An Aspiring Mekubal-An Interview Part II

Continued from An Interview Part I- here
Now is your chance to ask questions on Tanya, science, magic, and kavvanot, but still within the frame of reference of his Lurianic tradition.

First, here are some gleanings from his blog. Here is a great story of his early meetings with Rav Kaduri.

[F]or the second time, I went to meet with Rav Kaduri. I had initially seen him when I was there on a Birthright trip, this time I went to his Yeshiva by myself to seek his blessing in my upcoming exams. When he found out that I was staying in a hotel, he insisted that I move into one of the apartments at the Yeshiva. It turned out that I didn’t get a lot of touring done on that trip, aside from one Shabbat away, and the days I took my exams, I pretty much stayed at his Yeshiva and learned, some with him, some on my own.

One day as I was learning Tanya from my copy of Chitas the Rav came over and stood by my shtender, just staring over my shoulder. After a short while, I realized he wanted to say something to me. I asked him if there was something he wanted or needed. He asked me what I was studying and so I told him. Then he said, “There are some errors in the sefer, if you want I will fix them(make a tikun sofrim) for you.” I knew there were possible errors in Tanya, after all the Alter Rebbe(or is it one of his sons) says as much in his own introduction. So I responded that I would be thrilled if he would correct the sefer for me. How often do you get the chance to have the greatest living Mekubal fix the errors in a Kabbalah sefer for you? He asked me several times if I were sure that I wanted him to fix it, and I continued to respond that I was.
He took the sefer and walked off. A half hour later he returned with it, handed it to me, and said, that it was now Kosher. It felt a bit light. As it turns out he sliced out entirely the Tanya and the Sihot of the Rebbe.

His image of a kabbalist as an ordinary individual is important for understanding his aspirations:

It never ceases to amaze me that on any given day you may walk right past some of the greatest living mekubalim in the street, or be standing next to them in the shuk, and unless you knew who they were you would never know it. When the Eipha Shleima(a major mekubal of past generations) first came to Eretz Yisrael to learn in Yeshivat Beit E-l, he had to hunt down the Rosh Yeshiva, at the time R’ Eliyahu Mani. He found him in the shuk, carrying his shopping home to his wife. He was amazed that a Rav of such stature should be dressed so plainly and doing such a menial task.

As a follower of the Rashash tradtion of the Ari, our aspiring Mekubal rejects the panentheism of Chabad, similar to the critique of the Vilna Gaon of Hasidism.

The Ben Ish Hai, Rav M. Sharabi, Rav Kaduri, Rav Darzi, Rav Attias, Rav Hedayya, Rav Shalom Shmueli and Rav Tzion Berakha all consider the Tanya to contradict the Eitz Haim.
The Arizal goes to great lengths to state that there is no connection between the Ein Sof and the created order. Nor is there any connection between the Or Ein Sof and the created order, rather only a “reshimu”(Eitz Haim Sha’ar 1:4). According to the Rashash(found on 14b of the Eitz Haim) states that even that “reshimu” known as the Kav Or Ein Sof, only extends to the world of Atzilut.
His grandson the Divrei Shalom(24d), and his chief student the Torat Hakham(72b) go on to explain all of this at length as to why even this reflection of the radiance of the Ein Sof, cannot descend below the realm of absolute spirituality. See also the Shemen Sasson’s commentary on Eitz Haim.
Kabbalists saw a great difference and separation between the One G-d, and the created order, so that even the means by which He interacts with the world is only through a hyper-spiritual created order that acts as a bridge of sorts between himself and his creation.
Regarding whether it is my derekh to search things out in Chassidic seforim, my answer to that is no. A qualified no, in that Rav M. Sharabi, Rav Hedayya and Rav Kaduri instructed their students not to study Chassidic works for various reasons. My first Rav in Kabbalah was Rav Kaduri, since then I have come to learn in Nahar Shalom(Rav Sharabi’s yeshiva) so in following in the instruction of my own Rabbanim, no I don’t open Chassidic seforim.

1) Isn’t believing that visualizations or kavvanot will cure people a form of anti-scientific superstition or a form of magic?

First and absolutely most importantly, this is all based in faith in HaShem. The Baba Sali used to say, that anyone with simple faith could perform the miracles that he did. Visualizations/Kavvanot of say a Pidyon Nefesh are complicated. In a simplistic sense, as much as they may or not be doing something in upper worlds, they are providing a very real crutch for a person’s faith. People used to come to Rav Kaduri for all kinds of things, and 9 times out of ten, yes he would pray for them, but he would tell them to drink Rosemary tea. I asked him once why he told everyone to drink Rosemary tea, the way he prescribed it, you would have thought that it was a cure all. He said, “Because if I told them simply to pray to a HaShem, they wouldn’t have faith, but they boil some rosemary in some water and drink it, they will think HaShem will answer them, and besides it’s good for the digestion.”

