The Gathering of the Hidden Ones (A Fantasy)

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“…At this hour, as the Messiah stands around the corner, we can no longer suffice with the endless rulings, casuistry, and hidden and revealed teachings of these great ones. Now, we must march straight to the light of the Messiah. We shall come to this light not by complicated legalistic reasonings, nor even by Ḥasidic tales the likes of which have been recently written, but by prophecy alone.”

Hillel Zeitlin’s life was one of a relentless search for God in the modern world as he sought an answer to the longings of his soul and a solution to the suffering of the Jewish people. This pursuit ultimately came to an untimely end in the Holocaust, as Zeitlin became a victim of the annihilation of Polish Jewry which he had predicted for years. Although he wrote hundreds of editorials, essays, monographs, and reflections, Zeitlin produced few works which may be described as literary fiction. One rare example is “The Gathering of the Hidden Ones (A Fantasy)”, a short play remarkable in its content and literary form which expresses many of the primary ideas which characterize Zeitlin’s thought.

Published in 1934 over three issues of the Warsaw Hebrew weekly Ba’Derekh, “The Gathering of the Hidden Ones” presents a dialogue amongst fourteen different Jews “gathered together past midnight on a winter’s eve in an abandoned synagogue in a small city in the Province of Posen”, as “the God of Israel is hidden…the world has come to a breaking point, and the anguish of Israel—who can bear it?” Rich in references both to Judaic sources and historical events, the play examines the question of the fate of the Jewish people, the causes of its present pitiful state, and various solutions for the crises confronting it. An analysis of the play and several of its characters will serve to shed light on the complex nature of Zeitlin’s religious thought.

Already in the first line of “The Gathering of the Hidden Ones”, the sharp-eyed reader will note a reference to an earlier Zeitlin essay, “The Visitors” [translation available here]. That essay, written in 1905, develops an archetype which would reappear on occasion throughout Zeitlin’s writings over the years: the wise individuals who, by merit of their transcendental vision of reality, understand the true nature of life and the pain of humanity. The characters of the “The Gathering of the Hidden Ones” are themselves said to be “visitors in the world,” who are “detached from our surroundings as they are firmly rooted in other, distant, worlds,” as they “dream, lost in vision—yet also sense and experience our reality[…]partak[ing] in the anguish of the world.” Indeed, the play depicts nothing other than a gathering of the archetypical “visitors” of Zeitlin’s essay from 29 years earlier, once more convened to offer an account of the suffering afflicting the world and an appeal for divine mercy.

Despair and the suffering of the Jewish people are central themes in Zeitlin’s religious thought. This concern with alleviating the plight of Eastern European Jewry was initially reflected in the alignment of Zeitlin, who at the time had rejected his religious upbringing, with the territorialist faction within the Zionist movement, as expressed by his support for the Uganda Proposal at the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel. However, events such as the wave of pogroms which swept through Russia in 1903 and 1905, and the destruction wrought by the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, led Zeitlin to largely abandon practical agitation and seek religious solutions, as he slowly returned to the abandoned faith of his youth.

Throughout the 1930s, with the deteriorating economic situation of Polish Jewry, religious stagnation and assimilation amongst Polish Jewry, and the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany, Zeitlin’s thought moved in an increasingly apocalyptic direction, as he issued frenzied calls for repentance amidst warnings of impending doom. These included such works as “A Call to the Nations” and “Silence and Voice”. In these essays, Zeitlin assumed the voice and biblical literary style of a prophet, as he called for the nations of the world to repent for their sins against the Jewish people. It is in this historical context that “The Gathering of the Hidden Ones” was written.

The characters of “The Gathering of the Hidden Ones” span a wide spectrum of religious Polish Jewry. The play is framed by the words of “The Simpleton”, an uneducated Jew who rejects all explanations and proposals in favor of a direct appeal to God for mercy. In his denial of human answers, he aligns closely with the views expressed by Zeitlin in his 1922 essay “On the Depths of Being” [translation available here]. There, Zeitlin writes, “However, one only comes to true faith, my dear friend, through the complete denial of all human truth. Only those who have forever lost their faith in human truth are ultimately emptied to receive the Divine truth…” This irrational faith may be attributed in part to Russian philosopher Lev Shestov, who was a major influence upon Zeitlin.

The Kabbalist and the Musician most strongly reflect Zeitlin’s apocalyptic concerns. With their predictions of impending doom and calls for a religious revival, the two characters could have been lifted from “A Call to the Nations” and “Silence and Voice”.

With his his sharp criticism of the contemporary Ḥasidic leadership and embrace of the “Free Jews” who had abandoned traditional observance, the Forest Jew expresses two key elements of Zeitlin’s thought. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Ḥasidic movement, now an institutionalized movement with a dynastic leadership structure, was a far cry from the original anti-establishment populist movement begun by the Baal Shem Tov and his students 150 years earlier. Zeitlin issued frequent calls for a return to the early spirit of the Hasidic movement, and made several unsuccessful attempts to found neo-hasidic organizations in Warsaw in the 1920s [for more information, see Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse’s excellent article on the topic].

The Forest Jew criticizes the rebbes of Poland for continuing the expensive operation of their Ḥasidic courts as Polish Jewry starved around them. In 1917, Zeitlin records in “Between Two Worlds”, “The previous week I had the opportunity to be amongst the Grand Rabbis of Poland here in Warsaw, and hear the thoughts of those who speak always in the name of the Lord,  Hashem Yisborakh”, and “Ribbono Shel Olam”, yet despite this worship the idol of assimilation, serving its purposes through diverse means such as: lies, slander, vilification, and denunciation.”

In his defense of the “Free Jews”, the Forest Jew brings to mind Zeitlin’s life-long admiration and defense of his friend, the writer Yosef Ḥaim Brenner. Brenner, known for his staunch atheism and rejection of Jewish tradition, was perceived by Zeitlin as the ultimate truth-seeker, whose quest for God was so unwavering as to lead to his denial. Following Brenner’s murder in 1921, Zeitlin penned a lengthy tribute his friend, and a portrait of Brenner hung in Zeitlin’s Warsaw home until its destruction in World War II.

The pair of Breslov Ḥasidim are staunch believers in the supremacy of their rebbe, the deceased Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. While presently a large and well-recognized group, in Zeitlin’s day the Breslov Hasidim were a small and marginalized sect. This marginalization was partially the result of the persecution the group suffered at the hands of other Hasidic groups in the 1830s and 1860s, as described at length by Breslov Hasid 2. Zeitlin identified strongly with Rabbi Nachman, writing about him extensively throughout the 1930s. Interestingly, Breslov Hasid 2 makes reference to the Holodomor, the terror famine orchestrated by Joseph Stalin which led to the deaths of more 2.5 million Ukrainians in 1932-1933.

The Talmudist offers a rather grating response to all those who have spoken before him. Faithful to the rabbinic texts he devotedly studies, he maintains a firm belief in divine justice, despite the seemingly disproportionate suffering around him. Aside from references to the Bailes affair and the perpetrators of the Uman Massacre of 1768, he makes extensive reference to natural disasters. The 1923 Kobe earthquake in Japan had elicited a wide-ranging rabbinic response, while Zeitlin had written a lengthy theological response to the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 [for more on Zeitlin’s response, see this Hebrew article by Asael Abelman].

In conclusion, “The Gathering of the Hidden Ones” is an exceptional literary document, creatively expressing the diversity of Zeitlin’s religious thought. The Jewish people in 1934 were entering a period of crisis which would only deepen with the growing shadow of Nazi Germany. It is not known what response Zeitlin’s calls for religious revival and reliance on God elicited from his readership, but the message remains relevant for modern Jewry.

“The Gathering of the Hidden Ones” was republished with an introduction by Asael Abelman in volume 17 of Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts (2007).

Thank you to my friend and colleague Avinoam Stillman for his assistance in deciphering parts of the Kabbalistic symbolism, to Asael Abelman for offering his support and encouragement, and to Mordechai Lis for translating the Polish and Russian words.

The original Hebrew essay may be accessed here.

For more about Hillel Zeitlin and his life, click here.


The Gathering of the Hidden Ones

(A Fantasy)

By Hillel Zeitlin

Translated and Annotated by Sam Glauber

Over the course of my life, I have met a few exceptional individuals. “Visitors in the world”, they are detached from our surroundings as they are firmly rooted in other, distant, worlds. They view everything with a different eye. They dream, lost in vision—yet also sense and experience our reality. While they take no part in our lives, they discern and know all. They discern and know—and judge. Amongst them are the most sharp witted. Amongst them are half-dreaming crazies. The common denominator: They partake in the anguish of the world, and the anguish of Israel—the people of the world—steals their rest and their sleep. They are not people of action, for their souls do not come from the world of deed. Their spirits float above our world, estranged from it; the fruit of their actions is only in the most hidden and concealed of souls.

It is of these individuals that I wove together the fantasy which I present to you here. In my imagination, I see them gathered together past midnight on a winter’s eve in an abandoned synagogue in a small city in the Province of Posen. The synagogue had once been filled with Torah study and prayer, but it now lies vacant and forlorn, for the Jews have left the city due to economic difficulties and persecution. The souls of the great ones of past generations pass through on occasion to visit the synagogue, to pour forth prayer before God and administer the “Midnight” service as it had once been. [1] A heavenly voice is heard within the hearts of each of the “Hidden Ones”: Go forth to the synagogue bereft of Jews in so-and-so city at so-and-so time. They have all gathered together at the appointed hour. They recognize each other from their years of wandering. The gathering commences as the God of Israel is hidden…the world has come to a breaking point, and the anguish of Israel—who can bear it?

God Most High: “Peace be upon you, my children. At this hour, evil and bitter for the entire world, I have called you. The sin of the world is great beyond bearing; Have faith—fearful ones. Take counsel. [2] Pass judgement.”

The Simpleton: (A Jew of average height. He wears a hard-brimmed fedora on his large head; his hair is unkempt and tangled; a long beard covers his chest; his eyes are those of a pure child; at times a cloud of passing madness crosses his forehead; he is dressed in a short jacket; speaking a jumbled mix of Yiddish and Polish.)

