Menu

Sunday, 26 January 2020

261) A WINDOW INTO PRE-ZOHARIC MYSTICAL LITERATURE:

The 1921 collection of R. Shlomo Moussaiff's Merkavah texts not meant for public consumption.

HEICHALOT AND MERKAVAH MYSTICISM:

INTRODUCTION:

This purpose of this article is to present a brief overview of the dominant mystical literature that existed prior to the publication of the Zohar in around 1280 - with specific focus on how certain early books were regarded as being ‘dangerous’ if not approached correctly.


I have drawn extensively from the research of Professor Gideon Bohak,[1] a specialist in Jewish magic in Antiquity and the Middle ages, as well as in the textual fragments from the Cairo Geniza.

Many are somewhat familiar with the Kabbalah of the Zohar (and its system of Sefirot or spheres and Kelipot or unclean husks) but not much is known of the earlier mystical literature which falls into the category of Heichalot (-where one ‘ascends’ to the Heavenly Palaces) and Merkavah (-where one ‘descends’ into the Chariot).

Today, the modern student of mysticism or Chassidut is often presented with a model of Kabbalah that is almost clinical and made to resemble a version of religious ‘quantum physics’ – but the origins of this literature present as a very different style entirely.

NOTE: Some Readers may find certain references from quoted texts to be sexist and possibly offensive. No offence is meant.

ORIGINS OF HEICHALOT AND MERKAVAH MYSTICISM:

There is much scholarly debate as to whether this form of Heichalot and Merkavah mysticism originated in Palestine or Babylonia, let alone as to when it started - but there is concrete evidence it was in existence from around the 5th or 6th-century CE.[2]

For the next few centuries the Heichalot and Merkavah mysticism most likely circulated as an oral tradition - but certainly around the 9th or 10th-century it became available in manuscript form.

Bohak points out that reports from various Jewish communities at that time show that:

“...the manuscripts in which this literature was transmitted were not seen as standard manuscripts of Hebrew literature, but as special manuscripts, which may only be approached in a state of purity. Failing to observe this rule could lead to great danger...”

The 12th and 13th-century Chassidei Ashkenaz were also interested in this Heichalot and Merkavah literature. [See These Are Not Superstitions.]

THE SCROLL OF ACHIMA’ATZ:

An early text which gives some insight into the style and content of Heilchalot and Merkavah literature is the Scroll of Achima’atz, written by Achima’atz ben Paltiel (1017-1060).

The Scroll of Achima’atz, also known as Megillat Yuchasin, was written in rhymed Hebrew prose with extensive vocabulary and takes the form of a chronicle. This thousand-year-old work was discovered by accident in a Spanish library and published in 1895.

According to Achima’atz, his family descended from the captives taken by Titus to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Achima’atz was a chronicler from southern Italy and his writing, often drawing from earlier accounts going back to the 9th-century, gives one a window into the beliefs and practices of that the time when this particular mystical literature was popular.

Bohak writes that the strange and incredulous events portrayed in the Scroll of Achima’atz:

“...often stretch the modern reader’s credulity far beyond the breaking point.”

Achima’atz describes an ancestor of his, R. Amittai and his three sons who are:

 “...learned persons and poets, educators and teachers to decent pupils...who understand secrets...[and are] adept in the mysteries...well versed in Sefer ha-Yashar [a book on angelology and magic], [and] gazers onto the secret of the Merkavah.”[3]

The Scroll of Achima’atz also informs us that the family had a spiritual heirloom which was preserved for at least four generations, and that was the Sefer haMerkavah.

But a strange fate awaited that book. The fourth-generation custodian of the Sefer haMerkavah was Baruch who was no longer pious or observant. The following event is related in the Scroll and Baruch, due to his negligence, is held to be responsible:

“[I]t happened one day on the eve of the Sabbath... when the day grew dark, and the daylight darkened, and the one who had to light the candle was not there, to light it before the Book of the Chariot [Sefer haMerkavah].”

