I have always been drawn to the teaching of the Rebbe of Kotzk. His approach was predicated upon uncompromising truth and intellectual independence.This allowed him to be fearless and never to succumb to societal pressures.
He knew that Judaism was so much deeper and more profound than the way it was perceived by the masses and bent by religious populism.
These essays, although not necessarily Kotzker in essence, are certainly Kotzk inspired.
During my yeshiva years, I was strongly discouraged from
reading a work by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746). He is also known as Ramchal, and the bookin questionisthe famous Messilat Yesharim (Path of the Just). Although this book is
universally studied in many mainstream yeshivot,
as a fundamental mussar or ethical
and inspirational work, my teachers from the Chassidic world deemed it too ‘depressing’ for their student’s consumption.
Like so many other things I was later to discover through
the application of my own mind, it turned out that Ramchal was ironically one
of the greatest mystics ever. In words of the Vilna Gaon he was ‘the only
person to understand kabbalah since
the Ari Zal himself’.
It also turned out that the writings of Ramchal were in fact only adopted by
the Mussar Movement a century after his passing (hence my teachers rendering
But there were other interesting things I discovered about
Ramchal as well.
Sefer Torah written by Ramchal from pomegranate juice on gazelle skin
WHO WAS RAMCHAL?
It has been said that what Rambam was to halacha, Ramchal was to kabbalah - in terms of explaining and
making it accessible to the average student.
He was born to a wealthy and cultured Italian family, mastered
Talmud (and even kabbalah)
at an early age and went on to study secular subjects (possibly medicine) at
It was there that he selected a group of medical students and together they
formed a kabbalistic circle of study.
The irony of religious Italian students of secular science
studying kabbalah should not be lost,
coupled with the fact that their mystical teacher was clean shaven.
It was around this time that he began to get into trouble for
teaching Kabbalah, from the majority of
Italian rabbis who held influential positions of leadership. They threatened him
with excommunication and accused him of heresy. They objected to the fact that
he had written a ‘new Zohar’ and that he claimed he had been instructed by a maggid or ‘spiritual guide’.
He had some
radical messianic views, according to Rabbi Moshe Hagiz
who reported Ramchal to the Venice rabbinate, claiming he found evidence in a
letter proving he was a secret follower of the false messiah, Shabetai Tzvi!
According to some, Ramchal considered his student, Moshe David Valle, to be Mashiah ben David, while Shabetai Tzvi
was allegedly considered to be Mashiach
ben Yosef. He
also apparently considered himself to be an incarnation of Moshe Rabbenu.
Ramchal wrote a kabbalistic
commentary to his own marriage document, or ketuba,
which similarly contained messianic references.
Because of these and other allegations, Ramchal agreed to
stop writing the teachings of his ‘maggid’,
but was soon forced into exile to Amsterdam. Much of his writings were burned.
On the way to Holland, he spent some time in Germany where the rabbis made him
sign a document disavowing the teachings of his ‘guide’.
It was in Amsterdam that the book he is most known for, the Messilat Yesharim, as well as Derech HaShem and Daat Tevunot were written. During his ten years in Amsterdam he
worked as a diamond cutter and lens grinder in order to support himself.
After his exile in Amsterdam, Ramchal settled in Israel, where sadly he and his family perished in the plague after just three short years. He died at the young age of 40, and is buried in Tiberias near the tomb of Rabbi Akiva.
RESPECTED BY THE ENLIGHTENMENT
For some reason he was one rabbi who was courted by the secular
leaders of the Haskalah or Enlightenment movement.
In 1781, Moses Mendelssohn wrote a letter to Johann
referring to Ramchal as;
genius in many respects. He was unable to develop his talents due to jealousy
of some rabbis, and was treated poorly. He retired into solitude and died
before his time...He evidently wrote some new Psalms, which I have not had the
opportunity to see.”
These leaders of the Enlightenment held him in high esteem
and particularly appreciated his knowledge and usage of the Hebrew language,
referring to him as the ‘father of modern Hebrew’.
At the age of twenty, Ramchal wrote 150 of his own Psalms.
These were the Psalms Mendelssohn was referring to. Apparently only two have
survived. These ‘new Psalms’, as can be
imagined, did nothing to assuage the tide of opposition from the mainstream
against him, with further accusations
that he was trying to ‘replace’ or ‘supplement’ the Psalms of David.
