Category Archives: mysticism

Isaiah Tishby. Messianic Mysticism: Moses Hayim Luzzatto and the Padua School.

Isaiah Tishby. Messianic Mysticism: Moses Hayim Luzzatto and the Padua School. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008. $69.50

These studies were written by Tishby in the 1970’s and 1980’s and they are only now available English. They portray the clean-shaven unmarried Luzzatto who wrote plays in Italian and Latin, and who gathered a group of University of Padua medical students around him for the purposes of creating a mystical circle. Tishby explores the messianism, the Sabbatianism, Luzzatto’s angelic maggid, his messiah ketubah, and the heresy accusations. These are studies on recently discovered manuscripts not final thoughts, many of these topics can use further elucidation after the thirty years.We now have many more works by Luzzatto. For example he shows us the reader that Luzzatto used his ruah hakodesh to write a new Zohar but Tishby does not explore the content of the work nor its relationship to the extensive writings of Valle. An intellectual biography of Luzzatto remains a desideratum.

Isaiah Tishby. Messianic Mysticism: Moses Hayim Luzzatto and the
Padua School. Reviewed by Hartley Lachter (Muhlenberg College)

Moses Hayim Luzzatto (1707-46) was undoubtedly one of the most important thinkers and fascinating personalities of
eighteenth-century Italian Jewry. The scion of an influential Jewish family in Padua, Luzzatto’s life and literary legacy project a
distinctly contradictory set of images. At once a poet, playwright, moralist, kabbalist, self-fashioned leader of a messianic group,
radical prophet, and exiled accused heretic, Luzzatto nonetheless came to be celebrated by Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, as well as
secular Jews of later generations

Many of the compositions by Luzzatto that Tishby addresses in this volume would be quite surprising to one familiar with Luzzatto’s more popular writing. Included here are a number of previously unknown works that Tishby discovered in MS
Oxford 2593, as well as poetry (reproduced in both Hebrew and English), and several prayers that Luzzatto composed for a variety of
occasions, including a confessional prayer that he wrote for his group of kabbalists in Padua. Tishby also gives attention to the
works of Moses David Valle (a significant member of Luzzato’s kabbalistic group), reproducing his mystical diary, rife with
messianic overtones, and he explores the question of the spread of Luzzatto’s works in Eastern Europe, and their influence on Hasidic
schools of thought.

One of the most striking compositions discussed in this collection of studies is the kabbalistic commentary that Luzzatto wrote to his own marriage contract when he married Zipporah, the daughter of Rabbi David Finzi of Mantua, in 1731. This remarkable text, as noted in Dan’s introduction, sheds important light on Luzzatto’s messianic posture. Luzzatto came to be regarded with suspicion when he began claiming as early as 1727 that he was receiving revelations of a maggid or heavenly voice, enabling him to compose prophetic pronouncements, and even a “new Zohar,” which it seems he shared with the group of kabbalists that he led in Padua. Added to this was the accusation leveled by Moses Hagiz before the rabbis of Venice that he intercepted a letter by a member of Luzzatto’s group containing evidence that Luzzatto was a follower of Shabbtai Zvi.

Luzzatto’s teacher and champion, Isaiah Bassan, convinced him that he could quell at least some of the controversy if he would agree to marry, since remaining single into one’s mid-twenties was itself understood to be unseemly. The discovery of Luzzatto’s kabbalistic commentary to his own marriage contract reveals that while his decision to marry was in part a concession intended to placate his critics, the marriage was also understood by Luzzatto as a union of divine dimensions, literally heralding the messianic era. Situating this document within the broader context of Luzzatto’s messianic doctrine, Tishby concludes that Luzzatto regarded himself as serving the role of Moses, whose task is to guide the actions of the Messiah son of Joseph and the Messiah son of David. Evidence indicates, according to Tishby, that Luzzatto understood Valle to be the Messiah son of David, while none other than Zvi was regarded as the Messiah son of Joseph. Another of Luzzatto’s group, Jekutiel of Vilna, was believed to serve as Seraiah of the tribe of Dan, the general of the forces of the messianic army. Luzzatto’s commentary to his marriage contract is reproduced in full English translation in the volume, along with Tishby’s illuminating notes. Taken together with Valle’s diary, these texts provide important source material for an under appreciated moment of messianic ferment.

