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

Dec. 23 2022

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

The Right and Wrong Ways for the U.S. to Support the Palestinians

Sept. 29 2023

On Wednesday, Elliott Abrams testified before Congress about the Taylor Force Act, passed in 2018 to withhold U.S. funds from the Palestinian Authority (PA) so long as it continues to reward terrorists and their families with cash. Abrams cites several factors explaining the sharp increase in Palestinian terrorism this year, among them Iran’s attempt to wage proxy war on Israel; another is the “Palestinian Authority’s continuing refusal to fight terrorism.” (Video is available at the link below.)

As long as the “pay for slay” system continues, the message to Palestinians is that terrorists should be honored and rewarded. And indeed year after year, the PA honors individuals who have committed acts of terror by naming plazas or schools after them or announcing what heroes they are or were.

There are clear alternatives to “pay to slay.” It would be reasonable for the PA to say that, whatever the crime committed, the criminal’s family and children should not suffer for it. The PA could have implemented a welfare-based system, a system of family allowances based on the number of children—as one example. It has steadfastly refused to do so, precisely because such a system would no longer honor and reward terrorists based on the seriousness of their crimes.

These efforts, like the act itself, are not at all meant to diminish assistance to the Palestinian people. Rather, they are efforts to direct aid to the Palestinian people rather than to convicted terrorists. . . . [T]he Taylor Force Act does not stop U.S. assistance to Palestinians, but keeps it out of hands in the PA that are channels for paying rewards for terror.

[S]hould the United States continue to aid the Palestinian security forces? My answer is yes, and I note that it is also the answer of Israel and Jordan. As I’ve noted, PA efforts against Hamas or other groups may be self-interested—fights among rivals, not principled fights against terrorism. Yet they can have the same effect of lessening the Iranian-backed terrorism committed by Palestinian groups that Iran supports.

Read more at Council on Foreign Relations

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian terror, U.S. Foreign policy