Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Bais Yosef and the Maggid.

Fervent Christians often give the following challenge about their founder. They will tell you that you must pick one of the following: Either he was a liar, a lunatic or the Son of God. This is a very common argument. It was developed, I believe, by a Josh McDowell in his book Evidence That Demands A Verdict. Perhaps, but I'm not sure, it was adapted from C.S. Lewis. But the "Liar, Lunatic or the Son of God" is really common and also really absurd. There are other options.

The subject of maggidim or mystical encounters with angelic teachers is interesting and to tell the truth a bit troubling. We don't have to go through all the esteemed rabbis who've claimed to have had a maggidic encounter (did I make up a word?). Take R. Yosef Karo. There is no debating his signifigance and pre-eminence as a halakhist. He, presumably, doesn't have the debatable baggage that the Ramchal, say, does. R. Yosef Karo not only had maggidic encounters he wrote a book about it, Maggid Meisharim, including concrete teachings he was taught by his maggid. For some people the fact that R. Yosef Karo is the Beis Yosef, the Mechaber, the author of the Code of Jewish Law tells them the following: either he was a liar, or he was hallucinating or he really had encounters with angelic teachers of Torah, really as in something that happened outside of his own mind.

I think that is exactly the same argument as the one about Jesus. There are other options. For one thing, mystical encounters and spirit possession and automatic writing and all kinds of paranormal phenomena are not unique to classic rabbis. These things just happen in environments that are conducive to them. We expect people in Haiti to be possessed by the devil with greater frequency than people in Georgetown. The fact that these things occur in environments that are conducive to them does not mean that the people in these enviornments are all lying or nuts. R. Yosef Karo was a mystic operating in a small circle of like minded people in 16th century Sefad. He lived, breathed and ate mysticism as much as he did halakha. The fact that his maggidic encounters have psychological explanations should in no way diminish him as, God forbid, a lunatic. To quote a rebbe of mine on the Golem of Prague (story inspired by Shelley's Frankenstein): "It isn't one the ikkarim to believe it". The trouble is that some people are convinced that unless you believe that R. Yosef had angelic encounters independent of his own body and mind you must think he was a fraud and if so, you must believe in these this and dybbuks and the like.

I couldn't disagree more. It's no less a false dichotomy (trichotomy?) than Josh McDowell's Jesus challenge

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