Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - Faith vs. Reason: Part II
Part I can be read here
To better understand the arguments on both sides of this fence, we need to look at some of the larger issues that divided the original Chassidim and non-Chassidim, or "Misnagdim (Opponents)."
Aside from the battles over social organization in Eastern Europe (Chassidic courts vs. traditional kehillos, and in the 19th century, yeshivos), minhagim (kabbalistic customs vs. regional and other customs), and the issue of making mystical ideas available to the masses, one of the key differences between the early Chassidim and Misnagdim was in the realm of values: which human abilities and behaviors each ideology extolled, and which were played down; which kinds of people were perceived as "winners," and which as "losers." (Ultimately, both ideologies agreed that we should spiritually outgrow such egoistic considerations, but this is nevertheless one of the ways societies condition their members. Case in point: all of those bronze plaques on the synagogue walls, and award dinners for religious institutions!)
Traditionally, the Chassidim were more inclusive, emphasizing the virtues of emunah pshutah (simple faith), good deeds, religious feeling and devotion, and the "avodah she'ba'lev," which is prayer. These values broadened the range of who could hope to achieve success in the community and in their own eyes, and also engaged more of the whole person: intuition, emotions, and actions, as well as intellect (and a narrow slice of intellect at that).
The ideology of the Misnagdim, by contrast, emphasized limud ha-Gemora more exclusively, especially if the individual could achieve a certain kind of intellectual prowess in lomdus (scholarly analysis and debate); and it also honored the virtue of charitableness, especially giving tzedakah to those who represented the ideals of Torah excellence. (Learning Gemora and giving tzedakah were valued highly by the Chassidim, as well, but not in such an "all-or-nothing" way.) The Misnagdim saw themselves as standard bearers of a more conservative ideology that upheld time-honored traditions, and resisted innovation. However, in their world, if you couldn't succeed in learning, you pretty much felt like a lost cause. With the Chassidim, things were not so black and white. And even the nature of the learning was not so black and white. This is one of several reasons for the Chassidic movement's tremendous success in its heyday.
Having said this, we must hasten to add that this dichotomy did not remain clear cut. As conservative tendencies developed within the Chassidic movement to combat charlatanism and other abuses of mysticism, Chassidim moved closer to the Misnagdim; and perceiving the success of the Chassidim, the Misnagdim, too began to add more heart and soul to Yiddishkeit and to reach out to the masses.
Thus, it would be unfair to use these labels today as they might have been used generations ago. Yet there still are certain identifiable differences between these two paths, and one of them is over which receives greater emphasis: reason or simple faith. (True, there is a range of views on this issue in the Misnagdic world, and certain "special cases" in the Chassidic world, such as that of Chabad, which fuses mysticism with rationalism; but for the sake of this discussion, let's keep things simple.)
We are familiar with the approach that accepts the philosophical model and advances intellectual "proofs" based on the RaMBaM's philosophical views and those of certain Rishonim. What do the Chassidim have to say about emunah? What do they mean by emunah? Let's start with at the beginning, with the holy Baal Shem Tov:
The Baal Shem Tov on Emunah:
By crying out to God from the depths of one's heart, one attains lofty perceptions and his faith is strengthened. Faith depends upon the mouth, as it is written, "I shall make known Your faith with my mouth" (Psalms 89:2). If a person falls from faith, God forbid, he should [nevertheless] verbally declare that he believes in God. In this way, he will clear his mind with faith, for "the last in deed is first in thought" (Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, "Lekha Dodi"). One should keep far away from philosophy to the utmost degree, lest one forfeit eternity in an instant. Philosophical inquiry cause the power of forgetfulness to overcome the memory and weakens one's faith, God forbid. However, faith draws forth divine bounty, blessing, and success. (Minchas Yehudah, Emes ve-Emunah, cited in Meir Eynei Yisrael, Emunah)
The great principle in divine service and its main point is faith. My grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, stressed this, for faith is the root of the entire Torah. (Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Tzav)
The Baal Shem Tov predicted: Before the Moshiach comes, there will be no more signs and wonders and open miracles, nor will there be outstanding spiritual leaders to attract and inspire others to serve God. The only way for the Jewish people to persevere will be by clinging to simple faith. (Eretz ha-Chaim 180, cited in Meir Eynei Yisrael, Emunah)
He once declared: Faith itself is deveykus (mystical cleaving to God). (Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Ki Savo)
For more quotes on this subject, see the anthologies "Derekh Chassidim" and "Leshon Chassidim" by Rabbi Nachman Goldstein, the Rav of Tcherin, under the heading "Emunah."
The Baal Shem Tov and his disciples saw faith as a way of connecting to Hashem – not something inferior to intellect, but both supporting and transcending the limitations of mortal understanding.
With reason, we may come to know Hashem's will through the Torah, and perceive the nature of His attributes through contemplation. However, reason only permits us to go so far. With faith, it is possible to connect to the Infinite. Thus, faith is simultaneously the highest and the lowest level of perception, corresponding to the sefiros of Keser and Malkhus -- the "woman of valor who is the crown of her husband" (Mishlei 12:4). Moreover, faith is a virtue to which all may aspire, not only a small elite.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov has something to say about all this, too – which we will leave for Part III.