I seek the Pań Bóg [Lord God], the great Pań [Lord]…We have no counsel…We are all sinners…Only in You do we trust, you are our only hope…Derborem zikh Derborem zikh [have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us]…Khesed un khesed, oy tatinke, khesed! [kindness and kindness, oh dear father, kindness!] Are you not the father and we the children…Even wicked and sinful children are called children. If you do not have mercy upon us, who will? If you wait expectantly for our good deeds—we will never be redeemed…Redeem us as we are, redeem us—the sinners, the foolish, the small, the weak, redeem us from the depths of our lowliness…When a child rolls around in the mud, their mother comes to clean them and dress them in a new outfit…You are the master, you are the father and you are also the mother…We are abandoned children. We ask of you only for mercy, mercy and nothing but mercy. Zlituj, pańa boże nad nami [Have mercy upon us, oh lord God] Khesed un khesed, oy tatinke, khesed! [kindness and kindness, oh dear father, kindness!]

The Zealot: (A tall Jew; he is stick-thin and gaunt; he has hollow cheeks, a long nose, a scraggly beard, and eyes lit up like Elijah.) “Kindness”…“Kindness”…Even kindness will not come to the world without merit…And our world is not deserving of kindness…May it all burn! May it all turn into ashes until it is no more!

The Happy Jew: (Short; he has black hair, a red beard, and eyes which exhibit sharpness and merriment together with an inner spark of hidden holiness.)

The world has sinned…Yes, yes it has. The world has undoubtably sinned, but with so many rabbis and rebbes in the world, why does it drown in the throes of sin?

The Zealot: Enough with your jesting remarks! We have no interest in them.

The Pained Jew: (Entirely bent over, his face is turned downwards; dark sorrowful eyes aimlessly scan the void; his forehead is lined with many wrinkles. He wears a long jacket of the old style, it is worn through; a cane is in his hand, a rucksack on his back.)

Where I shall be by day, there I shall not sleep. And where I shall sleep, I shall not go by day. My bed is a hard bench, my pillow a stone. I had two sons—two shining suns…The earth has taken them…They are rotting in the ground…A mound of ashes covers them…I cannot forget them even for a moment…I had two sons, only two, and yet you desire that the Father of the Universe annihilate billions of his creations only on account of what you call ‘sin’?

The Kabbalist: (A tall Jew with a jet-black beard; his head is turned upwards; his eyes look within himself—when they gaze at others they do not look at their faces, but rather within people and what floats around them; he speaks slowly, in a near-whisper, counting each word.)

Mankind does not decree the world’s destruction. The world consumes and destroys itself. The world has no desire to look upon the life-bestowing face of the sun, and it dies in darkness. The conduits of effluence are clogged, leaving behind putrid swamps…The world is ever separating the letters of the name of God, and when the letters come apart from each other there is no connection, no joining, and no passage between the upper and lower worlds. The lower worlds fall ever downward, falling and falling, sinking and sinking until they have scattered as formless ash within the opening of the great abyss…

The Musician: (An elderly Jew; his laugh is half-childlike, half-mad; his hair is wild; his beard is long and unkempt; he speaks quickly, a mixture of Kabbalah and music, joined together with mentions of chemistry and his private business dealings, and occasional words of madness.)

All derives from “The Beginning” [“Bereishit”, the first word of the Torah], all returns to “The Beginning”. All of the troubles, all of the ailments, all of the mishaps and conflicts, all of the calamities afflicting the world have their source in an insufficient knowledge of “The Beginning”. The world is filled with rabbis, prodigies, tzadikim [righteous individuals], sages, philosophers, and scientists—yet it does know even an iota of “The Beginning”. “The Beginning” is the eighth octave…“To the lead player, on the eight-stringed lyre, a psalm of David” [3]…”Then did Moses sing” [4]…Her children—the eighth sefira [5] from below to above…The world that is coming…The world of freedom [6]…They devised various wisdoms, invented the science of medicine, fabricated the field they call “psychoanalysis”… I scoff at them and their erudition; tell me, pray, of “The Beginning” and I will believe in them and their wisdom—even their knowledge of analytic signs is subpar, ha! I know them all, they think I am mad, and that they are the sane ones…they don’t know even the minutest part of existence, and I know…Many years before the outbreak of the World War, I said: The entire world needs healing, for it is has completely forgottenThe Beginning”. All of you have now gathered together to repair the world, and I declare that the world will not be repaired however long it does not know “The Beginning”.

“The Beginning”—it is harmony. “The Beginning”—it is disharmony. From disharmony—to a harmony greater and more sublime than that which was before. Presently there is neither harmony nor disharmony in the world—only a terrifying cacophony which strikes every mind, defiles every soul, and stultifies every heart.

(He approaches all those near him and sniffs the air, rubbing his fingers together.)

