Sunday 23 July 2017


Burial site of Rav Tzadok HaKohen and R. Leibel Eiger.

About twenty-five years ago I was sitting and talking to R. Shlomo Carlebach - who for a so many from my generation had been a towering and influential figure – when I asked him: “R. Shlomo, what do I have to do to become a chassid of yours?”

He looked at me and his eyes smiled as he responded: “But I want to be a chassid of you!”
I said: “Okay, but in the meantime tell me what I have to do.”
He said: “Read all the books of R. Tzadok haKohen, particularly Resisei Leiyla.”

I was desperate to get hold of this book but I had difficulty in finding a copy. Months passed and I was disappointed that I had not read Resisei Laiyla.

Then, out of the blue, a mother of a congregant of mine arrived back from holidaying in the United States.  She called me and said she had a book for me from ‘some or other rabbi’ she had bumped into whilst in New York. It was a well worn blue hard covered book entitled Resisei Leiyla. R. Shlomo had given me his own personal copy of this book, which is today one of my prized possessions.

What was it about R. Tzadok haKohen that R. Shlomo knew would resonate with me?
This article is an attempt at trying to discover that answer.


We begin with a look at a modern movement which caught the imagination of the non-Jewish[1] world and which also began to attract attention from the Jewish religious word:

In the 1960’s a movement began amongst the avant-garde which became known as Radical Theology. It prompted religious people generally to take a new and challenging look at their religion whilst still remaining technically within the broad folds of their theology.

The followers of this new movement bandied about slogans like the ‘Death of G-d’ which they explained to mean that the old and narrow definitions of G-d had to make way for a far broader understanding of the G-d concept. And far broader it certainly was because Radical Theology could even encompass aspects of classical atheism!

Professor Thomas Altizer[2] gives a number of possible explanations as to what the term ‘Death of G-d’ could mean for modern Western culture:

“...That our traditional liturgical and theological language needs a thorough overhaul; the reality (of G-d[3]) abides, but classical modes of thought and form of language may well have had it...That the Christian story is no longer a saving or healing story. It may manage to stay on as merely illuminating or guiding, but it no longer performs its classical functions of salvation or redemption...that our language about G-d is always inadequate and imperfect...(Religion) has learned...the necessity for theology to engage in a living dialogue with the actual world and history which theology confronts...

For anyone who has ever studied mysticism, these concepts – such as the inability to describe G-d – are not that foreign at all.


A similar form of Radical Theology also started (and it could be argued already existed) within the Jewish and Torah world.

I found it interesting that in his book on the Sefat Emet, Professor Arthur Green writes that he had studied privately with R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, and in 1966 he asked his teacher what he thought about Radical Theology.

R. Heschel answered: “Radical theology is very important. And it must begin with the Sfas Emes and R. Tzadok ha-Kohen of Lublin.”
In this way, R. Heschel characterised Rav Tzadok haKohen as a proponent of a Jewish form of Radical Theology.

In keeping with the dictum ‘as in the non-Jewish world so in the Jewish world’, Professor Green explains that the writings of Rav Tzadok haKohen: “... have enjoyed a recent upsurge of popularity, especially in Israel, where they are currently being reprinted in various augmented and well-indexed editions.” So these books are today finding some appeal for those looking for an unrestrained view on G-d and religion.

Perhaps one can add to the list and include more rabbis who could be said to have written in the style of Radical Theology:


Rav Kook had already written that atheism had a role to play to ‘cleanse’ some of the religious who espoused very narrow definitions of what in fact is an infinite and universal G-d. The atheist could therefore rightly deny a narrow and parochial interpretation of G-d and thus inadvertently contribute something of great value to theology. See KOTZK BLOG 114.


In a similar fashion, the Kotzker Rebbe brilliantly remarked: “I too do not believe in the same G-d that an atheist doesn’t believe in.” This view again, adds something to the expansiveness of the G-d concept.

In this sense, the common and limited definition of G-d was indeed ‘dead’. And the way was opened for a truer, bigger and more infinite, universal and unknowable G-d. This was something that Kabbalah in general and Chassidut, in particular, had already been addressing for a long time.

Another statement of the Kotzker, which speaks to the notion of Radical Theology more than anything else I know, is: “Other Chassidim believe that man’s soul is reincarnated into this world in order to affect a tikkun (I.e. to repair some misconduct from a past life) – But in Kotzk we believe that man is put onto this world in order to affect a tikkun in G-d Himself!

What this may mean is that he was so uneasy with the way the masses had conclusively defined and limited the G-d concept to fit their own inadequate notions of infinity, that he needed to teach a way of ‘rectifying’ their perceptions of G-d.

But let’s see how Rav Tzadok haKohen relates to Radical Theology:


R. Tzadok haKohen Rabinowitz of Lublin (1823-1900) was born to a Lithuanian rabbinic family that was related to the Vilna Gaon and traced its roots back to the Maharal of Prague. He left the Lithuanian way and joined R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner (known as the Izbica Rebbe). 