Apparently, a candle was kindled in the presence of this holy book every Shabbat. On one occasion, it seems that the regular person tasked with kindling the candle was not present, perhaps due to Baruch’s negligence and lack of observance.

“And a certain woman stood there, and she was menstruant, this cursed woman ‒ may she be erased from the book of life, and may she be wiped out from the world to come ‒ and she lit the candle before the Torah [which is what Sefer haMerkavah is referred to[4]] and the wrath of God was upon the family, and many died in that plague, only a few survived out of the many they were.

And there was there an understanding Jew, who realized and understood the event that had happened. He took the book and placed it in a vessel of lead, to sink it in the depths of the sea; and the sea retreated [in fear], for about a mile it receded; and the Jew [walked that mile out to sea and] cast the vessel into the sea, and the sea returned to its place; at once the terrible ordainment was voided and the plague came to an end. 

And the memory of Baruch ceased to exist, his candle faded and was extinguished, for he left behind him none to engage in the One who reanimates, as he had no son, only one daughter.”[5]

The placing of an object, possessed by something perceived to be unclean or evil, also occurs in another section of the Scroll of Achima’atz. One of Achima’atz’s ancestors, R. Shefatiah was said to have exorcised a demon from the king’s daughter. He placed the demon in a vessel and sealed it with lead and also cast it into the ocean.[6]

THE RESPONSUM OF RAV HAI GAON:

Bohak writes:

“The Scroll of Ahimaaz is not the most sober of historical chronicles, and its story about a Hekhalot manuscript that ended up in the Mediterranean Sea may be taken with more than a grain of sea-salt. 

In fact, it would have been easy to dismiss this story as utterly farfetched, were it not for the fact that the main assumptions that lie behind it are reflected in a much more sober text, written at about the same time in a very different Jewish community.”

Bohak is referring to a Teshuva or Responsum from Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038) who was the head of the Academy in Pumbedita (Fallujah) in answer to questions from the rabbis Kairouan (Tunisia), about the use of the Divine Name for practical (magical) benefit.

The original questions and the Responsum have been lost but evidently, the Kairouan rabbis weren’t satisfied with Rav Hai Gaon’s original answer so they wrote to him again. This second letter is extant. The questions and the answers give us a parallel and corroborating insight into the spirituality at that time.

The Kairouan rabbis claimed to have many books containing literature dealing with Divine and other powerful names.

They wrote:

“And we have several books among us, in which are written some of the Names, and some names of angels, and form(s) of seals, and they (i.e.,these books) say, Whoever wants to perform so and so, or to succeed in so and so, should write so and so like this (i.e., as shown in the book), on (material) so and so and should do thus, and the deed will come true for him.

And the elders and the pious people, when they would see these books they would fear them and would not approach them, and say that a certain man performed a deed so and so like that which is written in the books, and the deed did come true, but his own eyes were blinded, and some did not live through the year, and some did not live through the week, since they were not in a state of purity when they recited that Name.”[7]

The letter is pages long and goes on to quote relevant sections of the Babylonian Talmud which deal with similar matters. For some reason, the Heichalot and Merkavah texts are not specifically mentioned by the rabbis of Kairouan.

Rav Hai Gaon’s correspondingly lengthy response informs his questioners that he is well aware of the circulation of these popular magical books advocating such practices but in his view, it is all nonsense. 

However, on his own accord, he proceeds to distinguish between those popular magic books and a second category of what he regards as genuine mystical literature – the books of the Heichalot and Merkavah:

a) In the first category of what he considers to be magical (theurgical) and nonsensical works, he includes Sefer haYashar (on angelology), the Sword of Moshe and Razza Rabba (The Great Secret), including other:

“...fragments and individual passages, which are endless and without number...
many have spent much effort and wasted many years and found no truth in the matter.”

b) In the second category, however, it is clear that Rav Hai Gaon has great regard for what he considers to be genuine mystical (theosophical) Heichalot and Merkavah literature. He even refers to these mystical writings as Mishnayot (Mishnaic literature)[8]:

“[T]here are books and Names and seals and  Hekhalot Rabbata  and  Hekhalot Zeirata, and Sar Torah and other mishnayot, that whoever sees them becomes frightened, and so were our forefathers, and so are we, that we only approach them in purity and fear and trembling.

