Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piacetzna (1889-1943), also known as the “Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto” left behind a series of books on educating teenagers and newly married men, a diary of his Holocaust sermons, and variety of visualization techniques that he used in his work to create a modern Chassidus in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman emphasized the use of imagination and vision within Torah. We are to imagine the events in the weekly Torah study as if we are there and with vivid imagery, we imagine the Biblical stories in sermons, we use the vivid element of the midrash to teach and we are to engage in specific techniques of visualization to achieve closeness to God. We can even, if needed, image God for praying. This visionary quality is what gives his tragic Holocaust sermons delivered in the Warsaw ghetto such pathos. Daniel Reiser wrote his dissertation and subsequent book on these visionary meditations. The book was translated last year.
Dr. Daniel Reiser is the director of the Department of Jewish Thought at Herzog Academic College and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious and Spiritual studies at Zefat Academic College. He received his PhD in Jewish Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
His book Imagery Techniques in Modern Jewish Mysticism (deGruyter, 2018) analyzes and describes the development and aspects of imagery techniques. In Reiser’s opinion these techniques, in contrast to linguistic techniques in medieval Kabbalah and in contrast to early Hasidism, have all the characteristics of a full screenplay, a long and complicated plot woven together from many scenes. Reiser compares Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira’s techniques to those of his contemporary Menachem Eckstein and to Musar visualization techniques. The Hebrew edition won The World Union of Jewish Studies Matanel Prize for the best book in Jewish Thought published during the years 2013-2014. Here is the Table of Contents.
Reiser’s work on Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira visualization lead to his editing of a new edition of the Warsaw ghetto sermons.
To return to the visualization method of the Piesetzna, he exhorted his students not to limit oneself to one’s first image, rather to cultivate an entire imagery approach to Torah. “Train yourself to expand your thinking, and relate all that you know about the Temple” to your mental image of the Temple. One should think that this Temple image is “the place where God’s Presence can literally be seen and which the Torah commands us to visit three times a year. Why? In order to behold the countenance of the Lord God of hosts.”
These visualization of the themes of prayer and of the weekly Torah study are a continuous activity. The Piesetzna advocates: “even at times other than the regular prayers, it is recommended that a person practice such imagery, so that when it is time to pray, he will be able to conjure such an image immediately… Even in your spare time, think of such images, so that when you are at prayer it will be as though you are standing in the Temple, etc. Thus, when you come to pray, it will be easier to arouse fervor within yourself.
Rather than a Judaism of emotions, volition, or intellect, neo-chassidic enthusiasm, submission to the law, or conceptual analysis of Torah, here we have a fourth option. A Torah of the imagination. Reiser shows how this Torah of the imagination is linked to a renewal of prophecy in early 20th century Jewish thought.
Reiser, however, does not deal with the basics of Kalonymous Kalman’s thought, presupposing his reader knows them already. He also does not address the full life and corpus of the Piesetzna limiting himself to his techniques. For those unfamiliar with the corpus of the Piesetzna, I highly recommend the book by Ron Wacks available in Hebrew as Lahavat Eish Kodesh and in English as 36 online lessons on the VBM.
This blog has dealt with many of these issues before including Tomer Persico’s broad survey book on Jewish meditation and Menachem Ekstein’s visualization techniques. I also published observations when I returned from a conference on meditation (here and here) and have dealt with Aryeh Kaplan in three posts. There is still much to write about the Piesetzna and there are several fine unpublished dissertations on his spirituality.
Unfortunately, the English edition of the book costs a fortune therefore the causal English readers will likely rely on the popular and much less reliable presentations on this topic. One final note, the book is very Israeli. It focuses on tracing the ideas to prior texts.It is very unlike current approaches in contemplation studies which are interdisciplinary explorations of psychology, neuroscience and comparative religion. American graduate programs also integrate practice, critical subjectivity, and character development, this thesis is very rational. For an example of the American approach, see here.
- How did you get interested in Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira?
When I was 21, I went into a store of old and used books in Jerusalem. I saw a small booklet there, at a cost of 1 NIS. It was written on it The Obligation of the Students, Warsaw 1932. The year and location and of course the price drew my attention and caused me to buy the book. I was then drawn to the author’s unique language, full of pathos and ethos. That was the beginning.
Subsequently, it was not easy to get the rest of his books but with the help of a friend I acquired the book “Hachsharat Ha’avrechim” and his other books. I immediately saw that this was an unusual figure, full of spirit and relevant. And the rest was history.
2. What is Kalonymous Kalman Shapira’s conception of prophecy?
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira associates imagery exercises done in contemporary times with prophecy. Practicing guided imagery develops a new internal sense, and with that new talent people will be able to gain prophecy.
