As I have stated in various relations to other themes I consider myself a rationalist. Sure, seeing a religious person writing about himself that he’s a rationalist, most likely seems a little, well, odd. But realizing this I still view myself as a rationalist. Let me explain. Within most religions people normally will find both a rationalist and a mystical (or spiritual) approach, and so is it also the case in Judaism. Or rather, there are actually three approaches to living a “correct” life as a Jew, though this is not something being expressed or believed in the notion that you have to live like one or the other. It is more a matter of personal approach and thought on how to fulfill the life as a religious Jew.
The one is based on an ethical approach, called Musar, which is mostly followed by the group among the Ashkenazim called “Litvik,” being derived from its origin, Lithuania. This tradition is based on a range of ethical works and approaches by great rabbis, such as R. Bahya ibn Paquda and R. Moshe Haim Luzzato, and to a certain extent also Maimonides, though some also finds mystical elements in his philosophical writings and believe that this was his true approach. This tradition is about acting correct, and put primary emphasis on the rational approach to the commandments and the world we find ourselves in. That is not to say that there is no religion or spirituality in it, but rather that through the correct conduct can we approach God the right way and get closer to Him. Or rather, the Musar attempts to analyze and approach the ethical teachings in a systematic way, relating to them in a more rational organized way, than what we see in the other approaches.
The second approach is the spiritual approach, which is expressed by the Hassidic movement, being founded by R. Yisrael ben Eliezer, called Baal Shem Tov, the Owner of the Good Name. Living in the 18th century in what today is Ukraine, he saw the need for a more “popular” approach to Judaism, bringing the religion back to the people, instead of being some elitist wisdom, only being taught and related to in the Yeshivot (religious schools). His approach meant a revival for the general Jewish population, making it able to learn complex Jewish thoughts in a popular fashion. This approach focus more on the right motives and attitude than acting in a strict ethical matter, though in no way intending the fulfilling of the commandments to be unnecessary.
The last approach, which often gets fused into the Hassidic approach, is not per se an approach, at least not in itself. It is the Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, which emphasizes the attempt to get closer to God through esoteric teachings. The most well known mystical work in Judaism is the Zohar, but there are even earlier works, going all the way back to the time of the Second Temple. This approach can be very personal, and as such could seem to be countering the Hassidic approach, but with both playing on the more spiritual understandings of Judaism, they tend often to go hand in hand.
All that said I feel it important to point out that these approaches in no way deny each other or cannot be mixed. There are Hassidic books on Musar, as well as some people considered to teach teachings belonging to Musar has been suspected to be “mequbal,” that is, one who practices Kabbalah, such as Maimonides.
Personally I feel somehow between the Musar and the Hassidic approach, leaning to the Musar, but still seeing the need for the correct intentions and motives, as well as having a popular religion, not an elitist religion, only belonging to those sitting and studying its text all day. But that said, looking at how many religious people are behaving today, Jews as well as non-Jews, I believe that there’s a need to focus much more on correct conduct than what is being done now. And not only on what can be called “Duties of the Limbs” – that is, the visible actions, such as praying and keeping strict kosher, or what have you, but rather on the “Duties of the Heart” – that is, having a positive attitude and struggle with the inner commandments, such as love for your fellow human being, being polite, humble, and so on. Or as Maimonides put it, to focus on the “Lifnim Mishurat HaDin” – that is, acting beyond the letter of the law, not only doing exactly what is demanded of us and then stop there, but rather doing more than what is expected of you.
I actually wanted to write this post as an introduction to one, who is considered a great mekubal in our time, R. Avraham HaKohan Kook, Z”L, and present you for some of his writings, as well as telling why I see him as a great inspiration for me, even though I’m more of a Musar-guy than the spiritual “dreamer,” but seeing how much I’ve already written I think that I’ll save that for the next post. But at least I got some basic explanations in place, so hopefully my next post will make that more sense.