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”

Rav Kook on Religious Neuroticism and Obsession with Sin

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Writing in several places in the mystical journals collected in his Shemoneh Kevatzim, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook addresses the psychological dangers of excess religious stringency and concern for sin. Such a religiously driven fear of making mistakes, when improperly calibrated, prevents one from thinking critically and having the confidence to act. While we should be motivated to always do our best as we strive to live up to what Judaism expects from us in every situation, an excess of religious tension is both unhealthy and counterproductive. Continue reading “Rav Kook on Religious Neuroticism and Obsession with Sin”

The Visitors

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A grievous and terrible mistake is made by all those who think that being engulfed in other worlds disturbs one’s sober view of visible reality.

Hillel Zeitlin’s short essay “The Vistors” (HaOrḥim) appeared in 1905 in the Vilna-based daily HaZman, where Zeitlin served as an editor. The essay was included in the second volume of Zeitlin’s collected writings, published in 1912. Since then it has never reappeared in print, nor has it previously been translated.

Written in 1905, in the years immediately preceding his return to traditional observant life, “The Visitors” sheds light on Zeitlin’s inner world at that time. That same year, he published a serialized monograph on Nietzsche, as well as several prominent literary responses to the ongoing pogroms afflicting eastern European Jewry. One can sense his own idealistic longings for truth and human perfection, a longing which would not be satisfied by the philosophic tradition he had dedicated the past decade mastering, but rather by the greatness of character he found depicted in the great works of classical and Russian literature. Continue reading “The Visitors”