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

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy