Torah 57: Medicine, the Sage’s Wisdom and the Tikkun of Eating – part 4

Rav Shagar • 2008

The fourth part of Rav Shagar’s shiur on Likutei Moharan 57: on the faith regarding the oral Torah and the authority of science.

Faith in the Sages

But when someone blemishes [his] faith in the Torah sages and violates their restrictions, his punishment has no cure, in the aspect of (Avodah Zarah 27b): “Perhaps a ‘snake’ of the sage has bitten him, for which there is no cure.” For someone who violates their restrictions thereby removes the hands of the angels according to how he strays from the words of the rabbis. This is the meaning of (Deuteronomy 17:11), “Do not stray from the word they declare to you, either to the right or the left”—according to the manner in which he strays. If he strays to the right of the path set forth by the rabbis, he removes the right [hand from] the angel and it is unable to receive. If he strays to the left, he removes the left hand from the angel, and it is unable to transmit…

…Because matters not mentioned in the Torah were given over to the sages, and we are commanded to hear it from them. Yet there is a person who ridicules their words and has no faith in what they say, for it seems to him that from the Torah’s perspective it is not so. As a result, he is afflicted with a punishment that has no cure, and he dies from it.

… Since he has no faith in the Torah sages, who are called “alive”—as our Sages, of blessed memory, taught (Berakhot 18b): “Benayahu the son of Yehoyada, the son of a living man”; even after they have passed away, the righteous are called “alive”—he therefore succumbs to an illness which causes him to have no faith in his life; i.e., there is not a single person who has faith that he will recover from this illness, because his punishment is incurable, as mentioned above. His rectification is to raise up fallen faith and have faith in the sages.  (Translation from Sefaria by Moshe Mykoff)

Given our explanation, it is possible to understand Rav Nachman’s emphasis here on faith in the Sages. Having previously spoken about the higher Torah as the true foundation of the world, Rav Nachman now turns to the Oral Torah, which emerges from the Sages’ ability to interpret the Torah. It is through the Oral Torah alone that things in the world gain a spiritual meaning: they bring the world out of chaos. Faith in the Sages, then, is faith in the Torah, which gives the world its reality. Without this faith, the grasses could not heal: according to the postmodern perspective described above, without faith in the ‘rules’ of the game of medicine, it could not function.

Science, too, depends on this ‘faith’, on the willingness to accept the rules of the game – therefore, there is an aspect of self-nullification in science as well. Although Michel Foucault asserted that knowledge in general and scientific knowledge in particular stem from a desire for power, there is also an opposite dimension to them: the willingness to act according to the particular rules to which man is prepared to be subjected. Thus, in order to be healed with the help of a particular doctor, I must accept her information and power – to believe in it – and to act towards her with nullification of the yesh (‘something’), which expresses my readiness to accept her knowledge. In doing so, I also grant her reality.

The above is true with regards to a spiritual dimension as well: in order for Torah learning to affect and enliven a person, there must be faith in the holiness of the Torah and its ability to have an effect. The influence of Torah learning is not objective: it is dependent on the ‘receiver.’ Someone outside of the religious framework who does not believe in the Torah’s holiness will undoubtedly be affected by it in a form altogether different from that of a believer. When a person does not believe in a given medicine’s ability to cure him, it will not cure him – studies have shown this to be so. This is not a psychological issue alone: the matter here is not only the spirit’s effect on the body, but also the notion that the person’s beliefs create the framework for medicine or Torah learning to be activated.

Rav Nachman creates a specific spiritual world, one that is actualized only if chassidim believe in it. The words of Chaza”l and the tzaddikim are accepted from a faith in mankind’s ability to interpret the Torah and, in doing so, shape reality. Rav Nachman opened his teaching with the higher Torah – heavenly thought – whose existence in the world’s reality relies on man interpreting it and thus making it concrete.

This is a very complicated point. On the one hand, it is difficult to believe that nothing is objective, that everything is the result of an act of our creation (in postmodern terms: ‘construction’), even as we assign these things absolute validity. As was said previously, every framework that we fashion for ourselves has an aspect of interpretation and creation. Even faith – at its core – is a decision. I have chosen to have a certain lifestyle and, in doing so, to express my faith in God.

For example: I’ve decided to pray. At that moment, I must assign great weight to this decision. There must be a feeling of responsibility – if I don’t pray (or do not pray appropriately), my spiritual world will be ruined, and this carries an element of sin. Of course, the matter is not simple at all: if I am aware that the decision is my own, I may feel a lack of obligation. I may feel that there is a possibility of ‘making it work’: if I don’t pray today, I’ll pray tomorrow. This approach is based in the feeling that things rely on me, because I have interpreted the divine reality in a certain way. If it is all an interpretation, then I may not feel the aspect of obligation. And yet – we must be aware that although man is endowed with the ability of creation – the fashioning of a world – the created world is entirely real. As a result of our decisions, spiritual worlds are created – and if we suddenly violate these decisions, we destroy a substantial reality. Here, then, is a point of fatedness in our lives: we may create reality, but through the divine power of creation placed within us, the created reality is actual. Thus, in order for things to happen, we must act. If you want to love, love! Don’t seek outside reasons to love; so, too, in any relationship between two people. If you seek reasons for love, it will not come to pass. Love, like any every other thing, is a decision.

This, then, is the problem of the Oral Torah, faith in the Sages and the faith of a chassid in a tzaddik (which Rav Nachman deals with here in a concrete manner). The chassid understands that the rebbe is engaged in interpretation – and even so, he is asked to believe in him unwaveringly. The chassid must have faith that if the rebbe interprets Torah in a particular manner, he has created a way for Torah to exist; the chassid’s faith in the actuality of his words is essential for them to be real. Moreover, we must understand that without the Torah interpretations of tzaddikim, the Torah does not have meaning. There is no Written Torah without an Oral Torah. We must understand that on the one hand, Torah is created from our powers of interpretation and creativity; on the other hand, it is divine, and creates spiritual worlds. It follows that Rav Nachman’s form of faith in the sages gains a double meaning: it is both a faith in the sages, but also a faith in the very notion of an Oral Torah, in mankind’s ability to create Torah.

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