The Rabbi & The Rebbes
9½ Mystics: The Kabbala Today.
by Herbert Weiner.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 310 pp. $5.95.
This is an engaging book. It is the story of a quest undertaken by a modern American Reform rabbi to understand something of the living reality of the Jewish mystical tradition. It provides some elementary information on the literature of the Kabbala and on the origins of the Hasidic movement, but the main part of the book is a genially written autobiographical account of the author’s contacts with diverse 20th-century representatives of Jewish mysticism, including philosophical re-interpreters (Martin Buber), scholarly codifiers (Gershom Scholem), actual practitioners of various kinds of Hasidic rules of life, and leaders or followers of fringe movements in Orthodox Judaism which in some way seem to him to have a mystical element. It is a matter of traveling hopefully rather than arriving, for when Rabbi Weiner comes in his epilogue to ask u’v’chen (“and so?”) he has no clear-cut answer to give about the value and contemporary meaning of the ways of life and thought he has been describing.
The quest began on East Broad-way, with an insistently contrived encounter with the old and impoverished scholar of the Zohar, S. Z. Setzer, an encounter which developed into a pupil-teacher relationship that is described with moving simplicity. But the attempt to bring the old man out of his dreams and meditations into the world of modern discussion ended disastrously in a hotel room in Atlantic City when Setzer, invited to give a lecture to a group of young American-born rabbis, read in Yiddish from an early essay of his and by his style and manner reduced his audience to helpless mirth. The picture of Setzer is the best character sketch in the whole book: this dedicated anachronistic figure, with his simple vanity and his total lack of any real contact with the modern world, embodies a whole tract of Jewish history and psychology, and the quietly matter-of-fact way in which Rabbi Weiner tells his story allows its significance to speak for itself.
Rabbi Weiner has deliberately adopted what he calls a “journalistic approach” in recording his quest, and on the whole this is justified, for his book is less an examination of Jewish mysticism than a series of lively descriptions. But sometimes we wish he had paused in his narrative to dig a little deeper into the meaning of what he describes. For example, he tells an anecdote as it was told him by Setzer, who had an apparition of his sister at the time of her death many miles away. In telling Weiner about it, Setzer showed his bewilderment at the apparent supernatural element involved, and kept repeating, “You know, I am a rationalist.” This does not seem to have struck Rabbi Weiner as odd. Yet surely for a professed kabbalist to insist that he is a rationalist disinclined to believe in extrasensory perception is very odd indeed.
The oddity is not, however, wholly beyond explanation. At least one might draw attention to the element of precise mathematical logic found in much kabbalistic literature and in the letters-into-numbers games characteristic of the kabbalistic techniques of gematria and temurah. Behind the ecstasy is always, or nearly always, the logic, a feature of Jewish mysticism that distinguishes it from other forms of mystical thought and which makes Hasidim much more like Mitnagdim than either liked to admit. You could play numbers-games with the words of the Torah and so infer (or confirm) the most esoteric doctrines from the simplest words, but this involved an absolute faith in the divine origin of every single letter of the Torah. This faith was shared by all elements in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, mystic, non-mystic, and anti-mystic alike, and so was the practice of precise inferences from the words of Holy Writ according to scrupulously worked out logical rules. It is just this biblical fundamentalism that Rabbi Weiner cannot accept, the one point on which he occasionally (but always very gently and briefly) allowed himself to be drawn into discussions with Lubavitcher rebbes and Bratzlaver Hasidim. But he is not really interested in arguing. He wants to find out what makes these people tick, and he talks with them, prays with them, studies with them, even ritually bathes with them, in order to try to find out. When he confesses to Rabbi Menachem Mendel that he cannot believe that the whole of the Torah was given by God, the Lubavitcher rebbe replies: “Yet you believe in the oneness of God. And if you follow out the implication of that belief logically, then you must come to the mitzvot, the commandments, as surely as theorems come from axioms.” The appeal is to logic, not to spiritual experience, and Rabbi Weiner did not challenge the effectiveness of this kind of logic any more than he commented when a young follower of the Lubavitcher rebbe “proved” to him that the Torah must have been given by God because it says so in the Torah itself.
Some of the characters we encounter in this book are more attractive than others. I did not find any of the Lubavitcher people very appealing; the Bratzlaver Hasidim, who had no live rebbe to whom they accorded royal status and who looked instead to their founder Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, emerge in these pages as both more attractive and more psychologically interesting. Sometimes Rabbi Weiner went from a learned theoretical discussion by Scholem or a philosophical reverie by Buber to the actual contemporary practitioners of the doctrines these scholars were discussing, and found bitter disappointment. The account of a kabbalistic Sabbath night in B’nai Brak breathes frustration and anti-climax. Yet some of Rabbi Weiner’s experiences with Hasidim in Israel were genuinely moving. We end with an account of the thought of the great Rabbi Kook (Avraham Yitzchak ha-Cohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Palestine) through the conversation of his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook: here legalism and mysticism mingle in a strange way and some of the paradoxes of Jewish mystical thought are, if not illuminated, at least impressively illustrated.
The psychological, sociological, philosophical, and theological questions posed by the ways of life and thought of the various people whom Rabbi Weiner encountered in the course of his quest are not seriously answered, or for that matter even seriously posed. But the purpose of the book is different. It is to provide its readers with an actual encounter with those ways of life and thought. This the book does unexpectedly well (unexpectedly, because one would not have thought that this approach would yield something so humanly interesting and attention-compelling). Rabbi Weiner’s modesty has something to do with his book’s success: he tries to efface himself and let his subjects speak. Sometimes, it is true, his attitude, as he trots from synagogue to synagogue, from beth hamidrash to beth hamidrash, from rabbi’s study to rabbi’s study, asking questions, striving always to find out what his interlocutor really thinks and feels, reminds me a bit of Lewis Carroll’s poem:
So, having no reply to give
To what the old man said,
I cried “Come, tell me how you
And thumped him on the head.
But Rabbi Weiner’s thumping is always metaphorical and gentle. And if the ultimate answers he got were little more satisfactory than those received by the questioner in Lewis Carroll’s poem, at least he provides us with first-hand data on the basis of which we might try to work out some answers for ourselves.