Sunday, 22 May 2022

383) Traces of a messianic feminist revolution in Chabad ideology



This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert (1945-2020)[1] traces the evolution of women within Chabad thought. While some leaders within the contemporary Chareidi and Chassidic world are not permitting women to drive, and are obscuring women’s faces in media publications, the views emanating from the last Chabad Rebbe are rather enlightening.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

382) Is "holy sin" a bad theology?


Yitav Lev is an acronym for Yekutiel Yehudah (Zalman Leib) Teitelbaum of Sziget, known as the  (1808–83). 


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Benjamin Brown[1] deals with the paradoxical idea of “holy sin” or “aveirah lishma”- where sometimes it is considered a mitzvah to sin - as found in some kabbalistic and Chassidic thought.

Sunday, 8 May 2022

381) Midrashic sources referring to the actual sacrifice of Isaac?


The reader is cautioned not to regard this article as historiography but rather as an analysis of various modern and ancient readings of the biblical story of the Akeidah, where Abraham was ‘tested’ to see if he was willing to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to G-d. We shall investigate two very different, if not antithetical systems of biblical study - one the modern Documentary Hypothesis also known as Biblical Criticism, and the other, certain older traditional Midrashic sources. Surprisingly we find some degree of synergy between these disparate systems when it comes to the question of what happened to Isaac after the Akeidah.

Saturday, 30 April 2022

380) Appropriating penitence?



This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Talya Fishman,[1] explores the origins of the extreme teshuvah, or penitential practices of the Chassidei Ashkenaz (also known as the German=Ashkenaz Pietists). This intensely ascetic, pietist and mystical movement was founded by R. Yehuda HeChassid and flourished in Germany and France during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Were some of their self-punishing penitential practices appropriated from the surrounding Christian culture or were they purely of Jewish origin - or somewhere in between?

Sunday, 10 April 2022

379) Dealing with a Talmudic view that there is “No Messiah for Israel”


The Babylonian Talmud, particularly, is authoritatively quoted as the foundational text to support and bolster almost any argument within Jewish law and theology. But what happens when a talmudic view seems to fly in the face of principles that are held as true, fundamental and essential to the very faith itself? A case in point is the statement by R. Hillel that “There is no Messiah for Israel”:

R. Hillel says: ‘There is no Messiah [coming] for Israel, as they [the prophesies relating to the Messiah] were already fulfilled during the days of Hezekiah’. Said R. Joseph [in response]: 'May R. Hillel's Master forgive him! When did Hezekiah live? In the time of the first Temple. Yet Zechariah, prophesying during the time of the second Temple, said: "Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion, shout, daughter of Jerusalem; behold, your king comes unto you”’[1]  (b. Sanhedrin 99a).

Sunday, 3 April 2022

378) The first Yiddish translation of Rashi’s Commentary – outreach, business venture, or disingenuous?


Sanvi, Sansanvi, and Semangelaf in Rashi?


In 1560, a Yiddish Chumash (liturgical Hebrew Bible) was printed in Cremona, Italy, the city later to become famous for its Stradivarius violins. The edition was produced by Yehuda ben Moshe Naftali, known as Leb Bresch, and it included the first published Yiddish translation of Rashi’s Torah commentary. Yiddish Chumashim were known as “Teitch[1] Chumashim”. I draw extensively on the research by Professor Edward Fram from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Sunday, 27 March 2022

377) Early Jewish Messiahs and their movements

Rambam's Letter to Yemen

In this article, we look at some of the early Jewish messianic claimants and their movements, of which there have been many throughout history.

Judaism is well-known for its rejection of the Christian Messiah, yet it embraced numerous other messianic claimants and developed an intricate and complicated relationship with messianism. With the current resurge in messianism in the Jewish world in general and in movements like Chabad in particular, it may come as a surprise that this rejuvenation is nothing new. We see that throughout Jewish history there has always been the belief held by significant numbers of the population, that we were on the cusp of the great eschatological event heralding the imminent arrival of an identifiable and righteous Messiah.

Sunday, 20 March 2022

376) Babylonian influences behind the Mourner’s Kaddish

The first mention of mourners reciting Kaddish is found in the 13th century Or Zarua


Most discussions on the origins of the Mourner’s Kaddish as we know it today, only begin from around the twelfth century in Germany. It was there that the Kaddish - which had existed from much earlier times although not necessarily relating to mourning - was finally institutionalised as mourning ritual.

This article, based on the research by Professor David Brodsky[1], traces the development of the now widespread custom of reciting Kaddish for beloved ones who have passed away, and explores where the idea originates that a child can ‘redeem’ a deceased parent.  

Saturday, 12 March 2022

375) New research on Maharal of Prague


Maharal is buried in the Old Jewish Cemetary in Prague


There has been a recent resurge of interest in R. Yehuda Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal (Moreinu haRav Loew) of Prague (1520/5-1609). His legacy has been largely veiled by legend. However, the study of some hitherto unknown, unpublished or neglected manuscripts in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, by Professor Pawel Sladek[1] upon whose research I have drawn, may shed some light on his “intellectual biography”.

Sunday, 6 March 2022

374) Stagnation in the inquiry into reasons for the commandments


 R. Shlomo ibn Aderet, El Rab d'España (The Rabbi of Spain) 1235-1310.


It is sometimes of great benefit to view theological ideas and concepts within their historical context. This way, one would not mistakenly think that the idea or concept has always been there since antiquity. So, for example, when it comes to the notion of ta’amei hamitzvot, or reasons for the commandments - whatever one’s personal view on the matter is - it does help to realise that it was only as late as around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that the idea developed that the reasons for the mitzvot are beyond human comprehension. Until that time, it was quite common for rabbis to give rational or logical reasons for the mitzvot. But then the theology changed and the preferred approach became one of ‘transcendence’ whereby the reasons behind the Torah’s commandments were considered beyond human comprehension.

