The Overlooked Teachings of Eastern Europe’s Great Anti-Hasidic Rabbi

Aug. 31 2021

Because the ḥasidic movement is rooted in its own particular understanding of Jewish mysticism, it is sometimes assumed that its opponents, the Mitnaggedim, were uninterested or even dismissive of kabbalah. But nothing could be further from the truth. The greatest of the Mitnaggedim, the Gaon of Vilna (Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, 1720-1797), diligently studied kabbalistic texts and wrote commentaries on them. Likewise his most famous disciple, Ḥayyim of Volozhin—perhaps the most influential East European rabbinic thinker of his day—focused much of his attention on mystical subjects.

Raphael Shuchat has recently edited and published a critical Hebrew edition of Rabbi Ḥayyim’s passing statements and answers to students’ questions, which were compiled by his disciples under the name Sh’iltot, and first published after his death. In an interview by Alan Brill, Shuchat comments:

Maybe the most interesting quote [in this work is that] Rabbi Ḥayyim says: “The Vilna Gaon said that the main effort of man [in striving for spiritual perfection] must be concerning transgressions between man and man in all their details.”

There are also interesting sources concerning the Ḥasidim. In [his major mystical-theological work], Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim, Rabbi Hayyim never mentioned the Ḥasidim by name, but . . . Sh’iltot points out ideological disagreements with Ḥasidism. It also makes clear that he was tolerant towards Ḥasidim in day-to-day life, permitting students with a ḥasidic inclination to study at the yeshiva. We discover that he had a grandson who became a Ḥasid.

Hayyim also frequently warned against ecstatic experiences and revelations, referring to them as coming from the “other side,” [a kabbalistic term for demonic or satanic forces].

The text also makes clear that, despite the stereotype of Mitnagged who studies only the Talmud to the exclusion of other religious works, that Rabbi Ḥayyim advocated for a well-rounded Jewish education, and considered it “imperative to study all of the Bible, Hebrew grammar, . . . midrash, aggadah, . . . and Zohar.”

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Read more at Book of Doctrines and Opinions

More about: Hayyim of Volozhin, Jewish Thought, Kabbalah, Vilna Gaon

Europe-Israel Relations Have Been Transformed

On Monday, Israel and the EU held their first “association council” meeting since 2012, resuming what was once an annual event, equivalent to the meetings Brussels conducts with many other countries. Although the summit didn’t produce any major agreements or diplomatic breakthroughs, writes Shany Mor, it is a sign of a dramatic change that has occurred over the past decade. The very fact that the discussion focused on energy, counterterrorism, military technology, and the situation in Ukraine—rather than on the Israel-Palestinian conflict—is evidence of this change:

Israel is no longer the isolated and boycotted outpost in the Middle East that it was for most of its history. It has peace treaties with six Arab states now, four of which were signed since the last association council meeting. There are direct flights from Tel Aviv to major cities in the region and a burgeoning trade between Israel and Gulf monarchies, including those without official relations.

It is a player in the regional alliance systems of both the Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean, just as it has also become a net energy exporter due to the discovery of large gas deposits of its shoreline. None of this was the case at the last council meeting in 2012. [Moreover], Israel has cultivated deep ties with a number of new member states in the EU from Central and Eastern Europe, whose presence in Brussels bridges cultural ideological gaps that were once much wider.

Beyond the diplomatic shifts, however, is an even larger change that has happened in European-Israeli relations. The tiny Israel defined by its conflict with the Arabs that Europeans once knew is no more. When the first Cooperation Agreement [between Israel and the EU’s precursor] was signed in 1975, Israel, with its three million people, was smaller than all the European member states save Luxembourg. Sometime in the next two years, the Israeli population will cross the 10 million mark, making it significantly larger than Ireland, Denmark, Finland, and Austria (among others), and roughly equal in population to Greece, Portugal, and Sweden.

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Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Abraham Accords, Europe and Israel, European Union, Israeli gas