An Entry from “Between Two Worlds” from 100 Years Ago

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And so, as all the days of my life pass before me, my heart is torn asunder, for I see myself  as a man exploited by every side for their own interests against his own interests —  and the interests of the One who created him and breathed into his nostrils the very breath of life.

A unique literary document, the mystical journal of Hillel Zeitlin, “Between Two Worlds”, records the author’s inner experience in the momentous early months of 1917. Published in 1919 in the 4th issue of the literary journal HaTekufa, it was panned by the secularly-oriented literary establishment, who regarded Zeitlin’s visions and observations as nonsense. The journal is an eclectic hodgepodge of personal reflections upon the difficulties of living up to the religious admonitions set in the first entry, attempts to predict the end of World War I, speculation about the implications of the ongoing Russian Revolution (Zeitlin had strong feelings about the religious abilities of Rasputin) — all interspersed with accounts of Zeitlin’s fantastic dreams of flight and mystical experience. Continue reading “An Entry from “Between Two Worlds” from 100 Years Ago”

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Personal Excerpts from Silence and Voice

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…for I may be the sole Jew now amongst the generation who, following many years wandering the pathways of thought and life, following frightful torments and restlessness, has acquired the faith which they call “primitive”…

The following brief excerpts are taken from Hillel Zeitlin’s apocalyptic work Silence and Voice, published in 1936 as the threatening shadow of Nazi Germany loomed over European Jewry. Interweaving prophetic calls for repentance alongside practical solutions for the organization and resettlement of European Jewry, Zeitlin’s thunderous and at times exasperated voice expresses great frustration with the religious corruption and spiritual apathy of his peers. Indeed, at times it sounds as though he stands utterly alone in confronting an impending doom which only he perceives.  Continue reading “Personal Excerpts from Silence and Voice”

The Song of the Soul

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She is ever filled with fierce longings, singing her songs of love, suffused with yearning and desire.

She ceaselessly hungers and thirsts for God, for the living God, and pours forth her utterances in rhyme, in inner song.

The following text is taken from a lengthy lyrical essay by Hillel Zeitlin titled “Heavenly Beauty — Poetic Compositions from the Aggada and Kabbalah”. Published in 1908 in the literary journal Safrut, the essay comprises eight chapters portraying, in Zeitlin’s unique pathos-laden prose, the creation of the world, the Garden of Eden, Kabbalistic cosmology, the revelation at Mount Sinai, a study of the soul, the nature of women, and the Messianic era. As indicated by the title, Zeitlin draws heavily from the Aggada, the non-legalistic sections of the Talmud, as well as later Kabbalistic teachings.

“Heavenly Beauty” was written during a particularly productive period of Zeitlin’s literary career. Over the course of 1908 and 1909, he published “Shekhina”, “Heavenly Beauty”, and “The Thirst”, all in Safrut. These three essays are noteworthy for their exemplary poetic quality, as well as the powerful religious longings they express. Indeed, in an autobiographical essay published in 1928, Zeitlin marked the writing of these three essays as a turning point in his religious life, as he furthered his return to traditional Jewish observance. Continue reading “The Song of the Soul”

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. Continue reading “The Gathering of the Hidden Ones (A Fantasy)”

Ḥasidism and Individuality — The Seraph of Strilesk

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The whole field of study of various “rungs”, “roots”, and “branches” of the soul which characterizes Kabbalah and Ḥasidism is nothing more than the recognition of individuality and the absolute right of each unique personality to live and develop according to their primary, higher, eminent nature.

The following essay by Hillel Zeitlin, a feature on the legendary Ḥasidic figure Rabbi Uri, the Seraph of Strilesk, appeared in the Hebrew weekly Ba’Derekh in 1934. Zeitlin wrote frequently for the paper, including many articles on renowned Jewish figures from the past. His work is characterized both by the vast scope of his knowledge, and his ability to portray the subject in a popular style appropriate for a broad readership.

Rabbi Uri of Strilesk (1757-1826) has a special place in the corpus of Ḥasidic lore. Aside from frequent appearances in Ḥasidic tales, references to him appear in the works of his descendent and namesake Uri Tzvi Greenberg, as well as Shai Agnon. His ascetic practices and sharp personality earned him the moniker “The Seraph”, and his strident insistence on truth can be seen as a precedent for the Kotzk-Przysucha school of Ḥasidut. Continue reading “Ḥasidism and Individuality — The Seraph of Strilesk”

On the Depths of Being

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So it is, my dear friend. The first step towards faith is the most difficult thing in the world…

Published in 1922 in the short-lived Hebrew periodical Kolot, “On the Depths of Being” offers an exceptional window into Hillel Zeitlin’s understanding of faith. At this point, Zeitlin had long since returned to traditional observance and study, yet as the dialogue with his imaginary interlocutor in the second part reveals, his faith was not to be taken for granted. Continue reading “On the Depths of Being”

For What?

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And what can a man like me do, who finds no respite in the many answers…

Published in 1905, “For What” (Al Shum Ma?), a short expression of skepticism, reflects the period of deep pessimism Hillel Zeitlin experienced during the first decade of the 20th century. Living in a period characterized by a firm belief in the power of theory and doctrine, Zeitlin’s dissatisfaction with such superficial explanations for his inner suffering is expressed powerfully throughout the essay. At times his cynicism is comical, such as in his fictional dialogue with a particularly fervent social revolutionary. Surrounded by answers and certainty, Zeitlin wants nothing more than to be free to ask his questions and express his doubts. Continue reading “For What?”