And we also heard persistent claims that some who have dealt with them perished quickly, and all this because of the sanctity of the Name and the sanctity of the Shekhinot  and of the angels who are around them, and the sanctity of the Merkabah, and that whoever deals with this deed, the angels swarm all around him...”

Thus Rav Hai Gaon disregards the folk magic but has high regard, if not awe, for Heichalot and Merkavah mysticism.

Rav Hai Gaon’s interesting reference to Heichalot literature as Mishnayot is paralleled in the Heichalot texts themselves which often refer to its own teachings as Mishnayot. And since Rav Hai Gaon says ‘whoever sees them’ it is clear that by that stage they were written texts and not oral transmissions.

Bohak points out that essentially Rav Hai Gaon maintains the same position as that portrayed in the Scroll of Achima’atz:

“[W]hat we saw should suffice to convince us that his attitude towards the Hekhalot / Merkabah literature was not that different from that of Ahima’atz and his ancestors.”

THE WARNINGS IN THE HEICHALOT TEXTS THEMSELVES:

Having established that both Achima’atz and Rav Hai Gaon believed that Heichalot and Merkavah texts are dangerous and can only be approached in purity, Bohak shows how these warnings are also prevalent in the actual texts themselves:

According to a Heichalot text fragment found in the Cairo Geniza, dated around the 11th-century, which would be contemporaneous to both Achima’atz and Rav Hai Gaon, the following practice is prescribed:

 “How does he use it (i.e., one of God’s powerful Names)? He goes and sits in a house by himself, and keeps fasting the whole day, and does not eat the bread of (i.e., made by) a woman, and looks neither at a man nor at a woman, and when he walks in the market he hides his eyes from all creatures, and does not look even at a day-old baby. And he immerses himself (in water) from evening to evening[9], and recites this thing after the evening Shema prayer, each and every day...”

And the text proceeds with a warning that a certain mystical incantation must be recited precisely 111 times otherwise:

 “...his blood is upon his head.”

MORE EVIDENCE FROM THE CAIRO GENIZA:

[See The Cairo Geniza - 1000 Years of Torah on African Soil.]

TORAH SCROLLS:

The textual fragments found in the Cairo Geniza reveal some fascinating clues as to the structure and status of the original Heichalot manuscripts. On inspection, some fragments reveal how they were written in columns of uniform width.

Bohak explains:

“This is an extremely unusual find, since by the ninth and tenth centuries, which is when these manuscripts probably were copied, only Torah-scrolls were written in this archaic format.
Using such a format for Hekhalot literature clearly implied the great sanctity of these texts in the eyes of their copyists and users.” 

MISHNAYOT:

Another unusual characteristic of some of these fragments is how they are neatly divided into chapters and paragraphs. This corroborates Rav Hai Gaon’s reference to Heichalot literature as Mishnayot. Apparently they were also considered to have similar status to Mishnaic texts.

DOWNGRADING TO A ROTULUS AND A NOTEBOOK:

A much later fragment from the Cairo Geniza was discovered, which reveals something of great interest. It is a fragment of Heichalot writing, but this time not resembling a horizontal Torah text.

Rather, it is in the form of a vertical scroll known as a Rotulus and written on paper, not parchment. A Rotulus was cheaper to make and easier to transport because it was rolled from top to bottom.
A Heichalot text appearing in a Rotulus format would indicate a downgrading of its status at that time.

This Rotulus fragment is dated from the 13th-century and was significantly produced in Cairo.

A PUSH-BACK FROM RAMBAM?

Bohak does not suggest this but perhaps this was a result of more rational influences from Rambam (d. 1204) who lived in Cairo at around that time. Rambam had no time for magic and mysticism and did not believe in forces of good and evil (in keeping with the idea that G-d prohibited the eating of the fruit of the tree of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – so that humans would not create categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’  – yet the first thing they did was create such realms).


