Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Logic & Imagination

To put it another way, FKM and Slifkin believe in a single truth; Chana in a double one.
~Professor Lawrence Kaplan (in a comment on Hirhurim)

Logic and imagination- oftentimes cast as two enemies, fighting one another in an attempt to secure the soul of a person. How can they possibly get along? Poets are often seen as dreamers, unable to remain rooted in the present reality, whereas lawyers are extremely real- their biting remarks and retorts sting the ears of their listeners. I seem to live in a middle plane, a place that, by rights, should not exist. I love to write, to create, and to imagine, but I also love justice. Critical analysis, which requires the incisiveness of a lawyer, and creative writing, which opens the door to alternate worlds, rest side by side in my mind. I live within the contradiction, create order from chaos. It is an existence that is wholly mine.

It was my parents who raised me to believe equally in these two seemingly dissimilar patterns of thought. From my earliest days, as a child who loved fairy-tales, the elements of both the imaginary fantasy realms and those of very rational justice were stressed. In fact, justice was demonstrated through fantasy. Hansel and Gretel needed to use their wits to survive, resourcefully resorting to dropped stones or breadcrumbs. In the end, the witch is killed, and good reigns triumphant. But the witch does not just die- no! It is Gretel who must push her into the oven.

But this intertwining of logic and imagination is not limited to the secular realms. No! It is precisely the way I live my life as a Jew.

This is best evidenced by my two greatest influences, the Ba'al Shem Tov and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

"What?" people often cry. "How can you do that? How can you mix the two? The Ba'al Shem Tov is the founder of Chassidism, the epitome of joy, a wild and fantastical communion with nature and God, transcendence and reaching, while the Rav is an absolute Litvak, a man who talks about bringing heaven down to earth and utilizing it here in our world, a man bound by the rules of Halakha, strict and structured, a man who emphasized the idea of commitment to and the absolute preeminence of the law!"

It is astonishing and a little sad that these same people who question me fail to take into account that their goals are the same. The Ba'al Shem Tov's wild, joyous dancing and the Rav's passionate, consistent dedication to the mitzvot are both ways of serving God and bringing others to serve Him, both expressions of their Divinely bestowed creativity and love for His people. Those who see Chassidism as wholly without structure are incorrect and anyone who claims the Rav had no passion or creativity is a fool. Their movements emphasized different aspects of the relationship to God; the Ba'al Shem Tov emphasized the pure and holy intention of the person while the Rav emphasized the fulfillment of a mitzvah per its Halakhic requirements. But they were nevertheless grounded in the same strong base; all things return to their great desire to serve God with love and joy.

What do I love about the Ba'al Shem Tov? I love his absolute acceptance of all Jews, no matter how learned or unlearned. I love the way he interacts with the simple people, the way he listens to them and understands them and gives them of his time. I love the way he tells his talmidim to learn from them, understands that these people have reached heights that even his students, with all their Torah study, cannot reach. I love the way in which he is shrouded in mysticism, magic, a cloak of mystery and grandeur. I love his passionate dedication to God, the way in which he began his career by teaching the little children, the way in which he went out to the forest to pray. I love his absolute understanding and certainty that there are worlds beyond this one, his ability to commune with souls and raise them to higher levels in the next world. I love the way in which he raises up souls by performing a tikkun here on earth for them or joins together two people who have come back to earth but who no longer remember one another. I love his insight, his knowledge, the humble nature in which he hid himself from the world and masked his greatness until the time came for him to be revealed, the majesty and magic in everything that he does. I love the beauty of his life, one that is so fulfilled and laden with meaning.

And what do I love about the Rav? I love his devotion, his dedication to his ideals and to his God. I love the fact that religion is a passionate experience for him even though it is rooted in a Law which can perhaps seem dry, a Law that is equally applicable to donkeys and oxen and matters of life and death. I love that for him this Law is not dry but the ultimate way in which to experience God and to come close to Him. I love the way in which he is positive and looks forward to everything that we can do better, how he focuses on "recreating the destroyed worlds" instead of lamenting over all those who have fallen. I love that he is willing to sacrifice his own name and reputation if only he is able to help others. I love that he realizes his own strengths, that he admits his own flaws, that he is human through and through. I love the way that he describes God, the way that he struggles with Him, the way that he understands the disconnect that I feel, how God is at once God of the cosmos and my own personal God, how I am at once the ruler of the earth and a tiny, insignificant dust speck. I love the way in which he defends his people, the way that he ascribes the limits and flaws of the Jews to "the circumstances which corrupted them."

