American Orthodoxy

Rationalism, Mysticism, and the “Off-the-Derekh” Phenomenon

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Gavi Kutliroff

There is a popular misconception that Modern Orthodox teenagers abandon halakhic observance because of a pubescent pattern of rebellion and disdain for authority and law. This is problematic for two reasons: One, it disrespects the intelligence of the people in question; two, it fails to address the apparently growing trend of disillusionment among this group and its actual causes. Instead of resorting to this available stereotype, let’s paint a picture. 

Yosef grew up frum-from-birth in a middle-of-the-road, Modern Orthodox neighborhood in a nameless American suburb. He has been under the impression, for the previous fifteen years of his life, that when the sun sets on Friday night, the world changes. The rules of nature are literally altered. Of course, he knows that if he flips on a light switch, he won’t be struck down with lightning; in fact, he knows no immediate consequences will occur at all. He may have complex beliefs about the long-term nature of reward and punishment, but he is not an unscientific or primitive person, and his Shabbat experience is not in contradiction to this. He just knows, in his heart, that Shabbat is different; once a week, the world is fundamentally distinguished from its regular state. Then, once, in an uncharacteristic and basically innocent moment of dissociation—maybe it’s a complete accident—he presses the home button on his iPhone. The screen blares. The light glows there hauntingly. He freezes for a moment—and nothing happens. Yosef knew, of course, that nothing would. But what he is surprised, and perhaps unnerved, to discover is that he feels exactly the same. He picks up his phone, fumbles it around in his hands, and feels quite identical to how he feels doing this on a Tuesday. Yosef has come to a profound and disturbing realization—the world that Halakhah describes is a figment of his imagination. An inquisitive, honest, and bright person, he cannot sincerely practice a religion that, he thinks, asserts a false model of reality. 

Yosef and countless Jewish teenagers like him have a common conception of Halakhah, as do a whole slew of other members of their community who might not ever test the legal boundaries of their tradition. They all regard Halakhah as a truth claim, a description of the way things really are. This truth claim does not, for most typical American Jewish young people, rely much, if at all, on mystical categories like hidden worlds, demonic consequences, or the drawing down of divine favor. More probably they think about Halakhah as a kind of picture of reality, or maybe a blueprint for an ideal civilization. Their conception is, in short, a rationalist one; it is mainly empirical, or at least assumed to be, and it tries to explain the world on its own terms. Kosher food is of a different essential nature than non-Kosher food, a siddur must not touch the ground, and to sleep through Shaharit is to disturb the fabric of the universe, and all this without resorting to planes of experience other than the observable. In this worldview, none of these facts are particularly “Jewish”; they are simply true, and Judaism is taken to be a description of that truth. When that description fails upon experimentation, people like Yosef are prompted to abandon it. Apologetic answers by his teachers referring to secret processes occurring in heaven or, on the other hand, the moral superiority of the halakhic system, will not satisfy Yosef, who has no interest in the unseen, and who knows that plenty of other societies around the world function perfectly well without Halakhah; anyways, he doesn’t want to be part of a system that regards those people in such a way. When it comes down to it, he can no longer follow Halakhah because in his mind, Halakhah is supposed to be true.

To delve further into this line of thinking and the problems it entails, we will develop the categories of rationalism and mysticism in the history of Jewish thought. Although it is a fanciful exaggeration to say that these two models have been defined exclusively by their conflict—they evolved out of each other, and some of the most seminal Jewish thinkers, especially in the past century, made their mark by integrating the two—it is definitely the case that they represent two different religious modes of thinking about the world. The interaction between these two modes has characterized Jewish history since the inception of Rabbinic Judaism—just after the height of Greco-Roman philosophy, which set the stage for both movements’ attitudes through the ancient dialogues of Plato and Aristotle and their later permutations—and in the past thousand years developed a particularly strong character. The conversation around producing a subtle and accurate definition of these terms has been exhausted already by countless experts (see virtually the entire scholarship of Gershom Scholem and Moshe Halbertal), but here I want to offer a new and, admittedly, more creative interpretation: Rationalism is the attempt to explain things on behalf of themselves, and mysticism is the attempt to explain things on behalf of a culture

Rationalism is primarily interested in offering an explanation of our surroundings in a scientific way, attempting to get to the essence of things as we observe them. It is typically interested in causal explanations, and will bow to the will of empiricism, which it might consider part of its own methodology. For the rationalist, the simplest and most “sensible” explanation tends to be best. In short, rationalism is the search for truth, in its most self-evident meaning. Even the notion of revealed truth, that which is true by dint of God communicating it, which can run counter to the logic of the world as we experience it, is assimilated into the realm of the scientific: since truth is identified with the divine, whatever God says is self-evidently true. Maimonides represents the most prominent exponent of this way of thinking, but other medieval formulations of rationalist Judaism can be found in the works of Saadiah Gaon, Hasdai Crescas, Gersonides, and Joseph Albo, as well as dozens of others who consider themselves students of their schools.