According to the Shapira, biblical prophecy has two sides to it, the personal and the social. The Prophet has an individual personal attachment to God. However, at the same time his influence has an impact on the surrounding society. His interest in prophecy is both – personal and to influence others to seek prophecy.
The essence of prophecy is a constant cleaving with God, which makes it possible for man to achieve Holy Spirit. Kalonomous Kalman describes this in terms of light: the prophet is filled with the “light of God.” He thus serves as a projector for the dissemination of light to society, which is “full of splendor, they radiate brightness” (El Adon).
Since the prophet is filled with light, he wants to bring it to the people, to let it radiate. Biblical prophecy bring a message to society which is its radiation. It is not a personal enlightenment as in Buddhism. but always with a message. One can call it Jewish spiritual enlightenment or Jewish prophecy in that it always has a social message. Yorem Jacobson assumed this was also true about early Hasidism.
3. What is the role of imagination in Kalonymous Kalman Shapira’s thought?
For Kalonymous Kalman Shapira imagination has 2 roles: (1) To prepare man for prophecy (2) To empower any religious experience, that is, to transform any normative religious experience into a more powerful experience which is called a mystical experience.
Similar to the role of hot pepper placed in food to enhance its taste so is imaginative imagery added to other experiences such as Torah study, prayer, dance and music and makes them an experience of contact with the divinity.
4. What role does imagination play for Rabbi Shapira in Torah and prayer?
Shapira stresses that Torah study is not just intellectual and informative learning. Imagery makes learning experiential. Anyone who imagines that he lives far away from his father for many years and suddenly receives an envelope with a letter from his father will obviously be moved and shaken when he opens the envelope and then reads the letter eagerly, over and over again. Thus, one who imagines that learning Talmud is to receive a love letter from God, then all his learning will be full of experience. He will have more motivation to learn. In other words, the imaginative faculty enables empowering Torah learning from an intellectual act to an experiential one.
The same applies to prayer. Institutional prayer is routine and sometimes boring – imagination can “light” it and make it relevant. You cannot compare those who say routinely and banally “And we will be our descendants … We all know your name and learn your Torah for its own sake,” to those who say this while they imagine their children one by one and plead that they will continue their parent’s tradition.
5. How did Kalonymous Kalman Shapira come to these ideas?
Good question. The first role of imagination, namely, the preparation of the prophecy, is based on medieval Jewish philosophy, and especially on Maimonides, who discusses in the Guide for the Perplexed the vital and central role of the “imaginative faculty” in the phenomena of prophecy. Maimonides spoke only theoretically while Shapira offered practical exercises to realize this vision.
The second role of imagination in the empowerment of a religious experience – I do not know – it seems original. Although Rabbi Shapira based his techniques on early Kabbalah and Hasidism, his enormous project – the addition of imagination to every action and religious action – is original and has no serious precedents.
In prior centuries, we can only find traces of such an emphasis on imagination in Abulafia’s school of Kabbalah, which use linguistic imagery techniques, where you imagine the Hebrew letters and different linguistic variations.
At the beginning of Hasidism, we find similar imagery techniques. However, they are characterized by being limited to one short scene such as imagining oneself jumping into the fire to die a maryrs death, by R. Elimelech of Lizhensk. I am not aware of full imagery techniques of an entire imagined script, as Shapira developed. (In my opinion, a script that is not inferior to a modern full movie).
6) What role does imagination play in his meditation techniques?
Shapira’s Imagery exercises are meditation! (I define meditation as a human effort to reach an experience of divine presence). This is not the current [Vipassana] Buddhist type of meditation of emptying the consciousness but a meditation of mind filling, which has strong roots in Judaism, as Tomer Persico showed in his book on Jewish meditation.
Yet even with antecedents in Jewish meditation practice Shapira is unique in his approach. He brought the imagery exercises in Judaism to a highpoint beyond any antecedents. We mentioned above that he developed very long imaginative exercises similar to a cinema script, which was never done before him. In this he was groundbreaking.
He also has imagery exercises that I would call sub-categories of prophecy, but not a direct prophecy. In these exercises one imagines God in one way or another and thus man demonstrates and presents God in his private life. (See #7)
7) Why does Shapira allow one to visual God? What does God look like?
Shapira permits in one case an imaginal corporealization of God. He even uses halakhic terminology in order to grant halakhic justification to the practice.
A person, who is in such a situation at the beginning of his growth and expansion of his thought, can rely on the Rabad (Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières), who comments that a physical being who utilizes images, may visualize this… As for you, as a member of the fraternity, in a time of distress you should visualize yourself standing before the Throne of Glory, praying and beseeching from God like a son who cries and pleads before his father(Benei Maḥshavah Ṭovah, 18-20).