Smell, pray…smell, pray…the atmosphere, is it not entirely toxic?…Thoughts of oppression, thoughts of murder, thoughts of adultery and defilement, defilement, defilement, defilement…Do you not see the demons now filling the sky, the demons which the toxic atmosphere turned to rust?…Just like in 1914…

Wicked, wicked, so much worse than in 1914…there was an awful world war, and the world war which follows it will be more evil and bitter beyond measure, a war which will nearly annihilate the human race. And all because mankind does not desire to return to “The Beginning”, to the supernal symphony, to the eighth octave, to freedom, to the divine atmosphere.

The Half-Blind Beggar: (A man around 33 years old; he has a short yellow beard; he is dressed in a hodgepodge of summer and winter clothing; his long gown is torn; his head is raised upwards, walking as he feels around with the long cane in his hand.)

The world is wicked? The world is sinning? I don’t know a thing about that. I don’t know what “wicked” or “demons” mean. I see differently, I hear differently. The heavens are singing, the moon is singing, the birds are singing, the water sings, the fire sings, the storm clouds sing—everything is singing and filled with praise and gratitude to the Lord. Even I, a miserable beggar, sing the Lord’s song evening, morning, and afternoon. [7]

The Night-Singer: (An elderly Jew; his hair has grown hoary; he walks alongside the houses, feeling their walls.)

I too sing the Lord’s song, but only in the depths of the night. And not in the fields or forests, but in the city streets. At the hour when people, broken from their lusts and follies, return exhausted and worn from the taverns, from the clubs, from the houses of delight—I walk slowly through the sinful streets and sing to myself: “To sanctify the one who formed them, in serene spirit, pure speech and holy melody.” [8]

At other times I walk down the middle of the street amidst the midday racket, amidst the clatter of the carriages, the race of the trams and automobiles, amidst the noisy throngs of the busy merchants, and dramatically sing precisely in the Neila tune [9]: —

“Magnified and sanctified may His great name be”…[10]

The Forest Jew: (A middle-aged man. He is of mighty stature. His crude face is wrinkled, but his eyes are deep blue; He goes about in both summer and winter with no coat, just a thick kaftan; he always bears a heavy bundle on his shoulder, like a person bringing their possessions from place to place, going about everywhere; the summer months he spends at the courts of the rebbes and the ḥasidim, and he sleeps both summer and winter in the forests.)

The world is entirely consumed by flame. Who will save it? Wait a moment, let us make an accounting: What and whom caused this inferno to come? In my opinion, the tzadikim and rebbes are guilty. I speak not this time of the hypocrites amongst them—by all accounts these ones do not deserve to walk upon the earth, to breath air, to eat bread, to drink water. I speak this time of the upright and innocent amongst the “tzadikim” and “rebbes”. They too wear out the world through their small-mindedness, as their “Shulchanos” [11], “Pidyonos” [12], and “Sherayim” [13] take place as millions of people are destitute without bread to eat, and with their utter ignorance, both of that which is done throughout the earth and even of that which occurs around them before their eyes. How could these ones heal the wounds of the generation if they know nothing whatsoever of its ailments? “Constricted consciousness”…judgements…might [14]…their anger is continuously stirred up against those Jews who have “freed themselves” of traditional observance — but who and what are these “free Jews”? [15] What do these “free Jews” seek? What is their nature and essence? What is lacking for them, and what is the source of their sin? These rabbis haven’t a clue. At times, these “free Jews” have within themselves a great deal more truth than the “tzadikim”. Even more so, these “free Jews” are seekers, protesters, aspiring for a cause, desiring to repair the world and beautify it. They wander lost, stumbling and falling, submerged in impurity, at times a most difficult and severe impurity, woe to them and woe to their souls! But if the hour shall come when a pure spirit awakens in their hearts, whether by dint of the merits of their ancestors or by an “upper awakening” [16] reaching into the finest hidden chambers of the soul, they shall rise up and blossom ever higher. Through the power of their repentance they shall knock upon the doors of higher worlds entirely beyond the reach of the “tzadikim”.

However, prior to this awakening, no measure or expression can be given for how these “free Jews” cause our hearts to ache and our eyes to be darkened. They live in the deepest hell and draw others down with them. We need to approach these “free Jews” with intense love infused  wholly with the sanctity of the forefathers and prophets, and the radiant light of the Messiah.

Tzadikim like Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli [17], Rabbi [Shneur] Zalman of Liadi [18], Rabbi Nachman of Breslov [19], Rabbi [Simcha] Bunim of Przysucha [20], if they were alive at this time and knew the spirit of the age, they would be able to approach the “free Jews” with the requisite love to bring them out from the depths of hell. However, our “tzadikim” drive away the “free Jews”, pushing them away and pursuing them. Not only that, they incite their boot-licking followers to curse them, debase them, and grind them to dust before their eyes.

And what do these “free Jews” do? Day by day, hour by hour they are further distanced from the true Torah, as they race with furious strength into the depths.

Ho! Ho! Who shall save them? Who shall rescue them? Who shall pull them out from the depths of the abyss?