Sunday, 27 February 2022

373) Kabbalah – a product of the East or West?


Jews and Sufis shared music traditions


Kabbalah, until just a few decades ago, was generally understood in as originating within a Eurocentric context. It was believed to have emerged essentially from centres like Italy, Provence (southern France), Germany and Spain. In scholarly circles, this was the result particularly of the work by Gershom Scholem,[1] who was convinced of Gnostic origins to Kabbalah: He writes that it is:

surprising that the [Kabbalistic][2] doctrine…was deeply related to Gnosticism, but such are the dialectics of history” (Scholem 1941:286).

Sunday, 20 February 2022

372) R. Yitzchak Arama and the subtle demise of Jewish rationalism



Many people, including rabbis, are surprised to discover that the concept of a rationalist Maimonidean Judaism exists. Maimonides’ thought is not the Maimonides of the Mishna Torah compiled around 1180 which many are familiar with (and which, by Maimonides’ own description, was just his summary of the Talmud) - but rather the philosophical Maimonides of the Moreh Nevuchim or Guide of the Perplexed, compiled later in 1190. The personal hashkafa or worldview of Rambam can only be seen in the latter work. Although Rambam passed away about eighty years before the Zohar was first published in 1290, he presented a strong rationalist worldview and deeply opposed the mystical thought that was brewing during his lifetime. The mystics repressed his rationalist ideology during the following few centuries when Kabbalah became dominant (and they continue to do so today), and his rationalist thought was essentially eradicated from Judaism.

Sunday, 13 February 2022

371) ‘Tikla’ and the zoharic concept that sin can bring redemption


The potter's wheel gives shape to a lump of clay.


This article, based extensively on the research by Dr Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel[1] as well as Rabbi Moshe Miller[2], deals with the fascinating yet paradoxical notion in the Zohar of sin as a harbinger or precursor of redemption. The discussion revolves around the Aramaic word Tikla, which appears on two occasions in the Zohar.[3]

Sunday, 6 February 2022

370) Did the Mitnagdim create a counterpart to the Chasidic model of a Rebbe?


Yoreh Deah with Biur haGra


Mitnagdim, or opponents of the Chasidic movement founded by the Baal Shem Tov in the early eighteenth century, have generally emerged relatively unscathed by accusations of exaggerated veneration of their Mitnagdic rabbinic leaders.[1] This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Alan Nadler[2] explores the notion of a Mitnagdic counterpart to the Chasidic model of veneration of their rebbes.

‘Decline of the generations’ (Yeridat hadorot) - the Mitnagdic argument against Chasidism

Sunday, 30 January 2022

369) Menachem Tziyoni’s kabbalistic writings on demonology


Sefer Tziyoni, Korets, 1785.


This article, following the theme of the previous post, further pursues the notion of demonology within Kabbalistic theology. I have drawn extensively upon the research by Professor Boaz Huss[1], a leading contemporary scholar in Kabbalah. This brief study will show just how far into the occult the mystical tradition is sometimes prepared to go.

Sunday, 23 January 2022

368) Ramban and his surprising references to ‘necromancy’


Ramban's Commentary on the Torah form an edition printed in Lisbon in 1489
(Marsh's Library Exhibits, accessed January 23, 2022,


Ramban (Nachmanides 1194-1270), known as the ‘father’ of Kabbalah, was a Spanish born rabbi from Girona, whose Catalan name was Bonastruc ça Porta (Mazal tov at the gate). This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Reimund Leicht[1] from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as Professor Dov Schwartz[2] from Bar Ilan University, deals with Ramban’s unusual usage of the word נגרמונסיא, or ‘necromancy’, which occurs four times[3] in his Commentary on the Torah. “Necromancy” is defined as “the act of communication with the dead in order to discover what is going to happen in the future”.[4] Although Ramban does not necessarily follow this exact technical definition of the term, he has some very interesting views on magic, idolatry, demons and astrology.

Sunday, 16 January 2022

367) The “Shevartzeh Chaseneh” or Black Wedding

 The Yizkhor bukh fun der Zhelekhover yidisher kehileh (Chicago, 1953) shows a Black Wedding taking place in Zelechów during the time of the Holocaust.

This article explores the very strange practice of performing a Shevartzeh Chaseneh or Black Wedding at a Jewish cemetery. It entailed the conducting of a legal wedding ceremony between two people in the belief that such an event would appease the dead to intercede on behalf of the community and halt a crisis such as a typhus epidemic. I have drawn extensively upon the writings of Hanna Wegrzynek[1] who has researched this very strange yet quite common phenomenon and has traced it roots and origins.

Sunday, 9 January 2022

366) Changing perceptions of the “other”


This manuscript is of the Hebrew translation from the original Arabic Guide of the Perplexed, translated by Samuel Ibn Tibbon (died c. 1230). It was produced in Spain, around 1350. 


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Menachem Kellner[1], examines various perspectives of the “other” in the writings of Maimonides and traces how these teachings were sometimes changed by later editors who attempted to “correct” the original Maimonidean texts. Kellner (2007:1) explains that the reason why later editors and copyists were keen to change the original Maimonidean texts was “to pull the sting of their universalism and make them accord with more widely accepted notions of Jewish separateness and superiority”.

Sunday, 2 January 2022

365) Leniencies in conversion or stringencies in avoiding assimilation?



The discussion on conversion to Judaism has once again assumed a position of centre stage within Israeli and Jewish politics. This article explores a number of approaches as articulated by Professor Richard Hidary from Yeshiva University[1] in Part I; as well as some recent writings by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, author of the Peninei Halacha series[2] in Part II.