It is this above all things that I love: his love for his people.

And that is precisely where the Ba'al Shem Tov and Rabbi Soloveitchik connect; they both love their people and want to advance them, to show them a method of living that will help them, that will bring them close to God. Their methods are different but their goals are the same; one of them epitomizes homo religiosus and all that is transcendent, mystical and not easily understood by the rational mind while the other one throws himself into the text and the law, the code that was God's gift to his people. One focuses on that which is based on the heart and the soul, the spirit, while the other works with what is real and tangible, the body. But they aim for the same goal and even help others to reach that goal.

And I? Where do I fit in?

I take from both.

I am a very peculiar person. My default setting is to dance toward everything that is imaginative. I love the midrash, aggadata, Hassidic tales, the supernatural episodes in the Torah, fairy tales and magic. I view all of this in a very calm manner because as far as I am concerned, it is all true. I have no problem envisioning the magic of Ov and Yidoni. It is very real for me. Everything grand, inexplicable, vibrant and colorful comes from the realms of the imagination, everything which cannot be easily explained. I do not "believe" in these things; I take them as a reality. This is in part based on my family; I come from Sephardim who are masters of kabbalah. My mother was taught Chumash and Kabbalah in equal measure; she will often express the most mystical ideas in a very clear, rational voice and cite her father as teaching this to her as a child. I do not take these ideas on faith; I do not find them difficult. I personally know, you see, people who are able to foretell the future, people who have dreams such as those described in the Gemara, where they are told of the hidden location of a sum of money or see a deceased relative who bears a message for them. I do not need to believe. I know.

At the same time, I understand the problems that people have with these ideas and midrashim. I understand how this can be a source of great concern for them. Our modern world has replaced magic with technology. Everything needs to be understood, taken apart and put back together with our gadget-oriented minds. If it does not make sense, there is a flaw in the argument, certainly not in me. I understand people's hesitation when it comes to accepting the supernatural or the miraculous, their desire for everything to make logical and rational sense. I understand the need for books like Rabbi Natan Slifkin's, which stress the scientific understanding of the world, which explain away the miraculous by citing those who read it as being allegorical. I know so many people who have been helped by these books, who are able to breathe a sigh of relief now that they understand better. And I think that is an absolutely wonderful thing. And an extremely legitimate way of life. And these books are necessary and beautiful and help reveal our world in an even more wonderful sense and they must be published and mustn't be banned or forbidden, for if they are, then these wonderful minds that we have, these questioning and curious minds will think that there is no one like them, no one who sees things they way they do! And that could not be more of a lie.

But what I'd like to explain is that I believe both. I absolutely believe in the creation of our world in six days by a fascinating God whose spirit appears, hovering over the surface of the waters. I believe that his very words are able to separate light from darkness, that his words are powerful enough to create a world. And I also believe in and understand evolution and the fact that it took thousands to millions of years and that creatures slowly became those creatures that we see today.

And I don't try to reconcile the two. I don't try to squeeze the one interpretation to fit the other, to try to force evolution into the midrashic, mystical version or vice versa. Because I see no need to do so. Because for me, both ideas are legitimate and they are both true. There's the logical explanation and the imaginative explanation and they must both exist, else the human could not exist.

For tell me, what is a human without his imagination? A dry, passionless being, devoid of color or vibrancy, unable to act in a spontaneous fashion, unable to create or to truly love anything, love without reason or limit. And what is a human without his rational mind, his logic? A foolish, ridiculous being, someone who will accept any nonsense and take it as truth, an animal perhaps, wholly instinctual in action but without any form of reason, anything that makes him question and want to know why.

Chassidism is aimed at looking at everything and seeing what is holy within it, what can be uplifted. This is the idea of raising up sparks, the idea of the kelipot. Everything in this world has a purpose and we are part of it. When I eat this chicken and make a blessing over it, I have lifted up the spirit of the chicken and helped it perform its holy and divine purpose. When I take this secular song and learn something wonderful and helpful from its lyrics, I have uplifted this song and helped it perform its purpose. We aim for transcendence. It is our souls that matter, not our bodies. People return to this world held captive by bodies that refuse to aid them, bodies that are slow or crippled or handicapped. And why? Because the soul requested a container that would not allow them to sin. They have come back to earth to rectify a particular error and do not desire to commit more sins while here.

