A Simple Jew has had two postings this week (here and here) from R’ Dovid Sears on the topic of emunah pshuta, which he frames as a debate of reason vs. faith – a question of whether one follows the rationalist position of the Rambam or rejects that type of philosophical speculation. Aside from my comment there, I wanted to give it a mention here. I take issue with trying to frame the split between Chassidim and Misnagdim as one that has anything to do with whether one follows the Rambam’s rationalist philosophy or not. Puk chazaei that the greatest opponent of Chassidus, the GR”A, rejected the Rambam’s philosophical speculations, and his student, R’ Chaim Volozhiner, composed Nefesh haChaim, a work steeped in mysticism. R’ Soloveitchik is very clear in “Ish haHalacha” in his critique of chassidus, yet him Halakhic Mind he is also critical of the approach of the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim. On the other side of the coin, Chaba”d chassidus (the emphasis on chochma, binah, and da’as in a giveaway!) understood that when the revelation to the Ba’al Shem that Moshiach will come when “yafutzu ma’anosecha chutza” meant to say that the concepts of kabbalah and chassidus must flow outward until grasped cognitively. Far from a rejection of reason, chabad sees reason as the telos of the Chassidic movement! The sources Rabbi Sears cites in defense of emunah pshuta do not reject the role of reasoning in spiritual growth – they reject the specific philosophical conclusions of rationalism which defined the Rambam’s philosophy, which is a completely separate issue.
The issue of emunah pshuta is elaborated on by the Piecezna (who Rabbi Sears strangely does not mention) in Mavo haSheaim ch. 5, his work dedicated to laying down the foundations of chassidus and its relationship to kabbalah (if you can’t get the original, see my brother-in-law’s article here for a summary of some of the highlights). He offers as a striking example of emunah pshutah the statement of R’ Ahron of Karlin, who said he was envious of the horses dragging carriages of people en route to bris milah. This is far more than a rejection of the rationalism of the Rambam – it is a rejection (as the Piecezna writes) even of branches of chassidus like chabad which emphasize intellectual achievement as the path to spirituality. What understanding of G-d does a horse have? Religion, in R’ Ahron of Karlin’s view, is not about understanding G-d, but about experiencing the ecstasy of fulfilling G-d’s commandments on earth; religion is not about raising the intellect to the Heavens (the goal of chabad), but about bringing the Heavens down to enrapture mundane life. To misnagdim who understand Torah lishma to mean Torah study is not just a means to dveiykus but an end in its own right, this idea in unfathomable - knowledge and understanding cannot be supplanted by the experience of a horse. Only the complete rejection of understanding and reason as a goal in its own right justifies such a doctrine.
The emphasis on emunah pshuta brings to mind some of the writings of the Romantic poets who saw reason as a danger to appreciating the beauty and grandeaur of nature directly. "Philosophy will clip an Angel's wing, Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine..." warns Keats in Lamia, just before his memorable charge not to unweave the rainbow or one will be left with only shade. The imposition of cognitive structure on the religious experience, epitomized perhaps best by the Brisker Derech, risks losing the poet's appreciation of the beauty and rapture of G-d's presence in everyday life. I think this poet's vision (some passages in Likutei Mohara'n are especially striking in this sense), unencumbred by reason, is what chassidus sought to preserve and capture.