Monthly Archives: February 2017

Rav Shagar on Adar- Infinite Jest- English Translation

Martin Buber perceptively noted that the early Hasidic masters were no longer theoretical Kabbalists, rather many of them were using the Kabbalah of 250 years prior as the only language they knew in order to express their new ideas of enthusiasm and ecstasy. In a similar manner, 21st century Jews are using Hasidic texts of 250 years prior to discuss the psychology of contemporary religious experience. Rav Shagar uses Hasidism as a language to address 21st century issues of personal meaning and transience. He offers us thoughts on Adar as a discussion of the transience of life using Rav Nachman of Breslov.

The first draft of this translation was done by Levi Morrow, who is studying for a Bachelor’s degree at Herzog College in Tanakh and Jewish Philosophy as well as for rabbinic ordination at the Shehebar Sephardic Center. (I only knew him from Facebook, but in a coincidence, he sat next to me at a weekday morning service.) Levi Morrow has a summery on his blog of several other of Rav Shagar’s Purim homilies; they will help fleshing out the meaning of this one. As noted before, if anyone else has translations of Rav Shagar, then I will post them. I think I have two more in the pipeline. Here are some of the prior ones- here, here, and here. If you have already had enought of Rav shgar, then be patient for other topics.


As we read in a prior post, Rav Shagar considers Chanukah as a chance to see the our lives as a playing out of an infinite meaning, our creating our Real from the details of well-lived life. Purim, in contrast, is when we realize that our in reality the vessels are broken and that all of our plans and projects are naught and empty. During the year we are repaired vessels that embody the beyond, but on Purim we are broken vessels shining the infinite light

Adar is the acknowledgement that the true nature of reality is that the vessels are broken and that we need to have an experience of ecstasy during Adar to give an infinite perspective to the rest of the year.

For Freud, the transience of the everyday lead to a sense of melancholy and the need to make peace with our impending death. Mindlessness causes pain. In contrast, for Rav Shagar the realization that everything in our lives is transient turns it into an ecstasy.  Transience lets us live in the moment, to be free, and to be reach infinite beyond the finite rules of the rest of the year.  It is an infinite love and lack of security that breaks all bonds. In broad definition, akin to Lacan’s ecstatic pleasure (jouissance).

Be Ecstatic, It’s Adar.

The question for the validity of this Adar homily is whether our reactions are closer to those Freud or Rav Shagar? Freud and Rilke had profound sadness on the transience of things, Rav Shagar finds in transience a post-modern ecstasy as beyond our normal concerns.

For Rav Shagar, the destruction of our plans and projects is vital to creating a sense of being at home in the world, so that the home should not become a prison. Like the end of the movie, Zorba the Greek, when his grand project failed, Zorba danced in ecstasy of the moment. Rav Shagar considers Purim as a chance to acknowledge that our plans will simultaneously come to naught and at the same time the plans of our enemies will be negated and come to naught.

Rav Nahman of Breslov dreaded the upcoming loss of the Shabbat as soon as he ushered it in. The yearning from this impending loss allows the attainment of ecstasy. So too the potential loss and death of Purim, leads to a greater jest.

In the language of Kabbalah, the infinite divine has shattered in the destruction of our world and the repair allows us to just point to a divinity beyond, which for Rav Shagar means that “God exists without existing” allowing us to believe without actually believing.

Purim is when we were destined to be destroyed and instead we turned it into a celebration a jest. It is only exile and negation that can reveal what is usually hidden. The lack of security and survival of potential negation brings ecstasy.

During the year, the fullness of our plans and ideals leads to kindness and charity, but on Purim we give indiscriminately to show that it is not kindness but a surrender to the infinite.

Neo-Hasidic Purim Torah of the late 20th century, such as that of Shlomo Carlebach, was about reaching the most menaingful, the deepest or most hidden parts of the soul, which are deeper than my conscious self. The act of being drunk is beyond the conscious mind, lotteries show we are not in rational control, and giving gifts to everyone shows that we are all one. The goal was to reach a deeper point. Here, in Rav Shagar’s homilies we give indiscriminately give gifts to show that we outside of any value, lotteries shows that we all is transient and we accept fate, and being drunk is outside of any meaning. The goal is lightness, joy, and overcoming nihilism, which yield a revelation of the unbounded.  By the double negative of negating the negative forces in life, it is a positive.

However, to return to the opening of this post, on his differing with Freud in an Adar sermon. The concern with Freudian (and Lacanian) transience was not an Adar coincidence. Rather, Rav Shagar read and recommended to his students as a monumental work On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig by Eric Santner (Chicago:2001) available in Hebrew in 2005.

One of the major editors of Rav Shagar’s works, Yishai Mevorach mentions this in the introduction to his own work, Theology of Absence [Hebrew] (Resling, 2016). I will review Mevorach’s book later this season, but I want to point out that Mevorach did not reduce Rav Shagar to a Hasidic Purim homily or a tisch-torah, rather the true student used it as an opening for further reading and study in order to move beyond Hasidism to construct what Mevorach calls a post-secular theology of God’s absence. The question is what is the need for the 18th century Neo-Hasdic language if we can read Lacan and Santner? It seems to be the need to bring it into the synagogue and study hall.

To Jest for Liberation: Talk for Rosh Hodesh Adar – Rabbi Shagar

Translated by Levi Morrow and Alan Brill

The happiness of Purim is an ecstatic happiness, different from the happiness associated with the other Jewish holidays.

Hasidic texts explain that the happiness of the holidays is joy (ששון), the word used many times throughout Tanakh. Those verses make clear that joy is bound up with eros, with the happiness of a bride and groom:

“As a youth espouses a maiden, Your sons shall espouse you; And as a bridegroom rejoices (משוש) over his bride, So will your God rejoice (ישיש) over you” (Isaiah 62:5);

“Who is like a groom coming forth from the chamber, like a hero, eager (ישיש) to run his course” (Psalms 19:6). Similarly, the expression “The sound of joy and the sound of happiness, the sound of a groom and the sound of a bride” that is common throughout the prophecies of Jeremiah, as well as in the context of salvation.

The Mittler Rebbe of Habad differentiated between the happiness of the other holidays and the happiness of Purim as the difference between happiness contained within a vessel and happiness that is beyond and above any vessel (Sha’arei Orah 99).

The happiness of the other holidays is the happiness of commandment, a Jewish happiness that flows from a sense of security in Jewish existence and its value. I am secure in what will happen to me, but also in the value of what I do. A deep happiness that contains fullness and satisfaction, faith and security in the value of my life.

The classic expression of this happiness is in acts of kindness. We are truly happy not when we are receiving but when we are giving. Because giving willingly is a gesture that expresses a deep faith in its own value. Through this giving, we establish our existence as a worthy existence, of infinite value. This satisfaction comes from doing good acts, the faith in Jewish destiny, and the value of his life. The happiness of the holidays is the happiness of commandment and kindness, happiness based on fullness and actuality, a happiness of existence in its very existence and the Jew in his Jewishness.

In contrast, [the joy of Purim,] is ecstatic, which is based on loss (אובדן), “and if I am to perish (אבדתי), I shall perish! (אבדתי)” (Esther 4:16), and on the discovery that within this loss and absence, there is an unlimited presence, even more than in the fullness of presence itself. The source of ecstasy is the foundation of terror that lies at the basis of the jest of the Megillah, the ability to turn this capricious and frightening story into a joke.

Ecstasy is ignited by an encounter. A person is confronted by strong mutual presence, which always appears as a present reality; an experience of “Whom else have I in heaven? And having You, I want no one on earth” (Psalms 73:25).

More than anything else a person desires presence itself. A presence that is an uncontainable intangible now, beyond restraint. He wants to dissolve in love that is as strong as death. The nature of the event is an instantaneous encounter, [illuminating] how today we are here and tomorrow we are not, without a sense of security. In this lack of security, there is an existence much deeper and infinite.

The happiness of the encounter occurs against its fleeting background and its basis in loss. In overcoming these factors as well as accompanying naught (אין) and terror, a person arrives at ecstasy. The discovery of the ability to turn arbitrariness into fate and accept it. This ecstasy reveals the infinite nature of human existence, exactly because of its transient nature and lack of a need to be anchored.

In the writings of the Arizal, Purim is depicted as an exceptional situation, which occurs specifically against the background of the crisis of exile. The word “Megillah” (“מגילה”) alludes to revelation (“התגלות”), the happenings and chance [of the Purim story] enables temporary and transitory revelation of what is generally concealed and hidden.