RAMCHAL THE PLAYWRIGHT:
Perhaps most surprising of all is that Ramchal was also
writer of apparently secular plays in Hebrew and Italian (although some believe
they were laden with kabbalistic
OF RAMCHAL ON WIKIPEDIA:
Amazingly, even to this day Ramchal is subject to a degree
of censorship. But this time it’s not just his kabbalistic leanings that are the problem but rather the fact that
he wrote secular plays and the fact that was threatened with heresy and
messianic charges. Someone does not want this information to remain on
Wikipedia (although citations are provided) and posts of this nature are
HIS OTHER WRITINGS:
Although many of his works were destroyed, he authored about
ninety books on a range of different topics. It was only as recently as the
1970’s that some of Ramchal’s books were discovered and printed. One
interesting work is his Mishkney Elyon,
which was written when he was 22 years old.
He mentioned this book in a letter
he wrote in 1729 to his teacher, Rabbi Basan, during his dark days of
oppression while everyone was closing down on him. The book had not been
printed nor seen for 227 years until in 1956 when its manuscript was accidently
discovered in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
It was then printed for the first
time ever in 1980, under the title Ginzei
In 1993 a new broader edition of Mishkney
Elyon was requested by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and published by the
Ramchal Institute in Jerusalem.
Many would be absolutely surprised, as I was, to discover
that the author of Mesillat Yesharim,
the safe and staple diet of mainstream conservative conformity, had such a
colorful, turbulent and controversial history.
Few would accept the allegation
of his connection to Sabattean messianism - the threats of charges of heresy -
his foray into the theatre as a playwright - his being hailed as father of
modern Hebrew by the Enlightenment - nor his ‘new writing’ (or as some put it;
‘his writing in the style of the Zohar’)
It also amazes me how my Chassidic teachers who discouraged
me from reading Mesillat Yesharim had
no contextual understanding of the life and times of Ramchal. They seemed not
to know that this book was only adopted by the Mussar Movement a century after
his death. It is therefore not technically a Mussar book to which (some)
Chassidim could take umbrage to.
Perhaps Ramchal alluded to the importance of context when he wrote;
of a subject and the interrelationship of
its various parts, is superior to disorganized knowledge – just as a beautiful
garden arranged with beds of flowers, paths and rows of plants is superior to a
chaotically overgrown forest...A person should always endeavour to grasp general principles...When a person
understands one principle he automatically understands a great number of
The Vilna Gaon also said he would have walked from Vilna to Italy just to sit
at the feet of Ramchal.
Ramchal’s Messilat Yesharim was co-opted
by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883) as one of the main works to be studied by
students of the Mussar Movement.
the age of fourteen he produced a summary of the very complicated Etz Chaim and apparently kept his kabbalistic knowledge hidden from his
His secular teacher was talmudist and a physician, by the name Yitzchak Chaim
Cohen Cantarini. His religious teacher was Rabbi Isaiah Bassan, and it was from
his religious teacher’s father-in-law that he first learned kabbalah. Rabbi Bassan encouraged Ramchal to marry at
the age of 25 as it was not common for someone of his personage and religious
calibre to remain single.
According to Iggrot Ramchal nos. 39 and 53, he cut his beard at 14 and only
re-grew it at age 24. (Some say he only trimmed his moustache not his beard).
This point may seem irrelevant to many, but a beardless teacher of kabbalah would be considered by many to
be an anathema.
Rabbi Hagiz was fiercely anti the messianic movement started, about a century
prior, by Shabetai Tzvi (1626-1676) the false messiah who later converted to
Islam. Rabbi Hagiz’s maternal
grandfather was a leader of the Sabbatean community of Jerusalem and his
father-in- law was also a secret follower of the new messianic movement. Rabbi
Hagiz’s father had issued a ban against the Sabbateans in 1666. One can
understand why, after taking these facts into consideration, Rabbi Hagiz was
highly suspicious of any new mystical movements.
Isaiah Tishby, Messianic Mysticism: Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and the Padua School.
See also a review on the book by Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill, June 2, 2010.
Ibid. For an English translation of this document.
was a Christian clergyman, student of Immanuel Kant and prominent figure in the
See Bikkurei haIttim 1825. I found this information in On The Main Line , May
Three of his plays are available on HebrewBooks with one translation into
English, see here,
See reference to the behind the scene discussion in On the Main Line, Thursday
June 09, 2005.
This was published by Rabbi Chaim Friedlander.
See Temple Secrets; Ramchal and his writings, Translated by Rabbi Avraham
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, on the other hand, used to encourage people to read Mesillat Yesharim.