora. The idea of a Mesora in this context is as follows: People who write things down are (usually) not expressing their own views but rather are merely penning a timeless tradition which ultimately stems from Sinai. This idea is called in the Talmud the Torah She B'al Peh. While there are obvious problems with taking this approach to it's extreme, and I doubt even the most extreme Chareidim accept this completely, it nevertheless has a huge affect on how Jewish texts were/are learned traditionally.

Take for example the Arizal (15th century Kabbalist of Tzfat who first expressed what is called "Lurianic Kabbalah") Reasons the traditional scholar, "The Arizal did not make up his philosophy from nowhere it MUST be based on a tradition." (Or perhaps in the case of the Arizal a visit from Eliyahu Hanavi) If this is true then we can explain and understand things from before the 15th century with the aid of the Arizal's teachings.... because of the Arizal we know that when the Gemara says such and such it means ABC and D and when the Zohar says such and such it means EFG and H . The thing about a mesora is that all the "gedolim" between Moshe and Arizal should know about it. Therefore it is utterly sensible to interpret things from the 13th century according to doctrines only written down in the 15th century. Because before these things were written down they were surely known word of mouth as oral traditions....

II The Researcher

The researcher follows this approach: One looks at every text independently AND contextually. That is to say that the way the Arizal interpreted the Zohar is not necessarily how other people interpreted it in the past, and is perhaps not how the author of the Zohar intended. Similarly the way the Talmud interprets a verse is not necessarily how the Mishna interprets a verse or what the verse was intended to mean in the first place. The researcher essentially ignores or disregards the possibility of oral traditions. Additionally there is the concept of context. The researcher instead of seeing the message of a given work as something timeless sees it as a something influenced by the circumstances, surroundings and influences of the author. So the Zohar is best understood in it's Spanish context and the Talmud Bavli in it's Babylonian context etc.

To understand the Zohar based on the Arizal or the Mishna based on the Talmud can sometimes be  anachronistic... Sometimes the Talmud is mechaven to what we would call the original intent of the Mishna at other times the Talmud's interpretation of the Mishna reflects the world and ideas of the Talmud more than those of the Mishna....


Ruth Alfasi said...

BS"D Thank you so much for this post - it is an excellent way of describing the differences in the ways of learning Kabbalah as opposed to Talmud, etc. My husband, haRav haMekubal Yehudah Alfasi often faces the challenge of explaining to talmidim and others that the very means you describe (researcher) for learning  Talmud are wholely inappropriate for the "kosher' learning of Kabbalah. As such, this is the very reason why so many are misled into learning kabbalah online or in other avenues that haven't received the original mesorah, but rather base their learnings on writings and personal interpretation. True mekubalim work very hard - memorize, for one - and are constantly pressed to resist the temptation to reinterpret, etc. And that's not the sort of learning many originally drawn to the mystique of Kabbalah can maintain for long - one might describe it as tedious, but invigorating. 
Thanks for the great post, i may link to it on our blog/website.

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