A happiness of a life that draws on the naught, turning it into joy. A revelation that “we are here,” in the presence of the fleeting moment. After this, when the present turns into the past, joy will turn into your home, into being-with-yourself. However, in the moment of the encounter there is an unlimitedness beyond the home, which, in turn, sanctifies the home. Correspondingly, the ecstasy of the death of Aharon’s sons was the condition for the creation of the Mishkan.

Similarly, Rebbe Nahman wrote regarding the holiness of Shabbat, which is stronger for our awareness of its temporary nature, of the loss that threatens it. “Due the immense pleasure of the extra soul that arrives on Shabbat, we immediately begin to feel pain and yearnings over the loss of the soul with Shabbat’s exit” (Lekutei Moharan I:126)..

Ecstasy reveals in me an ability to be free and independent. The discovery of this very real possibility is enough to ignite us with “darts of fire, a blazing flame” (Song of Songs 8:6), with the rejoicing of a groom over a bride. Overcoming the self by way of the joke is the greatest form of   self-sacrifice, thereby creating a center of lightness not weightiness.

In this manner, the chaotic lights of destruction (tohu) are gathered in the vessel of repair (tikkun), which are not understood as independent entities, rather the [repaired vessels] embody something beyond them. A belief in God without believing, God exists without existing.

This destruction is vital to the creation of a sense of being at home, so the home should not become a prison. Only then will be built a Tabernacle into which the Shekinah could descend, thereby satisfying the desire of He that spoke and there was the world.

The joke of Purim is a joke of negation and nullification, the complete opposite of the affirmative fullness of the rest of the year, which stresses the positive and discussable. Normally, mockery is wickedness and nihilism, and mocking is therefore forbidden (except for the mocking of idolatry, Megillah 25b). On Purim, however, the mockery is turned towards the Amalekite mocker himself, becoming a negation of negation, a joke about Haman’s joke. In overcoming the self and in this double-negation is formed a positivity, a saying yes that takes as its own the strength of the negativity of the naught.

Interview with William Kolbrener- The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik

What would a literary critical approach look like if applied to Orthodox Jewish texts? What if the texts chosen for a critical theory treatment were the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-93)? William Kolbrener attempts such a reading in The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition (Indiana UP, 2016), using psychoanalysis, gender, and 17th century literature to read Soloveitchik as a literary text.


William Kolbrener is professor of literature at Bar Ilan University, and was educated at Oxford (MA) and Columbia University (BA, PhD.).  His first book was Milton’s Warring Angels: A Study of Critical Engagements, (Cambridge University Press, 1996). His current work  The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition is an application of his literary studies to a contemporary Jewish thinker. Despite writing on Soloveitchik, his classes at Bar Ilan University are currently populated mainly Arab students, both Muslim and Christian. He has also recently started writing in the public forum at Haaretz on timely topics such as “The Moral Failure of pro-Trump Orthodox Jews” and “The Cartoon God of Israel’s Settler Rabbis.”

In this new volume, Kolbrener paints Soloveitchik as an irreconcilably torn personality and as a complex pluralist.  Soloveitchik writings, in this reading, become texts of pluralism, creativity, modernity, and self-creation, instead of the more popular presentation of his writings as geometric, analytic, and halakhic. Kolbrener admits that his method as a literary critic, allows him to interpret freely outside of Soloveitchik’s original meaning and context. He is certainly not attempting a conventional archival based biography or interviews. Hence, Soloveitchik, using critical theory, becomes a window on contemporary pluralism, gender studies, and psychoanalysis, not the more often used Centrist Orthodox lens of mesorah, submission, and anti-feminism.

Kolbrener deeply admires John Milton’s religious vision, which combines religious commitment and intellectual freedom.  Counted among his other literary heroes are Mary Astell, 18th century author who combined Tory politics, and conservative religion with a proto-feminist vision. He also admires John Donne’s use of comparisons and paradox. Kolbrener finds all of these intense poetics of synthesis and complexity resonating with the writings of Rabbi Soloveitchik.

(For insights into Kolbrener and his method, here is an illustrative Youtube lecture of his on Milton and Milton’s midrash. I would recommend comparing Kolbrener’s synthesis of complexity to the synthesis of “two worlds” of the poet Yehoshua November.)

Kolbrener also draws on recent psychoanalytic authors, Adam Phillips, for example, who writes about ‘voices in the plural,’ to illuminate the sometimes conflicting voices in Soloveitchik. The psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, as another example, points out how melancholy moderns, failure to capture the essence of the Real (associated for her, with the feminine) leads to embracing the compensation of the masculine Law (language, culture, law).

The Last Rabbi focuses on a vignette that Soloveitchik shares in And From There You Shall Seek, in which he recounts that as a child, Soloveitchik was torn between the rational intellectualism of his father and the emotional support offered by his mother. According to Kolbrener, Soloveitchik idealizes the halakhic man who relies exclusively on reason and Talmudic study.

Yet, Soloveitchik cannot fully accept his father’s masculinity and for this reason, he runs into the arms of his consoling mother who provides an outlet for his emotive self. It is with his mother that he finds “sympathy in the presence of the feminine”. The imagery of Soloveitchik running back and forth between his father and mother, according to Kolbrener, reverberates throughout his theological teachings. Soloveitchik confronted a constant psychological need to choose between his father and his mother.

Kolbrener’s own narrative arc moves from secular graduate student to living a haredi life in Israel, and now a tempered modernity writing about Modern Orthodox thinkers.

When he was a graduate student, Kolbrener fell in love with the religious writings of John Milton and Mary Astell, which led him to discover Ultra- Orthodox Judaism as a fulfillment of his religious quest.

Only when I began to study Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic re-writing of Genesis, did it to occur to me that being religious was not a sign of neurosis or flaky otherworldliness. In graduate school at Oxford and later at Columbia, for me and many of my fellow Jewish students, Milton was a safe way, without the risk of embarrassment, of experiencing the poetry of a religious sensibility. In earnest discussions of Christian redemptive history, the relationship between free will and divine providence, I lived, through Milton, the possibility of religious engagement.

Kolbrener was deeply bothered by the weight of the modern age, which represents a loss of a common set of shared languages, with the growth of individual subjectivity leading to the loss of opportunity for meaningful community. Ultra-Orthodoxy was the rediscovery of a community of a shared language and meaningful community.

But the Haredi world was not the return to John Milton’s world of community. “Over years of living in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods and studying in their institutions, I realized that the fantasy of an isolated community with a single set of impervious languages was just that, a fantasy.  Communities are porous: the Haredi world in many ways is  – whether recognized or not – in conversation with the surrounding secular world.” In addition, Kolbrener was surprised to discover that they lacked the essential need for creativity and self-creation. Instead, they were fundamentalists expecting rigid conformity to social norms and having inability to tolerate complexity thereby reducing knowledge to a single and absolute meaning.

In a subsequent narrative turn, Rabbi Solovetichik and his son-in-law Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein offered Kolbrener his needed creativity and self-creation. They offered a cure for the potential fundamentalism of Orthodoxy, in that they celebrate complexity, pluralism, and self-creation. Nevertheless, here too he discovered that ideals, as Kolbrener understood them, of Torah uMadda were ever receding aspirations.   Kolbroner wrote a piece on Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s ideal of the synthesis of Torah and literature, finding it precarious. Not that Kolbrener was, God forbid, questioning the indispensable need for literature and critical theory, rather that the path of synthesis was not a safe reproducible method.

When I first became religious, I thought that Judaism and literature were incommensurable, their synthesis impossible, in any case, entailing too many risks.   Today, I still think ‘synthesis’ is an overly optimistic goal, but also understand that without taking the ‘risk’ – of reading literature and philosophy – Judaism itself would become, for me, an impoverished thing.

Kolbrener does indeed take this risk of synthesis by reading The Lonely Man of Faith as a confessional diary. His captivating analysis of Soloveitchik’s psyche is projected and speculative, yet it offers a complex synthesis of contemporary critical theory and Torah.  Kolbrener has an uncanny ability for projection of ideas onto a religious system, followed by idealization and personal identity with the object of idealization, and eventual melancholy when it does not live up to his projections.  This fascinating journey merging the personal, the interpretive, and the community offers us not a return to the pre-modern shared language and community, rather a methodology of taking risks to live in a fragmented subjective interpretive age.


1)   What were you hoping for in the study of the Soloveitchik tradition?

I first encountered Soloveitchik’s work in graduate school while working for my PhD in English Literature.  I had never considered taking Judaism seriously – as an intellectual enterprise – until I read Halakhic Man and Halakhic Mind, both written during the 1940s. Soloveitchik’s advocacy of methodological pluralism (or what he describes as different interpretive perspectives) seemed to anticipate so much of the critical theory that I was then studying at Columbia.

