Posts Tagged 'America'

Finally, Some Jewish Self-help Books

Parasha ve’isha: Limud Nashi Leparashat Ha’shavua, Yemima Mizrachi. Yedioth Ahronoth Books, 143 pp., NIS 118

Neviot: He’arot, Etzot vetovanot Hameshivot et Harua’h Al Pi Mishnato shel Harav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, edited and elucidated by Yuval Freund. Yedioth Ahronoth Books, 150 pp., NIS 98

Tzohar Le’asakim: Parashat Hashavua b’re’I Iski, Nihuli umanhiguti, edited by Itamar Mor. Danny Books, 408 pp., NIS 118

At the beginning of the 20th century a new and original genre became widespread in the United States: “Self-Help” books. These books offered readers a colorful array of useful advice, and outlined paths to scoring achievements in a particular field that was generally mentioned in the title. The most famous of these books was Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which has sold more than 15 million copies to date and gave rise to many successful imitations.

Quite a few of these titles, which star on bestseller lists to this day, deal with financial advice, but there is no need to turn to these to understand that the capitalist, utilitarian logic is the spirit blowing through the genre as a whole. Life is presented in Self-Help books as a development project, with the reader as its facilitator and operational contractor. He must attack his life vigorously, mine its resources and get as much net profit out of it as possible. If need be, he can and should lay off useless departments such as moderation, sensitivity and common sense. “Democracy introduces an industrial spirit into literature,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed back in the mid-19th century, and de Tocqueville is right, as usual.

Most Self-Help books relied on the assumption (whose roots are to be found in the Romantic movement) that man possesses inner resources he must discover and exteriorize. Therefore the advice they offered usually revolved around the ways and methods to dredge up those hidden treasures. A human being is called upon to find within himself courage, determination or creativity, which he or she had no idea existed, but which the book explained that even if these had gone undetected until now, the hidden stores are nothing less than their deepest, innermost self.

The notion that redemption begins from within built its home on the basis of the modern individualism and ideal of independence and economic initiative characteristic of American culture. Together with the spirit of invention and technological innovation, Self-Help books gave their readers a feeling that not only in the economic sphere, but in each and every area of life is to be found “a method” that will make it possible to manipulate the data, and ultimately maximize profits.

Inevitably, self-help books began to be written in the religious-spiritual realm as well. This domain is not limited to systematic instructions for the most effective ways to communicate with the upper worlds, but often involved advice that is based on religious and traditional sources, but is actually meant to assist us in secular areas. As an example of this we can cite more than 50(!) different titles in English alone that proclaim they teach “the Tao of” (parenting, gardening, sexuality, cooking, business). These books profess to glean insights from the ancient Chinese tradition to improve the quality of our Western lives in the present.

Everything, as you know, makes its way to us belatedly, but the good news is that not only hath Israel not been forsaken by his God, but he has been bequeathed a fortune. In recent years it appears that Israeli Judaism has finally joined the trend, and self-help books based on the wisdom of Jewish tradition crowd bookstore shelves. Yedioth Ahronoth Books is the clear leader in this market segment, a fact that corresponds to its overall, and praise-worthy, efforts to enrich the Jewish bookcase with many and diverse offerings. Two years ago this publisher came out with a book (in Hebrew) bearing a subtitle that leaves no room for doubt as to the book’s role in the genre in question: “Once a Week: Insights and Self-Empowerment from the Portion of the Week,” by Aharoni Berenstein. The ways to draw insights and self-empowerment from the weekly Torah portion have only grown more numerous since then.

The Stress of Women’s Liberation

Yemima Mizrachi's bookThe new book by Rebbetzin Yemima Mizrachi, :“Parasha ve’isha: Limud Nashi Leparashat Ha’shavua” (“Portion and Woman: Feminine Study of the Portion of the Week”) is a fine example of this. Mizrachi is one of the most prominent of the popular spiritual women leaders in the field of Judaism in Israel. She is a lawyer and rabbinical pleader by training, and today she gives lessons on Jewish tradition and the weekly Torah portion all over the country. Thousands of women subscribe to her mailing list, and the gatherings she holds always draw a big crowd. As may be learned from her new book, the weekly portions serve her as a pliant and productive base on which to offer advice and insights that contribute to the empowerment of her disciples.