Furthermore - and perhaps in keeping with this hypothesis - is the listing of a Heichalot codex in a 12th-century (inventory) booklist (the latter being common finds in the Cairo Geniza).

In this particular listing, now for the first time, a Heichalot work is simply referred to as a diftar which means a common book!

This again indicates a possible downgrade in Rambam’s Cairo in the status of Heichalot literature from what we saw started out as a Torah, then a Mishna and now just a common diftar.

THE MERKAVAH SHLEIMAH OF 1921:

In 1921, a Bukharan (today the area around Uzbekistan) Jew and collector of manuscripts, by the name of Shlomo Moussaieff, published a series of Heichalot texts from his own collection under the title Merkavah Shleima.

In his introduction, he writes at length about the dangers of this literature if not approached respectfully. But he adds another very interesting stipulation - not to sell the book to people who would use the work to show Jews in a bad light.

He writes:

“[O]ne should sell this book only to Torah disciples and God-fearing persons, and one should guard it and study it in purity, and not approach the holy at all times[10].”

Ironically, the book is now available online here.




[1] Gideon Bohak, Dangerous Books; The Hekhalot Texts as Physical Objects.
[2] This is based on the emergence, in Babylonia, of Aramaic incantation bowls which represent the ethos of this literature at that time.
[3] Klar, Megillat Ahimaaz, p. 12.
[4] It is interesting that to this day, some Chassidim do not hesitate to place their signature mystical works on top of a Chumash. And kindling a light before the Torah is also observed today by the ner tamid or eternal light which burns in synagogues in front of the Ark which houses the Torah scrolls.
[5] Klar, Megillat Ahimaaz, p. 30.
[6] This may have been based on an idea in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a and Yoma 69b) where the evil inclination, in the time of Zecharia, was described as a fiery lion cub which was caught and also sealed in a lead vessel to prevent its voice being heard when it roared.
[7] S. Emanuel, Newly Discovered Geonic Responsa (Jerusalem and Cleveland: Ofeq Institute, Friedberg Library, 1995), p. 125. 
[8] Rav Hai Gaon writes: “[T]here are two mishnayot which the Tannaim (the rabbis of the Mishnaic period (0-200CE) recite about this, and they are called Hekhalot Rabbati and Hekhalot Zutarti, and this thing is widely known.” 
[9] Literally ‘between the suns’ which is the time between sunset and nightfall.
[10] A play on Lev. 16:2.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

260) THE CHIEF RABBI OF MORAVIA RECEIVES A LETTER FROM G-D:


Moses Mendelssohn's controversial Biur received the approbation of R. Mordechai Benet, the Chief Rabbi of Moravia.


INTRODUCTION:

Rabbi Mordechai Benet or Marcus Benedict (1753-1829) was the chief of rabbi Moravia, the historical region[1] in the east of the Czech Republic. This would have been one of the most prestigious rabbinic appointments of that time.

R. Benet was a child prodigy and at his barmitzvah his teacher showed the guests commentaries he had already written on the Torah and Talmud.

He was an interesting man because although respected by rabbis from across the spectrum – for example, the second Rebbe of Chabad, as well as his friend the Chatam Sofer spoke highly of him - he is described as being a fiercely independent thinker as well. 

Paradoxically, he allowed space for writings and ideas from the Enlightenment Movement (Haskalah), while at the same time staunchly upholding the traditional Halachic and rabbinic system.

In this article, which is based extensively on the research of Professor Tamás Visi[2], we will explore some of the thinking of R. Mordechai Benet.

Visi describes R. Benet as being:

“...remarkably flexible concerning those innovations [of the Enlightenment] that did not threaten the prestige of rabbinic literature. However, he was a rigid opponent of any changes that could have restructured the inner hierarchy of the [rabbinic][3] literary system.”

A COMPLEX MAN:

People were not sure how to read R. Benet.