We know that Luzzatto received an education in non-Jewish areas of knowledge, and he even defended his colleague Jekutiel from detractors who took issue with his study of “Gentile wisdom,” since he came to Padua originally to study medicine. How are we to understand these otherwise “worldly” men in their turn toward Jewish esoteric discourse as the source for all true knowledge?

As Luzzatto remarks in a text addressing Jeremiah 9:22, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,” found in MS Oxford 2593, “the whole science of truth [kabbalah] rests solely on this question, the question of the holiness of Israel: how the Holy One, blessed be He, adheres to them in His holiness and how Israel must adhere, through their desire and their worship, to His holiness, blessed be He; and how all the affairs of the world and of the all creation have rested upon this basis ever since they came into existence and [will do so] to all eternity” (p. 47).

There remains work to be done in better situating Luzzatto and his colleagues within the eighteenth-century Italian intellectual context.

As a companion, I recommend Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer, “Moshe Hayim Luzzatto’s thought against the background of theodicy literature,” in Justice and Righteousness (1992) 173-199 where she contextualizes Ramhal in the post Lisbon eathquake concerns of Leibnitz and King.

This baroque world of science and kabbalah intertwined ended abruptly with the Enlightenment. From Rav Yosef Karo to Ramhal and from there to the Vilna Gaon, a proper Gadol could ascend to heaven, perform kavvanot, receive angelic visitors, and attempt to bring the messiah. Forty years after these writings Ramhal’s own cousin Shadal would not suffer to perform any of these kabbalistic rites or utter kabbalistic prayers. Enlightenment concern with sense data and manuscript work on texts had brought the baroque edifice down.

Ramhal played almost no part in Gershom Scholem’s writings since Luzzatto treated kabbalah as either scientific or as theological providence,not as symbolism

In the 21st century, these remain as vestiges for the psychologist to decipher what to tell the client. There is a local psychiatrist that wants to work with me on some schema for understanding the Orthodox kids who come in with angelic visitors, when are they potential gadolim (or at least mathematicians and chess masters) and when do they need medication? But the real question is can we accept the epistemic rupture that the early modern period represents and the fact that we exists in a alternate formulation of Judaism. The Vilna Gaon with his angelic visitors belonged to Luzzatto’s world, the world of tikkunim.

Jewish respect and admiration for Muslim religiosity

Here is something from last week by Zvi Zohar, Jewish respect and admiration for Muslim religiosity

A full English translation of the original account is here. The original Hebrew article, with extensive footnotes was “An Awesome Event in the City of Damascus” in Tolerance in Religious Traditions (Shlomo Fisher ed., 2008).

Here I consider one such source, found in the writings of Rabbi Yitzhak Farhi of Jerusalem (1782-1853). It tells of a relationship between two outstanding men in late 18th century Damascus: a great Sufi sheikh and the Chief Rabbi of Damascus.
One of the two heroes of Farhi’s tale, the Sufi sheikh, attained great mastery of the Seven Wisdoms, i.e., the body of universal human knowledge. Since a person’s perfection is contingent upon mastery of these wisdoms, the sheikh was more perfect than all the Jews of his generation, with the exception of the rabbi of Damascus, who was his equal and even slightly his superior in the realm of universal wisdom.

But the Seven Wisdoms are of course only one aspect of religious perfection: the highest form of religious accomplishment is the encounter with God and closeness to Him. In this realm, the realm of religious-mystical experience, it emerges quite clearly from Rabbi Farhi’s account that the sheikh was on a higher level than the rabbi. In that account, it was the sheikh who guided the rabbi along the paths of mystical experience, by way of the garden and the pool, until their joint entry into the Holy of Holies to encounter the Divine Reality reflected in the holy name YHVH. The words on the golden tablet they gazed upon were: “I envision YHWH before me always”. This formula is to be found in every synagogue. Yet as related by Farhi, the one who actualised the promise born by this verse, the person who was indeed able to envision in his consciousness “He Who Spoke and the universe was created”, was not the Jewish rabbi but the Muslim sheikh.

At the end of their joint journey, the rabbi shed copious tears, acknowledged the sheikh’s advantage in this crucial realm, and concluded: “It is becoming upon us to do even more than that”.

Rabbi Yitzhak Farhi, addressing his audience in Jerusalem and the Ottoman Empire in the fourth decade of the 19th century, presented the Sufi sheikh as an ideal spiritual figure reaching the greatest heights of awe of God.
And above all else, there are shared elements and a partnership in the mystical experience itself—and in the joint focus of this experience: “He Who Spoke and the universe was created”. Not a Muslim God, and not a Jewish God, but the God of all existence, the Creator of all.