Unlike my professors in the academy, and strangely for me, Soloveitchik was able to advocate this pluralism in the context of both belief and commitment.  Pursuing my interest in theories of interpretation, I went on to write several articles on pluralism in the Talmud and in Soloveitchik’s works.  Several years back, I decided to put together a volume on pluralism and interpretation – a composite collection of those early articles.

The book that I found I was not able to write would have reflected the ideals of an earlier integrated self, mirroring the integrated image of Soloveitchik and the tradition of which he was said – especially by his students – to be the foremost modern exemplar.  But re-reading Soloveitchik, instead of dialectic – the word so often invoked by students to describe Soloveitchik’s thought – I found contradiction. Instead of continuity between the Talmudic tradition and Soloveitchik, I saw rupture. My elegiac tone in The Last Rabbi, is for a pluralism not fully pursued.

 2) What is your melancholy or disillusion with the Soloveitchik tradition?

Rabbinic interpretation performs, what I call following Freud, a hermeneutics of mourning, producing, in the face of loss or death, multiple possibilities of meaning. This version of interpretation acknowledges loss, indeed recognizes loss as intrinsic to the process of tradition, always offering partial interpretations in the plural.

Soloveitchik’s mourning, however, resembles more ‘melancholy,’ as Freud described it, where the devastation of loss (for Soloveitchik, personal, historical, existential) leads to a desire for a full compensation for loss. Unlike Talmudic ‘mourning’ which accommodates difference and merely good-enough interpretations, Soloveitchik’s ‘melancholy’ interpretive perspective shows him vacillating between a knowledge imagined as full conquest and the despairing realization that such knowledge is tragically insufficient.

Ironically, Soloveitchik acknowledges multiplicity in his ethics (the multiplicity of different perspectives) and in his conception of repentance (the multiplicity of different psychic voices or agencies); but in his representation of the Talmudic tradition, he usually emphasizes the certainty of a singular voice.

A further irony in his work: while Soloveitchik embraces the innovations of quantum physics to justify methodological pluralism, when it comes to justifying the interpretive perspective of halakhic man, he relies on older Newtonian conceptions of science and scientific truth. The melancholy, but still optimistic, tone of my book is for Soloveitchik’s abandonment of a pluralism that he cultivated in so many other realms, but not in his representations of Talmudic interpretation.

3)    How is Soloveitchik a self-construction but also a failure?

Soloveitchik writes in Halakhic Man of what he considers to be the primary Jewish imperative, for man to ‘create himself.’  From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s philosophical writings serve as a kind of spiritual memoir, the means by which he creates himself through writing.  Halakhic Man, for example, is about his father, his uncle, but also himself, as he at once declares allegiance to his ancestors, but also asserts independence from some of the traditions they represent. Repentance or teshuva is critical for Soloveitchik – throughout his works – as a form of story-telling about the self, one which allows for constant self-critique and continued self-construction.

Recognition of failure plays an important role in Soloveitchik’s emotional journey, and in the stories he tells about himself.  Where in childhood memories, failure is embarrassing even shameful, later in his life, both failure and suffering, are transformed, becoming retroactively a mark of distinction, indeed of existential chosenness.

By contrast, the older halakhic man – from whom he distinguishes himself – does not pursue the emotional life, and only sees failure as devastating loss.  Soloveitchik, however, through with a particular kind of memory – a ‘timeless event memory,’ what he calls both ‘blessing and curse,’ associated with the feminine – pursues his own story of self-creation.  In the end, Soloveitchik emphasizes existential authenticity, failure and suffering, the preconditions for ethical success, and full personal development.

4)    What does your title “last rabbi” mean?

Soloveitchik came to America in the early thirties when many Orthodox leaders in Europe forbade it: if you want to live a religious life, they said, you had better stay put. In this sense, Soloveitchik was one of the first rabbis in 20th century America, certainly the foremost innovator in Jewish thought and practice. To achieve this, Soloveitchik had to embody the traditions that his father represented, but also to create, innovate. In my reading, Soloveitchik has to kill off his father – in a version of his oedipal battle with his forbearers – to become fully himself, that is, a new version of the halakhic man who incorporates within his psyche, the ‘Torah of the heart’ associated not only with Brisk masculinity, but also with the feminine.

Indeed, I call him ‘last rabbi’ because of this self-perceived (and self-represented) failure as a teacher, his ostensible inability to communicate that ‘Torah of the heart.’  While engaging his students intellectually, he was not able, he confesses, to solicit ‘growth on the experiential plane,’ nor to bestow his ‘personal warmth on them.’ That is, Soloveitchik may have emphasized creativity and self-creation to such an extent, become so much the individual that he transformed himself into the last rabbi. Though perhaps Soloveitchik’s representation of his own failure implies as well a disappointment with his students who were unable to receive his personal legacy.

From my literary perspective, Soloveitchik in the Jewish tradition shows an emphasis on subjectivity that I first encountered reading John Milton, the great individualist of the English Renaissance, described by one literary critic as ‘a Church of one, a sect unto himself.’  Milton spent the last days of his life, however, as he writes in Paradise Lost ‘in darkness and solitude.’ Soloveitchik of course defines himself in similar solitary terms towards in his late writings.  Soloveitchik, however traces his ‘lonely and forlorn’ sensibility to the Biblical figure of Moses, who lived out, according to him, in obviously autobiographical terms, ‘the tragedy of the teacher who is too great for his disciples.’

5)      What is the importance of Milton for your thinking?

While still in graduate school, I wrote my first scholarly article on Areopagitica, Milton’s 1644 tract against censorship.  Looking back now, I can see how it anticipates my subsequent research into questions of modernity, community and interpretation.

In Areopagitica, written, at the beginning of the English Civil War against Parliamentary policy to re-institute royalist publication policies, Milton argues against censorship, while also elaborating his ideal for the perfect republic, a commonwealth in which different perspectives and opinions multiply. Milton imagines a community strengthened through discourse, a political ‘discordia concors’ – or discordant harmony – where differences, or what he calls brotherly ‘dissimilitudes’ preserve the whole.

Aharon Lichtenstein, Soloveitchik’s son-in-law, often wrote often about the emotional power of Milton’s poetry. For me, Milton’s Areopagitica has always been most resonant, preparing me to understand a parallel ‘discordia concors’ of rabbinic thinking, where difference – encapsulated in the phrase about rabbinic disputes ‘these and these are the words of the living God’ – is essential to the dynamics of a vibrant interpretive community.

6)      What is the importance of Mary Astell for your thinking?

Mary Astell was an 18th century Tory proto-feminist, a descriptive phrase which might be construed as an oxymoron.  Astell was conservative in both her political and theological thinking: she embraced church ritual and royal authority in a time of dissent, arguing vigorously for older models of government and community. With those commitments, however, she was also among the first writers to articulate a program for education and rights for women – pointing out the corruption of a masculine culture that excluded women from the public sphere.

Astell’s simultaneous emphasis on a conservative theology with an emphasis on individual agency provides an antecedent parallel to Soloveitchik.  But more than that, Astell’s methodology – reading gender as a marker of historical change – provides a methodological precedent for The Last Rabbi.  Astell understands modernity after 1649 in relationship to the impoverishment of masculinity (as well as a concomitant abandonment of the feminine). Soloveitchik’s embodiment of a certain version of the masculine – what I call ‘Brisk masculinity’ – marks him in my readings as a ‘melancholy modern,’ a distinction he shares with others like Freud and Walter Benjamin. From the point of view of psychoanalysis and Astell’s gender-inflected historical analysis, Soloveitchik emerges in my book as a fraught figure with his ambivalent affinities to masculine and feminine (as well as the paternal and maternal) impacting his representation of cognition, interpretation, and tradition.

7)      Why do you think of your book on Soloveitchik – with its emphasis on pluralism, gender, and psychoanalysis – as an outgrowth of your earlier work on Milton, Astell and psychoanalysis?

When, as an undergraduate I began to explore questions of pluralism, interpretation and community, I did so within the context of Western, particularly, Christian thought.  My study of Milton and the discord of the English Revolution – and his version of an idealized commonwealth in Areopagitica – had prepared me to better understand the rabbinic pluralism of the Talmud.

