The Degel Maḥane Ephraim on Jacob and Torah Study

The following Ḥasidic homily, of Rabbi Moshe ayim Ephraim of Sudylkiv (1748-1800), explicates the vow taken by Jacob on his journey to Ḥaran. Rabbi Moshe ayim Ephraim was a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Ḥasidic movement, and his teachings, collected in Degel Maḥane Ephraim (Korets 1810), record many traditions received from his grandfather and his disciples. Like many collections of Ḥasidic homilies, the work consists of Hebrew summaries of discourses originally delivered in Yiddish. Reflecting this process of transmission, the rudimentary Hebrew is constructed according to Yiddish syntax. The translator must take these characteristics into consideration.

In chapter 28 of Genesis, Jacob travels to Ḥaran to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, stopping to sleep at the place which would become known as Beit El. There he experiences a wondrous dream of a ladder ascending to heaven, and an assurance from God that he would be protected and ultimately return home. Following his dream, Jacob issues a vow, which is the subject of the homily.  Continue reading “The Degel Maḥane Ephraim on Jacob and Torah Study”

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Religious Devotion and Normality

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What is the relationship between religious devotion and normality? As one increases in observance, how should this affect their “normal” human emotions? Perhaps the truly pious are those whose total devotion to God leads to the eradication of their senses and reason. As will be demonstrated below, such was the approach taken by some rabbis of the past generations. Not so Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Continue reading “Religious Devotion and Normality”

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?”

Paradoxical Faith: Ḥasidic Masters on Closeness to God in Moments of Distance

אבינו אבינו איך נלך כי השומר עומד בשער המלך

Our Father, Our father! How can we come to you? The guard stands watch at the royal gate!

—Niggun Kol BeYa’ar (Attributed to the Shpoler Zeide (1725-1812))

So often in our lives we seek a sense of emotional closeness to God, yet we feel so far away. In times of need or inner pain we wish to feel God’s presence, but it is not to be found. Numerous Ḥasidic masters have sought to ameliorate this sense of distance, articulating a model of what may be called “Paradoxical Faith”.  Through internalizing their teachings one may strengthen their faith, finding comfort in times of religious crisis. Continue reading “Paradoxical Faith: Ḥasidic Masters on Closeness to God in Moments of Distance”

Rav Kook on Finding God through Recognizing Others

What is the path leading towards the recognition of God? The path, according to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, begins with the realization of the complexity and significance of the lives of people other than oneself. Once one has appreciated the other, there is room for God in one’s life. Continue reading “Rav Kook on Finding God through Recognizing Others”