The Rav's approach, in contrast, is aimed at looking at everything and utilizing it for the here and now. One must focus on the material, the mundane, the very body. It is the body that must serve God, that must subscribe to halakha. Halakha rules over every part of the body. It rules over one's appetites; we have the dietary laws, laws restricting our sexual appetites (the idea of forbidden and permitted relationships and niddah), our possessions, our money, our income. Halakha is about this world, this body, this existence. We do not bring in the ideas of former existences; we do not worry about gilguls. This world is immanent, material and necessary. All of our actions here have meaning. As he wrote, "If you desire an exoteric, democratic religiosity, get thee unto the empirical, earthly life, and the life of the body with all its two hundred forty-eight organs and three hundred sixty-five sinews. Do not turn your attention to an exalted spiritual life rooted in abstract worlds…it is not the spirit that is charged with carrying out the religious process but the physical-biological individual…” (Halakhic Man, 44).

This is the difference between aggadata and halakha. Aggada is based on the soul. It is the spiritual approach to God, based on the idea of transcendence and the desire to reach and draw close to Him. Halakha is based on the body. Halakha governs our physical needs, our bodies. It is the physical approach to God, based on the idea of immanence and the desire to create heaven on earth. One need not transcend in order to reach God; one must recreate his abode here in our beloved world. And we need both. We cannot have a religion that is wholly based on aggada; we cannot have a religion that is wholly based on halakha. It is their union, the complete and perfect whole, that represents true Judaism.

Nowadays, we have more difficulty with the idea of the imagination. People are more educated and less in tune with their emotions. We appreciate science and technology, wish to understand how things work; our gadget-oriented mind wants to dissect ideas and put them back together again. If we do not understand something, the flaw could hardly be in me; it must be in the argument presented. People do not like to be conned or tricked. Our world is not one that boasts extraordinary, wondrous and supernatural events. Magic and the miraculous seem like trickery.

And so people look down on those who still believe in the power of imagination. This is reserved for children. Only children are allowed to be imaginative, idealistic and love magic and creativity. When you grow up, you are supposed to look forward to a cold and harsh reality, a long hard slog. People think you are peculiar if you are an adult with a dream. So people don't talk about dreams. They don't talk about their ideas because they are afraid that you will laugh at them. The truth is that many people laugh because they are uncomfortable with the subject, and they are only uncomfortable with it because we have taught them to be this way.

People let me get away with what I think because I can still pass for a child. But I have received my share of pitying looks and hidden smiles. And it makes me sad, because it means that the adult is detached from one part of himself, alienated from the creative, original and interesting part. I just wish that people could allow themselves to be themselves, even the parts that aren't popular at the moment.

Do you know what I see? I see a beautiful world filled with beautiful people. And some people dance more towards one side of the spectrum than the other. Some of them are invested in this physical world, in creating heaven on earth. They fulfill the law through their body; the Halakha guides them in all of their actions. And some of them are invested in the spiritual world; they follow Halakha but are more interested in the soul, in all that is transcendent and they struggle to raise us up to heaven. Each person has their particular calling and their particular way of fulfilling it and that is fine. There is no need for someone whose prime way of interacting with the world is through his intellect and his reason to suddenly attempt to live a transcendent, aggadic life. But he must acknowledge that part of his personality and realize that it exists. You cannot deny yourself.

I define myself as Modern Orthodox but I don't know what you would actually call me. It seems to me that the Modern Orthodox movement is very concerned with things that can be quantified and explained. Evolution, mathematics, science and the like are all very important. We allow for biblical criticism and academic scholarship. Everything is very much based on reason and intellect. And I wonder where the passion went and the joy and the realization that there is magic to this as well. And I wonder what the children are being taught and whether it is all based on the logical, understandable and rational. Please don't get me wrong. I love logic and reason. I have great respect for people who are logically able to defend a point or way of being; there is a reason that I try to figure things out. I find science to be amazing and inspiring; I am fascinated by our bodies and genetics and the progress that we have made. But I hope that the same children who are taught this very factual and scientific view of the Torah are able to experience the joy and amazement that comes through exposure to the midrash. And are not made to feel that one way of understanding is superior to the other. Because that's not true.
They're both necessary.

I love the Ba'al Shem Tov. And I love Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. And I see no contradiction in my two loves. Because I believe that we were always meant to live a life that couples logic and imagination, the beautiful Judaism that is an amalgam of halakha and aggadata.


Anonymous said...

**hidden smile**

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with you.

Indeed, Rabbi Lamm in his book Torah Umadda prefers a model of Torah Umadda based on chassidic thought, the idea of elevating all aspects of life to the spiritual, which includes secular knowledge. This alone can demonstrate that the two modes of thought are not mutually exclusive.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully said...

Anonymous said...

