Sunday, 21 January 2018


Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo, from the frontispiece to Sefer Elim

Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo (1591-1655) also known as Giuseppe Salomone di Candia Del Medigo, was a rabbi, physician, mathematician and music theorist.

Born on the island of Crete (then called Candia), he was also known as the Yashar miKandiya.Yashar’, meaning honourable, is also an acronym for Yosef Shlomo Rofeh (doctor).

He spent much time amongst the Karaites[1] and he expressed the astounding view that most of Ibn Ezra’s Torah commentary had been taken from Karaite sources. (See KOTZK BLOG 158.) While in Cairo he came across a copy of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed and was greatly influenced by the work.

He became quite a celebrity after he defeated the renowned Arab mathematician, Ali b. Rahmadan, in a public disputation in Cairo concerning spherical trigonometry.
He travelled extensively throughout North Africa and Europe and he is buried in the famous Jewish cemetery in Prague, close to the Maharal of Prague.


It is estimated that R. Delmedigo may have written up to sixty books.

One of them, a book of over 400 pages on astronomy and mathematics, was entitled Sefer Elim (Palms). In it, amongst other issues, he discusses the sizes of the celestial bodies and their distances from earth.
 Illustration from Sefer Elim
The book was written in response to ‘12 general and 70 detailed questions’ sent to Delmedigo by a Karaite scholar, Zerach ben Natan, from Lithuania. These numbers coincidentally corresponded to the 12 fountains and 70 palm trees at Elim as mentioned in the Torah[2] and hence Delmedigo chose this as the name for his book.

The title page to Sefer Elim describes his occupation as a ‘propper’ (shalem) rabbi which implies an official form of smicha or rabbinical ordination.

Sefer Elim has been described as: “The most sumptuously illustrated of early scientific works in Hebrew, and unique in printed Hebrew literature before the modern period.”[3]

The book was heavily censored over the years and only sections remain today.


His life’s mission was to introduce science to the religious Torah world of his day, particularly to the Askenazim.

Delmedigo made the observation that the Ashkenazim of his day were not interested in science because they were preoccupied solely with Talmud study to the exclusion of everything else - whereas the Sefardim and Karaites (who, at that time were more affluent and influential than the Rabbinites) were better able to merge with both worlds.

He appealed to the Ashkenazim to get more involved in science and philosophy. And he was particularly abhorred by the unsanitary conditions in the ghettos and the chaos that often ensued there because of their ignorance of worldly matters. He desperately wanted to uplift his people by a ‘renaissance’ of science and he encouraged the study of trades and professions so that they could become self-sufficient and live with dignity.

Of the Jews of Poland he writes:

They understand neither science nor Torah. They have become enemies of science, and despise those who study it...”[4]

According to S. Pulver:

Delmedigo of historical, mathematical, and educational interest since he was one of the first in the Jewish world to attempt to integrate the new secular scientific knowledge into religious aspects of Jewish life...[5]

While serving as the personal physician to Prince Radziwill of Poland, he wrote:

“...officers and deputies, young and old, arrive early at my door. They bring me from city to city, crowning me with honour and praise. (But) in truth I want nothing more than to write Hebrew books containing the entire body of science and wisdom in order to teach Jews.”[6]


Delmedigo was, additionally, a student of Galileo, studying under him whilst in Venice.
He must have made an impression upon Galileo as he was given the unusual honour of using Galileo’s personal telescope, which Galileo had constructed himself.

 Galileo's Telescope, Museum of the History of Science, Florence
He wrote:

My teacher Galileo observed mars when it lay close to the Earth. At this time its light was much brighter than that of Jupiter, even though Mars is much smaller. Indeed it appeared too bright to view through the telescope. I requested to look through the telescope, and mars appeared to me to be elongated rather than round...In contrast I found Jupiter to be round and Saturn to be egg-shaped.”

This observation in those times must have been like looking at images from the Hubble Telescope today.