My work on the eighteenth-century proto-feminist Mary Astell – with her emphasis on the relationship between concepts of gender and the modern – allowed me to see the importance of gender roles in Soloveitchik’s family reminiscences, and how they impacted his conceptions of interpretation.  My more recent interest in psychoanalysis has enabled me to see how Soloveitchik’s representation of trauma – both personal and historical – came to inform both his conceptions of interpretation and ethics.  Further, from a psychoanalytic perspective, Soloveitchik’s work was charged, I argue in The Last Rabbi, even from its beginnings, with an anxiety about Freud, and the attempt to distinguish his own ‘halakhic’ project from that of the founder of psychoanalysis.

One plan for my future personal memoir would be structured in relationship to the literary and philosophical texts that most influenced me. Reading Milton marked the personal discovery of the theological languages that were never made compelling to me in the Long Island Hebrew School of the 1970s.  In many ways – and perhaps this is a paradox – my Jewish commitments emerged from my scholarly engagements with Christianity.  Reading Astell, again from a scholarly perspective, marked a personal awakening, to the importance of gender and particularly the feminine (in the world of the Haredi yeshiva, I bracketed, or perhaps even repressed, questions of gender).  Further, Astell showed me, as did Milton, that religious commitment and a commitment to individual freedom are not incommensurable.  My engagement with Freud – and especially the neo-Freudians Jonathan Lear and Adam Phillips – started as a personal inventory that turned into my book Open Minded Torah, but then helped inform the methodology of The Last Rabbi.

I should also add that Soloveitchik would occupy a central chapter in that hypothetical memoir – for only through reading his writings did I realize that Judaism did not have to be watered-down, apologetic and clichéd.  Indeed, reading Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man and Halakhic Mind showed me that Jewish languages could be as nuanced, sophisticated and complex as the languages I was encountering in graduate school.  No matter how critical the methodology of The Last Rabbi, it is largely because of Soloveitchik and his students that I am the person I am today.

8)   Does modern mean Niebuhr, Cassirer, and Dostoevsky which are  Soloveitchik’s own historical canon and context or is it your canon of Adam Adam Philips, H. G. Gadamer, and Quintin Skinner?  

My book takes the risk of placing myself both inside and outside of Soloveitchik’s hermeneutic circle.  There is a part of me, privileged, grateful to be inside the circle that still reveres the figure referred to as ‘the Rav.’ But the literary critic in me, outside of the hermeneutic circle – never exposed to the charismatic brilliance of Soloveitchik’s presence – elicits a different more complicated, even divided, figure.

The hermeneutics of suspicion should never be a starting point for any kind of study of texts, but it can complement different interpretive approaches. Adam Phillips, for example, a British psychoanalyst, who writes about ‘voices in the plural,’ provides an external set of language for reading the sometimes conflicting voices in Soloveitchik, who himself embodies many of the ‘types’ about which he writes: ‘halakhic man,’ ‘lonely man,’ ‘homo religiosus.’  Soloveitchik marshalled dozens (even hundreds) of different voices to explain Jewish thought; I aspire to a similar methodology in reading Soloveitchik’s work.  Moreover, Phillips recent literary biography of Freud, ‘Becoming Freud,’ became a model for The Last Rabbi – which charts Soloveitchik’s own drive towards individuation in relation to his predecessors as he becomes ‘The Rav.’

Hans Georg Gadamer, one of the founders of contemporary hermeneutics, and Quentin Skinner, a leading historian in the Cambridge School, are an odd couple in themselves.  But for me the former, who typically emphasizes the role of subjectivity in interpretation, and the latter, who emphasizes intention and objectivity, provide a productive gloss when read together on Soloveitchik – who throughout his life was interested in breaking down the often rigid distinction between subject and object.

For Soloveitchik the exclusive emphasis on subjectivity led to the extremes of either relativism or fascism. The belief in objectivity, by contrast, for Soloveitchik, was just an illusion, leading to misunderstandings about the nature of both knowledge and interpretation.

Gadamer and Skinner, like Phillips, provide a set of external tools for showing how, for Soloveitchik (like many of the quantum physicists whom he celebrates in Halakhic Mind) subjective perspectives or constructs are indispensable in eliciting the truth of the object.

9)       How can you psychoanalyze Soloveitchik from a vignette? 

The psychotherapist Christopher Bollas writes of ‘small details of the past’ that are resonant with unexplored, even unconsciously unintended, meanings.  Soloveitchik’s reminiscences of his family living room in Pruzhna can be simply appreciated, as some suggest, as a charming account of the family dynamics of Soloveitchik’s extraordinary rabbinic family.  From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s memories of his youthful self simply provide two accounts of his father’s approach to study.  In the first ‘Rabbi Moses’ confronts an interpretive problem raised by Maimonides and solves it; in the second, however, faced with a parallel interpretive problem, he fails.

From the psychoanalytic perspective that I adopt, however, the young Joseph’s response to his father’s interpretive endeavors (as well as his mother’s response) help to elaborate his future representations of both gender and interpretation.  In the first instance, when his father resolves the interpretive crux, he is described, in unambivalent terms as triumphant, a man of conquest (indeed parallel to the description of the typological halakhic man whose knowledge is achieved through a process of acquisition and conquest).

The young Joseph, who conceives himself in these stories as standing apart from the gathering of young men in his grandfather’s study, runs off to his mother’s room, to share the triumph of his father.  In Joseph’s eyes, his victorious father Rabbi Moses rescues ‘Moses ben Maimon,’ and by extension the prophet Moses, an intergenerational conquest, allowing for the continuation of Jewish tradition.

The heroic version of the conquest of Rabbi Moses has its opposite in the account of his father’s interpretive failure – which is treated as a near catastrophe by both Joseph and the gathered men.  Subsequent to this, the young Joseph is figured as sitting on a bed together with Maimonides, together crying, with the boy again running to his mother’s room, but this time for consolation.  She tells Joseph that one day he may surpass his father, but that in the meanwhile, he should learn to live with uncertainty.

Soloveitchik’s later representations of interpretation, in my reading, emerge from out of the reference points established in these earlier stories.  For Soloveitchik, like for his father in his grandfather’s living room, interpretation means either absolute conquest or utter failure, anticipating the vacillation between triumph and melancholy prevalent in his later works.

Only in the feminine realm, outside of the gathering of men and their legal discourse, is the young Joseph able to express uncertainty as well as emotion. Throughout his writings, Soloveitchik’s conceives of interpretation as an all-or-nothing affair – interpretation as total conquest, or completely ineffective in the face of a resistant world. The feminine, by contrast, allows for the expression of uncertainty, and promises comfort outside of the strict and often uncompromising realm of interpretation associated with his ancestors.

Soloveitchik tells his story, not in the traditional terms of autobiography, but often in relationship to the masculine and feminine, and the different, contradictory values that they represent.  Much like Adam Phillips sees Freud in his recent biography, I see Soloveitchik as both ‘scientific thinker’ attached to the rigorous methods of Brisk learning, but also ‘radical skeptic’ as he charts a course away from ‘halakhic men,’ a path only made possible through his detour through his mother’s room and the feminine.

10)  How do you understand midrash or “midrashic poetry” using John Donne, Quentin Skinner and Hans Georg Gadamer?

John Donne helps in understanding the homiletic method of R. Elazar – for both embrace a poetic stance that elicits unexpected resemblances in both world and texts.

Donne went out of fashion for generations because critics like Samuel Johnson felt that the metaphors in Donne’s poems were inappropriate over-the-top, and the forceful yoking together of unconnected realms, such as compasses and lovers or sex and religion. Donne, in suggesting such comparisons, emerges, when read sympathetically, as the great poet of paradox.

Elazar as interpreter elicits the paradoxical poetry of the divine word. When R. Elazar reads a verse from Ecclesiastes – the subject of chapter 2 of my book – he pulls out multiple and seemingly contradictory meanings, where the Torah is compared to both ‘nails’ and ‘flowers,’ inorganic and organic matter, seen as both temporal and eternal. Reading R. Elazar through the lens of Donnean poetry shows the Biblical verse asserting paradox, a metaphysical conceit avante la letter, creating a poetry in which opposites are both asserted and maintained. In my readings, midrash should be read as Wittgenstein conceived of poetry, ‘the highest form of philosophy’ – rendered only in philosophical language as impoverished paraphrase.

Wittgenstein once wrote that poetry is the highest form of philosophy, that poetic insights can only be paraphrased through different – sometimes contrary – philosophical perspectives.

I turn to the Gadamer who emphasizes subjectivity in interpretation, and the historian Quentin Skinner, who by contrast emphasizes original intention to help explain midrash and the poetics of rabbinic dispute. The dual emphasis on objective intention and subjective perspectives – Skinner and Gadamer -help provide a philosophical gloss on the paradoxical divine pronouncement ‘these and these are the words of the living God’ – in which different subjects elicit opposed but still valid perspectives on the divine law. Indeed, a method combining Skinner’s injunction to be receptive to the text, with the Gadamerian emphasis on interpretation as a creative act provides a corollary to R. Elazar’s assumptions about the ideal interpreter, both passive and active, receptive and creative.