This is Mizrachi’s first book on the weekly Torah portion, and it is limited to the first two books of the Pentateuch – Genesis and Exodus. The motto may be distilled from the introduction: “Everyone is a treasure of wisdom, but it must not remain hoarded. In order for the wisdom to be affected and to affect connecting feminine study is required.” Our inner wisdom can be uncovered, then, with the help of the weekly portion, and Mizrachi does this with great wit and creativity. But the study required here, as stated, is feminine. According to Mizrachi this refers to study “that emerges from the chambers of the heart and hearth, different from the hum of studying that rises from the benches of the yeshivas. Women simply study differently.”

What does this feminine study look like in practice? According to Mizrachi’s book it entails using the Biblical narratives to understand how one ought to await a match, manage relationships and raise children. The portion “Hayei Sarah,” for example, deals with problems of couples’ relationships, “Toldot” – with parenting, “Miketz” teaches us that being chubby is perfectly fine, and “Vayigash” elucidates the importance of crying. In general, feelings and managing them are the main topic one can learn from the weekly portions, and eliciting them from the Biblical text known for its stinginess when it comes to sentimental expression is no mean feat.

Mizrachi delivers her commentary with great talent, and it is not hard to understand why she is so popular. On several occasions in her book she emphasizes women’s superiority over men, and yet at the same time never for a moment challenges the traditional division into gender roles. A Woman’s business is in the home, and the home is the business of women. When “women’s liberation” is mentioned, we learn that this process is responsible for our stress and fears. But this too is for the best. “What is the role of fear? First of all, to reveal to you how much strength you have. You are awesome!”

Rav Kook’s Wisdom du jour

Yuval Freund’s edition of Rav KookThe very same bit of advice may be learned from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook: “Many times the cataclysmic situations teach man about himself (….) The acquisition of new traits in the difficult periods causes a great and sophisticated increase afterward.” That is Yuval Freund’s interpretation of an excerpt from “Orot Hakodesh,” in which Rav Kook explains that, “from the depths of the abyss you must draw forth precious pearls. Then you will rise and renew your abilities, in strength and tranquility.”

The title of the book “Neviot: He’arot, Etzot vetovanot Hameshivot et Harua’h Al Pi Mishnato shel Harav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook,” makes it clear that here too is a self-help book that culls its life wisdom from the field of religion. This time not the weekly Torah portion but Rav Kook has been chosen to restore our spirit. Freund’s explications look out upon the rabbi’s words on the facing page, whereas the words of Rav Kook are arranged in short lines and centered, like poetry. Here too the guiding principle is mining the treasures hidden in the depths of the soul: “In man (…) there are great and enormous spiritual powers of an entirely different order, which he must appreciate and respect,” Freund writes.

Rav Kook is easy to translate into romantic selfhood, for he himself was greatly influenced by the Romantic movement. However, for decades the message that was delivered from his letters was purely national and messianic. The reason for the transition to the language of sentiment in this case is not merely the awakening of this genre – religious Self-Help books – but also the growing competition between Rav Kook and Rabbi Nachman for the hearts of youngsters in knitted-skullcaps. The emotional language and psychological insights of the tzadik from Breslov are winning over many souls in religious Zionist circles, and the latter have decided to fight back. Envy among scribes generates wisdom – in this case it’s more like street smarts

Rav Kook is a giant thinker and outstanding poet, and his words presented in this book are inspiring. Praise is due to the compiler, Yuval Freund, who was not afraid to bring also excerpts that might jeopardize the readers’ automatic allegiance to the Halakha, or Jewish law. Rav Kook calls, among other things, for deviating from the familiar structures and listening to our inner voice. The tension between the inner voice and obedience to the heteronomic Halakha should be obvious, and for anyone interested in unquestioning loyalty to tradition a certain risk is inherent in bringing such things from the mouth of such an authority. Advice on coping with this inner conflict, incidentally, is not included in the book.

The Spirit of Capitalism in the Weekly Torah Portion

Tzohar Le’asakimWe return to the weekly Torah portion with another title that represents a similar spirit: “Tzohar Le’asakim: Parashat Hashavua b’re’I Iski, Nihuli umanhiguti.” This book is a collection of short articles by some of the rabbis from the Tzohar organization, including its stars: Rabbis Yuval Cherlow, David Stav and Shai Piron (currently the Israeli Minister of Education). It should be mentioned that women are not absent from this volume and have penned several of the articles in it. As the book’s title suggests, in this case the weekly Torah portion serves as a source of insights into the business world.

The book is essentially an anthology of articles that were sent over the past decade to a list of Israeli businesspeople. The mailing list in question is the brainchild of Eran Rolls, a businessman who describes himself as someone with “a transparent skullcap” or “a religiously observant secular person,” and is himself one of the varied fruits of the Jewish renaissance in the country. Rolls initiated a weekly mailing of the portion of the week to his distribution list, which kept growing as the years went by.