He later took over the reins of from R. Yehuda Leib Eiger (a grandson of the famed R. Akiva Eiger and also a student of the Izbica) and in 1888 he assumed a leadership role in the Izbica movement. For some reason, during his lifetime he did not manage to attract a significant following, something which ironically did occur after his passing.

It was during the so called ‘silent years’ of R. Leibelle Eiger’s leadership, which amounted to about thirty-four years during which he spent in seclusion, that Rav Tzadok devoted himself to writing.
One of his apparently only surviving students – the rest all perished during the Holocaust - R. Mokotovsky, was the father of R. Eliyahu Mokotovsky also known as Eliyahu Kitov[4].

Besides his prolific writing on Halacha, Kabbalah and ethics, he also wrote on astronomy, geometry and algebra, something rather unusual for a Chassidic Rebbe. He was particularly interested in History. None of his writings were published during his lifetime.

[It should be mentioned that according to Alan Brill[5] some editors were hasty to add that Rav Tzadok later regretted his forays into secular wisdom. Brill views this extrapolation with a degree of scepticism and considers it to be unsubstantiated. Furthermore, he cites Bromberg who records Rav Tzadok continuing his secular studies well into his later years.]

He married young, into a wealthy family, but divorced quickly after allegations concerning the impropriety of his wife began to surface. His wife refused to accept the divorce so Rav Tzadok was forced to travel in order to get signatures of one hundred rabbis to annul his marriage. It was during these travels that he met the Izbica Rebbe. He did marry again but did not have any children. His childlessness affected him deeply and some of his books (Pri - offspring- Tzadik and Poked Akkarim - barren) allude to his pain of not having children.


In recent times, the academic world has started paying attention to Rav Tzadok’s writings which have attracted historians, theologians and sociologists, who refer to him as ‘The Kohen’.[6]
Rav Tzadok had an amazing ability to synchronise two very distinct area of classical rabbinical thought, namely Halacha (legal study) and Aggadita (non-legal study).

His thoughts influenced many leaders like R. Eliyahu Dessler and R. Yitzchak Hutner. According to Dovid Bashevkin: “...the resurgence of the study of what has come to be known as ‘mahshava’ in contemporary yeshivot truly owes a great deal of credit to the works of Reb Tzadok.”

Bashevkin explains that Rav Tzadok differed from the mainstream orthodox approach which follows the Zohar, where the Torah is the exclusive representation of G-d’s will; “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.”[7] The universe is therefore not afforded any G-dly status as that is the sole domain of the Torah which created it.

However, in Rav Tzadok’s system which he learned from the Izbica, there are actually two ‘Books’: G-d created one book called the World! The commentary on that book is called the Torah!

Thus, in a sense, the Universe is higher than the Torah: “This...places a greater focus on the world as a repository for G-dly revelation...” writes Bashevkin, who goes on ask: “...does this analogy leave room for the possibility that the World may contain truths that do not even exist within the Torah?[8] 

Bashevkin quotes Galileo who in 1623, wrote a fascinating description of a ‘Grand Book of the Universe’:

Philosophy is written in this Grand Book, the Universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the Book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it...”[9]

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many of our classical sages were all masters of astronomy, geometry and such sciences. And perhaps this is also why some rebbes encouraged their students to spend time in the natural world.

Here is Rav Tzadok’s full text which deals with his understanding of this ‘Book of the Universe’:

And it is for this reason that after the blessing ‘Yotzer ha-Meorot,’ which relates to the recognition of the recreation of the world every day, [the Rabbis] established a second blessing which functions as a blessing on the Torah as explained in Berachot 11b (i.e. ‘Ahava Rabba’). One requests (to God) to know the innovations of the Torah which are through the recreation of the world. And as I have heard, that God created a book, and that is the world (Olam), and the commentary (on the book), and that is that Torah. For the Torah is akin to a commentary of God’s possessions.”[10]

Thus, according to Rav Tzadok the first blessing recognises the creation of the Universe. The second blessing requests to know the unique Torah contained within that Universe. This Torah is higher than the Book of the Torah which is the commentary to the Torah of the Universe.

Rav Tzadok continues: “And so I have received that this entire world is a book which G-d created. And it appears to me that as a child I saw such a formulation in the work Meor Einayim[11], which cited the formulation in a gentile work of pedagogy.”[12]

So we see that according to Rav Tzadok the experiential world becomes a means of revelation of the highest order and the Torah is the ‘commentary’ to it.
Now that’s Radical Theology.

R. Haym Soloveitchick wrote about Sefer Chassidim (a text by R. Yehudah ben Shmuel of Regensburg [1150-1217] which discusses the life and times of the Chassidei Ashkenaz or the pious rabbis of Germany during that period). He points out that this notion of ‘Book of Universe’ was prevalent even in the medieval world of Chassidei Ashkenaz as expressed in Sefer Chassidim.

