Tag Archives: Moshe idel

Rav Morgenstern on Komarno

For an earlier posting on Rav Morgenstern’s teaching of meditation –see here

The Komarno Rebbe has yet to merit a scholarly treatment or even a Wikipedia entry.
In the meantime you can read about his uncle Tzvi Hirsh of Zidichov or a general overview at the Komarno article. You can also read
Turn Aside from Evil and Do Good: An Introduction and a Way to the Tree of Life, by Zevi Hirsch Eichenstein, translation and introduction by Louis Jacobs,

I remember when Moshe Idel offered Komarno as an undergraduate seminar, there were only four of us in the room- two undergraduates, myself, and another YU grad. Idel spend most of his time showing how the autobiography-diary can be used to unpack discussions about experience. In the diary, he writes “I did” and in his theoretical writings he writes “One should” or “It was done by some.” Idel also pointed out that the three most erudite Kabbalists among Hasidic rebbes were the Komarno, Hayim of Chernowitz, and the Koznitzer.

The Komaro wrote dozens of works and at least ten of them major works, a commentary on the Zohar –Zohar Hai, a commentary on Humash- Heikhal Ha-Berachah, a mystical diary, commentaries on Mizvot, on mishneh, and much more. The Komarno Rebbe practiced the Lurianic-Vital Yihudim, actively sought the presence of the shekhinah, and had conversations with deceased saints. His introduction to Humash mentions how Moshe received an out of body ex-static experience. His was a Hasidism of doing, a religious life of performing yihudim, tikuniim, and segulot. He and his uncle had a special disdain for Chabad because they turned chasidus into a form of hakirah- philosophic investigation.

When I received two shiurim from Rav Morgenstern on Komarno I was pleased and looked forward to studying them. They are based on his shiur in Yiddish 8 pm on Tuesday nights – ohalei yosef #4. On other nights he gives shiur on Breslov, Ashlag, and Chabad. The shiurim are ostensively on Netiv Mitzvotekha by the Komarno rebbe. From the nature of shiur one gets a sense that it is to relative beginners who want a smattering of all things in Kabbalah. He reads a passage in Komarno and then proceeds to tell his listener what it means in the Ramak, Ramchal, Baal ha-Tanya, Rav Nahman, and Ashlag. Mostly, it is Chabad material- he turns Komarno sodot into theoretical discussions of the higher and lower unity, tzimzum, egul ve yosher. It is the very approach that Komarno warns against.

He does discuss how according to Komarno mitzvoth have deep secrets leading to devekus, but he connects it to theoretical discussions from Chabad rather than the hands -on Kabbalistic approach that uses Chayyim Vital’s Shaar Ha-Mizvot and Shaar Hakavvanot
Yihudah tataah is defined as sensing that nothing is random – all things that occur are part of Hashem’s plan. We need to feel God’s omnipresence in our lives and that everything is providence.
Rav Morgenstern repeatedly quotes Ramchal and Nefesh Hahayyim- that all of this is mashal and it is all from our human perspective. This is quite non-Komarno.

Shiur Two is on sweetening of judgment (hamtakat hadinim) Rav Morgenstern emphasizes our sins and less the cosmic judgments from the shvirah.
In this shiur he defines the path of the Besht as devekut, emunah, and yichud. The first is the secrets of the commandments, the second is see that all is providence, and the third is meditation. This is not the way most groups define the Besht. Compare any introduction to the Besht to see the difference.
The major new point here is the emphasis on working on Emunah – this places Rav Morgenstern in a set with Rav Moshe Wolfson, and Rabbi Itamar Schwartz –there are require emunah more than knowledge of kabbalah or religious experience . Not a quietist negation of the self and only think about God as usually taught in Hasidut rather a goal to believe that all is God and His providence.

I recommend as a baseline for understanding the recent material Benjamin Brown – Initial Faith and Final Faith – Three 20th Century Haredi Thinkers’ Concepts of Faith [1998] (Hebrew) Akdamot 4 where he deals with the Hazon Ish, the Rebbe Riyatz, Miktav MiEliyahu, Chofets Chaim and others.

Rav Morgenstern explains the Shema as teaching that God is an eyn sof; that is exactly the sort of Chabad approach avoided in the original call to follow the Arizal.
Rav Morgenstern explains yihudim as Letters of the divine name serving as a symbol or parable for Hashem. He then adds his own interest, “So too light…most ephemeral thing.” On p 15 we get one of his give aways that he has read a meditation manual when he writes that one needs to reign in one thoughts and stop them from flitting from one subject to another – one needs to learn to focus.

The Komarno states that he explained a topic fully in Notzer Hessed, but Rav Morgenstern’s shiur does not give the parallel material.
Rav Morgenstern’s message is that Those who learn deep secrets of the torah are confronted with trials and tribulations. We should see all suffering as divine providence (It is interesting that he is willing to return to this in a post holocaust world.)