11)   How do you use Kristeva and Winnicott to understand Soloveitchik?

Throughout his writings, Soloveitchik writes about loss: for him, even the greatest quantum scientists acknowledge with ‘despair’ that their conceptions only approximate reality, never getting to its essence. The psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva associates this outlook with melancholy moderns, where failure to capture the essence of the Real (associated for her, with the feminine) leads to embracing the compensation of the masculine Law (language, culture, law).

From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s yearning for a full connection with the Real, often associated for him with the comforts of the feminine and the maternal, leads to an always ambivalent embrace of the Law.  Kristeva’s Law for Soloveitchik, the halakha, is only partially satisfying, indeed, manifests itself as opposed to the feminine – impersonal, dry and even punishing. Soloveitchik in the end chooses the Law of his father, quite literally, though he remains ambivalent about the stringencies and exclusions of the law, as well as the feminine and the experience of existential union it offers.

The memory of a pre-linguistic union with the feminine, as the child psychologist D.W. Winnicott explains, lingers in the adult psyche as an echo of a lost feeling of existential wholeness. That echo always remains for Soloveitchik, as a possibility both tempting and potentially dangerous, promising organic unity, but threatening to undermine his agency, and subsume him entirely.

12) How has  repentance (teshuva)  and self-creation been critical in your own life & thinking?

In his poem, ‘The Hollow Men,’ T. S. Eliot laments ‘20 years largely wasted,’ referring perhaps to two decades of an attitude born by a religious pursuit (he became an Anglican in the 1920s) –  which he after came to regret.

My own life narrative – in retrospect – may look like a reverse version of modern Jewish history: where modernity is a progressive narrative of reform and enlightenment, my narrative began in the university, and ended, or perhaps looked like it was going to end, in a kollel in Mea Shearim.

Mine however was not a story that included body-snatching outreach rabbis at the Western Wall, but my decision to be part of the ultra-orthodox world was educated, informed by my readings of Western literature and philosophy.  Not T. S. Eliot’s poetry, but his essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,’ was a major influence, asserting that being part of a tradition involved, ‘a constant surrender,’ a ‘continual self-sacrifice.’

Gaining entrance to the world of Jewish ‘tradition,’ required, I thought, only an unequivocal and uncompromising immersion in Talmudic languages  At the same time, I was reading the historian of science Thomas Kuhn who wrote about the incommensurability of different worldviews, how religious and enlightenment paradigms were necessarily in conflict with one another.

As a result, coming to Jerusalem in the early 1990s, I saw Western and Jewish worlds as opposed, even antagonistic, and thought the best way to be part of the latter tradition was a kind of surrender to it.

Over years of living in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods and studying in their institutions, I realized that the fantasy of an isolated community with a single set of impervious languages was just that, a fantasy.  Communities are porous: the Haredi world in many ways is  – whether recognized or not – in conversation with the surrounding secular world.

Further though tradition does require receptivity, even surrender of a sort (an obviously over-stated ideal of the ultra-orthodox world in which conformity to social norms is such a powerful force), it also requires, indeed is founded upon, as Soloveitchik always emphasizes, creativity.  The Brisk Haredi world, I found, values the ‘hiddush’ in the Beit Midrash, but there only; for Soloveitchik, by contrast, the highest realization of creativity is the creation of the self.

Part of the challenge of the modern world, I think, is breaking out of the manic oscillation between authority and personal freedom, finding not so much a middle ground, but a balance, however fraught, between the two.

I hope I don’t show the same unhealthy zeal and close-mindedness of an earlier self, I also don’t consider those years ‘wasted,’ no more so than I think the years of skeptical questioning in the university wasted.  Living with modernity, I have come to realize, means combining skepticism and commitment, however difficult that may be.


Adam Afterman Interview-Mystical Union in Judaism  

What is Kabbalah? Are you still having trouble understanding how it came to be? This post may help you. In short, kabbalah is the name given to the 13th century texts which were able to synthesize ancient Jewish theosophy images and visions with medieval  philosophic language and conceptual framework.. The visions of God in the Aggadah with its angels, divine names, and images of the Divine chariot are retold in the fixed organized system based on medieval cosmology and philosophy, especially mystical union.

The work of Professor Adam Afterman, chair of the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel Aviv University is dedicated to this synthetic process of ancient Jewish visions and philosophic mystical language.  His Ph.D was from Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2008) , and he serves as a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His most recent excellent book:And They Shall Be One Flesh: On the Language of Mystical Union in Judaism(Leiden: Brill, 2016) is on this subject providing a wonderful overview of the issues of this synthesis along with a lucid exposition of the texts on mystical union in Judaism.  (Unfortunately, it is not available at a reasonably priced edition).


Now, that the senior scholars of Kabbalah, Moshe Idel and Yehuda Leibes has both retired, there is a new generation of scholars of Kabbalah chairing the departments and who have recently put out works (and were kind enough to send me copies).  I expect this interview with Prof Afterman to be the first of a series.

For those who still need a little more background about his project, let us look at the well-known Talmudic passage.

It was taught: Rabbi Yishmael b. Elisha said: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akatriel Yah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: Yishmael, My son, bless Me! I replied:” May it be Thy will that Thy mercy may suppress Thy anger and Thy mercy may prevail over Thy other attributes, so that Thou may deal with Thy children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice!’ And He nodded to me with His head. (TB Berachot 7a)

In the eyes of a traditional medieval thinker concerned with the divine, this text provided information that God has a right and left side and has a part that appears in visions called Akatriel. It also describes how prayer affects God and if read with aspiration to follow the Talmudic exemplar, it encourages one to seek visions similar to those of Rabbi Yishmael.  When these ideas met Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, and Sufi mystical language then the vision and prayer takes on sharper contours of sefirot and mystical union, which we now call kabbalah, in that, it preserves as a revived tradition the ancient descriptions of God.

Much of 13th century kabbalistic texts written were commentaries on the commandments or on prayer.  The kabbalists saw reality as a chain of Being, what Moshe Idel calls an enchanted chain. The goal of prayer and the commandments were to activate this chain or to merge with it.

Adam Afterman’s first book, based on his dissertation,  was on an anonymous 13th century guide to mystical visualizations to be done during prayer that combines many separate strands of mystical language. Then he published several articles on Rabbinic esoteric traditions concerning prayer including enclothing God during prayer, visualizations of the Temple, the knot of tefillin, and various other antecedents to medieval kabbalah. This new book teases out the various languages of union separating the Rabbinic era texts from those exposed to philosophic language.

Afterman’s approach is disjunctive, viewing the world of Rabbinic Judaism as distinct from medieval Judaism. He considers the new philosophic language of mystical union as making medieval spirituality into a separate new project, unlike Idel who sees continuity with the Rabbinic sources. Yet, Afterman’s own studies on Rabbinic ideas and techniques and their use in Kabbalah shows continuity in esoteric matters not related to mystical union.  Alternately, Afterman finds the Zohar as closer to Rabbinic ideals than medieval philosophic ideals because it does not have mystical union.

Afterman separates out the approaches of different Kabbalists including Rabbi Isaac the Blind, Yaakov Bar Sheshet, Abraham Abulaifa, parts of the Zohar corpus and Isaac of Akko. The book has a long first section devoted to the synthesis of the Bible and philosophy among Middle-Platonists such as Philo of Alexandria. Afterman shows the integration of philosophy and esotericism, more than one would understand form popular works on the topic.

A note on terminology. The original Greek word mysticism meant mystery, related to the idea of secret (sod). The word emerged in the 20th century as a broad category for all forms of Oneness with the Divine, including visions, emotional enthusiasm, letter magic, feelings of intoxication, cosmic consciousness, and contemplation. All of these diverse phenomena were identified and conflated with each other and with reaching a oneness with God, a unio mystica, During the 20th century, there were theological debates about whether this was the essence of religion or totally opposed to religion, and about whether Judaism had this peak experience.

Afterman adeptly separates out the concept of union in Philo of Alexandria from rabbinic esoteric practices and both from later medieval developments.  Afterman carefully defines and differentiates the nature of union of each text. Therefore, the book could have avoided the overarching term mysticism altogether thereby producing a cleaner work.

The next stage in this analysis would be to analyze within given thinkers the complexity of the identities with the divine. The next question: how do the parts of prayer, various festivals or calendar of holidays generate different experiences and different instructions? Finally, it is a shame that Isaac of Acre’s, Ozar Hayyim is still in manuscript since it is a very important work.Someone should produce an edited text.