“From my earliest days, as a child who loved fairy-tales, the elements of both the imaginary fantasy realms and those of very rational justice were stressed. In fact, justice was demonstrated through fantasy.”

I think you may have been reading kiddified versions. Before nineteenth century moralists started tidying them up for children, folk tales (including Jewish ones) could be very brutal. You might like the historian Robert Darnton’s essay on eighteenth century French fairy tales. I can’t remember the exact title, but it’s in his book The Great Cat Massacre (I think it was published in a journal first, but I can’t remember where).

“And I don't try to reconcile the two. I don't try to squeeze the one interpretation to fit the other, to try to force evolution into the midrashic, mystical version or vice versa. Because I see no need to do so. Because for me, both ideas are legitimate and they are both true. There's the logical explanation and the imaginative explanation and they must both exist, else the human could not exist.”

I agree, but I wonder if we agree for different reasons. You seem to be saying that the mystical and the rational both speak to parts of the human condition, therefore both must be true. I would argue that both are accurate (although imperfect) models of the universe, therefore both are useful. I suppose the difference between us is that while we both accept aggadata/halakha or mysticism/rationalism, your ‘default setting’ is the former, mine is the latter. For example, you say “We appreciate science and technology, wish to understand how things work”, but from my point of view, mysticism is just a way of trying to understand how things work, like science. Only the methodology and outlook is different.

Actually, your essay reminded me of something I’ve wanted to post on my own blog for a long time and started writing, but have been too ill to finish. This is part that I have managed to write:

“My train of thought began when I started to ponder why there are so few Orthodox Jewish – geeks, Bohemians, cultural creatives, call them what you will (and I know those terms aren’t exactly synonymous; that’s why I used them). Such types tend to avoid organised religions generally, yet Judaism should be at an advantage here. It encourages questioning, sees learning as a religious act in itself, has complementary rationalist and mystical philosophical traditions … indeed, third-hand parrotings of kabbalistic ideas and the weirder midrashim are common enough in counter-cultural circles. There are Jews who are involved in artistic creativity as a key part of their lives, but they aren’t usually religious and/or Orthodox. Likewise, Orthodox Jewry is fairly culturally stagnant, with some exceptions…”

If I ever manage to finish it, I hope to set out some kind of idea of Jewish renewal, based on Judaism as a cultural tradition in own right (in art, music, literature, humour and philosophy: mystical, ethical, rational), reuniting the many religious, cultural, ethnic strands of Jewish identity in a single vibrant culture, not various half-cultures.

Anonymous said...


Relates to a previous post. May be of some interest to you.

Anonymous said...

You are in the right direction.The goal of 'man' is to reach a level of DAAT.Daat is the integration of the heart and the mind which is a continuing process.

Diet Dr. Pepper said...

I couldn't stop smiling while reading this post. Coming from my family's background, I sometimes think about Chassidism and try to better appreciate it; I really enjoyed your interpretation.

By the way, I highly recommend R' Ahron Soloveichik's Logic of the Heart Logic of the Mind. I think I may have mentioned this book before, but in this context, it's worth mentioning again.

ilan said...

(Eh. Hope this doesn't come off as too harsh. Isn't meant as such, but could be read that way.)

I love to write, to create, and to imagine, but I also love justice. Critical analysis, which requires the incisiveness of a lawyer, and creative writing, which opens the door to alternate worlds, rest side by side in my mind. I live within the contradiction, create order from chaos. It is an existence that is wholly mine.

Here, and in other places in this post, you make a fairly bold claim - that you, Chana are so unique, such an aberration from the norm. I don't know how true that is. Among intelligent thinking adults, especially deeply relgious ones, you'll often see a blending of the two realms you speak of, and that blending occurs on several levels. It's not for nothing that we all have a left and right brain.

Should I be counted as an oddity because I'm an engineer who also does creative writing? Or because I truly believe that our sages (old and new) all have claim to the Truth, only from differing perspectives? I wouldn't say so. It just seemed like part of being a whole person.

Also, I think you're selling the rabbis short. I mean, take the Vilna Gaon, arguably the founder of our modern 'rigid' attitudes. He was a mystic through and through. And the Rav? If you look close enough, you'll see the mystical influences (try "U'vikashtem MiSham" rather than some of his more well-known essays). I sincerely believe that a true Torah scholar will almost always incorporate aspects of both the rational and the mystical. They are, at a deep level, seekers of knowledge. To put up artificial boundaries on knowledge runs contrary to their approach.