Mysticism, on the other hand, has never cared much for the truth; at least, not the kind of truth rationalism seeks. The truth of mysticism is not the truth of objects as they are, but the truth of the world as it impresses itself upon the human soul, or, more specifically, the soul of a culture. The mystics have never had high regard for empirical proofs for or against God, the validity of Halakhah, or any other religious category; for them, science is variously seen as a parallel language that has no bearing on the religious conversation (a view best seen in the contemporary work of R. Shagar), a stultifying corruption of the religious impulse (a view most strongly expressed in the work of R. Nahman of Bratslav, who names specifically Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim as a dangerous text), or as having its purpose, but being subservient to that of mysticism (a view epitomized by the statement of Moses of Burgos, quoted by Isaac of Acre, that “the philosophers whom you praise… the place of their heads is the place of our feet”). The mystics are by no means interested in the simplest explanation; instead, they are attracted to grand, mythical depictions of the cosmos and its dramas.

To be sure, the mystics of course believe in the factuality of the world they describe, in the same way any culture believes in its own mythology. But the mystic takes a different avenue to his truth from the rationalist; rather than empiricism or philosophy, the mystic uses especially the tool of experience and personal vision, tools which have long frightened orthodox institutions precisely because they don’t fit neatly into the world as we observe it or into the compartments of cool, objective logic. Not only that, but the literality of a system—its capacity to reflect literal truth—has, frankly, always been a boring question to the mystics. Kabbalists refer to themselves as masters of sod, the secret, the hidden patterns that comprise life, and they stray away from peshat, the description of the world as it appears to the human eye. The project of defining the world according to a colloquial concept of truth is simply not an interesting one to them.

The longstanding rationalist opposition to mysticism—which existed to an extent in the past millennium, and became especially pronounced in the modern period in the wake of the Enlightenment—is based on exactly the kind of thinking that left Yosef in the religious lurch. A naive criticism of mysticism points out the apparent ridiculousness of a mythology when studied from the perspective of the literal—obviously, says the rationalist, Zeus does not throw down lightning bolts, the Amazon did not descend from a serpent, and God’s feminine aspect was not exiled from her castle. This classic critique fails to understand that the goal of the mystic is not truth in the same sense as rational truth. What drives the Jewish mystic to explain the world is not a belief that this explanation approaches the “scientific” nature of things, but the desire to create a unique depiction of the world that is distinctly Jewish. Even as it draws its influence from Greek, Christian, and Muslim thought, the God of Kabbalah is definitively a Jewish God, and the universe Kabbalah describes is rich, mythical, and full of color wholly unlike the worlds painted by other cultures. And not only is the creativity of Kabbalah deeply imaginative, but it also bears the hallmark of the uniquely Jewish imagination. Imagination and identity are tied up with each other. This is characteristic of the mystical gesture in all religious thinking—the mystic wants to construct not a truth claim, but a narrative, a story characterized by its highly personal nature, with which the identity of the storyteller is intimately tied up.

This fact—the mystical tendency to construct a model based on identity and storytelling rather than empirical truth—leads to an interesting explanation of a major discrepancy between American Modern Orthodoxy and its Israeli counterpart, Datiut-Leumiut or Religious Zionism. The latter draws its philosophy from two streams: Zionist thought and the thought of its religious founders. Zionism was by definition a movement dealing in questions of Jewish identity. It was not interested in the way things “really are,” but in defining the nature of a Jew, partially by assembling this character from history but also by building it from the ground up. As for its early religious founders, most notably R. Abraham Isaac Kook but also his son Zvi Yehuda and pupil David Cohen, they were entrenched in the worlds of Kabbalah and Hasidism. Their thought was largely able to gain traction precisely because their mystical worldviews accorded with the popular Zionist gravitation toward questions of identity and narrative rather than questions of rational truth. To be sure, all of these thinkers drew a strong influence from rationalist texts as well, but their approach toward these works is marked with a clear mystical tendency to draw from them a uniquely Jewish character, rather than to pontificate about the nature of the world as such. Such an approach can be seen in David Cohen’s magnum opus Kol Ha-Nevuah, in which he identifies a common, emergent Jewish ethic in both Jewish philosophical and Kabbalistic works and their histories.

As for American Modern Orthodoxy, while questions of identity certainly played a role in its formation as much as they do in any culture, they were not nearly answered as purposefully and carefully as those asked by the Israeli Zionists. Instead, the mid-20th century movement inculcated contemporaneous American attitudes of rationalism: R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik based much of his philosophy on neo-Kantianism, drawing from the same wellspring of Western philosophy that helped push its civilization toward secularism. The Rav, of course, utilized this kind of philosophy specifically to construct a religious Jewish identity, but a clear tilt from the explicit and esoteric mysticism so prevalent in religious Israeli writings of the same period can be detected in his works, as well as other major figures associated with Yeshiva University, such as R. Bernard Revel and R. Norman Lamm.