The Happy Jew: Now that is a speech! It’s been many years since I last heard words like that. Yes, I like it. It isn’t  for nothing that I’ve always said that the Forest Jew is a lively one. I once spoke similar words, when the leaders of the Jewish people were gathered to deliberate on the issue of settlement in the land of Israel. These leaders asked me guilefully, “Why do the residents of your city give sparingly to the great and glorious cause of the settlement of the land of Israel?”

“What do you want from me and my city!” I answered them, “Twelve rebbes hold court in my city, and yet you still wish that I would arouse the hearts of my townsmen to do some good?”

The Forest Jew: See, once more you offer words of “support”! I have no stomach for jokes of any kind. The institution of the “rebbe” is a great and exalted one. If only we had true rebbes, physicians of the soul deserving of the title, we would be approaching the gates of redemption.

At this present juncture I, the destitute, am knocking on the gates of redemption, wandering from forest to forest, sanctifying and purifying the air around me as I sing, acclaim, and cry out — yet the the true gates of redemption, the gates of the final redemption, remain locked and bolted.

Breslov Ḥasid 1: (A yeshiva student, around 28 years old; his stature is above average. His black eyes burn like fire, although they are extinguished from time to time by the weight of his life of self-denial; the soul of God is in every one of his words. He makes an effort to speak softly and sweetly, but he is unable to hold himself back when mentioning his rebbe.)

Indeed, your words are true, Forest Jew. The “known liars” are responsible for all the troubles afflicting us. The rebbe, of blessed memory, [21] did say that “rabbi” [RaBbY] is an acronym for “Head of the House of Israel” [Rosh Beit Yisrael], and “Evil in the eyes of the Lord” [Ra B’einei YHVH], and even worse, “The wicked shall be silenced in darkness” [Rasha’im Be’hosheh Yi’damu]. If the “rebbe” is a true tzadik, than he is “Head of the House of Israel”, but if he is a “known liar”, than he is both “evil” and “wicked”, heaven forfend.

However, what you said before us, that more tzadikim need to appear in our generation, was not good. For in truth, in the past generations there has only been one tzadik who has drawn the entire world near to its restoration and complete redemption — is he not the stream flowing from the source of wisdom, whose flame, and his alone, shall burn unto the coming of the Messiah? [22]

Breslov Ḥasid 2: (A yeshiva student past age 30; upright and restrained; in his eyes there burns a flaming fire which is not extinguished for even a moment; his every movement is made with alacrity and forceful sanctity.)

All derives from the tzadik [23] and all returns to the tzadik. The world wallows in his suffering. Its restoration has not yet come, but who is to blame? Is not the world itself at fault, for it tarried in following the true tzadik? The cries which come to us from Ukraine and the other lands break open the highest heavens. [24] For the true tzadik saw and perceived all of this from before, and gave the entire world advance warning of these impending horrors — but the world did not pay heed. He called all to complete repentance, but only a select few individuals heeded his words. And it was specifically these ones — for whom the distress of the Shekhina [25] pains them at every moment; who follow after the true prayer leader, ready to forfeit before God not only their bodies but also their being, spirit, and soul [26]; who cry out to God from the belly of the underworld until their strength is exhausted (As in the expression “My throat dries up” — literally [27]) — whom their brothers pursued every which way, casting stones upon them, smashing the window frames of their meager homes, hurling wooden beams through their broken windows and injuring the infants asleep in their cribs, giving no warning to flee; and as they fled they struck their children, running after them like madmen as they cursed and swore at them with every disparaging name, presenting false accusations against them before the noblemen and officials, large and small, so they would be cast into jail. Their brothers announced every sort of excommunication and ban against them, as though they, the select few believers, were sinners, heaven forfend, the worst of the worst, for whom nothing more could be done.

And at the very moment that the pursuers — who called themselves Ḥasidim — spent all their days and nights imbibing wine and liquor, feasting every holiday and weekday, they excommunicated as heretics and apostates the very followers of our Holy Rabbi, light of lights, may his memory be a blessing. The very disciples who fasted at intervals, secluding themselves daily at fixed hours in the fields and forests in order to pour forth prayer before God about the troubles of Israel, the exile of the Shekhina, and the suffering of every single Jew; who engaged in Torah study for its own sake, praying selflessly for extensive periods; who never held back from immersing in the mikva [28] on even the coldest of winter days; who never let a night pass by without recitingTikkun Ḥatzot, without fulfilling the verse “Pour out your heart like water before [sic] the Lord” [29], without tears and heart-rending wails, without praying with all of their strength for the appearance and revelation of the Messiah.

The blessed Holy One sent an angel and saint from heaven, the Ari of blessed memory [30], to call the entire world to complete repentance. Only a select few paid heed, and the rest of the world remained submerged in the klipa [31], God forbid. This was succeeded by the awful decrees of Taḥ-ve-Tat [32] and all the persecutions which followed afterwards. Subsequently, the blessed Holy One sent another angel and saint from heaven, our Holy Rabbi [Nachman] of blessed memory, to complete that which the holy Ari had begun. When the world once more paid no heed to this final call, all of these most recent horrors came upon us, horrors beyond count.

Chabad Ḥasid: (A short Jew. He is shot through with old age. His eyes are lit up and sparkle like those of a child. He speaks laconically with deep thought.)