On the one hand, he had adopted a strict anti-Enlightenment and anti-Reform stance, such as his ruling against the Hamburg Temple, forbidding the use of organs in a synagogue on Shabbat.[4]
This was in keeping with the traditional position of the Chatam Sofer, one of the ideologues of the emerging ultra-Orthodox movement who famously claimed that anything new was forbidden by the Torah.[5]


On the other hand, R. Benet gave his endorsement to a school book complied by Herz Homberg. Homberg started out as a tutor to Moses Mendelssohn’sson and ended up becoming his follower.
(Moses Mendelssohn is regarded as the father of the Enlightenment Movement.)

R. Benet also endorsed an edition of the Pentateuch which had Mendelssohn’s German translation of the Torah as well as his commentary on it known as the Biur.

There is evidence that Mendelssohn’s commentary was studied in Moravian yeshivot during the 1820s.[6]

R. Benet had a secretary, Avraham Trebitch who recorded the history of the time and he included a eulogy for Mendelssohn just as he did for other orthodox rabbis, and R. Benet gave his approbation for this work.

This should not come as too much of a surprise as there were quite a number of rabbis who were part of an ‘orthodox Haskalah.’  


TWO DIFFERENT TYPES OF ENLIGHTENMENT:

It is possible to understand R. Benet’s ‘warm’ feelings towards the Enlightenment because of his being domiciled in Moravia. It was the Berlin Enlightenment particularly, which was the considered most threatening to traditional Judaism.

RABBINIC AUTHORITY AND PRESTIGE IN MORAVIA:

The reason why the Enlightenment was not such a threat in places like Moravia may have been because of the generally unattested authority and prestige of the rabbis which was prevalent there more than in Berlin.

Visi writes:

“Maskilic [Enlightenment][7] texts could have reached Moravia at the turn of the nineteenth century. They may have been read by some Moravian Jews...
Nonetheless, they could not compete with the heavy voice of Tradition in terms of prestige...”

And Visi continues to explain why a degree of Enlightenment literature may have been permitted in Moravia under R. Benet:

“However, it could be consumed only as peripheral or low prestige literature as long as the traditional literary system functioned.”

A HIERARCHY OF PRESTIGE:

Amongst the rabbinate itself, there was even a hierarchy of prestige. There were rabbis and then there were specialist rabbis or ‘geonim.’ While this is typical of the rabbinate in all communities, it appears that this was particularly so Moravia. Thus, even within the orthodox rabbinic world:

“Any innovation not coming from the ‘geonim’ was immediately perceived as amateurish and suspicious.”

The Enlightenment could not successfully compete with this hierarchy of prestige.

Rabbinic prestige was obviously a major issue and one could say it was a positive factor as it kept the important tradition alive.

Visi describes this matter of prestige in rather strong terms regarding a question put to R. Benet about the permissibility of praying in a language other than Hebrew:

“...Benet argues, once Hebrew is replaced by German as the language of worship Jews may forget Hebrew altogether. This situation would cause the complete disappearance of rabbinic culture (as well as rabbinic authority) since rabbinic literature is consumable only in Hebrew. Its prestige among Jews stands or falls with the prestige of Hebrew.”

In other words, it was felt that prayer must remain in Hebrew not just because it is prescribed by Halacha (although there are exceptions), but also because it was a means of maintaining rabbinic culture, prestige and authority.

Incidentally; besides prayer - unlike the Chatam Sofer whose followers believed it was a religious duty to speak Yiddish and not German - R. Benet had no problems with Jews using German as a spoken language.

THE AVERAGE MASSES:

In R. Benet’s response to the Hamburg Temple issue, he wrote in Hebrew: 


“It is well known and generally recognized by everybody that all the community of Israel are all sacred and the One God is among them. And one Torah is for all of them. And all the people stand all the time on [the belief that] Moses is true and his Torah is true. And this is the Torah that he gave us. They are the two tablets of the covenant, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.”

The same eloquent passage was translated into the Yiddish vernacular in a curt and more authoritative style which simply laid down the law for the populace:


“It is generally known that all the community of Israel is based on an unconditional belief in the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.”