Most fascinatingly, Delmedigo, in his Sefer Elim, refers to Galileo as ‘Rabbi Galileo’.[7]


There are two dissenting views as to whether R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo was a defender of Kabbalah or an opponent of it:


According to one view, Delmedigo, although a scientist, saw no contradiction between science and mysticism and he authored a work called Matzreif leChachma, in defence of Kabbalah

This, in light of the fact that his great-grandfather, R. Eliyahu Delmedigo[8] - a loyal follower of the Maimonidean doctrine of rationalism - had launched an attack against the Kabbalah. R. Eliyahu Delmedigo believed that one had to "fight for rationality, sobriety and the realization of [his] human limitations."[9]

R. Eliyahu Delmedigo had challenged the authorship of the Zohar and denied it was written by R. Shimon bar Yochai. He claimed it was not known to the rabbis of the Talmud, nor to the Gaonim, nor to Rashi. He showed how it contained names of people who had lived after the death of R. Shimon bar Yochai. (See KOTZK BLOG 87.)

It is, therefore, most interesting that there is this view that his great-grandson, the student of Galileo, became such a staunch defender of Kabbalah. - Especially considering the publisher’s note in the preface of the book stating that when R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo was eighteen years old, and a student at the University of Padua in northern Italy, he would openly mock the Kabbalah. It is alleged, however, that he had a change of heart at the age of twenty-seven.


Then there is the counter view that his defence of Kabbalah was not his genuine personal view because he wrote his Matzreif leChachma on behalf of a patron in Hamburg, who by his own admission, commissioned him to write the book. In this sense, he was a ‘ghost writer’.

Apparently, he was ‘ashamed’[10] of this book and said that it was common practice for an author to not state his personal views when writing for a patron.

Furthermore, supporting the notion that Delmedigo was an opponent of Kabbalah is the fact that he was a close friend of R. Leon of Modena who was known as a fierce anti-Kabbalist.[11]


Regarding his position with regard to Kabbalah, Delmedigo did certainly become a master of Lurianic Kabbalah whilst in Poland. Depending on the view one takes, he did this either to find mystical solutions to problems which science could not answer, or simply, to be qualified sufficiently to refute the mystical tradition.

Regarding R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo’s association with the Karaites may appear surprising although not that unusual in Jewish history. (See KOTZK BLOG 91.)                                        

In the Introduction to Sefer Elim, which was written by Delmedigo’s student, Moshe Metz, it states that although his teacher did associate with Karaites; ‘ did not disturb him to be associated with any scholar, whoever he was, as long as he was interested in reason.”[12]

Finally, R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo’s description of the Ashkenazim of Poland is also interesting, as is his ‘solution’ to educate them in the sciences so that they may be uplifted from what he considered to be the chaos and unsanitary conditions of the ghetto.                              

In some way it appears that he may have been quite successful because a century later, Naftali Hetz Wessely (1725-1805)[13] provides an eyewitness account as to how well-read his books were:                                                                                                                                          
We have seen among our Polish brethren... great Torah scholars who studied geometry and astronomy in their homeland by themselves, without the aid of a teacher. They knew the depths of these sciences to such an extent that the gentile scholars marvelled at their reaching such a level of knowledge without a teacher. They studied the few books that were written by scholars of our nation, such as Yesod Olam and Elim by Yosef Kandia.”[14]


This is reminiscent of the view of the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), who went so far as to actively encourage his students to study secular wisdom. He instructed his disciple Rabbi Baruch of Shklov to translate Euclid’s Elements into Hebrew so that the Torah world could better understand Geometry. 

The Gaon said that if one lacks a measure of secular knowledge, one will lose out on a hundred measures of Torah knowledge. He believed that Torah and secular wisdom were intertwined.[15] He also said that a Kiddush haShem was defined by a non-Jew being impressed by the professionalism and breadth of the secular knowledge of a Torah Jew. (See KOTZK BLOG 65.)

[1] It has been suggested that he befriended the Karaites because of their love for secular literature and also possibly because he may have been persecuted by some within the mainstream Jewish community. (See Jewish Virtual Library, Delmedigo, Joseph Solomon.)
[2] Numbers 33:9.
[3]National Library of Canada Catalogue.
[4] New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, by Jeremy Brown, p. 78.

[5]THE SYNCOPATED MATHEMATICAL WORKS OF JOSEPH SOLOMON DELMEDIGO, by Sandra M. Pulver. Pi Mu Epsilon Journal. Vol. 9, No. 2 (SPRING 1990), pp. 106-109.

[6] New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, by Jeremy Brown, p. 68.