Simple faith is a great and exalted matter. But the source of simple faith, when it is true and correct, is derived from the sefira of Hokhma, wisdom, within the divine soul. From Hokhma, one comes to nullification within the Infinite One, such faith about which it is said, “But I was brutish, and ignorant; I was as a beast before You — Yet I was always with You,” [33] for before God we are all like fools. But when this simple faith is derived not from the divine wisdom of the soul, but from habit and tradition, it utterly fails to illuminate mankind and the worlds.

Sinners and wrongdoers too have this simple faith, even at the moment that they carry out the most serious of transgressions, as they say, “The thief calls out to God at the tunnel entrance.” [34] He steals, breaking in, ready to kill — yet at that very moment he calls forth to God! He wishes that the One who descended from the highest transcendent heavenly realms down to the lowest of mountains in order to teach mankind, “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” should help him sin, steal, and murder…

In your eyes, what is such a faith worth?

In my eyes, this simple faith of the sinner is nothing but a horrific blasphemy towards heaven.

“When you see a thief, you fall in with him, and throw in your lot with adulterers”, [35] etc. etc. “…you would fancy that I was like you…” etc. [36]

True faith, even simple faith it seems, derives solely from the mighty depths of the soul, from constant powerful contemplation of the Divinity providing life to all at each and every moment — that were it not for this life force all would be absolutely null, as is written in the literature of Chabad, from the greatest of divine ones the Rabbi of Liadi [37], and his sons and students after him.

You have been corrupted, O World, for you were not taught to cognize the Divinity…You are wise and erudite in so many fields, but you remain ignorant of the wisdom of the soul (or as it was called by the early Kabbalists: “The wisdom of the I”), that very soul whose body, “natural soul”, and “beastly soul” conceal the Divinity within it (“A portion of God from on high”) and the Divinity floating over it as a “surrounding light”. [38] The world perceives God as something distant, distant from us, for it does not know that God is “closest of closeness”, and that at the moment that the soul is pure and refined, it is possible to cleave to the light of God, verily at every instant, hour, and moment, as it is written, “For, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” [39]

Mankind pushes away and distances the thing which is so very very close to them, until it truly is far away.

One may only come to the Divinity through love, “and one may only love the blessed Holy One through knowing Him” [40], and knowledge is only acquired through exhausting the heart and mind, through incessant uninterrupted contemplation, but — “Israel does not know, My people takes no thought.” [41]

The Merchant: (A middle-aged Jew; of average height; his head is bald, his wrinkles deep, but his laughter is that of a kind and goodly man. His grey eyes always look past the foggy gloom to other, spiritual worlds.)

I can bear all of your words no longer. This one says, “my rebbe…”, that one says, “my rebbe…” The “rebbes” of today are harmless, and previous rabbis were saviors of Israel. That being said, where are the great ones of the past generations, who were true and pure tzadikim? When a threatening decree would be cast over the Jewish people, when pestilence, war, and famine were decreed upon the many nations of their day, they certainly fasted and afflicted their bodies as they prayed to God with broken hearts over these decrees, no doubt lessening the ruling. Despite this, the primary content of the decrees remained as they were, and the world remains sunk in abysmal defilement, in the three klipot of impurity — whirlwind, darkness, and the great cloud [42] — and the Jewish people live a life of starvation, poverty, and destitution, shame and insult, as the fear of both life and death pursues them constantly. Why did they, the great ones, not say to the world, “Enough!” Why did they not stand in the breach to firmly restrain the streaming flow of exile? Why have they neglected us to suffer in the exile of Edom [43], which we have been in for close to 2,000 years?

Certainly, every generation had great tzadikim, foundations of the world. Certainly, the first rebbes, who bestowed the world with the abundance of Ḥasidut, were supreme saints beyond comparison. Certainly, in this generation there are true tzadikim amongst the rebbes, but of all of these which we have mentioned, something is lacking. They haven’t the strength to reach the level of Moses. Certainly, there were amongst them masters of lovingkindness, masters of might, and masters of beauty, but their might did not suffice, their aspirations that their fear be like that of Isaac, for their beauty to be the beauty of Jacob, the truth of Jacob — all of these fell short. They were holy and great, but there was not amongst them one who could declare of himself with the confidence and strength of Elijah the prophet, “As the Lord lives, whom before I stand.” [44] All of them saw and saw, but there was something (and this “something” is the mystery of the world) which they failed to see…They heard and heard, but it was precisely the “thin voice” [45] that they did not hear…They wrote thousands upon thousands of books, but there does not appear in their words the heavenly loftiness and the fathomless depth of the wisdom of the Tana’im and the Amorai’im…[46]

I have not come to criticize their works, all the more so do I not intend to find fault in them (who am I, that I should criticize such supreme saints?), but I do know that at this hour, as the Messiah stands around the corner, we can no longer suffice with the endless rulings, casuistry, and hidden and revealed teachings of these great ones. Now, we must march straight to the light of the Messiah. We shall come to this light not by complicated legalistic reasonings, nor even by Ḥasidic tales the likes of which have been recently published, but by prophecy alone. And not the prophecy of yesteryear, but a present-day prophecy, by the prophetic revelation that each and every one of us can apprehend in their own way, by the vigorous sanctification of life, by the concentration of spirit in a never-ending union over many years, and most of all by that masterful simplicity which was the hallmark of Moses, the prophets, the Tanai’im and the Amoraiim.