What I mean to say, is that the world is much murkier than the clear-cut picture you're painting, and while I think your attitudes are laudable and indicative of a deep religiosity, I'm not sure you're as rare a bird as you claim. Perhaps people look askance at you because of the childlike fascination you broadcast, not the actual content of your beliefs.

One more interesting story, though possibly a little out of place. Did you know that Sir Isaac Newton, the man who in certain ways, helped set the modern rational, mechanical mindset in motion, was very interested in things mystical and magical? John Maynard Keynes, the man who bought a bunch of Newton's personal notebooks and journals in 1936, declared, "Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians." In fact, it is thought that his belief in magical ideas is what led him to conceive of gravity. The key to Newton's theory of gravity was the idea that one body could attract another across empty space. "To Newton's great contemporaries, Descartes and Leibniz, this notion was medieval and magical; they subscribed exclusively to 'mechanical' explanations, in which bodies influenced one another only by a direct series of pushes and pulls." (source)

Chana said...


No worries! The only reason it sounds that way is that I do seem to be an oddity within my circle (and various people have been perplexed that I think you can combine both sides of the coin.) The exclamation I include in the post is not hypothetical but a real reaction. I can only draw upon my own experience; that's why everything is written from my point of view and perhaps overly stressed.

I wouldn't use Newton as an example of scientific progress simply because of his religiosity. I don't think he thought in the rational way we have come to associate with modern science.

That being said, I'm glad you think many people combine the mystical and rational belief systems! All the better for my point.

Anonymous said...

If you want to read The Great Cat Massacre as per Daniel's comment, you should know that I have it in Stern and would be happy to lend it to you.

The chapter on development and themes in fairy tales of Old Regime France would really interest you.

Let me know next week!

Anonymous said...

For more on Newton's combination of the mystical and rational, there was a recent PBS documentary entitled Newton's Dark Secrets, the website for which can be viewed here:


the only way i know said...

Can't say I've ever been in any quandary or pulled in separate directions in an uncomfortable manner regarding chassidus and halacha..or logic and imagination...
sometimes they are different, and at times they complement each other.
I dont see it as a terrific struggle believing or accepting one and/or the other in the spectrum of Jewish life.

Orthoprax said...


"I love the midrash, aggadata, Hassidic tales, the supernatural episodes in the Torah, fairy tales and magic. I view all of this in a very calm manner because as far as I am concerned, it is all true. I have no problem envisioning the magic of Ov and Yidoni. It is very real for me. Everything grand, inexplicable, vibrant and colorful comes from the realms of the imagination, everything which cannot be easily explained. I do not "believe" in these things; I take them as a reality."

Forgive me, but I'm confused. In what sense do you 'take' them as reality? Real like a Disney movie?

Is the imaginary epic world of Star Wars just as real as the world of Midrash?

Chana said...


Nope, because sadly Tatooine does not exist. I take the Midrash as reality in that as far as I'm concerned, the events depicted therein could have happened (whether literally or allegorically) and personally prefer a literal understanding. ;-) So for example, it's quite possible that Solomon literally wandered the streets while Asmodeus reigned, and as far as I'm concerned, that's what happened. And Solomon was literally able to understand the language of all creatures and actually spoke to the hoopoe, etc.

Orthoprax said...


Yeah...I don't understand you at all. How and why do you accept fantasy as fact? I mean, it's like you acknowledge it as fantasy but don't care.

Tatooine doesn't exist but the River Sambation does? Huh?

Frankenstein is fiction but the Golem stories are reality?

ilan said...

re: Newton:
Yes, I hear you.
But tell me it isn't just awesome that Keynes described Newton as "the last of the magicians?" It sounds so grand and austere. There's even a book about Newton using a similar name.

By the way, I first read the Newton tidbit in a book I think you'd enjoy for its random assortment of facts and feelings - The Know-It-All: One man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.

Anonymous said...

I've got to say, you've again hit on something wonderful here. It's not a duality though, it's a unity. This is the stuff I love to dabble in and talk about. It's what my global chassidic doctrine is all about, and why I consider myself a chassid stam, and not from one school. Shviyim Panim LaTorah still only leaves you with one Torah. The absolute is found only by a broad understanding of the multitude and discovery of the underlying homogeneity and message. The seventy faces are just because everyone out there is different and is able to understand, appreciate, and connect to one face better then another. Just as in marriage two distinct halves unite into a whole, a well matched couple wear their underlying essence for all to see, to the point where once married, people around them just say "I get that".

On another note, I still have to admit that the Rav has never really spoken to me, but I see that as my own flaw. I turn elsewhere to arrive at the same conclusions you draw from him.

Purim Hero