Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Hazon Ish - Emuna Ubitachon

"Emuna Ubitachon" (by R' Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, the "Hazon Ish") is a short book - just 71 rather small pages long. But it is difficult to read, even for Hebrew speakers, because its style and word choice are very different from what modern readers expect. I soon abandoned my idea of translating the book to English, and instead just summarized it, at a ration of roughly one sentence per page. Hopefully this summary can be useful, either for people who cannot read the book, or for people who are reading it and would like to see a broader overview at the same time.

The summary is divided according to the book's six chapters. Each chapter comprises between 3 and 30 subchapters, as indicated in brackets at the end of each sentence. And while I found many things to respect in the book, I do not agree with everything in it. Some sentences below are written according to the book's perspective even though it is not mine.

It's easier to read if you paste into a word processing file and increase the spacing between paragraphs to 6 points or so.

1) Belief
Belief in God is achieved through the following approaches:
- The wondrous characteristics of our bodies and the world indicate the existence of an intelligent designer. [1:1-7]
- The ecstatic and overpowering feeling one experiences upon realizing that God exists testifies to the truth of that realization. [1:8-9]
- Righteous people who have succeeded in refining their character traits believe that God exists, i.e. belief is a consequence of behavior which is universally regarded as praiseworthy. [1:10-15]

2) Trust
Trust (bitachon) does not mean believing that the future will undoubtedly be good - this cannot be known without prophecy. Rather, it means believing that every occurrence in the world is controlled by God rather than by random fate, and acting accordingly. Faith:thought::bitachon:action. [2:1-2]
An example of someone with "false" bitachon is an apparently religious shopowner who, when a rival store opens, takes hostile means against it with the intention of preserving his livelihood. [2:3-5]
Chazal condemn Yosef (in Egypt) for asking the butler for help. Asking for human help in itself is acceptable, since even though everything comes from God, we are not to rely on miracles. But in this case what Yosef asked for was unlikely to help and was like an act of desperation. As such it contradicted bitachon. [2:6]
A person can also be inspired to trust that God will in fact protect him. This happens in proportion to the person's spiritual level. [2:7]

3) Morality and halacha
Morality is defined by the limits of halacha. One's judgment of right and wrong in any situation should start with the relevant halachot rather than moral intuition, since when you have a personal stake in the matter, your moral intuition is unreliable. [3:1-4]
Obedience to halacha is developed through the following means:
- Discipline and removal of material pursuits from life,
- Study of "mussar", to scare you into doing what's right and into avoiding material comforts,
- General Torah study, to orient you to spiritual matters and increase sensitivity for the particular mitzvot you study and for the overall centrality of mitzvot in life. [3:5-7]
For mitzvot such as theft, piety without exact knowledge of halacha will not prevent sin, and can in fact lead to self-deception about one's intentions. [3:8-13]
All sustenance comes by Divine decree, but we are still required to put forth effort "for" this sustenance. But when halacha prohibits the effort, we revert to the original state of simply waiting for the Divine decree to take effect. [3:14-16]
Torah study is very important; to be at the highest religious level one must have extensive Torah knowledge as well as fear of heaven. At the same time, without fear of heaven one cannot reach true conclusions either. [3:17-29]
Emunat hachamim - one must believe that one's wise teachers rule honestly, because their psychological commitment to truth is stronger than to i.e. money. It is even forbidden to think that hachamim could have been biased but that this is not a discredit because all people have that weakness. The Torah's prohibitions on bribery are weaker than one would expect, because it assumes that hachamim are incorruptible. Rulings of the "gedolim" are purely intellectual, while normal people are driven by lusts. [3:30]

4) Character development
All good and evil character traits are consequences of one question: whether we see moral significance in natural life or not. Most people see this significance only sometimes, and are like wild animals at other times. [4:1-4]
Interpersonal and "bein adam lemakom" mitzvot are not independent - both are consequences of this one single question. [4:5-6]
One who successfully keeps all the myriad details of halacha will by necessity have achieved discipline over his emotions, as well as character traits such as patience and willingness to accept scorn when necessary. [4:7-8]
Keeping halachic details is the only way to "practice" good traits without taking unnecessary risks (i.e. walking near a brothel) [4:9]
One who knows his halachic knowledge is incomplete will become resigned to "unavoidable" laxity and will avoid precision in fulfilling his moral responsibilities. [4:10-11]
Study of "mussar" is only effective for thoughtful and delicate people; those qualities can be acquired through Torah study. [4:12]
Lying is extremely evil and, if habitual, prevents accepting criticism and having character growth. [4:13]
Honor and happiness in life are acceptable, but in truth they both consist solely of Torah wisdom and good character traits - and Torah leads to the character traits. [4:14-15]
A teacher with bad character traits transmits those flaws to his students. One whose teachers have neglected to sufficiently ground him in Torah study will use his intellect to create a new, false version of Judaism. [4:16-17]
These and other people who are religiously driven yet without Torah study will end up constantly violating laws - while still thinking themselves religiously perfect. [4:18-19]

5) Imagination and intellect
Today, people are seduced by modern technology into think that they are superior to any ancient people. [5:1]
But their success is material not spiritual, and anyway it only comes by building on the work of earlier generations, and for that matter ancient Jewish scientific knowledge in many subjects was advanced too. [5:2-5]

6) Prophecy
Humans by their nature cannot (fully) discover what is good and what evil, but they can prepare themselves for a prophetic encounter in which complete good and evil are revealed. [6:1-2]
Thus Adam, Cain, Noah, and Avraham received Divine commandments. In between them, people's moral level descended too low for prophecy to be possible. But since then Avraham's descendants have not stopped receiving and studying the Divine revelation which began with Avraham: the Torah. [6:3]
[This chapter is unfinished.]

1 comment:

Neil Harris said...

Beautiful. Yashar Koach!