The advice is nothing you could not guess in advance. Initiative, persistence, creativity, determination, taking advantage of opportunities, and originality – the weekly Torah portion teaches us all of these to assist our success in business. To the Tzohar rabbis’ credit, they seek to advance not only the personal success of their readers, but also the employment conditions of those employed by them. Many articles emphasize the moral dimension of the business world, and demand that the reader turn his attention also to the ethical implications of his actions.

The Utility of Sentiment

The examples cited above indicate a gradually expanding trend of Jewish Self-Help books, or in other words: the assimilation of Jewish tradition into the main trends in the global book market. Moreover, the books mentioned here are not only representatives of Self-Help books, but also expressions of a broad cultural movement that presents increased preoccupation with our emotional life, and an emphasis on a utilitarian worldview. It is a crossbreeding of the romantic inclination to find uniqueness, authenticity and meaning within us with the instrumental logic of the capitalist market. This match leads to a rich supply of “methods” and “systems” with whose help we will put into practice the hidden lights in our inner selves.

That isn’t necessarily bad, of course, and perhaps there really are within us hidden dimensions and unseen potential powers. But we should pay attention to this process, in which both tradition and the Jewish bookcase become raw material in the hands of the market, and translate themselves into the patterns of that same familiar utilitarian logic. Interestingly, fundamentalist religion, in Afghanistan or Mea She’arim, is one of the few foci today of stubborn resistance to capitalist globalization. It resists a lot of other things too, but it is possible that precisely by posing a determined alternative, which expresses a different worldview and a different logic, it invites us to learn something very important about ourselves; something no less important than how to wait patiently for a decent match or how to close the next deal.

Published in the literary supplement of Haaretz.

How Kabbalah shaped the Mormon faith

Joseph Smith

Mormonism is a subject of fascination to Americans and the rest of the world. Its unusual sets of beliefs were widely discussed and studied long before U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney strode onto the national stage. Less well known and studied is the way the doctrine is shot through with kabbalistic beliefs.

In a book from the early 1990s, "The American Religion," literary critic Harold Bloom mourned the transformation of respectable American Protestantism into a Gnostic dispensary of fundamentalism. To Bloom, the religion of Europe’s Puritans had grown wild and unrestrained in the liberated soil of America. This, he said, led to the flowering of all sorts of strange religious movements, like Christian evangelism, various New Age movements and, of course, Mormonism.

Bloom was particularly interested in Joseph Smith, the religion’s founding prophet. He had created a truly “American religion,” writes Bloom, which taught religious devotion to family, community and financial success.

In addition to being a talented and original theologian and a highly charismatic figure, Joseph Smith was the source of many of the esoteric theories pervading the North American continent in the first half of the 19th century. And, his theories were colored by the supernatural-theological worldview of the kabbala.

Citing the many points of similarity between Mormonism and kabbala, Bloom posits the “more direct influence of the kabbala on Smith than what we know.”

This would help explain the extreme divergences between Smith’s views and those of the conventional Protestant denominations that were his jumping off point.

The opening page of 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700), from which Joseph Smith studied Kabbalah

God’s wife

According to Smith’s theology, the God who controls our world was once a human like us. He had a spouse and the two of them had corporeal bodies of flesh and blood. God is a model for men on earth in that every Mormon is also capable of becoming a deity of his own star along with his wife. This, of course, implies that there are many gods who rule over many stars.

Smith held that his doctrine was the recounting of the esoteric knowledge revealed to the first human, Adam, by the deity of our star. From Adam, God’s wisdom was passed down through the generations, passing through Noah, Abraham, Moses and the ancient Hebrew priests and finally, was revealed to Smith’s followers.

The purpose of the doctrine is to facilitate the realization of human potential by transforming men into gods. This notion is not just foreign, but in fact, antithetical to the Puritan Christianity from which it emerged.

Puritanism saw man as a vessel full of guilt and disgrace. Born into sin, the best this wretched creature could hope for was to claw his way toward salvation through shamefaced submission to the Son of God. Man was light-years away from being some sort of galactic deity.

What Smith was offering his followers was a stark alternative to the severe and ascetic Christianity of Puritanism. He promised them the renewal of prophecy, the building of paradise on Earth and ultimate personal empowerment. As an added bonus, he threw polygamy into the deal.

from 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700)

Jesus’ second coming, in America

Joseph Smith was born in 1805, the fifth of 11 children from an impoverished family in Vermont. When he was 14, following a period of severe mental distress, Smith had his first vision where the deity himself assured him that his sins had been forgiven. Along with this, God warned him not to join any of the churches in the vicinity because they all distorted the true word of the Bible.