Kabbalah definitely teaches that these visualizations do barely comprehensible things in the upper worlds. The truth is you can do all the visualizations you like, without simple faith in HaShem, none of it will work. Is faith in HaShem superstition? My own faith bids me say of course not. However, as it is faith, I have no way of proving that assertion either.

2) What makes Rav Kaduri more real and less magic than many of the wonder workers out there who earned millions of dollars?

Rav Kaduri never took money for miracles. There were no miracles for a price by him. That may seem like a small thing, but it is a bond of trust between a Rav and a supplicant. I’ve seen chilonim, rationalists and chareidim, and everything in between come to visit Kabbalists in their time of utmost need. People are incredibly vulnerable then, and thus easily taken advantage of. I remember once a parent coming to Rav Kaduri, completely distraught, their child had been diagnosed with a horrible disease. Even before they had finished telling the Rav their tale of woe, they already had the check book out. Rav Kaduri held up his hands and said that he would not take their money, he couldn’t guarantee anything other than a sympathetic ear and some prayers and he could not charge for either. Whether that is more or less real… again that is a matter of faith. However, I feel it is more honest.

Kameaot are tricky things. A Kamea is, according to Kabbalah, a spiritual tool. It affects spiritual things. Thus in the very very narrow scope of things that we are allowed to write Kameaot for, and it is rather narrow, there are some prerequisites. First the person who is going to get the Kamea has to be completely shomer mitzvot. Second they have to have searched their own deeds to see if there is something there that can be causing whatever problem they want to remedy. Finally if we can determine that the problem has to be spiritual, then one may make use of a kamea. Then you need someone who will write a kamea, a true kamea, for you. Depending on the Kamea, it can require any number of added measures of prishut by the writer in order to attain the necessary holiness to write it. Generally speaking the writer will have to fast day and night from food and water and wear sackcloth upon his body the entire time. Then on the third day recite the viduy hagadol, and then write the kamea with all sorts of special prayers and things. Finally it has to be done entirely for the sake of seeing the person’s problem remedied and without any expectation of gain. So I say you have to be emotionally close to a person to do that, because that is the only way that you will fulffill all the stipulations.

If a person is charging you money for a Kamea, they are most likely a fraud. Most of what get passed off as Kameaot these days are worthless than the lucky charms found in the children’s cereal by the same name. At the least the latter are edible (and kosher the last I checked) and thus have some questionable nutritional value.

3) Isn’t the practice of kavvanot just an imaginary game like dungeons and dragons?

You know I used to be a dungeons and dragons fan when I was a teen… Anyway, the answer to that question is really a matter of emunah hakhamim. If you don’t believe the many many Rabbanim who said that the Kabbalah of the Ari was true, then I guess you could say that. If you trust in our mesorah on the other hand then you would have to say no, they are very real.

4) When you visualize shemot, is there an psychological difference between shemot and imagining anything else?

Yes definitely. The pure reverence that Jews afford the various holy names gives them an inherent subconscious value. If I were to say Chesed, that is just a word to you, even if it is also a sefira. However, if I symbolize that word Chesed with a holy name(or even several as the case is in the Kavvanot) now suddenly it has gone from the profane to the sacred, by merit of those holy names alone. Show a Kabbalistic siddur to someone who knows nothing about Kabbalah and they will look on in awe, and sometimes fear, because of all the holy names.

5) Should beginners use the kavvanah for the mikvah in the name of the Besht and Ari translated by Kaplan?

First let me say that you are touching on a rather basic machloket between various schools of mekubalim as to whether or not someone should use the various kavvanot before they understand them completely(if that is even possible). My own teachers have said yes, that they should.

As far as the Yichud of the Ari that Kaplan brings, it depends on which one you are talking about. The one he brings for the mikvah, is only for Erev Shabbat, and thus it is lacking half of the Yichud/Kavvanah which is the part that we do every day. It is written in the Kitvei, Shaar HaKavvanot Drush Erev Shabbat, that the kavvanot for the mikvah erev shabbat must follow the normal weekday kavvanot found in Shaar Ruah Hakodesh 9d, yihud 12.

As far as the next ten Yichudim that he brings, those were initially brought by Rav Dweck in his siddur to be performed every morning to purify the soul. I see no harm in doing them. The Yichud that is brought from the Besht, that seems to be more of a specific use Yichud to raise one’s prayers. In that sense it is a beautiful Yichud, and thus should probably be used accordingly. Meaning either after morning tefilot, or if one rises early to make private personal supplications before going to minyan, as part of that ritual.
(site editor- be sure to check Kaplan against the Hebrew, there are many typos in his kavvanot.)

6) When you visualize the kavvnaot, they are in the foreground of your mind, what is in the background?