The interview is much longer than I generally post. But, I left the length since these interviews have become regular assignments on many syllabi and this one is a nice summery of many issues and also because his book is not readily accessible.


  1. How is communion with God a medieval innovation in Jewish thought?

The ideal of contemplative or mystical communion with God, I argue, is an innovation of medieval trends of Judaism all functioning under the influence of Hellenistic-Muslim theology and philosophy and in particular Neoplatonism. This innovation goes along with the transformation of Judaism into a religion of love – the two usually go together as intensified and realized love of God is reached through spiritual communion with God.

Although the terms and commandments to love and “cleave” to God are biblical, their spiritual interpretation was articulated first only in medieval Judaism with the important exception of the first century Jewish philosopher Philo.

Philo represents in many ways a form of Judaism that is very different from rabbinical Judaism of his time and in fact quite similar to medieval Judaism – but instead of synthesizing Judaism with Neoplatonism, he offered a synthesis with middle Platonism.

The two biblical commandments – “to cleave to the Lord” and “to love the Lord” that become the main axis of medieval Judaism, both for the philosophers and mystics. The synthesis of Judaism with Plato or Aristotle gives birth to a religion that is fundamentally different from the Judaism of the rabbis in the Talmud. I view this as fundamental revolution in which rabbinic Judaism after encountering forms of Hellenistic philosophy (medieval forms of Platonism and Aristotelianism) transformed into a religion of spiritual love and mystical communion and union with God. These are fundamentally new religious values and perhaps experiences were projected back into the biblical terminology of “devequt” and “love”.

In contrast, the Talmud and Mishnah created a religion that did not emphasize spiritual and abstract forms of religious perfection and indeed did not allow or demand the human to spiritually love God and practically denied the possibility to actually “cleave” to Him. The rabbis rather emphasized the communal and physical aspects of the religious life. Rabbinical Judaism is not in any way a spiritual religion, rabbinical Judaism transforms into a spiritual religion much later with medieval Jewish thought and even more so in kabbalah.

I view the question of union with God as part of this fundamental change in Judaism and that is way I consider, kabbalah to be ultimately a medieval phenomenon and not an ancient or rabbinic phenomena; this is in contrast to Moshe Idel, Gershom Scholem and Yehuda Liebes.

2) How is the approach to union found in the Kabbalah different than that of Philo of Alexandria?

Mystical union for Philo is the ultimate experience of coming close to God, standing in his “place” or becoming one with him. This experience is the most intimate experience of friendship with God, achieved by the movement of the human soul that not only escapes the body but also transcends the created world in order to stand where God does.

This might sound as a contradiction how can union be a form of intimacy? That’s exactly why Scholem argued that Judaism is a religion of intimacy therefore it cannot allow for full mystical union, which by definition does not allow some kind of gap or “space” for intimacy. I argue that some Jews did not recognize such contradiction in terms; in fact for Philo union is the ultimate form of intimacy.

Within philosophical kabbalah with a philosophical God i.e. static abstract and transcendent God- for example Abraham Abulafia and his ecstatic kabbalah. Mystical union is achieved through a radical and rather violent move of the human soul or intellect that breaks free from the body and material existence and becomes one with God and eternal life.

In classic sefirotic kabbalah uniting with God is part of a more complex and richer movement of acting upon the Godhead, unifying it, or participating in its inner dynamics of union and only then uniting with the united Godhead or the core of the Godhead the Tetragrammaton. In this sense that main trend of kabbalah developed a much more complex religious path in which union is a component in a complex dynamic in which the Godhead itself must first unite in itself before the mystic can unite into that unity. The integration in to the Godhead is part of a dynamics that serves God and not only man!

3) What is new in your approach to mystical oneness (henōsis) in Philo of Alexandria?

Most scholars deny that Philo developed a theme of mystical union with God (See David Winston and Andrew Louth) rather they think that there is only a mediated return to God via and through the Logos or an ecstasy. I read Philo as a union with the personal God, the same God we are commanded to “love” and yet at the same time to develop a direct relationship, unmediated union with the God of Abraham etc.

My hidush (insight) was very simple indeed – I checked all the places Philo refers to the biblical commandment to “cleave” or “unite” to God. I found several discussions that if you read them together it is possible I argue to reconstruct a theory of mystical union as the fulfillment of a commandment given to the Jews – and this practice is somewhat different from all the other discussions about visionary mysticism and logos based mysticism in Philo.

Thus I argue that mystical union as a theistic ideal grew out of the synthesis of middle Platonism and the Greek Torah, as a natural and logic outcome of philosophical monotheism itself. Once you develop the idea that religious perfection and love is to come close and transform into God– the religious ideal of becoming one with the One becomes the most fundamental religious experience and ideal or religious perfection.

This has not been presented this way although Idel and McGinn have pointed out that Philo does promote some form of union and that he stands at the background of the henōsis tradition in Neo-Platonism, which later impacted all three monotheistic traditions creating the ideal of western mysticism as the union with the One God.

Most text books grant Plotinus the credit of being the first to articulate the idea of mystical union without its theistic values and without the mystery of encountering a persona.

In contrast, Plotinus’ experience of the One is a “philosophical ecstasy” in which one experiences the absolute One but not the God of that one must love.  I claim that mystical union is a Jewish idea, the result of a synthesis between middle Platonism and the Greek Bible- the biblical verses calling upon Israel to “cleave” and “love”, a monotheistic idea that is the natural outcome of theological monotheism.

4) What is Ancient Jewish mysticism?

In ancient forms of Jewish mysticism the encounter with God is through mystical vision and gnosis, through translation to paradise or the higher mythical realms. Ancient Jewish mysticism was through ideals such as apotheosis and theosis, enthronement and coronation. All of them indicate a form of transformation and even participation in Gods being and hierarchy of power but still part of a mythical setting, not abstract and spiritual “enough” to allow for mystical integration to take part. In these ancient settings mysticism is about empowerment and ascension in knowledge as participating in the divine power and knowledge – but no mystic or angel integrates himself into God Himself!

On this, I follow Elliot Wolfson who makes a clear distinction between forms of mystical henōsis and other forms of ancient Jewish mysticism. My study explores how medieval Jewish mysticism interprets and uses the ancient forms of vocabulary and symbolism in its new setting. For example the idea of apotheosis of Enoch into the arch angel Metatron is now understood as a form of mystical integration in an abstract spiritual and in fact internalized form.

Other symbols such as coronation that symbolized a transformation in hierarchy are now interpreted in terms of cleaving or uniting to the mystical light. Another idea is the midrashic idea that the patriarchs served as a “chariot” to God (based upon the biblical theme that God raised “above” Abraham and Jacob) – now in the mystical tradition of integration, in which, man and God integrate. God can even now dwell in the perfected person the same way He dwelled in the patriarchs.

5) How does Maimonides influence early Kabbalah?

Maimonides more than any other medieval Jewish thinker was instrumental in the development of forms of mystical paths that end in mystical union.

Maimonides internalized into his vision of Judaism the basic Aristotelian formula of knowledge and union, which was used to explain contemplative transformation of the human intellect into an angelic intellect or to explain of the human agent can become a metaphysical agent – then this was adopted further to explain how the human agent can integrate or assimilate into the Godhead.

The idea of spiritual transformation in this life leads to integration into spiritual realms associated with the world to come and eventually with the Godhead itself. The noetic mechanism of Maimonides helped the kabbalist explain how a human can integrate into God and how God may integrate in to the human.

I must stress that I don’t think Maimonides himself was a mystic! And I don’t think he thought that man can unite with God! But Maimonides developed a worldview that divided the universe into two realms – the material and the non-material metaphysical realm. The metaphysical realm is considered to be unified in itself as pure thought. Thus the religious path that leads us from material existence to noetic existence as angels – is at the same time a movement from multiplicity to unity a transformation from the corporal to the union of intellect.

6) What was mystical union in early Kabbalah?

In thirteen-century kabbalah we find the development of two mystical axis. (1) An axis of human integration into God through the human thought and another spiritual components that can cleave, integrate and unite with specific elements in the Godhead– usually the divine wisdom. (2)The opposite dynamics of the integration of the divine in to the human psyche, body and flesh.

The dynamics of mystical integration, where the divine and the human are living not separately but integrally– the human on a collective basis as the Jewish people (the “Assembly of Israel”) and on a personal basis (the kabbalist or mystics) participate in the inner life of the divine.