But the truth is that even R. Soloveitchik’s philosophy displayed distinct mystical tendencies, and one of his most popular philosophical works, Halakhic Man, attempts a depiction of the idealized Jewish figure in a manner quite similar to Hasidic texts. Much of this philosophy draws from the halakhic worldview of the Brisk dynasty, whose progenitor (and namesake of Soloveitchik) Yosef Dov Ha-Levi, or Beit HaLevi, draws often from the Zohar as a source for the idea of Halakhah as a unified, abstracted body. The Rav himself had a strong affinity for Tanya, the foundational text of Chabad. His son-in-law, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, notable in his attempt to virtually wring Torah dry of any kabbalistic inclination, wrote his dissertation on the 17th century philosopher Henry More, who was influenced by Kabbalah in its Christian incarnation. And despite his supreme regard for the intellect, Lichtenstein regarded his own faith as a matter of surrender, beyond analysis and interrogation. None of these facts are, of course, mentioned by the teachers in Yosef’s high school, whose arguments for Jewish identity tend to be limited in sophistication to appeals to tradition and the miracle of Jewish survival, neither of which Yosef actually identifies with as an individual.

The argument for the primacy of one movement over the other is not the point; on the contrary, as noted, foundational Jewish thinkers of the modern period have attempted to unite rationalist and mystical streams in Torah. Unique to the Jewish tradition, many great theologians have also been great legal scholars—the best thinkers have seen the two schools as complementary. What matters is that the brand of Jewish rationalism taught in the American Day School system, in which the model is taken to an absurd extreme, is outdated both in its effectiveness in keeping people observant and in its comparison with the direction of current thought more broadly. The world’s thinking people, and especially young adults, do not engage much anymore in questions of “the way things are” or “the way things should be,” but in questions of identity, in questions of where I belong, and how a pluralistic society can be built in which every member is her best self. We should consider it a tremendous and mournful loss that the answer “Because you’re Jewish” to the question of why a fifteen year old should keep Halakhah is seen as condescending, restricting, and insufficient; if an answer phrased in terms of identity and narrative is any of these things, we have wrongly conveyed the sense of Torah.

While a technical increase in the education of Jewish mystical ideas is certainly lacking, teaching more Likkutei Moharan in high school is not necessarily the answer to the “off-the-derekh” phenomenon—although a curriculum based around a thinker who dealt with precisely the same questions of faith that maturing religious minds do would be a welcome addition. A qualitative shift is more important, whereby we can move past our intellectual insecurity, our fear of the mysterious and that which eludes proof, and incorporate the realm of myth, storytelling, and personal narrative into Jewish education. Latent questions of identity in Modern Orthodoxy, rather than those of halakhic truth, should be brought to the fore and discussed openly. In no way does this shift have to come at the expense of rationalism, as Dati-Leumi thinkers already demonstrated a century ago. But if Yosef regarded Shabbat as a facet of his own identity rather than as a description of an empirical reality, his willingness to abandon it might find itself up against the barrier of culture. The pluralism of the modern age is enriching, and not threatening, so long as the narratives of every party are understood by those parties to be extensions of culture and not depictions of reality. This sense of culture so fundamental to the character of mysticism is conspicuously absent from Modern Orthodox discourse. 

Educating Jewishness would additionally cultivate in teenagers a strong humility, so that they would not feel threatened by the narratives (rather than the truth claims) of other cultures; it would work to diminish the discomfort in the right-wing Modern Orthodox world with “secular college,” where competing depictions of reality could draw Yosef away from his roots. As long as those roots are justified by the fact of their Jewishness, and not their empirical accuracy, there need not be an anxiety of learning about the roots of non-Jewish peers. 

The conversation of faith, mysticism, and identity needs to stop being taboo in Modern Orthodox circles, both because this taboo is wrong and because it is damaging to our own enterprise. I suspect the resistance to broach these topics in the public sphere of Jewish education is due to a private insecurity on the part of the educators as to their own faith and identity; the easiest way to avoid dealing with a question in oneself is to suppress it in one’s peers and students. Since the way a culture educates its youth is a reflection of its own values, raising the level of discourse in our schools regarding these topics is a crucial step in returning our own faith to God. If Yosef were exposed to the sense of Jewishness at the core of our mystical tradition, he would rise to the challenge of modernity as a proud and humble Jew, prepared to face the world of truth outside and the altogether different world within himself and his tradition.

Gavi Kutliroff is a recent graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied East Asian Studies and Psychology. Originally from the northwest Chicago suburbs, he currently lives in Jerusalem, where he is a madrikh at Yeshivat Orayta. Gavi looks forward to a future in Israeli academia comparing Chinese and Jewish thought. He is also a musician and has a strong affinity for aquariums.