R. Soloveitchick writes: “underlying much of Sefer Hasidim, is the will of G-d...(which) has not been confined within the overt dictates of the Torah, written or oral.”[13] In other words there is a ‘will of G-d’ to be found within the Universe in addition to within the Book of the Torah.

Thus Sefer Chassidim could serve as a possible precedent for the Izbica’s and Rav Tzadok’s bold philosophy.[14]

[It is interesting to note that the notion of multiple 'Books' in addition to the Torah is not uncommon in mystical thinking. The Sefer Yetzirah, for example, begins by stating:

"He created His universe with three books (sefarim) - with text (sefer), with number (sefar) and with communication (sippur)."]


Bashevkin shares a passage from Rav Tzadok which offers an interesting interpretation of the definition of good:

 “For example when G-d wishes good it is manifest(ed) personally in each of his creations according to their conception of good. The Jewish people relate according to their conception of good, gentiles relate each according to their own conception…and so it is with all creations according to their own conception. And therefore it is nearly impossible to define what is the implicit will that God intends to impart since it is manifest(ed) through different being(s), each with their own conceptions and notions of that message.”[15]


According to Professor Yaakov Elman:

In Tsadok ha-Kohen’s view, the development of Torah paralleled that of secular wisdom—gentile or, in this case, Greek wisdom—the two unfolding apace and in parallel, in accordance with the principle of Ecclesiastes 7:14, “One opposite the other did the Lord make.” Thus, just as Babylonian magic and sorcery gave way to Greek philosophy, so did prophecy give way to Talmudic reasoning and logic—and in both cases, the later stage was superior to the earlier one.”


Alan Brill writes[16] that Rav Tzadok rejected the traditional Chassidic model of simple piety. He departed from his other Chassidim in that he didn’t believe it was enough to simply direct the emotions and thought toward heaven because no mystical experience could take place without knowledge. This was quite a departure from the teachings of many of the other Rebbes.

Rav Tzadok even quoted from Ramabm’s Guide of the Perplexed:

It is impossible to reach the level of continual cleaving (to G-d) except through wisdom and comprehension of the mysteries of out holy Torah. As is written in the Guide of the Perplexed concerning those who think of G-d and continuously remember Him: If it is done without knowledge, through imagination (dimayon) alone or through the traditional faith that G-d is near, withot remembering G-d in truth, you are not thinking of Him.”


Rav Tzadok haKohen was no typical Chassidic Rebbe.  His views on many crucial subjects are somewhat out of the box, or more accurately ‘out of the book’. He was one of the few who was able to successfully blend mysticism with rationalism and tradition with history.

The masses will probably always follow whatever format of religious philosophy their leaders present to them. However, those who allow their minds to explore the depths of theology would do well to revisit the writings of Rav Tzadok haKohen, who seemes to be communicating not so much with his generation but with ours.

[1] Particularly the Protestants.
[2] See Radical Theology and the Death of G-d by Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton.
[3] Parenthesis mine.
[4] Author of the well known Sefer haToda’ah.

[5] See Thinking God: The Mysticism of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin, by Alan Brill, p.43.

[6] See Perpetual Prophecy: An Intellectual Tribute to Reb Tzadok ha-Kohen of Lublin on his 110th Yartzeit, By Dovid Bashevkin. I have drawn widely from this article.
[7] Zohar: vol. 2, 161a.
[8] See Perpetual Prophecy ibid.
[9] Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (New York: Doubleday, 1957), 238.
[10] Taken from Perpetual Prophecy ibid.
[11] Which was written by Azariah de Rossi (1513-1578).
[12] Mahashvot Harutz, 11. Bashevkin points out that it is amazing that Rav Tzadok cited Meor Einayim (which was already considered a controversial work) and that he did not omit the reference to the Gentile source! 
[13] See R. Haym Soloveitchik, “Three Themes in Sefer Hasidim,” 313.
[14] It now appears that there may be three sources for Rav Tzadok’s radical view on the Book of the World: 1) The Izbica, from whom he heard concept from. 2) Sefer Chassidim, and 3) Meor Einayim.
[15] Dover Tzedek, 111.
The full text reads: “And our Rabbis have revealed to us stories which discuss the bat kol, which is defined as listening to the voices of everyday people who are discussing daily matters and do have other intentions. Rather one listener is able to be informed, through their words, what is required of him… Namely, God articulates the will of his voice through regular people. Even though they have their own intentions when they speak and the directives do not seem to emanate from God with intention and clarity, rather His will relates to us implicitly…”
[16] Ibid. p.55.


  1. Atheism is built on the foundations of religion. It therefore comes as no surprise that Chasidism cannot accept that Torah is merely a commentary on another book. That concept is not a divergence of expression of faith- that is the foundation stone for another religion!

  2. In which of his books does R.Tzadok write about history?

  3. According to my understanding, R. Tzadok was interested in history. I am not aware of him actually writing about it.