Mostly Shapira does not go that far in this visualization and prefers not to imagine God as an image but rather uses – what I call – imaginal substitutions. For example, he suggested contemplating the heavens and similar entities as a barrier separating prayer from God. By doing so, one can indirectly turn to God and stand before him, without needing to directly engage with the problem of corporealization of God. Or he encourages visualize the Holy Name of the tetragrammaton, which is an old technique that goes back to the Hekhalot literature.
Shapira radically pointed out quite radically a visualization of God, an insight that Rabbi Kook also insisted on.
Even though an error in divine matters is very damaging, nevertheless, the primary aspect of the damage,which is drawn from the flawed concepts, is not actualized, to the point that one who has [these flawed conceptions] is to have a soul-death (mitat ha-neshamah), only when he actualizes [them] in deed … However, as long as the matter is in an abstract form, this is not a fundamental heresy (aqirah). And in this we are close to R. Abraham ben David’s reasoning, in which he objected to Maimonides’ calling someone who believes in God’s corporeality a heretic (min).We can agree that as long as the man who corporealizes does not make an idol or [a physical] image, behold, he has not completed his thought, and it still remains in the company of the spirit, which is not able to be considered heresy and a departure from religion. Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook, Shemonah Qevaṣim (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 2004), 1:8–9
The Torah forbids the making of a statue/icon – an actual action and object but they do not reject the use of mental images. Imagination is permitted because it is abstract and is not really a materialization of God. Shapira permits to imagine God as light, and stresses that his halachic permission is just post factum for those who need it to pray more deliberately (with Kavvanah) but should not be used ideally.
8) What do you like most about Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira?
I like his honesty. He shares with the reader his dilemmas, which he does not hide, and his difficulties. This type of writing is not too common in Jewish-Orthodox writings. In addition, dealing intensively with prophecy surprised me – especially in the 20th century and especially the desire to renew it – and not just for elite individuals, but he designated and assigned prophesy also for simple people.
9) What are the imagery techniques in Menachem Ekstein’s writings?
In 1921 a short Hebrew book was published in Vienna, entitled Tena’ei HaNefesh LeHasagat HeHasidut [Mental Conditions for Achieving Hasidism] by Rabbi Menachem Ekstein (1884-1942). The author was a Dzików Hasid, from Rzesów in the center of western Galicia, who immigrated to Vienna following World War I. The reader will immediately notice that modern issues of psychology, such as self-awareness, split mind, and complex, daring “guided imagery” exercises, appear and play a central role in this book.
Ekstein’s imagery exercises are a kind of an astral journey in which a person imagines himself flying in the sky and wandering through the world and seeing everything from above – continents, states, animals, seas and lakes and humans. These exercises are very universal and very long.
At first sight they do not seem to have any religious aspects, however they are intended to bring the person to an experience of integration with creation, and creation is presented as a reflection of God.
In addition, he develops Ratso va-Shov (running and returning) exercises in which the person imagines something, enters it psychologically and then imagines the opposite. For example: a person imagines the great joy of a wedding and as in a good dream he really experiences the joy and the love. Then suddenly he imagines the opposite – the couple divorcing, with great anger and bitterness. These exercises are designed by Ekstein to develop full control over our feelings. When a person wants, then he is happy and when he wants, he is sad.
10) What are the musar techniques in the Lithuanian Yeshivot? How are they different than Shapira’s?
In the Musar movement, Imagery techniques were used, but not for the purpose of attaining adherence to God or achieving an experience of religious amazement, but rather for developing concern and fear from “the great and terrible day of judgment.”
Israel Lipkin of Salant (1810-1883), the founder of the Musar movement said:
The wicked know that their path leads to death, but they have fat on their kidneys that prevents that realization from entering their hearts… . And it can only be established through the expansion of the soul’s ecstasy, expanding the idea through sensory imagery, (Israel Lipkin, Or Yisra’el, ed. I. Blazer (1900), 29 (letter 7).
The imagery techniques revolve around the imagery of death. A person imagines his bitter end and therefore distanced himself from sin and idleness.
Lipkin’s student, R. Simḥah Zissel (Broida) Ziv (1824-1898), also emphasized this and taught the use of visual contemplation for the obtainment of fear, “for fear is built upon images (ṣiyurim);”
He shall remember the day of his death’ that our sages spoke of… meaning, he shall remember a [visual] depiction (ṣiyur) of the day of his death, and so shall he visualize all types of sufferings, how much he will suffer for transgressing the laws of the Torah, and this is very beneficial for being cautious of sin. (Ḥokhmah u-Musar (1957), 383; 56-57)
Nevertheless, it is possible to find in the Musar movement more positive elements – such as creating a religious impression in the human psyche and deepening living faith. Already Lipkin called on several occasions for the use of the imaginative faculty in connection to experience in general, and excitement in learning in particular, “[One should] learn with burning lips, with a proper idea, a broad imagination (be-ṣiyur) broadening all matters, and bring within him proximate images, until the heart will become impassioned, to whatever degree.”(Or Yisra’el, 22).