In light of this unconditional belief, there was nothing more to discuss.

The unassailable authority of the rabbis was most likely also contributed to by the general disinterest by the masses in intellectual endeavours both in technical religious, as well as in secular affairs.

As Visi puts it, the average Jews of Moravia had no real appetite for intellectual matters, and they:

“...actually lacked the educational background necessary to do philosophy in an enlightened maskilic style.”

‘BESAMIM ROSH’ - A DIRECT ATTACK ON RABBINIC AUTHORITY:

It is apparent that R. Benet developed an interesting way of coping with the threat of the Enlightenment: 

As long as the authentic rabbinic theme was allowed to maintain its basic dominance, he felt no need to attack the Haskalic influences. He was prepared to allow them some space as long as they remained on the periphery. 

However, as soon as he perceived a direct threat to rabbinic tradition, he was steadfast in his condemnation of it no matter the source.

An example of this was R. Benet’s outright denunciation of the well-known Halachic work, Besamim Rosh, which originated from Berlin. R. Benet believed this work to be forgery.

As the title suggests, it purports to be the 14th-century work of Rabbeinu Asher, known also as the Rosh. The book, regarded as a ‘Trojan horse in the camp of Halacha,’ is thought to have been forged by R. Saul Berlin, whose father, R. Hirsch Tzvi Levin was the rabbi of Berlin.

Interspersed amongst the various writings in Besamin Rosh are ideas such as that Rambam did not base his Thirteen Principles on Torah or Talmud but from non-Jewish sources as well as on his own perceptions, and that faith is a matter of individual conviction. The Rosh (b. 1250), allegedly, would have known this having lived soon after Rambam passed away in 1204.

Besamin Rosh also speaks of a time when certain laws of the Torah will be abolished for the ‘well being’ of the people. There are also references to shaving one’s beard, drinking non-Jewish wine, and most controversially to a case of riding a horse on Shabbat. –These and other such statements are regarded as subversive and deliberately planted in the guise of a Halachic work, to spread Enlightenment propaganda.


In a letter by R. Benet to R. Levin of Berlin, he disputes the attribution of Besamim Rosh to the Rosh. He compared sections of authentic Responsa (Teshuvot, or written answers to Halachic questions) of the Rosh to the writings in Besamim Rosh and exposed various inconsistencies.

Visi explains:

“However, the main point of criticism was not the authenticity of the work but the blatant heresy propagated in some of the pseudoepigraphical [falsely attributed][8] responsa.

... the Besamim Rosh was a dangerous attack on traditional rabbinic Judaism in Mordecai Benet’s opinion. It demanded a response as opposed to other pieces of maskilic or reformer literature, which Benet preferred to ignore.

It could create a new publicity and prestige for maskilic ideas that they did not enjoy before. By attacking it Benet obviously wanted to prevent the spread and the recognition of the book: the possibility that Moravian yeshiva-students take the Besamim Rosh as an authentic piece of rabbinic literature must have been a nightmare for him.”

A TIGHTROPE:

What emerges is a very interesting dynamic displayed by R. Mordechai Benet. He seems to have been neither a proponent nor opponent to the Enlightenment Movement. This was unusual in an age which had clearly defined boundaries in this area.

However, the open-minded, independent and tolerant R. Benet - who normally turned a blind eye to, and in some cases even endorsed Enlightenment literature - was transformed into a warrior when he felt that rabbinic literature itself was under threat.

This theological tightrope on which R. Benet walked as well as his commensurate delicate ideological balance seems to have been quite considered, intentional, strategic and in his mind, appropriate.

-But this unusual balance between staunch defender of faith and open tolerance of Enlightenment views, was too much for some. The following tactic was adopted by an anonymous Kabbalist, perhaps representing a larger interest group:

THE ‘LETTER FROM G-D’:

In 1820, a letter - ‘from G-d’ - was found in the East-Moravian town of Lipnik addressed to the chief rabbi, or landesrabbiner of Moravia. The anonymous author claims he attended a sitting of the Heavenly Yeshiva and he was commissioned to bring a message to the rabbi.[9]

The letter praises the erudition of R. Benet and informs him that his teachings are studied in the Heavenly Yeshiva. The Rif (Alfasi, 1013-1103), Rabbeinu Asher (1250-1328) and Rambam (1135-1204) send their regards.