The end of the second shiur has a full page based on Ashlag’s shamati. He quotes Ramchal Tikkunim Hadashim on the concept of providential mishpat – but does not discuss the counter balance of melukhah.
He concludes that our main worship is to reveal Divinity as taught by Tanya.
If one wants a shiur closer to the text of Komarno, I have been told that several of the einiklach give shiur including R. Netanel Safrin in J-M.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

David Shasha on Kellner, Idel, and Nationalism

David Shasha is a proponent of all things Sefardi and a radical follower of Jose Faur who envisions a Levantine synthesis of Jewish and Arabic humanism. Shasha offers a critique of Kellner, Idel and others as destroying the humanistic foundations of Judaism. He claims that they destroy the foundation of Maimonidean humanism even if they accept Maimonides. Kellner advocates for the rationalism of Maimonides but back-handedly considers the Maimonideans as too demanding for the common person, as rejecting folk religion, and as not the Jewish tradition. Shasha demands that Maimonides be considered the tradition or else Maimonideans would always be in a defensive position. If one does not live in a rational world then all the power is in the magical hand of the rabbis.

Shasha places blame at the feet of Moshe Idel who explores the magical, irrational, and mythic forces in Judaism but who also maintains that this theurgic world is the world of the Talmudic Rabbis. For Idel, the Rabbinic tradition is magical. Kabbalah is not a Gnostic intruder into Judaism but the very meaning of the commandments for the Rabbis. Once Jews studied Saadyah, Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Gersonides as the traditon, now they read Abulafia and Zohar. For Shasha, this is tantamount to a return to idolatry and the source of militant nationalism. Full Version here.

Shasha writes:
At the center of this controversy is the vexing question of Jewish authenticity.
In his 2006 study “Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism,” Menachem Kellner adopts an approach that has become standard in most Jewish circles, writing:

“The Jewish world in which Maimonides lived was uncongenial to the austere, abstract, demanding vision of Torah which he preached. Evidence from a wide variety of sources shows that Jews in Maimonides’ day – common folk and scholars alike – accepted astrology, the magical use of divine names, appeals to angels, etc.”

In a noble attempt to elevate the thinking of Maimonides, Kellner’s arguments bizarrely lend credence to the positions of the anti-Maimonideans.
In the book’s conclusion he states:

The world favored by Maimonides’ opponents, on the other hand, is an “enchanted” world. Many of Maimonides’ opponents, in his day and ours, do indeed accept the efficacy of charms and amulets, and fear the harm of demons and the evil eye. But it is not in that sense that I maintain that they live in an enchanted world. Theirs is not a world which can be explained in terms of the unvarying workings of divinely ordered laws of nature; it is not a world which can be rationally understood. It is a world in which the notion of miracle loses all meaning, since everything that happens is a miracle. In such a world instructions from God, and contact with the divine in general, must be mediated by a religious elite who alone can see the true reality masked by nature. This is the opposite of an empowering religion, since it takes their fate out of the hands of Jews, and, in effect, puts it into the hands of the rabbis.

We can see the tension at the heart of Kellner’s argument, a tension that forces his hand in accepting the absolute authenticity of the mystical-occult tradition of the Kabbalah and rejecting the Jewish validity of Maimonidean rationalism.

Kellner’s book contains a forward by Hebrew University professor Moshe Idel, perhaps the single most influential academic in the world of Judaica, a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize and a ubiquitous presence in the world of Jewish studies. Idel has relentlessly promoted the pro-magic, neo-pagan, anti-rational strain of Jewish tradition also called Kabbalah.

Idel’s scholarly project has been designed to affirm the authenticity of the mystical-occult Kabbalah and undermine the validity of the rational standards of Religious Humanism. As we see in a representative passage in his seminal 1988 work “Kabbalah: New Perspectives”:

Kabbalah can be viewed as part of a restructuring of those aspects of rabbinic thought that were denied authenticity by Maimonides’ system. Far from being a total innovation, historical Kabbalah represented an ongoing effort to systematize existing elements of Jewish theurgy, myth, and mysticism into a full-fledged response to the rationalistic challenge.
It is, however, possible to assume that, if the motifs transmitted in those unknown [Kabbalistic] circles formed part of an ancient weltanschauung, their affinities to the rabbinic mentality would be more organic and easily absorbed into the mystic cast of Judaism.
According to this hypothesis, we do not need to account for why ancient Jews took over Gnostic doctrines, why they transmitted them, and, finally, how this ‘Gnostic’ Judaism was revived in the Middle Ages by conservative Jewish authorities.

