Intellectualism vs. Spiritualism, and the Accusation of Arrogance

Some friends of mine found it odd when I moved to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot, at least in terms of fitting into the Jewish community. Nachlaot is known for being a “hippie”-ish type of community, and while like attracts like, I’m, to put it bluntly, not a hippie. This past Shabbat the tension of contradictory outlooks became apparent.

At the synagogue I attended on Friday night, the Rabbi in his discourse on unity in divine thought which involved gematrias and letter meditations, included a critique of intellectualism. Specifically, the Rabbi called reliance on the intellect “arrogant” and even “egotistical.” Later that evening, one of the people with whom I had Shabbat dinner described the intellectualism as inferior to the “higher level” of experiential spiritualism because whereas human beings are limited in their intellectual capabilities, our capacity for spiritualism is apparently infinite.

I’m generally more tolerant of laypeople dutifully repeating what they’ve heard from their teacher than the teachers who disseminate those ideas in the first place, but in any event I had neither the energy nor inclination to engage in what would most assuredly be a fruitless argument with people who clearly hold a different religious tradition. My point here is less about a disagreement than the antipathy if not outright rejection of intellectualism, particularly in light of the dual critiques against it.

As I understand the term, “intellectualism” would refer to attempts to reach the divine through the intellect, mostly through contemplating sacred canonical texts such as the Torah through the prism of the Rabbinic interpretive tradition. This approach in indeed limiting in at least two obvious ways. The first being that people are endowed with differing intellectual capabilities, and the second being that the texts being studied may not incorporate the totality of metaphysical truth, especially when texts may contradict each other.

Someone who follows this path honestly would embrace the uncertainty, recognizing that there are some things one simply cannot know. For example, when I teach the subject of Olam Haba (The World To Come), I begin with three sources in which the Sages acknowledge the lack of a definitive tradition. In fact one of the marks of a “Wise Man” is someone who admits when he has no tradition on a subject (Avot 5:10).

I would further suggest that the arrogance arises when one decides to speak definitively on God’s behalf, but this sort of arrogance may manifest independently of one’s tradition. After all, those who emphasize experiential spiritualism presume that their personal religious experience is in fact an actual connection with the Divine, or that the metaphysical teachings they have studied are both accurate and authentic. The “higher level” discussed may appeal to one’s emotions, but could simply reflect one of the many varieties of religious experiences encountered by people across the world.

The major difference I can discern between the two approaches is accountability. In the intellectual realm, claims must be supported by data which can then be evaluated. If I claim the Bible says something, I must provide the chapter and verse if challenged to produce my source. But not only is there no such accountability for mystical or experiential claims, the rejection of intellectualism precludes even questioning them. One can no longer ask, “how do you know?” but instead must accept the metaphysical claims Q.E.D.

If we assume God is infinitely unknowable, then the best we can do is share our conceptions of God in the present and how we have come to this point in our development. We can share teachings we have heard and explain why they resonate with us. We can also share our preferences without portraying them as the definitive dogma of Judaism.