[7] It is possible that this title was just a sign of respect but it is just as possible that Delmedigo knew something more about his teacher than was generally recorded.
[8] Author of the anti-Kabbalistic work Bechinat haDa’at.
[9] Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
[10] See JewishEncyclopedia, Delmedigo, Joseph Solomon.
[11] R. Modena actually used Delmedigo’s Matzreif leChachma as a basis for his own work, Ari Noham (‘Roaring Lion’) which was clearly and systematically anti-mystical.
[12] Introduction to Sefer Elim, p. 9.
[13] Wessely was a student of R. Yonatan Eybeschutz and was later regarded as one of the influential leaders of the Maskilim. He was threatened with excommunication by the German and Polish rabbinate, but the Italian rabbis came to his defence and supported him.
[14] See: Divrei Shalom veEmet, by Naftali Herz Wessely.
[15] “HaTorah vehaChochma nitzmadim yachad.”

Sunday, 14 January 2018


Sefer haGoralot, a treatise on astrology, by Ibn Ezra.

Avraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) was born in Tudela, Spain. He travelled extensively throughout North Africa, Egypt, Italy, France and even spent some time in Oxford and London. It appears that he passed away in England (allegedly after being attacked by wolves) and it is even suggested that he may have been buried there. He was widely respected as a poet and scholar and is probably best known for his various Torah commentaries.


Ibn Ezra’s acclaim was not only within Jewish circles. He even has the moon crater Abenezra named after him. This may have been because, in addition to his Biblical commentaries, he wrote a number of treatises on mathematics and numbers, in which he expounded on the old Indian system of mathematics, which later influenced the Arabic mathematicians. He also wrote about the ‘Galgal’ (the ‘circle’) otherwise known as the numeral zero, which he brought to the attention of some in Europe.[1]

(For more on Ibn Ezra see KOTZK BLOG 94.)


Ironically, it is the Master Commentator, Rashi, who is commonly known as the great expounder of the Pshat, or literal and simple meaning of the Torah text. Yet, even a cursory examination of Rashi, reveals that his commentary is not always Pshat. Rather it is replete with Medrashic sources and rabbinical allegories – which do not always adhere to the literal meaning of the text – and which instead often reveal a hidden meaning or a moral lesson.[2]

It is evident, however, that it was the purists from the Pshat School of biblical commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, who really expounded on the literal interpretation of the texts, without relying upon Medrashic allegory.


An example of this difference between Rashi and Ibn Ezra can be seen in their respective commentaries on Bereishit 14:14:

When Avraham learned that Lot had been taken captive, the Torah text says that he summoned 318 men[3] to save him.  Rashi, however, quoting the Rabbis, says it was not an army but just one man, namely, Eliezer his servant, whose name had the gematria or numerical value of 318:

Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, dismisses this ‘drash’ (allegorical interpretation) as it involves numerology. Numerology, he says, is no way to prove anything because it can be twisted and abused to create any outcome:


The Karaites were an influential, significant and large number of Jews who ignored the rabbinical interpretations of the Torah and relied solely upon the literal meaning of the text as they imagined the ancient Israelites to have done during biblical times. The movement may have had its roots going back to the second century BCE,[4] but they certainly crystallised under the leadership of Anan ben David (715-795 or 811).

They became so powerful that, at one time, with almost half of the Jewish population practising Karaism, it was thought to have been a strong contender for future Judaism. However, as we know, Rabbinical Judaism continued to remain the dominant mainstream.

(For more on the Karaites see KOTZK BLOG 63. and KOTZK BLOG 122.)

With the Karaite insistence on the pure and literal meaning of the Torah text, it is possible that Ibn Ezra, a ‘pshatist’, turned to some of their interpretations when he needed clarity on the Pshat.
In his book, Masters of the Word[5], R. Yonatan Koltach writes:

In his Torah commentary, Ibn Ezra quotes Karaite commentators extensively...
While he cites some Karaite interpretations with agreement and respect, such as...Aharon ben Yeshua and...Yeshua ben Yehudah, his stance...was principally defiant and discrediting.”


Ibn Ezra quotes Karaite commentators several hundred times in his Bible commentary.[6]
Indeed, he cites the Jerusalemite Karaite, Yeshua (ben Yehudah) at least forty times[7], seemingly in concurrence.

Moreover, Ibn Ezra quotes the Karaite, Yefet (ben Ali HaLevi...) more than one hundred times[8], often complementing his interpretations.”