The Talmudist: (He has a sharp-nose, high forehead, and eyes of light; splendor radiates around him; he is a tall man whose shoulders slump slightly; a sizeable yarmulke is on his head; he wears glasses; a pipe in his mouth; a volume of the Talmud in his hand.)

What interest do I have in all that you might say? I know no wisdom, nor do I desire to know any wisdom. I just know the Talmud. In the Talmud I find the answers to all of your difficulties. Why did the war break out in 1914? Because a Jew in Russia was tortured in prison for over a year, when everyone knew that he was innocent, and that all the libels brought against the Jews are false. [47] The matter is quite simple: “War comes to the world for the delay of justice, and for the perversion of justice.” [48] Why was Ukrainian Jewry decreed to be slaughtered in 1919? [49] Because following the evil decrees of Gonta and Zalizniak [50], the Jews swore to never more step foot upon the earth of Ukraine, yet they forgot their oath and remained in that accursed land. And the matter is quite simple: “Things which fire and water cannot destroy, a false oath may destroy.” [51] You might ask, “why did so much time pass from the time of the oath until that of the punishment?” Well, the matter is known, “the blessed Holy One extends His anger,” but “all who say that the blessed Holy One concedes, has conceded his own life,” for He “extends his anger but ultimately makes his claim.” [52] And you might ask, “could it be that a world war broke out on account of the torment of one Jew? The world’s sins far outweigh that of the tormentors of that Jew.” But after his suffering, “The measure of guilt was filled.” [53] The sin of Sodom was very great, but the measure of these wicked ones was only completed by “the cry of one lass”. [54] Why, nowadays, does the earth constantly tremble? The matter is quite simple: “At the hour when the blessed Holy One recalls his children he lets fall two tears into the ocean, which rumbles.” [55] The nations now bother Israel, much more than they had in the previous days of the exile, and the earth trembles from their cries — the roar of the God of Judgement.

“Thunder was created only to straighten out the crookedness of the heart.” [56] And not just thunder, but also earthquakes and floods. And if crookedness remains abundantly present in the heart — earthquakes shall be made new every morning [57], and the floods shall be renewed. Seek and search in the Talmud and you shall find the clear and simple answer to every question. Everything is carried out with fairness, justice, and integrity. “There is justice and there is a judge, according to the actions of man.” [58]  “ As our hands have dealt, so shall it be done to us.” [59]

The Simpleton: (Stepping back from his place, he raises his hands upwards, crying out and sobbing.)

Khesed un khesed, oy tatinke, khesed! [kindness and kindness, oh dear father, kindness!] Ho! Ho! Such horrible things. Who can bear them? We are weak and human. Dust and ashes. Who can stand before such a harsh judgement? Who can contain all of these deep thoughts you have expressed? I am a simple man, and I love people, and I believe in a God of life, good and benevolent to all, guiding every generation. If not Him — then who else? If not for His goodness, the world would have already been lost and destroyed from its own wickedness…Do I believe? No. I know! Every part of my body knows well its master. Is He not present with us here? He is present and existent in all pure-hearted prayer, in all simple faith, in every thought and good deed.

“I wait for Your deliverance, O Lord!” [60] Only for your deliverance and kindness!

Derborem zikh Kochani! [have mercy upon us your loved ones!]

God Most High: None of you spoke as properly as my servant the simpleton.


[1] Tikkun Ḥatzot, “midnight rectification” is a prayer service instituted by Rabbi Isaac Luria of Tsfat to be recited after midnight. It is an elegy for the exile of the Jewish people and a prayer for mercy and the ingathering of the exiles. It is most commonly recited by Ḥasidic Jews.

[2] Isaiah 8:10

[3] Psalms 12:1

[4] Exodus 15:1. According to Kabbalistic tradition, at the moment of Moses’s song, following the splitting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Israelite’s Egyptian pursuers, Moses experienced the opening of the 50th gate of Bina, “discernment”. Thank you to my friend and colleague Avinoam Stillman for his insight in identifying many of the Kabbalistic symbols employed by Zeitlin throughout the play.

[5] In Kabbalah, the Sefirot are a system of ten attributes of dynamic forces within the Godhead through which the infinite God reveals itself, forming the personal and revealed aspect of God. Bina, “discernment” is the eighth sefira counting from below.

[6] Written in Zoharic Aramaic in the original, these are references to the Jubilee year and the eschaton, both of which are associated with Bina, “discernment”.

[7] A reference to the “Thanksgiving” blessing of the Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy.

[8] Morning blessing preceding the recitation of the Shema.

[9] The final service on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

[10] The opening words of the Kaddish prayer, recited by mourners in memory of the dead.

[11] “Tables.” Also known as a tish in Yiddish, the term refers to a gathering of ḥasidim around their rebbe’s table. Such occasions are marked by much joyous drinking and singing, and could incur a large material cost.