The fact that the Jewish collective was consider now to be a fundamental organ of the Godhead explains mythically the idea that the Jewish people are part of the divine, the participate in the divine life, affect it, experience it and integrate into it on different levels sometimes on a unitive basis. Gershom Scholem identified that the two key terms of early kabbalah are “devequt” and “kavvanah” meaning mystical integration\union and theurgy through intention respectively.  They are both part of a mystical life mediated through a by the commandments and the Torah.

The early kabbalists of the 13th century developed the idea of uniting with God through several philosophic forms.

First, in Neoplatonist forms of kabbalah human thought and will are capable of uniting with their divine correspondences, the Divine Thought and Will. In turn, the human agent can then tap into Gods Will or Thought act upon it, help the divine integrate itself, and draw light from the higher forms of the Godhead to the lower forms or vessels of the Godhead. At the same time, the union allows for divine energy in the form of light to descend from the divine to the human.

Second, the neo Aristotelian language of “knowledge as union” (via Maimonides) explained how integration might lead to union even in the life.

Later Sufi images further enriched the path of integration and mystical union towards the end of the thirteen century.

Kabbalah developed there are two fundamental vectors: the integration of man into God–and the opposite integration or embodiment of the divine into the human.

Isaac the Blind, the first kabbalist in Europe in the 1190’s, used Neoplatonic ideas to develop a theory of contemplative union of the human thought with the divine wisdom. Then the contemplative unified the divine components and concluded by drawing down light into man, The performance of any ritual and blessing that mentions the Tetragrammaton, allows cleaving to it, uniting to it and then drawing it down to the concrete realms.

One of his students Jacob Bar Sheshet  writing in the middle of the thirteen century drew on Judah Halevy’s Kuzari to develop a different trend of mystical embodiment – that of the human becoming a vessel for the Tetragrammaton to dwell in – as a level of union.

7) What was unique about Isaac of Acre?

Isaac of Acre (late thirteenth century), synthesized different trends of kabbalah including the ecstatic kabbalah of his teacher R. Nathan, philosophical discourse of union through knowledge and also powerful Sufi images. These diverse strands allows Isaac of Acre to present the most articulated descriptions of mystical union in classic kabbalah.

For example he describes the moment of unio mystica as following:

On that day, I saw the secret of the fire that consumes fire. The secret of fire is Form, and the consuming here is when one thing is swallowed by another, and “[man] shall cleave to his wife becoming one flesh”(Gen. 2:24). The intellectualizing Hasid allows his soul to ascend and to properly cleave to the Divine Secret, which cleaves to her and swallows her [the soul]. […]

The secret of this consumption is the true devequt. If the soul is consumed it will consume, […] i.e. if she will pursue the Intellegibilia she will perceive them and they will be held and engraved [upon her]. Truly the secret of consumption.

Of this consumption and devequt it is said [Ps. 34:9] “taste and see that God is good”. [The soul shall] cleave to the Divine intellect and He will cleave to her- for more than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse (BT Pesahim 112). She and the Intellect become one entity, as one who pours a pitcher of water into a flowing spring, all becoming one entity. This is the secret intention of our Rabbis of blessed memory when they said: “Enoch is Metatron”, which is the secret of “a fire that consumes a fire”.(Ozar Hayyim, fol. 111a see: Afterman, And they Shall Be, pp. 177-178).

Here we find images and symbols enriched with Sufi symbols of unio mystica such as the drowning and swallowing. “His soul shall cleave to Ein Sof and will return to the complete universal (klali gamur) after being particular when she was imprisoned in her vessel. She will return to become universal in her true secret source.” (Isaac of Acre, Ozar Hayyim, fol. 112a)

What’s new in my analysis is that I put together all of the elements that he uses about reaching union while still in the body. This is a rather rare and very risky state, acknowledged as possible by the theological system of Nahmanides and his followers, typified by the ascent of Enoch into an archangel Metatron. Following Nahmanides, Isaac saw mystical union as achievable in the life at the risk of mystical death.

Also following the ecstatic  Kabbalist R. Nathan he thinks that the union of man and God provides a fuller Being that before i.e. that God desires the union no less than human and that the result of the union of man and God is more than just God himself.

8) What are the types of mystical union in the Zohar?

There exist a major dispute among scholars about the mystical nature of the Zohar.

On the one hand, we have Melila H. Eshed and Moshe Idel who consider the Zohar as a relatively mild form of mystical path not promoting ecstatic and unitive forms of mysticism. The Zohar does not use “strong” techniques and does not describe ecstatic and unitive moments. In addition, the Zohar does not employ philosophical phrases of “knowledge as union” that was so common and important in other kabbalists. In fact the Zohar almost does not use the language of “devequt” in a mystical sense. The mystical path of the Zohar is rather mild and especially not ecstatic and not unitive.

The Zohar continues the rabbinic and ancient forms of mysticism that did not promote integrative mysticism, yet at the same time it does promote a complicated theory of integration – most clearly on the collective level where the “assembly of Israel” is now, at times, untied with the Godhead.  In addition, the individuals of Israel integrate, to different extents, into the Godhead. This integration leads to the participation in the inner light and holy spirit descending from above on the collective being of Israel and into each one of Israel..

Eliot Wolfson reads the Zohar as describing powerful mystical forms of integration leading indeed to mystical union. He reads the theosophical dynamics of union within the divine as referring also to human processes that describe parallel human process of integration.

The best example to discuss the issue is the way that the Zohar perceives the Shabbat as a special time in which the Godhead undergoes a dramatic change, it unifies itself and the collective of Israel are part of this unification, they participate and unite with the mystery of the one that is undergoing every Shabbat evening.

The question is this: when the Zohar describes the Godhead unifies into the secret of the One on Shabbat evening – does this indicate that the Jewish people participate, experience, or even become one with this state?

The following Zoharic source known as “Kegavanah” incorporated in the Hasidic “qabalat Shabbat” is very representative both of the participatory modus and of the embodied manner in which unification is taking place:

The Mystery of Sabbath: She is the Sabbath – united in mystery of the one, so that mystery of the one may settle upon Her. At the beginning of the prayer of Shabbat evening (maariv) the Holy Throne is united in mystery of the one, arrayed for the supernal Holy King to rest upon Her. When Sabbath enters She unites and separates from the “Other Side”, all judgments removed from Her. She remains unified in the holy radiance, adorned with many crowns for the Holy King. All powers of wrath and masters of judgment all flee; no other power reigns in all the worlds. Her face shines with supernal radiance, and She is adorned below by the Holy People, all of whom are adorned with new souls.     (Zohar Terumah, 2:135b, my translation)

The time of the arrival of Sabbath is depicted first not as an event of a unification but as a process of separation, an overcoming of a state of being grasped by “the Other Side”, a process that is concomitant with the prayer for the entrance of the Sabbath. Only once this movement of separation is completed can the mystery of the One “settle upon her” – that is, upon the Shekhinah, who is identified with the Sabbath – and allow for a rejuvenation that is taking place by the adorning with new souls of the congregation of the Holy People and a descent of an effluence from the supernal source.

The initial integration of the collective of the “assembly of Israel” into the Godhead that takes part every Shabbat allows for the collective to participate in the mystery of the One. This is symbolized by the crown and Holy Spirit that adorn each of the individuals, which function now on a higher level of unity and integration with the Godhead than throughout the six days of the week. The crown and the Holy Spirit, or the additional soul received on Shabbat, is an ontological extension of the mystery of the One bestowed by the higher elements of the Godhead on to the feminine Shekhinah, which is identified with the community of Israel. In that way, all of Israel on a collective basis participates in the inner union and unity of the godhead. In the latter part of the passage, the Zohar explain that the Holy Spirit is the extension of the point of union and unification, the mystery of the One that is the Shabbat.

I argue that on Shabbat and other unique times the collective of Israel is partially integrated into the Godhead– this is symbolized through the union of the feminine persona of the assembly of Israel that “unites” with God. The result is spiritual or mystical integration of the divine into Israel experienced as the Holy Spirit descending unto the people of Israel.

On the Sabbath, the dynamics of “theosophical union” i.e. union taking part in side the Godhead apply to kabbalist symbolically through the crown of light that is on his head and the Holy Spirit that is enveloping him.

Primarily the dynamics of union in the Zohar apply to the Godhead and not to the human realm. Wolfson does not accept this distinction in the Zohar and considers all dynamics above in the Godhead reflect and participate in those below.  I believe that this is true only sometimes when the Godhead absorbs the assembly of Israel then they are part of the Godhead and experience the dynamics of union above – other times they witness those dynamics from distance.