By comparison, Philip Birnbaum writes that Ibn Ezra only quotes R. Saadia Gaon five times.[9]


These ideas did not sit well with other Torah scholars and thus we find that R. Shlomo Luria (1510-1573, also known as Maharshal) wrote:

(Ibn Ezra) has lent support to heretics...and those of little faith.”[10]

R. Yosef Delmedigo (1591-1655, also known as the Yashar miKandiya) who spent much time amongst the Karaites, writes that the majority of Ibn Ezra’s commentary is taken from Karaite sources!

In a similar manner, Abarbanel (1437-1508) writes:
(Ibn Ezra was) influenced by Karaite commentators and occasionally follows their opinions.”[11]


Rambam, on the other hand, had no issues with Ibn Ezra, and he also seems to have been well acquainted with the writings of Yefet ben Ali[12].
Quite to the contrary, Rambam praised Ibn Ezra as can be seen by what he wrote in the letter to his son:

Do not pay attention or divert your mind on commentaries, treatises and books other than those of Ibn Ezra, which alone are meaningful and profitable to all who study them with intelligence, understanding and deep insight’.[13]


Ibn Ezra, as mentioned, quotes the Karaite Yefet ben Ali over one hundred times.
Yefet ben Ali haLevi was born in the early 900’s in Basra (present-day Iraq) and died in Jerusalem around 980. He was known by the Karaites as the Maskil haGolah (Intellect of the Exile).

He wrote about his dispute with Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) and tried to prove the superiority of the Karaite view. Besides attacking the Rabbinites, as the mainstream Jews were called, he severely criticised Christianity as well as Islam.

From his commentary on Isaiah it is clear that in his view there are four categories of Jews:

1)      The Reish Galuta (Exilarchs) who pretend to have knowledge.
2)      The scholars to whom the Reish Galuta teaches the ‘nonsense’ of Talmud as well as sorcery.
3)      The common folk who do not study and only know about attending synagogue from Shabbat to Shabbat and to say ‘Shema’ and answer Amen.
4)      The ‘real’ Karaite Maskilm (Scholars) who truly understand Torah and teach generously without demanding payment for their services.

In another work[14] he argued that, in his view, there is no evidence of an Oral Tradition within the Written Torah, and purported that the Mishna and Talmud infringe on the Biblical prohibition of Lo Tosifu - “Do not add to the word I have commanded you.”[15]

Yefet ben Ali also broke with the general Karaite view that the study of secular science was to be discouraged. On the contrary, he insisted that it be studied as a pre-cursor to religious theology.
Besides the two exceptions of the Biblical stories of the Burning Bush and the Song of Songs, no other parts of the Torah were to be interpreted allegorically.

Amazingly, this was the man Ibn Ezra was prepared to quote from more than a hundred times!
According to E.Z. Melamed, the Karaites went so far as to claim that Yefet ben Ali was indeed Ibn Ezra’s teacher![16]


According to Professor Marc Shapiro:

“...Ibn Ezra has no reticence in citing Karaite interpreters, yet as we know, ArtScroll only cites ‘accepted’ authorities, and won’t even mention the Soncino commentary by name...(However) there are some times when ArtScroll errs in this matter.

For example, in its commentary to Jonah, p. 111 it cites ‘Yefes ben Ali’ (who is quoted by Ibn Ezra). Presumably, the ArtScroll editor assumed that he was a rishon.

In truth, he was a Karaite, and his inclusion in the Jonah commentary is diametrically opposed to the standard set up by ArtScroll with regard to which commentaries they will cite, a standard that opposes the Ibn Ezra-Maimonides approach (adopted by Soncino) of ‘accept the truth from whomever said it’”.[17]


To be clear, Ibn Ezra was a fervent Rabbinite and opposed the non-Halachic practices of the Karaites. However, this did not prevent him from making use of Karaite interpretations when it came to the actual literal meaning of some of the words of the Torah text.

The same debate over the permissibility of using ‘extraneous’ or ’outside’ source to enhance Torah knowledge still rages today. Can one, for example, use academic writings or research done by non-religious people, to compliment one’s Torah study?

The answer to that question would fundamentally lie in the view one adopts regarding the precedent set by people like Ibn Ezra.

(For an even more extreme example of ‘Karaite precedent’ in the Mesora, see KOTZK BLOG 122.)