Shasha concludes:

This has led to the rejection of Sephardic Jewish Humanism as formulated by Maimonides and an affirmation of an ethnocentric Jewish chauvinism based on the magical mysticism of Kabbalistic theurgy. It is a Judaism that rejects the tenets of a critical reading of the Jewish past and has led us to the sort of ideological purity and militant nationalism that has become characteristic of the intractable impasse in the Middle East. Though this occult process has been secularized by Zionism, it is apparent that the ideological values of the mystical continue to animate the Jewish self-perception in a nationalistic sense.

Was the Zohar ever a book?

Daniel Abrams, “The Invention of the Zohar as a Book” Kabbalah 19 (2009) 7-142

I just finished a very long (135 pages) rambling article by Daniel Abrams with many topics and looks to be the core of a forthcoming book. The article is a seminal one for Abram’s approach and the vast literature review of the field that it contains will make it required reading in the field.

The Zohar was neither written, nor edited, nor distributed as a book by the various figures who produced the various literary units which were later known by the name Zohar. (10)

The Zohar is not a Book – Nor does it have an author (105)

I have tried to express my theoretical discomfort, indeed a perceived dissonance, concerning published methodologies for evaluating the literary quality and forms of the texts known by the name Zohar. (127)

No satisfactory evidence has yet been offered in the relevant scholarship proving that the zoharic writings were intentionally composed, edited, or copied as a book. Not only can ‘the’ Book of the Zohar not be restored to its full form, but there was no single original moment that is recoverable amidst the disparate writings and unstable text(s). (142)

Abrams claims the  idea of the Zohar as a preexisting book was created in the 16th century by the printers- before that point there were only various unconnected manuscripts of esotericism. The production of the Zohar as ideas, texts, and isolated units, has little to do with consumption of the product as a book. He notes that books of esotericism had continuous reworkings.  Then in  the 16th century there arose the idea of a single book, The Zohar.

He spends much of the article reviewing statements of what this work is, from the 13th century to the 16th century printers to 20th century  and then all 20th and 21st century academic studies on what they thought about the nature of the Zohar as a book and whether they imagined that there was such an original lost book to be recovered

Abrams rejects Scholem’s theory of a single author and he rejects Yehuda Liebes’ theory of circle of Zohar authors- hug haZohar. The Zohar contains variety of styles and diverse literature, hence Abrams is sympathetic to Moshe Idel’s reclamation of the theory of Moses Gaster, who considered the work a collection of diverse sources.

He accepts parts of Ronit Meroz’s articles that claim that the texts of the Zohar originated between the  11-14th centuries. But he demurs from her suggestion that there are 14th century imitators of the Zohar’s style Abrams asks: Who says there was ever a fixed thing called the Zohar to imitate?And form criticism does not work if you do not know that the text existed as we have it in these earlier centuries.

With a bit of overkill, he cites Walter Benjamin that in an age of reproduction the book is different than in the era of production. (He does not know Stephen Greenblatt on how a printed book can have ever more aura). He uses Foucault’s “What is an Author” mentioning that author is a constructed idea. But he does not mention that in the middle ages philosophy was authorless while science had an author. Now, in the modern era, we treat science as authorless and give philosophy an author. Abrams does not state why he should think esotericsm should be different than philosophy. He might have been between off citing the shelf of books on authorship in medieval literature- Foucualt may not be proving his point. He has a nice use of Brian Stock on textual communities that have an interplay of textuality and orality.

Abrams suggests that the field needs to go back to manuscripts and first edoitions, and especially colophons  – every text must be treated in its context of production of the manuscript.

He notes:  Danny Matt is creating a synthetic text that does not correspond to any text out there.  Meroz is creating a synoptic edition but that already assumes a whole to be recreated or an original text to retrieve Abrams compares the Zohar to Rabbinic works. Zohar is like the tannaic collections that existed before the Bavli was edited.

He is glad to substantiate Meroz’s finding that some of the texts of the Zohar were originally circulating in Hebrew and then later editors translated them into Aramaic because they thought they were returning the text to its original language of Rashbi which was lost.

He is perturbed by the new book on the Zohar by Melila Heller-Eshed. There is no proof for a hevraya around the Rashbi nor is there any proof that the texts joined as the Zohar have anything in common in the original formation. Abrams is against the literary and thematic studies produced by the students of Yehudah Liebes. (I have a forthcoming review of Melila Heller-Eshed’s book)

Finally Abrams notes the phenomena of hyper-animation of the text where there is an assumed personal authorship. He notes that this started in the 16th century with the poem to Bar Yohai and continues with Liebes’ poem to Rashbi and the invocationof the spirit of Rashbi By Heller-Eshed. He asks rhetorically why doesn’t anyone ask for the spirit of the author of Sefer Yetzirah to descend on them?