When praying with the Kavvanot of the Rashash there are essentially three things that we are concentrating on. (1)The simple meaning of the word. (2)The various holy names and what they represent. (3) And the interaction that is caused or taking place by our saying these words and visualizing these names. Ideally, no other thought would enter your mind. Hence it is contemplative prayer par excellence.

7) On your blog you wrote: The Nefesh HaHayyim explains that since man contains within himself the energies of all the created beings, he has the capacity to draw Divine bounty down to them all by saying Perek Shirah (Nefesh HaHayyim, (1:11). What do you answer to someone who would consider that superstition and magic?

For that I would have to ask then what is the purpose of man? Why did HaShem in that view create man? I know it is a bit of a logical fallacy, but in a way the automatic rejection of anything metaphysical is a slippery slope, as HaShem is purely metaphysical. HaShem put Adam HaRishon in the garden in order to tend it. The Rabbis further tell us that it did not rain because Adam HaRishon had not prayed. Now the question naturally becomes whether that was physical rain or describing a metaphysical reality. Most Kabbalists look at it as a metaphysical reality. Not just through Perek Shira, but through all mitzvah observance. Perek Shirah is simply one example of that.
As far as it being against science, I am not sure how you can actually say that. Especially given that there is so much that science doesn’t know. I find it curious that there are people who will in the name of science make very broad and strong declarations about what simply cannot be, when science itself is relatively silent on the issue, and there is so much that science simply does not know about even its most basic laws.
So to say something is against science simply because science has yet to find a way to measure and quantify it, seems to me to be against science. Take for instance the atomic bomb. If you were to tell people even just two hundred years ago, that if you collided two marble sized rocks, even to very special and specific types of rock, together at sufficient speed you could create an explosion that would level an entire city, people would have told you it was magic, superstition, even nonsense.

8) What are the top 3-5 English books not in Kabblah that have left an impression on you?
Uh oh another of those questions that could seriously affect my children’s shidduch and schooling prospects.
Les Miserables, Don Quioxte, The Count of Monte Cristo, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Grapes of Wrath.

8 responses to “An Aspiring Mekubal-An Interview Part II

  1. Dear rabbi brill,
    I was quite shocked by some of your questions.Kavvanot when all is said and done are intentions in prayer just like yours.Do you believe prayer is imaginary anti scientific superstition?why are his intentions imaginary and yours somehow real?If drawing down divine bounty and connecting up to g-d is superstition and magic what do you actually believe you are doing when you do mitzvot?Is it some social convention like eating with a fork and knife?If there is no metaphysical consequence what is it worth?
    May it be pointed out that Rav nachman fiercely apposed using Kavvanot if you are not on a high spiritual level on which you are aware that you are able to use them.He likened such a dilitant to a sorcerer who not only doesn’t bring down more spiritual influx but actually destroys the spiritual process.

    • shaya,
      calm down. I dont question them. I advocate them, that is why I asked him about the kavvanot in Kaplan for ordinary people. But many in my small corner of the Centrist Orthodox world make a sharp distinction between prayer as they do it and prayer as others do it. They also distinguish between the halakhah as objective and kabbalah which they see as made up. It was to “know what to answer the doubter.”

    • Shaya,
      Really please calm down. I understood going into this that the questions were “devil’s advocate” in order to answer those who may have those questions. That is the job of a good interviewer.
      As far as what you claim Rebbe Nachman opposed, I suggest you discuss it with Rav Elazar Mordechai Koenig, who is a rather important Breslov Rav, a student of Rav M. Sharabi and a Mekaven. Or with Rav Morgenshtern. Or with any of the various Braslaver Chassidim that learn in the various Kabbalistic Yeshivot. They all seem to think the Rebbe Nachman was fine with using kavvanot.

  2. this interview inspired me to follow also R. Michael’s blog. thanks for posting this, definitely חומר למחשבה

  3. Lucky Charms are kosher now???

  4. Perhaps you would consider an interview with Rav Yehudah Alfasi, (my husband) founder and Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat haMekubalim Kol Yehudah v’Eliyahu (Tzfat, and now in Tiberias) who specializes in teaching the kavanot of Rabbeinu Rashash and the Arizal? I have posted something he’s written on our website’s blog, in Hebrew, if you’d be interested.

    • Nice interview.

      I would like to know how do you view the usage of the Abulafian techniques and the hashbaos malachim and shedim. Have you done it ?
      Rebbi Chaim brings it…so it seems to have an ok from him. Why it is not taught/practiced in the yeshivot and most of the kabbalistic roshei yeshivot frown upon it?

  5. Dear Michael,
    Rav Nachman was Fine with Kavvanot.In a quotation I can’t find right now he writes that he was on a level that his Kavvanot were always changing because of his progress.So I believe that he used them.The question in likutey tanina 120 is about everyone using them let alone someone who doesn’t understand them.In this source Rav Nachman opposes these options.

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