[1] See (Article): A History of Zero, Ancient Indian Mathematics, by J J O’Connor and E f Robertson.
[2] Yet Rashi said of himself that he only came to expound on the Pshat.
[3] Or ‘desciples’.
[4] This is the view of R. Yehudah haLevi, who was Ibn Ezra’s friend, or possibly even his father-in-law. See Sefer haKuzari, by R. Yehuda haLevi, where the roots of Karaism are traced back to the reign of King Jannai.
[5] Vol 2, p. 280 and 309.
[6] (Emphasis mine.) Although in his introduction, Ibn Ezra does state that Karaite commentaries are unreliable.
[7] See Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Bereshit 28:12 and Shemot 7:12, 17:16.
[8] See Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Shemot 3:3, 12:16, 22:27.

[9] In the Minor Prophets alone, Ibn Ezra quotes Yefet ben Ali forty-four and Ran Saadia Gaon only five times. See: Yefet ben 'Ali and His Influence on Biblical Exegesis, by Philip Birnbaum, The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Jan.1942), pp. 257-271.

[10] See Introduction to Chullin and Introduction to Bava Kamma.
[11] See Abarbanel on Vayikra 19:20, Bamidbar 21:1.

[12] See: From Judah Hadassi to Elijah Bashyatchi, by Daniel  J. Lasker, p. 128

[13] See: Letters of Maimonides, Stitskin,  p156. It must be pointed out, though, that Rambam did not agree with all the writings of Ibn Ezra, particularly those which dealt with astrology (such as Sefer haGoralot which is pictured above).
[14] This was an epistle published by Pinsker under the title Likkutei Kadmoniyot, p. 19.
[15] Devarim 4:2.
[16] E Z Melamed (1975) pp. 676-679. (According to Marc Shapiro, this is a ‘false legend’.)
[17] See The Seforim blog:  More about Rashbam on Genesis Chapter 1 and Further Comments about ArtScroll, by Marc B. Shapiro.

Sunday, 7 January 2018



I have always been intrigued by how Rav Kook is both revered in many circles yet how he is almost hidden away at the same time.

We do know that much of his writings have been censored and have ‘vanished’ and were it not for good detective work we would not have access to them today. See The Censored Writings of Rav Kook.

I recently discovered a fascinating site called My Rav Kook, which is an important resource for people wanting to explore some of Rav Kook’s teachings, which have been beautifully translated into understandable English.

The translator is Rochi Ebner - daughter of R. Michael Bernstein who was a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University - and she has created a magnificent work.

I have taken the liberty to quote parts of the Introduction, where she describes her relationship with her father and gives us some insight into his thinking.

I am sharing much of this Introduction for three reasons:

1)    R. Bernstein’s absolute commitment to a fiercely independent learning style resonates with me so strongly because it reminds me of the style of the Kotzker Rebbe. So does his ability to step out of Social Judaism, and so does his fearlessness.
2)    I was quite (but not totally) surprised to see that the social norms which are a hallmark of much of the more (religiously) right wing Judaism with which I am familiar, are just as active in the so called Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist circles too.
3)    And I liked the way Rochi Ebner was able to transcend her societal pressures and follow her soul, acknowledging how Rav Kook has been ‘re-framed’ by his lukewarm modern followers. (The Kotzker was also re-framed, except perhaps in the opposite direction).


This work would never have come to be without the devotion of my first teacher, my father, HaRav Michael ben Efraim Bernstein, z"l, who bequeathed me the boundless inheritance of Torah study, as well as a very peculiar childhood. For someone who’d been a Rosh Yeshiva, Papa had very non-conformist ideas about Jewish education: one of them was learning with his daughter every day.

He had not grown up in the 'yeshiva system,' but came from a simple family on the Lower East Side of New York where he attended public schools and an after-school Hebrew program. He was mainly self-taught in Torah when he became a student of Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, from whom he received ordination. Self-teaching characterized his whole life, as did a kind of radical individuality.

Papa was fiercely independent in his learning style and his halachic father studied Christian texts in the original Latin and Greek and had many books in his vast, well-used library that were considered heretical by halachic authorities); the great men who came to seek his advice over the years testified to widespread respect for his creativity and devoutness. He was a holy elitist of sorts, at war with what he perceived as a deadening mediocrity in the world of Jewish learning and teaching: he did not trust institutionalized learning 'systems.'