This praise notwithstanding, R. Benet is reproached for not noticing and not objecting to a new evil which was spreading everywhere. The letter, referring to the proliferation of what it calls heretical views from the Enlightenment, states:

 “Don’t you know, have you not heard how the schism arose in Israel and faith perished and heresy is growing stronger and stronger day by day! No settlement remains unpolluted from people belonging to their sect, some of them [professing their heresy] openly and many more secretly.”

The letter goes on to make use of Kabbalistic terminology describing how G-d’s Presence, or Shechina is being harmed by such Enlightenment activity and R. Benet is reminded about how others in the past - especially Mordechai the Jew[10] - had being willing to sacrifice their lives to prevent the suffering of the Shechina and to stop these satanic influences.

Then the letter becomes more personal and threatening:

“And you, my son, my beloved one, behold I have appointed you as the leader [nagid] of my people and all the great ones of the generation obey your words and all the chiefs and leaders of the people respect you. You have the power to do as you wish.

Despite all these you sit in silence as if you were deaf and unable to give instructions to fight the wars of the Lord and to punish these wicked ones, who destroy the world, with strong hand.
And it is you whom the other sages of the generation imitate when they sit and keep silence. 

Meanwhile the faith and religion of Israel is being demolished because of you.

And for this reason many accusers arose against you, some of them from the right side and some of them from the left side,[11] and required a punishment for you in the presence of God, and your punishment was almost decreed had not the members of the heavenly yeshiva, especially Jacob… and Joseph… spoken for your benefit and apologized on your behalf, saying, if you knew the intensity of the Shekhina’s suffering in the exile, so to say [kivyakhol], and the demolition of the upper worlds you would certainly be ready to sacrifice your life just as the saints of old days did.”

R. Benet is then told that he is a reincarnation, or gilgul, of Mordechai who did not fear any man, and he is called upon to convene a great gathering of rabbis in order to condemn the new heresy from the Enlightenment.

ANALYSIS:

I am not aware of R. Benet’s reaction to this letter just nine years before his passing, but it shows how far some people were prepared to go to draw him deep into the fight against the Enlightenment.

By the same token, some members of the Enlightenment also went out of their way to produce forged and subversive works in the guise of technical rabbinic literature in order to further their agenda.

The problem, of course, was that huge numbers of innocent and unsuspecting people caught up in the middle would be swayed by charismatic leaders on both sides, to believe that either G-d was writing letters, or that the 13th-century Rosh had 19th-century Enlightenment leanings.



[1] Historic regions are geographic areas which at some point in the past had an ethnic or political basis regardless of present-day borders.
[2] Tamás Visi, A Moravian Defence of Orthodoxy: Mordecai Benet and the Rabbinic Literary System.
[3] Parentheses mine.
[4] See Elle Divrei haBrit.
[5] A play on the words ‘chadash asur min haTorah’ (referring originally to the eating of ‘new grain’ before the Omer offering is given). However, according to the findings of Meir Hildesheimer, it is no longer certain that the Chatam Sofer even banned the study of Mendelssohn’s writings. (Hildesheimer, “The Attitude of the Hatam Sofer…” (see note 10), pp. 149-154 and p. 177).
[6] Hildesheimer, “Moses Mendelssohn…” (see note 10), pp. 95-96.
[7] Parenthesis mine.
[8] Parenthesis mine. (Also spelt: pseudepigraphical.)
[9] The letter is printed in Maasiyot m-tsadiqei yesodei olam (Podgorze, 1903), 6a-7b.
[10] From the Book of Ester.
[11] These would refer to what the anonymous writer believes to be spiritual entities. Those from the ‘left’ are evil, while those from the ‘right’ are good.