In 1823, three years after his first vision, Smith fell to his knees again and called out to God for guidance in the depths of another mental crisis. This time the angel Moroni appeared before him and told him that he was the last survivor of an ancient Hebrew civilization that arrived on the shores of North America at the time of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. These ancient Israelites did what Jews always do and fought amongst themselves until one sub-group among them (henceforth known as the evil ones) put to the sword the members of the other group (the good ones) and annihilated them.

The evil ones, after being cursed by God, developed over time into the different tribes of American Indians. All that was left of the good ones were the tablets of gold upon which were engraved their history in the ancient Egyptian language.

The angel Moroni directed Smith to the spot where these tablets were buried and instructed him to dig them out of the ground. After Smith laid his hands on the tablets he immediately began translating the ancient Egyptian writing on them. The result was an impressively broad volume containing hundreds of pages of narration that told the history of the bad ones and good ones.

Perhaps even more importantly, this narrative also included the second coming of Jesus Son of God to humanity – an event that occurred on American soil before these very same ancient Hebrews who had reached America. This was “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” as was proclaimed in the sub-heading of the Mormon’s holy book. Clinging to his holy book, Smith went out to acquire believers. He succeeded well beyond his expectations.

In order to understand the secret of Smith’s success – and the success of his bible – it is worth taking a step a back and gaining a bird’s-eye view of the above-mentioned occurrences and placing them in their proper context. This period was the peak of the Second Awakening in the United States, a period of religious revival during which many Americans joined various Protestant denominations. Around Smith, the religious muses were ubiquitous, with new prophets popping up seemingly from under every tree.

Not far from the home of Smith, Jemima Wilkinson exhorted sexual abstinence and fidelity to the Ten Commandments. Handsome Lake, a Native American prophet, preached fiercely against alcohol, witchcraft, gambling, violence against women and homosexuality. There was Joseph Dylkes, who announced that he was the Messiah who had come to rebuild Jerusalem; George Rapp, who established a community of religious hermits and announced the approach of the Second Coming of Jesus; Bernhard Muller, who dubbed himself the "Lion of Judah" and declared himself the messiah; William Miller who founded the largest messianic movement in U.S. history and declared that Jesus would return to this world by March 1844; John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the early socialist Oneida Community, who preached about sex without ejaculation as means of achieving spiritual elevation; and of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who left his position as a reverend of the Unitarian Church and commanded, “Cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with the Deity!” He was a clear precursor of New Age spirituality.

from 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700)

An age of prophets

The age was ripe for prophets and their followers, and Smith was no exception. His was an attempt to create a new society in which sexuality served as an important source of spirituality. He preached neither sexual abstinence nor sex without ejaculation, but polygamy. Instead of a faint promise of the future coming of the messiah, Smith’s prophecy was a megalomaniac attempt to establish the Kingdom of Heaven in the present, on Earth.

Where did Smith derive his inspiration? He was undoubtedly an exceptional person, with a vivid imagination and enormous creativity. But every creative spirit needs raw material. Smith found his in the esoteric literature of his era, which led him to the Kabbalah.

As a curious teenager, Joseph Smith was able to read a fair share of Western esoteric literature at his neighbor’s homes or in different public libraries. The esoteric literature of the period included the legacy of the Renaissance, Hermeticism, the Kabbalah, Neoplatonism, alchemy, astrology and Magic.

Hermeticism was an esoteric practice based on ancient texts that were apparently written by a god/king/prophet/ master sorcerer named Hermes Trismegistus. This Hermes was, apparently, a contemporary of Moses and revealed to humanity the secrets of the universe at the exact same time that Moses gave the Torah to the Israelites. The historical source for the more ancient parts of the hermetic corpus is found in the early centuries of the Common Era, in Greco-Egyptian Alexandria, and therefore contains a mixture of Greek and Egyptian myths.

In contrast to many Western tracts, the Hermeticism emphasized the greatness of man and the ability for the complete synthesis of spirit and matter. Based on this doctrine, the soul is a refined type of matter, and therefore this materialist and sordid life is not a thing unto itself; there is even the possibility of achieving divinity without separating from life.