He sent me to a Yeshiva elementary school for a while, but not with a whole heart. "What did you skip in school today?" he'd ask when I got home everyday – and, indeed, sometimes sections of Torah dealing with sexuality had been skipped by the teacher, or sections deemed 'too complicated.' "Get your Chumash," he'd say, "and let's look at it now." And Papa found the practice of teaching young American children 'ivrit be'ivrit'– ancient Hebrew texts discussed in modern Hebrew – absurd: "They don't know what 'vayomer' means and they don't know what 'hu amar' means," he complained to the school board after seeing all the time I put in memorizing sheets of Hebrew-Hebrew translations in third grade. Torah texts, he felt, should be explained in 'mama loshen,' in the person's native language. This did not mean, of course, not learning Hebrew.

My father was a scholar of Semitic languages and the infinite richness of Biblical Hebrew was his true love; he delighted in it in a way that infected his many students over the years with his own wonder and delight. He just felt that matters of God and belief were so important that they should be explored with the fewest obstacles, which meant probing them in the language one was born into, the language of one's own mind, while at the same time keeping the Hebrew text central.

My father lost his battle with the elementary school board, of course, but in the time he spent teaching Torah to me, after school and during summers in the mountains, the language of our learning was English, and pushing the boundaries of that tongue to extract dimensional meaning from the sacred Hebrew text expanded my knowledge of both languages, and of human perception itself.

But he was a stubborn man, my Papa, and was not content to remedy the sins of the American yeshiva day school system in a piecemeal way. By the time I was ready for high school he put a more radical plan into effect and pulled me out of the yeshiva system entirely, while leaving my brothers in it. I was sent to Hunter College High School, a good New York public high school for girls (it’s now mixed) where I could get a solid secular education, something Papa deemed essential. And he took on my Torah education himself, with his own unique methodologies.

We learned together every day.
Papa didn't think of himself as a Rosh Yeshiva or a Professor of Semitics; he called himself a 'melamed', simply a teacher of children, although most of his students at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School were candidates for rabbinic ordination and post-graduate degrees. And the goal of all his teaching methods was independence in learning.

He was an auto-didact whose goal was to teach others to be auto-didacts and I was lucky enough to be one of them. The Talmud says that it is incumbent on a father to teach his child to swim, and while my father did not fulfill that directive – actually, he never learned to swim himself – he taught me to swim in the 'ocean of Torah,' to get where I needed or chose to go in it under my own power. To search for my own answers to my own questions, independently.

I didn't know it when I was growing up, but this is unusual. I thought that all Jewish fathers learned Torah with their children, and I thought the ultimate goal of all teachers – including parents, of course – was to liberate students to take their own intellectual and spiritual journeys. As an adult, of course, I know that this often isn't so: most parents don't learn Torah with their children (apart from homework), and most Torah teaching has as an aim (whether conscious or unconscious) – of keeping students attached and dependent on teachers and experts and dogma, never on themselves and their own explorations and intuitive wonderings and knowings.


My father taught me to honor my own questions. "Nu, what's your question?" he'd ask after every verse of Torah we learned. Even as I grew older and our learning became more complex, and there were all the Sages and commentators' questions to be examined and appreciated, he would still ask: "And what's your question?" And there were no restraints on questions, there were no 'forbidden questions.' And he, as a teacher, was never afraid to say "I don't know." "I don't know, but let's look it up," or "I don't know but let's think about it." This did nothing to prepare me for life in the real world where, I found out later, there are forbidden questions, especially in the world of religion. And even if the forbidden-questions rule is not spoken out loud, we get socialized very young not to ask them.

"If God is everywhere, is He in the toilet?" is a question a four-year-old might ask, making his parents uncomfortable. They might try to change the subject, and if the little one keeps asking the question they might finally say that we don't talk about God that way. Certainly by the time a child is studying in a day school or yeshiva he knows not to ask it. And if he dared to, many a teacher would turn it against the child, telling him that it's a disgusting or impertinent question; the child might be sent from the room for inciting the other students to laughter. Because most teachers find it so hard to say 'I don't know' – which, of course, might be a fair answer to whether God is in the toilet or not – they turn the question against the asker; it is the asker who is at fault for having the question. Never is the question validated as a question with meaning, which, of course, it is.


