The Great 16th-Century Rabbi Who Combined Legalism with Mysticism

Born in Spain in 1488, and expelled with the rest of the country’s Jews as a child, Joseph Karo spent the next four decades of his life in the Balkans where he engaged in rabbinic study before settling in Safed in the Land of Israel. Along with other scholars, Karo would transform this Galilean town into a major center of Jewish learning. There he would complete his seminal works, most importantly the Shulḥan Arukh (“Set Table”), which remains the most authoritative code of Jewish law. Besides his extensive halakhic scholarship, Karo was also immersed in the study of Kabbalah, and kept a diary of his mystical experiences, which included frequent intercourse with an angelic being known as a magid. Roni Weinstein describes this unusual text:

[A] constant theme in this diary is the fundamental contact between Karo and imminent past scholars, the fountains of talmudic scholarship. Karo is elevated to the Divine Yeshiva, where all the great names of talmudic erudition of past generations face one another in regular and continuous study, as conducted in his contemporary world. There he was hailed and heralded by an angelic voice, and his exceptional erudition and talent were recognized by past scholars, from the Mishnah through the 17th-century sages. Past and present blend into one continuum of Jewish erudition, and all the scholars are searching for Talmudic truth and rabbinical consensus.

Time and again, the diary documents how specific talmudic discussions and their ramifications—which preoccupied Karo due to his responsibilities as rabbi, judge, community leader, or public preacher—were discussed in the Divine Yeshiva. At times he was provided with an assurance that his mode of reading or interpreting certain talmudic discussion was correct, and it even filled the almighty God with satisfaction and aroused a smile.

Where did Karo get his fluid notions of the relationship between law and mysticism? Weinstein writes:

He could not have borrowed such a model from the place of origin where his family and forefathers lived for centuries—Catholic Spain, or Christian Europe in general. . . . Not surprisingly, looking at his neighbors next door in the Ottoman empire, during his early life in [the Ottoman Balkans], and later as a scholar in Safed within the Bilad a-Sham area, he could certainly observe impressive scholars of the Muslim sharia who were at the same time important and venerable Sufi masters.

In this sense, the life course of Rabbi Karo integrates smoothly with the Muslim tradition of his surroundings. Further, it corresponds with the Ottoman culture of the time, within which he prospered, and which was well-known to him and his generation. Law and mysticism are not two distinct hats worn by the same person, but two complementary occupations.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Halakhah, Jewish-Muslim Relations, Joseph Karo, Kabbalah, Ottoman Palestine


Iran’s Options for Revenge on Israel

On April 1, an Israeli airstrike on Damascus killed three Iranian generals, one of whom was the seniormost Iranian commander in the region. The IDF has been targeting Iranian personnel and weaponry in Syria for over a decade, but the killing of such a high-ranking figure raises the stakes significantly. In the past several days, Israelis have received a number of warnings both from the press and from the home-front command to ready themselves for retaliatory attacks. Jonathan Spyer considers what shape that attack might take:

Tehran has essentially four broad options. It could hit an Israeli or Jewish facility overseas using either Iranian state forces (option one), or proxies (option two). . . . Then there’s the third option: Tehran could also direct its proxies to strike Israel directly. . . . Finally, Iran could strike Israeli soil directly (option four). It is the riskiest option for Tehran, and would be likely to precipitate open war between the regime and Israel.

Tehran will consider all four options carefully. It has failed to retaliate in kind for a number of high-profile assassinations of its operatives in recent years. . . . A failure to respond, or staging too small a response, risks conveying a message of weakness. Iran usually favors using proxies over staging direct attacks. In an unkind formulation common in Israel, Tehran is prepared to “fight to the last Arab.”

Read more at Spectator

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syria