With Tolerance, Respect, and Love for Jews of Other Torah Traditions
Principle 9 – How to Properly Train in Torah as Jews and Righteous Non-Jews
Learning Torah must only be done with the intention of putting into practice what one learns. There is no commandment to merely learn Torah (as an intellectual exercise), but rather to train in Torah – to study in order to practice according to the plain and simple meaning of the text. (1)Mishnah Avoth 1:17 (see also the commentary of Ḥakham `Ovadiah mi-Bartenura ad loc.) and 4:5 Likewise, the opinion of most recognized Torah scholars, who mainly relate to Talmudic literature and Mishneh Torah primarily on a theoretical level, cannot be compared to that of scholars who literally live by the authority of what is written in these sources. The latter are clearly more reliable than the former.
Although it is less common today, this pure independent learning and practice of the halakhah straight from the original sources is not a modern invention or theory. It has been the authentic tradition of Yemenite Jewry for centuries, as it was passed down to the former Chief Rabbi of Yemen, HaRav Yiḥia Qafiḥ z”l, and his grandson, Rav Yoseph Qafiḥ, z”l, renowned Torah giants in their respective generations. The torchbearers who continue in this tradition not only include Rav Qafiḥ’s faithful students of many years, but serious, independent scholars of RaMBaM and Talmud, including non-Yemenites. Among these are those who have revived the old Andalusian (Spanish-Portuguese) school of tradition. The same general approach to Torah learning also continues outside the RaMBaM world, namely among the serious students of the Vilna Gaon.
WHY ‘KABBALAH’ IS DIFFERENT
While Kabbalistic literature does contain deep, precious wisdom, it is poorly understood even by trained Torah scholars. The most famous and revered work, the Zohar (like other works of Midrash) mentions and promotes ancient opinions that remained outside of and even contradict the halakhah (applied Torah law) as it was codified. (2)Even if the entire Zohar in our hands today were authored by Rabbi Shim`on Ben Yoḥai, the Talmud Yerushalmi (tr. Berakhoth 6b) records how the Sage ...continue It includes allegorical descriptions of concepts that, if taken literally, contradict foundational tenets of the Oral Tradition. Such literal understandings of highly symbolic wording have led many to pure idolatry, no less. This is especially true of Sefer Yeṣirah and Sefer Ha-Bahir. Finally, Zohar is a layered work, with text and ideas of dubious origin that were, with little doubt, of late origin. (3)I do not intend, by this statement, to denigrate the Zohar or its worthy students, ḥalilah. This fact was known even to great kabbalists such as ...continue
Written in terse style with highly symbolic language, the Zohar requires (1) fluency in Aramaic (not to mention Hebrew), (2) very strong grounding in the halakhah (law) and the nuances of the language of the Sages, (3) a broad and critical mind, and (4) the guidance of an expert teacher who does not consider Zohar a source of practical halakhah. It must be someone who can identify a portion of text that was clearly added later, and can give an allegorical meaning to passages that appear to contradict the Oral Tradition. Of the few such teachers that exist, those who teach do not know, while those who know do not teach – and for good reason.
While it, too, is deeply profound and better organized, Lurianic kabbalah can similarly confuse un-grounded scholars. If veteran, trained scholars stumble in the study of mystical kabbalah, how much less is it fitting for beginners.
HOW AND WHY TORAH STUDY FOR NOAHIDES IS DIFFERENT
It is rabbinically forbidden for non-Jews to be study the entire Torah in depth, like a Jew. While he may gain a general familiarity with the entire Torah, he may only delve deeply in subjects within the realm of the Noahide Laws and responsibilities of the nations. (4)Mishneh Torah 10:11(9). To describe the limits of permissible Torah learning for non-Jews, the RaMBaM uses the term `oseq, which throughout Mishneh ...continue While it is comfortable to assume that this does not applies to Noahides, the author is of the clear opinion that it does.
Nonetheless, this still leaves the Written Torah (Hebrew Bible) open for non-Jews to be studied on a good, surface level, and much of Mishneh Torah available to be studied on a deep level, as many sections of law are included in the realm of Noahide Law. It is the purpose of my work, Guide For the Noahide (© Lightcatcher Books 2011) to obviate the need for such deep research, putting the entire breadth of the the Noahide Covenant –including a summary of the Torah’s universal values and frequently asked questions– in a single volume. Furthermore, if a Noahide genuinely wishes to fulfill a specific commandment outside of the Noahide Laws and seeks instruction in doing so properly, the author understands that he may seek a live source to teach him. Finally, there is no reason to assume that quality books on Torah philosophy and spirituality are any less open to righteous non-Jews as to Jews. (5)To my understanding, Noahides who yearn for a greater spiritual closeness to the Creator should focus first on mastering the first book of Mishneh ...continue
What should be regarded as off limits to any non-Jew is the un-restated Oral Law: the raw primary works of the early Sages such as Mishnah, the classical works of halakhic expositions (Sifra, Sifre, Mekhilta, etc.), and the two Talmuds, which are even confusing to Jews, as explained above in Principle 7). If such is the case regarding early practical legal sources, how much more so works of the kabbalah (esoteric mystical wisdom) such as the Zohar.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Mishnah Avoth 1:17 (see also the commentary of Ḥakham `Ovadiah mi-Bartenura ad loc.) and 4:5|
|2.||↑||Even if the entire Zohar in our hands today were authored by Rabbi Shim`on Ben Yoḥai, the Talmud Yerushalmi (tr. Berakhoth 6b) records how the Sage would go as far as to curse a man who would follow his personal opinion after it had been overruled by the majority of Sanhedrin. To imagine that would agree to future generations relying on his words against the accepted halakhah as it was later codified and sealed is a disgrace to his memory. Were he alive today, he would most likely have us following the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam as practical halakhah until the restoration of the Sanhedrin.|
|3.||↑||I do not intend, by this statement, to denigrate the Zohar or its worthy students, ḥalilah. This fact was known even to great kabbalists such as HaRav Yiṣhaq Kadoori of blessed memory. According to the Ḥatham Sofer (not an anti-kabbalist), out of the entire Zohar, only a small portion that would make up a very small book of few pages is attributable to Rabbi Shim`on ben Yoḥai. An even stronger statement warning against the “many forgeries and destructive statements (זיופים וקלקולים) that have been added” was issued Rabbi Eli`ezer Fleckeles, the outstanding student of the Noda` B`Yehudah (Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau 1713 –1793 C.E.) and subsequent Rabbi of Prague. He did so following in the footsteps of his Rav who issued a strong statement of his own against the kabbalistic Le-Shem Yiḥud prayer, and in the footsteps of the great Ḥakham Ya`avetz (Rabbi Jacob Emden, 1697–1776 C.E.), the German rabbi and talmudist who argued that “unidentified hands have been at work on it [the Zohar]”. To learn more, read the article Tohar HaYiḥud, the source of the above information.|
|4.||↑||Mishneh Torah 10:11(9). To describe the limits of permissible Torah learning for non-Jews, the RaMBaM uses the term `oseq, which throughout Mishneh Torah is used to denote deeper learning. This is as opposed to the term qoré, meaning “to read”, i.e. to understand the basic meaning of the text.|
|5.||↑||To my understanding, Noahides who yearn for a greater spiritual closeness to the Creator should focus first on mastering the first book of Mishneh Torah, the Book of Knowledge, where he can gain the most accurate, simple understanding of the foundations of proper Torah belief and practice. Another classic on authentic Torah philosophy is Emunoth we-De`oth (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions) by HaRav Sa`adiah Ga’on, completed in 933 C.E.
Once a student is firmly rooted in the proper belief in the Oneness of HaShem (as described in Part II Law #1 and Appendix II of Guide For the Noahide) and that our respective Covenants with HaShem are based on our fulfilling the Laws He gave us, the student may venture into mainstream Torah literature that can help him refine his character. In the absence of a detailed, practical guide in Mishneh Torah as to how to achieve the character requirements defined in Hilkhoth De`oth (Laws of Character Traits), one such guide I recommend is The Trail to Tranquility by Rabbi Lazer Brody. (© Emunah Outreach Publications, 2008) Written by a master counselor, it is a simple, effective guide to ridding one’s life of the most destructive character flaws –anger and arrogance– and achieving joy through simple faith in HaShem.
Again, while firmly rooted in the laws and Torah outlook of Mishneh Torah, one may read Hishtappeḥuth ha-Nefesh – Outpouring of the Soul. Written by arguably the greatest of the Hassidic masters, Rebbe Naḥman of Breslov, this short practical guidebook to prayer and meditation is clearly rooted in the ancient path of the prophets.
A much larger and more difficult guidebook to the awesome ways of prophets is Sefer Ha-Maspiq Le-`Ovde HaShem (The Guide to Serving God) by the RaMBaM’s son, Rav Avraham He-Ḥasid.
What sets these apart from the genre of Jewish mysticism, is that rather than offering a glimpse into that which was meant to remain hidden, these works focus on what a person can do to intensify his spiritual experience of closeness to the Almighty.