9) Is your book just a defense of Idel’s challenge to Scholem on Unio Mystica?

I hope not! The question is not if there is Mystical Union in Judaism (you have shown it also in your book Thinking God: The Mysticism of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin) but in what ways was this idea and practice developed in Jewish sources. How did Jews articulate the language the phrases and symbols to refer to such idea? How did they transform ancient forms of mysticism into the medieval forms of integrated mysticism of cleaving and union?

By the way, there are many people that continue arguing about this not willing to accept that this idea, ideal and experience is expressed in Jewish sources.

My method was to forget about the theological debate if and why “Judaism” can or not allow union and examine what different Jews actually wrote about the topic. My focus is on the language, that express the idea that man unties with God or with the Godhead. I say if a Jew writes that he united with God. I believe him and have no desire to interpret him differently. I’m not interested in trying the define the difference between Christian and Jewish mysticism by articulating a false criteria – I mean that Christians unite and Jews only reach partial dynamic communion, as Scholem argued.

I said if some Jew chooses to write about his integration with God using unitive vocabulary I will follow up on that. I’m interested what does he mean? Personally I have no problem with such claims and much of my work is to demonstrate that such claims for union are not necessarily pantheistic – and even if they are so what?

Idel and others started by opening a new perspective on the place of union as a theological apriori criteria (see also what Idel wrote in his first chapter of his book Enchanted Chains) and I offer a systematic investigation into the topic.  I’m trying to investigate further the ways the kabbalist talked about mystical union and integration with God in the body (embodiment and even incarnation), the language they used, the symbols the used (like the kiss and crown).

I wrote it primarily out of personal interest and I needed to investigate this matter – especially because of what I read and knew about Hasidism and Kabbalah. I wrote on earlier article on dvekut and my interest grew from there.

The fact that Scholem wrote that there categorically no unio mystica- but I came from a place that thought there is unio mystica – so this contradiction I found worth investigating even though some of my conclusions might be similar to Idel’s and Wolfson’s ideas.

I focused in this study on both the dynamics of human integration into God and the opposite integration of God into man at the extremes of both dynamics when both become unitive.  I found that the Jewish sources are loaded with unitive experiences and expression much more than I imagined at the beginning. I’m writing now about 16th century kabbalah and the same is true – I view Judaism now as a religion of union or unitive integration with God promoting this idea freely without almost any constraints or objections.

In a way, because Jews were much less theologically orientated they felt rather free to write about union with God without sensing it to be problematic. They had less constraints upon their thinking so they could easily develop unitive practices without feeling they are doing something wrong.

It was only much later under the influence of the great Jewish philosopher Herman Cohen that Jewish intelligentsia started to think that union with God cannot be a Jewish idea or experience exactly differing Judaism from Christianity. For Cohen, such language leads to Spinoza’s pantheism- defined by them as the theological borderline for Jewish heresy.

The sources themselves tell us a totally different story- that Judaism is the religion of union – that the desire for union with God is a natural outcome of monotheism and the development of integrative ideals of love and devequt.

10) Do you strive for mystical union? Why is this important to you?

Personally I’m not a mystic but a scholar of Jewish literature. I’m personally very interested in “radical” forms of religious mysticism.  I view myself as focusing on the mystical moments and mystical vocabulary and imagery in the Jewish literature. One can focus on many other elements in this literature.

The idea of mystical integration and fusion between man and God I think is the most exciting idea that exists in all religions I mean what is more exciting than the idea that man and God can fuse or integrate and even unite? I view most of kabbalah and Hasidism as exploring this idea. I’m interested in all forms of integration unitive or not – and there is wide spectrum and I’m now investigating some forms of mystical embodiment that are not qualified necessarily as unitive.

In addition the fact that my father the poet Allen B. Afterman Z”L was a kabbalist and mystic very much interested in the phenomena of mystical union (see his poetic exposition of kabbalah  Kabbalah and Consciousness in which he dedicated an entire chapter to mystical union.) did have its impact on me – and that’s natural.

11) Can you tell me about the prayer technique of the anonymous 13th century work that you edited.

The text I analyzed and offered a critical edition is a unique synthesis of ecstatic techniques of letter permutation with prayer, as the content of prayer. The anonymous text was written around 1250 in Spain and it’s an ecstatic manual to the prayers. It is rather similar to Abraham Abulafia’s mystical techniques which are not part of the prayer – here they are used as mystical manual for the performance of the daily liturgy in which the mystic uses a very sophisticated technique of letter permutation during the daily prayer leading to ecstatic experiences.

The anonymous 13th century kabbalist used a neural ecstatic technique as a prayer technique to draw down power, light and voice in the human consciousness and into the world. The practice leads to the revelation of angels and divine lights and voices.

The work foreshadows the later synthesis in the sixteen-century between ecstatic kabbalah and prayer and other forms of kabbalah like the Zohar were possible from the beginning- Abulafia represents only one possibility in the history of ecstatic kabbalah.

This commentary is a very important example of how early kabbalists added on to the daily liturgy mystical practices, associating them with a rabbinic term of kavvanah (intention) and the biblical tern of devequt (cleaving to God).

12) Why was Enclothing God important for the development of Jewish prayer?

There is a very ancient Jewish tradition that views God as enclothed with clothes of lights and colors in particular the color of the rainbow. God’s revelation was in in light and colors as is prayer. For them, collective prayer affects God’s appearance. When he receives prayer he becomes luminous. His appearance reflects his relationship with his people.

Later a fundamental step was taken in which the energy of prayer, which is the voice of prayer of the community of Israel transforms into lights and colors thereby clothing God. In a third phase, the collective spiritual of Israel becomes those cloths, in particular the crown and the tefilin that are on God reflecting his erotic relationship with his people. A classic example of the mutual crowning of Israel as a collective and God is to be found in Shir hakavod (Hymn of Glory) and is fundamental in the Zohar and kabbalah.

13) How was the myth of the knot of God’s tefilin important for early Kabbalah?

The knot represented the fundamental Kabbalistic notion that God is a halachic agent: based upon BT Brachot describing God putting on tefilin, tallit and praying. They envisioned God performing the rituals and not only demonstrating their details to Moses. These ideas were then used as by the medieval kabbalist to show that the commandments are divine. They are not only given by God, but they are also performed by God.

In addition, the Godhead contains the commandments and the Torah in their spiritualized
form. Given to the Jewish people as an extension of God they are now the main vehicle to connect or integrate with God. Reaching God through the commandmentsis a fundamental insight articulated by the Bahir and followed by the early Kabbalists.

God’s wearing tefilin is the heart of Moses’ personal revelation on the mountain. At the most intense moment in which the prophet tried to comprehend the divine nature he experienced the commandments. This becomes symbolic of the apotheosis of the Torah and the commandments into the Godhead. Moses that desired to view God’s face viewed the knot of the tefilin instead. The knot is the visible icon of the invisible God.

14) What was the technique of envisioning of the Merkavah?

In the body of literature known as Hechalot and Merkavah there are many techniques and practices used to induce trance and elevate the human agent to participate in the heavenly liturgy undergoing at the same time.

Generally speaking Merkavah mysticism and liturgy go hand in hand in context, technique and content. I mean by this that reciting a prayer, a poem, was considered as a main technique to ascend to heaven and then participate in the heavenly liturgy.

It seems that by chanting the same songs that the angels are singing at the same time in heaven the transports the mystic to participate together or in communion with the angels. Many of these prayers were memorized by the mystics that heard them in heaven and then introduced them into the daily liturgy. In all of the Jewish world besides the rabbis for example in the apocrypha, in Qumran, in Hechalot and Ashkenazi forms of Judaism and later forms of medieval Jewish spirituality there is fundamental link between visionary mysticism and prayer.

In the Talmud, the rabbis instituted the formal public liturgy and made all efforts to create a non-mystical prayer. They severed the link between Merkavah and prayer in both ways – when the rabbis write about entering the Pardes of Merkavah speculations there is almost no mention of prayer and prayer itself is almost totally detached from Merkavah mysticism. The qedusha, the sanctum is considered as a kind of compromise of the rabbis with the mystical circles to give something, some form of recognition of the heavenly liturgy but again without any mystical inclinations.

In my article I examined two rabbinic discussions that nevertheless suggest some “lost” contact between some technique of envisioning the chariot or Merkavah speculations and prayer.

I suggest that the discussions in BT Brachot 21b and Mishnah Megilah 4:6  reflect a practice of contemplative envision of the chariot during the public prayer while citing the qedushah (sanctum) There was some sort of mystical practice of contemplation of the chariot practiced in the content of reading the qedusha in the public institutionalized prayer.