* Zvi Zohar is a professor of Sephardic Law and Ethics at Bar Ilan University, a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Advanced Judaic Studies in Jerusalem. A full translation, analysis and discussion of Rabbi Farhi’s account will soon be published in Jewish Studies Quarterly under the title “The Rabbi and the Sheikh”.
Read Full op-ed Version here.

Update: I received a comment of Islamaphobia with an IP number from the Israel Tel Aviv Ministry-of-finance. Dont they at least tell people not to make such statements from work? Or at least not in English?

Duties of the Heart

Luke Timothy Johnson, Professor at Emory, has an article in the current issue of Commonweal on the current battle between those who have an external religion and those who have a religion of the inner experience. Johnson considers the external religion as politics, conformity, social control, and a negative force if it is not connected to the experiential religion. He concludes that if external religion is only concerned with the activities of this-world, then secularism does a better job of creating a this-worldly humane society.

Is his observation an eternal tension of the inner duties of the heart and the legalistic duties of the limbs or does his formulation offer something new? Is this just Bahye’s Duties of the Heart or is he responding to the pressing issue of our time? Can he cure the community’s  over-riding concern with self- definition through conformity and social control? (Ignore his formulation using the word experience in our post- linguistic turn and construction of the self era; the article can easily to rewritten for our current terminology)

Dry Bones Why Religion Can’t Live without MysticismLuke Timothy Johnson

The great religious battle of our time is not the one being waged between believers and unbelievers. The battle within each of the three great monotheistic religions is between the exoteric and esoteric versions of each. In my view, the contest is already so far advanced as virtually to be decided.

The exoteric focuses on external expressions of religion. Its concern is for the observance of divine commandments, the performance of public ritual, and the celebration of great festivals. In its desire for a common creed and practice, its tropism is toward religious law, and it seeks to shape a visible and moral society molded by such law.

The esoteric, in contrast, finds the point of religion less in external performance than in the inner experience and devotion of the heart; less in the public liturgy than in the individual’s search for God. The esoteric dimension of religion privileges the transforming effect of asceticism and prayer. The esoteric element in religion finds expression above all in mysticism. Mystics pursue the inner reality of the relationship between humans and God: they long for true knowledge of what alone is ultimately real, and desire absolute love for what is alone infinitely desirable.

Less visible but no less significant is the negative effect on the exoteric when the esoteric life of individual transformation goes unacknowledged. A system of law unconnected to inner piety is simply an instrument of social control, a form of politics pure and simple. Whether it be an Islamic court issuing a Fatwah to punish someone who has insulted the Prophet, or the Vatican removing a theologian from a university faculty on suspicion of an inadequate Christology,

Islamic fundamentalism echoes Christian fundamentalism in this respect, demanding an absolute outer conformity to specific points of belief and practice, while paying little explicit attention to the intricate and difficult process of individual sanctification.

Seen in this light, the exoteric may appear to have won, yet its victory may only be prelude to the defeat of the tradition as a whole by secularism.

If religion is for this life only, then it must compete on an even plane with other worldly ideologies. And it is not unthinkable that such ideologies can offer a better and more humane society than that proposed by a religion that has been emptied of the transcendent, and lacks any room for the spirit that soars toward God.

Johnson loses me in his description of Judaism as not having this tension because we Jews follow the heikhalot texts, Ashkenaz pietism, kabbalah, and ecstatic Hasidim. Anyone know a Jewish community that fits his description?  Anyone know where we can return to follow Eleazar of Worms quest for the Divine will? Anyone teaching Heikhalot when they teach Mishnayot?

Of the three great monotheisms, Judaism has proved most successful at harmonizing exoteric and esoteric expression. The masters of the heavenly throne-chariot were among the greatest scholars of the early rabbinic tradition, and demanded of the mystic the punctilious outward observance of Torah. The medieval German chasid Eleazar of Worms (d. 1230) declared, “The root of love is to love the Lord. The soul is full of love, bound with the bonds of love in great joy. The powerful love of joy seizes his heart so that at all times he thinks: How can I do the will of God?” Similarly, practitioners of Kabbalah from the twelfth to the twentieth century assumed as the ground for their speculation a total immersion in the practices common to the community of faith. The early Hasidic movement aroused concern for its apparently antinomian tendencies, yet quickly became integrated in the exoteric tradition, and is found today among the strictest of observant Jews.