[12] “Redemption.” The term refers to the practice of presenting the rebbe with notes, also known as Kvittlach in Yiddish, containing petitions for the rebbe to pray for on their behalf. The note was given with a cash payment, which funded the running of the rebbe’s court. Some rebbes amassed great wealth through this practice, profiting from their position in the religious hierarchy.

[13] “Remainders.” The term refers to the practice of the rebbe’s followers consuming the leftover food from the rebbe’s plate, in order to receive spiritual benefit. Practically speaking, the rebbe would often take a small bite from a very large food item in order to ensure maximum distribution.

[14] Various Kabbalistic terms referring to a constricted religious consciousness associated with harsh judgement.

[15] “Free Jews”, or frei yidden in Yiddish, was a term used to refer to secular Jews who rejected the traditional observance of their upbringing, thus “freeing” themselves of the burden of ritual law.

[16] Kabbalistic term referring to a heavenly inspiration or energy bestowed upon a person, their own actions notwithstanding.

[17] 1718-1800. Famed for his piety and humility.

[18] 1745-1812. Founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Ḥasidism.

[19] 1772-1810. Found of the Breslov sect of Ḥasidism.

[20] 1765-1827. One of the founders of the Przysucha-Koztk sect of Ḥasidism.

[21] Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

[22] A reference to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

[23] Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

[24] A reference to the Holodomor, the state-organized famine which led to the deaths of over 2.5 million people in Ukraine over 1932 and 1933.

[25] In Rabbinic literature, the term Shekhina refers to the immanent quality of God, joining the children of Israel in exile. In Kabbalistic literature, the Shekhina is the feminine aspect of the godhead.

[26] Nefesh, Ruaḥ, and Neshama. The three levels of the soul in the Jewish mystical tradition.

[27] The title of a song by the medieval poet Shlomo Ibn Gabirol.

[28] Jewish ritual bath. Many Ḥasidic men are accustomed to immerse themselves daily.

[29] Lamentations 2:19

[30] Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572). Based in Tsfat for the last two years of his life, his innovative kabbalistic doctrines completely revolutionized the world of Jewish mysticism, leading to a new school known as Lurianic Kabbalah. Nearly every form of contemporary Kabbalah is derived from his system.

[31] “Shell”. In Kabbalah, this refers to the exterior demonic containers of the inner sparks of light within all of being.

[32] “5408-5409” (1648-1649). The traditional Jewish term for the persecutions carried out over the course of Khmelnytsky Uprising in Ukraine. The number of Jews killed is subject to much scholarly dispute, but the tremendous impact of Tah-ve-Tat upon the religious development and collective consciousness of Eastern European Jewry is unquestionable.

[33] Psalms 73:22-23

[34] Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 63a (Frankfurt manuscript). The line describes the paradoxical situation of a thief, violating the prohibition against stealing, prays to God for assistance before breaking into a house.

[35] Psalms 50:18

[36] ibid 50:21.

The full verses read: “When you see a thief, you fall in with him, and throw in your lot with adulterers; You devote your mouth to evil, and yoke your tongue to deceit; You are busy maligning your brother, defaming the son of your mother. If I failed to act when you did these things, you would fancy that I was like you; so I censure you and confront you with charges.” (50:18-21)

[37] Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. See note 18

[38] In Chabad theology, as taught by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi in the Tanya, the “natural soul” and “beastly soul” are representative of the corporeal qualities of the human being, obscuring the “divine soul”, said to be a very portion of God, and the “surrounding light”, representative of God’s transcendence.

[39] Deuteronomy 30:14

[40] Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Laws of Repentance, 10:6

[41] Isaiah 1:3

[42] See Zohar 2:203a-b

[43] A reference to the present exile of the Jewish people, following the destruction of Judea and the temple in Jerusalem by Roman forces in 70 C.E.

[44] 1 Kings 17:1

[45] 1 Kings 19:12

[46] “Repeaters” and “reciters”, the two groups of rabbinic sage who respectively authored the two components of the Talmud, the Mishna and the Gemara.

[47] A reference to the Beilis Affair of 1913, in which a Jew, Mendel Beilis, was imprisoned for over a year due to charges that he had murdered a Christian child in order to use his blood for a religious ritual.

[48] Mishna, Avot, 5:8

[49] The Kiev pogroms of 1919 led to the deaths of thousands of Jews.

[50] Ivan Gonta and Maksym Zalizniak were leaders of the Koliyivshchyna, a Cossack-led rebellion in Ukraine in 1768. They helped perpetrate the Massacre of Uman, in which thousands of Jews were killed.

[51] Babylonian Talmud, Shavuot, 39a

[52] Midrash Tehillim (Buber) 10

[53] Babylonian Talmud, Sota, 9a

[54] ibid, Sanhedrin, 109b

[55] ibid, Berakhot, 59a

[56] ibid.

[57] cf. Lamentations 3:23

[58] Midrash Bereishit Rabba 26:6

[59] cf. Isaiah 3:11

[60] Genesis 49:18

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