The fact that some questions are forbidden reshapes the permissible dialogue of Torah Judaism. It often feels like the only questions one may ask are halachic questions: how big does my etrog have to be; how many days do I count before I go to the mikva; is this chicken kasher or tref? Spiritual questions about my relationship with God are answered, at best, by a list of behaviors that He wants of me: shaking a lulav on Sukkot; eating matza on Pesach; not sleeping with my neighbor's wife. Spirituality, the inner journey, tends to be neglected territory, forbidden territory, even though spirituality is what religion says it is all about.

What do we do with our forbidden questions? What do we do with our innocent wonderings about God and the world and ourselves? We hide them away, but they do not disappear. They show up as spiritual unease and dissatisfaction; an ache. A longing for something that we cannot even name....


Traditionally, Kabbalistic knowledge has always been exclusive, restricted. Before becoming a student of Kabbala under the tutelage of a Mekubal (a Master of Kabbala who had received the tradition from a Master of Kabbala), a man (yes, it was always a man) was required to be very learned in the Body of Torah, the Written and Oral Law. He must have shown tremendous spiritual dedication and he had to have developed the maturity that only life experience brings – one did not begin to study Kabbala before age 40 or before marriage. The secrets of Torah were carefully kept from the masses – they weren't ready, the time wasn't ripe.

But now it's time. The very first piece by Rav Kook which we will look at together declares it clearly – the time has arrived for the revelation of the secrets of Torah. We're a little late, in fact – Rav Kook wrote this piece during the First World War and the 'now' he speaks of is a century old. His call for revealing the Hidden Torah and pursuing new spiritual skills was not exactly taken up by the religious establishment. It is almost 100 years later and we are still choking on forbidden questions.


It was painful that Rav Kook's ideas about a new mode of Jewish relatedness to God had no room to grow in the religious-Zionist environments in which I lived, neither in New York nor in Jerusalem. His call was for radical individuality and a huge expansion of the modalities of Torah study, but the Modern Torah-Zionist circle into which I had been born and which I loved so deeply had, right before my eyes, grown more and more narrow in its definitions of halachic behavior, more and more rigid in its thinking, more and more exclusive about membership (and, frankly, more and more bizarre about what Rav Kook's own Torah might mean). To be accepted, one had to wear the uniform, speak a certain political vocabulary and send your kids to the right schools. God didn't come up often in conversation. I'd been terribly uncomfortable in this world for a long time; it felt like serving a God I did not know, and Who certainly couldn't be very fond of me. Nonetheless there were rewards for it – I was accepted in its inner circles as long as I kept any criticism to myself. This dissonance was deadly for me.

But without Rav Kook's voice in my ear I do not know if I would have had the courage to change my life; without his 'permission' to see things a new way, to take the call within me as seriously real, I don't think I would ever have dared to leave my secure, comfortable position within that world, my family and friends, and set out on a journey into the desert, in pursuit of the Beloved who had sent me the love letter.

The Religious-Zionist world is still uncomfortable with Rav Kook, even though it claims him as its own. Whenever I offered to teach Rav Kook's spiritual works at Jewish educational institutions, I was struck by the almost total uniformity of response. The dean or director – who was often, but not always, a man – would get a look of discomfort, shift position in his chair, stroke his beard if he had one, and say: "Hmm... that's very difficult material."

It is a kind of code, with many layers of meaning. One possible meaning is that he or she was saying "I read Rav Kook and didn't understand a word." Another implication might be – or perhaps this is all in my mind – how could a woman understand it? But it could also be that the discomfort is natural, that it comes because Rav Kook's work is so different from what we traditionally think of as Torah. It doesn't have the usual form of verse by verse or topic by topic.

Rav Kook writes in short pieces – I call them Glimmerings. His work is really a spiritual diary, daily recordings of visions and insights, which only afterwards were edited and ordered by his son and his students and scattered amongst many texts. His work is not the familiar dialectic of learning we are used to – argument and counterargument – and is not even written in the more or less familiar language of other Kabbalistic works, with their vocabularies of sefirot and gematriyot.

And most discomfiting of all – and you will find this discomfiting, too, and stroke your beard if you have one – is that Rav Kook's works are not about ideas out there… they're about you. His sweet voice whispers in your ear about your infinite potential.

[1] Sub-Headings are mine.