"You are the light and the life, as God the Father from which man was born," states Hermes, echoing similarities with Mormon theology.

from 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700)

Kabbalah for Christians

With respect to the Kabbalah mentioned here, this wasn’t the same Kabbalah diligently pored over by the students of the Vilna Gaon or the Lubavitch Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Hasidism, during this time period, but rather the Kabbalah translated into the vernacular for a Christian readership. In the eyes of the Christians who were interested in it, the Kabbalah was thought to be the secret Torah that Moses gave to Joshua, and from him to the elders of Israel, and from them to the prophets. But unlike traditional rabbinic Judaism, the Christians believed that the Kabbalah was also given to the Israelite priests. The inclusion of the ancient Israelite priests was likely due to every story about the Temple in Jerusalem being seen by Christians as having some esoteric and mystical value (this was also true for the Freemasons, another movement that flowered around the same time). The Christian Kabbalah included different translations of the Hebrew texts into vernacular with additional commentary that presented it as a universal bible that in practice was philosophically Perennialist (meaning, that it stands at the base of all human knowledge).

Smith’s interest in the Hermeticism and the Kabbalah alone are enough to shed light on the sentence found at the beginning of the Mormon cannon, in the Book of Nephi, the first volume of the Book of Mormon. After the first verse in which the narrator presents himself, the second verse states: “I will make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” The Jews were a muse to Joseph Smith. The use of “the language of the Egyptians” ties the Book of Mormon to Hermeticism.

The comprehensive research of Michael Quinn — a historian of the Mormon religion and follower himself whose research findings led him to be kicked out of the Mormon church — paints a portrait of Smith as a fairly committed esotericist, despite his eclectic and autodidactic education. The world of the young Mormon prophet included astrology, Magic, the preparations of talismans, trading in holy relics, remote viewing and especially, prophetic visions.

Quinn demonstrates different links between Smith’s prophecies and the book, “Traditions of the Jews," written by the anti-Semite Johann Andreas Eisenmenger that was translated from German into English in the 18th century. It appears that this book taught Smith that the Hebrew word for God (elohim) is actually written in plural form, an understanding that aided the development of his anti-monotheistic theology, which explicitly acknowledges a plurality of gods.

Other books in Smith’s environment hybridized the kabbalistic meaning of “original man” (the first emanation of the divinity after its contraction) and the biblical meaning of “Adam” (as the first human, in the Garden of Eden). This compound meaning was passed onto Smith, apparently leading him to view the first human as a being with godly powers, and Adam’s descendants – that is, today’s humans — as having a latent potential for godhood.

from 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700)

A Jewish convert to Mormonism

Above and beyond the books Smith read, it appears that much of his education on the secret Jewish Bible was acquired from a Jew named Alexander Neibaur, who arrived on the shores of the U.S. from London and converted to the faith of the Mormon prophet. As Moshe Idel writes in his book “Olam Ha’malakhim” (“World of Angels”), we have in our hands a list of Neibaur’s books, which include several important works of Kabbalah. The encounter between these two figures occurred in 1841, and between 1842 and 1843 the official Mormon newspaper published articles on Kabbalah, some of them written by the Jewish convert, mentioning, for example, the book “The Sohar” (referring to “The Zohar,” widely considered to be the most important book of Kabbalah.) It seems Smith learned from Neibaur to take the first verse of the Bible, “At first God was created” and to interpret it in one of his last teachings as the invitations issued by the chief god to the other gods to a supreme council in which the creation of man and the transfer of the secrets of eternal life to him and his descendants were discussed.

Smith had one purpose, to renew the Israelite nation of yore. For this purpose, prophecy was renewed, priestly orders were established, and temples (not churches) were built. Even the polygamy of the Patriarchs was renewed. Smith wanted to build "Zion" on American soil. Smith spoke of a new society, where people would share their property, and were faithful to the true Bible coming from the lips of their leader. The same leader, Smith, pretended to rule this utopia as a “prophet, priest and king” entrusted by God to be responsible for the fate of his subjects.

In 1844, after they were chased out and expelled from Missouri, tens of thousands of Mormons moved on to Illinois. There, Smith established the city of Nauvoo, which grew rapidly and soon numbered more than 10,000 inhabitants, approximately the size of Chicago at the time. Smith himself was the city’s mayor, and when the harassment of the Mormons began again he announced his candidacy for the U.S.presidency. in elections scheduled that year. His secret plan was to annul the separation of church and state after his election and to establish a kingdom of priests, with himself at its head. Several months later, he was killed in a lynching.

In his book, Harold Bloom writes that “If there is already in place any authentic version of the American Religion then, as Tolstoy surmised, it must be Mormonism, whose future as yet may prove decisive for the nation, and for more than this nation alone.”

Bloom perceived with his sharp senses that the esoteric path to godhood (or at least to economic success) in our days added up to much more of an ethos than penance for Original Sin.

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Published in Haaretz, 5.10.12


Tomer Persico

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