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Sunday, 24 July 2016

090) ANOTHER SIDE TO RABBI MOSHE CHAIM LUZZATTO:

INTRODUCTION:

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 book in question is the 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’.[1] 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 them ‘depressing’).[2]

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[3]) at an early age and went on to study secular subjects (possibly medicine) at Padua University[4]. 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.[5]

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[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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 MOVEMENT:

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 Gottfried Herder[9] referring to Ramchal as; 

“...a great 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’.

RAMCHAL’S PSALMS:


Ramchal's Psalms


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.[10]  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 metaphor).[11]

MODERN-DAY CENSORING 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 frequently expunged.[12]

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 Ramchal.[13] In 1993 a new broader edition of Mishkney Elyon was requested by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and published by the Ramchal Institute in Jerusalem.[14]


ANALYSIS:

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’) and Psalms.

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[15]) Chassidim could take umbrage to.

Perhaps Ramchal alluded to the importance of context when he wrote;

Organized knowledge 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 details.[16]



[1] The Vilna Gaon also said he would have walked from Vilna to Italy just to sit at the feet of Ramchal.
[2] 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.
[3] At the age of fourteen he produced a summary of the very complicated Etz Chaim and apparently kept his kabbalistic knowledge hidden from his parents.
[4] 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.
[5] 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.
[6] 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.
[7] See 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.
[8] Ibid. For an English translation of this document.
[9] Herder was a Christian clergyman, student of Immanuel Kant and prominent figure in the German Enlightenment.
[10] See Bikkurei haIttim 1825. I found this information in On The Main Line , May 16 2011.
[11] Three of his plays are available on HebrewBooks with one translation into English, see here, here and here.
[12] See reference to the behind the scene discussion in On the Main Line, Thursday June 09, 2005.
[13] This was published by Rabbi Chaim Friedlander.
[14] See Temple Secrets; Ramchal and his writings, Translated by Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum.
[15] Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, on the other hand, used to encourage people to read Mesillat Yesharim.
[16] Introduction to Derech HaShem.

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