11) What have you found of similarities to mesmerism and modern psychology such as Théodule-Armand Ribot 1839-1916 in Eastern European visualization techniques?
Mesmerism was the name given by German doctor Franz Mesmer in the 18th century to what he believed to be an invisible natural force, “supernal fluid” (“fluidum”), possessed by all living things. He believed that by controlling this fluid he can heal physical and psychological illnesses. In addition, he held of the existence of a hidden power that exists in the world and passes from one person to another and allows one person’s unconscious to influence another (“suggestion”).
The French psychologist Theodola-Armand Ribot (1839-1916) published essays on the creative imagination in 1900 (Essai sur l’imagination créatrice, translated into Hebrew in 1921). His model of “creative imagination” in which imagination creates the world around us rather than vice versa in which the world molds our imagination. Usually a person sees a certain reality and then imagines it. For example, in many dreams a person dreams of events that he has seen and experiences in his life. That is, imagination is an imitation of reality. However, the “creative imagination” model maintains that in some cases imagination precedes reality and that man can imagine something that he has never actually seen. For example, No one has actually seen an angel in real life and then described it using his imagination. Rather the imagination is primary, it creates the angel. In this case, a vision of an angel is not imitating reality but rather creating it! we write about angels we pain them etc. and this reality is drawn from the imagination.
These ideas French and German ideas clearly appear in Menachem Ekstein’s doctrine. By using these concepts, Rabbi Yekutiel Aryeh Kamelhor, Ekstein’s Rabbi and teacher, explains the “elevation of the Soul,” (Aliyat Neshama) which is the phenomenon described in the Baal Shem Tov’s famous letter which he wrote to Israel (in 1744) to his brother-in-law. In that letter the Baal Shem Tov describes the elevation of his soul to the upper spiritual worlds – what he saw and what he heard.
Hasidic Jews had access to these ideas via their precis in M. A. Zilbershtrom, “Ha-Hipnaṭizmos,” (Hypnotism) in Kenneset ha-Gedolah, ed. Yiṣḥaq Sovelski (Warsaw: Ḥayyim Kelter, 1889), 41-56. In this Hebrew article, Zilbershtrom delineates the history of hypnosis, beginning with Franz Mesmer until its current state.
Natan Ophir has shown an interesting similarity between Shapira’s silencing technique and elements found in the “self-remembering” teachings of Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866-1949) and his pupil Peter Demianovich Ouspensky (1878–1947). But in my book, I disagreed with these parallels since I consider Gurdjieff’s method as having phenomenological differences and I did not see direct influence. Yet, it was an interesting possibility.
12) Do you practice these techniques? Do you teach people these techniques?
No. My students at Zefat Academic College complain to me, asking: how can I write about imagery techniques with great enthusiasm without practicing them? They say it’s like writing about love without experiencing love. My answer is that they may be right, but I am not perfect. It just does not suit me. I am too rational to practice imagery or any other kind of meditation. I’m a kind of a “Litvak” who is interested in Hasidism. I find in Hasidism amazing psychological insights, but I am not the type seeking for emotional experiences and therefore I am far from any kind of spiritual journeys.
13) How does your approach differ from others who have written on Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira?
Zvi Leshem dealt with the full range of the practices of Shapira. He dealt with the imagery of the Piaseczner, along with other practices such as melody, drinking alcohol, dance, etc. However, I did not relate to imagery as another practice alongside other practices, but rather as a practice that adds to all other practices, similar to hot pepper that you add to other things and empower their own taste. I applied the concept of “empowerment”, which I learned from Jess Hollenbeck’s studies. To empower any religious experience, that is, to transform any normative religious experience into a more powerful experience which is called a mystical experience.
14) How did you move from the imagery techniques to work on Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira’s Holocaust writings? Do you find the Holocaust work just as satisfying as the visualization writing?
I came to it accidentally!! I went to the Jewish archives in Warsaw to examine his mystical writings written before the Holocaust, and then I saw that the printing edition of his sermons from the time of the Holocaust was unreliable. So, I understood that a new edition was needed. Believe me, I did not really enjoy working on it, but I have done it in order to have a revised and reliable edition as the author would want it to be.
Dealing with these sermons was heartbreaking and tormenting for me. I do not recommend this for anyone. Writing about visualization was uplifting but dealing with the Holocaust was the opposite. In spite of this fact – without any rational explanation – I cannot escape research of the Holocaust. The more I run away from it the more it chases me. I found more and more materials dealing with the holocaust that I must publish, and I am asked to referee papers in Holocaust studies and etc.