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Introduction to Havruta, No. 3: The Spiritual Quest

Havruta journal editor Stuart Schoffman previews the third issue, ‘The Spiritual Quest’
The true mirror of life,” wrote Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, “is to be found within the poetry of life, and not in the mundane life that is expressed by prose.” (The revered chief rabbi of Palestine was himself a poet, not a bad avocation for a spiritual leader.) In this third issue of Havruta, we have sought to examine, within the limits of mundane prose, some of that “poetry of life.” Our theme can be designated as “spirituality,” whatever that may mean: we haven’t undertaken to define it, but rather to describe it from a number of angles. Rav Kook’s elegant quote is central to the illuminating essay by Zvi Mark about the Jerusalem poet Zelda, scion of a great Hasidic family. Melila Hellner-Eshed explores a famous rabbinic legend about the sun and moon, tracing its evolution from the Talmud to the Zohar. And Alfredo Borodowski journeys from Harry Potter and The Celestine Prophecy to Kabbalah and Maimonides in an intriguing meditation on the postmodern quest for God .
A roundtable of six scholars and rabbis offers at least that many opinions about the much-noted rise in spirituality among American Jews of all denominations. Aspects of the discussion include Protestant culture, Orthodox ritual, feminism, intermarriage, Gershom Scholem, Buddhism, and the soul music of Shlomo Carlebach, to name but a few. (Madonna goes unmentioned, but her aura is implicit.) All of our contributors would agree, I think, with the evaluation of Arthur Green that “this is a piece of true postmodernity, humanity seeking an alternative to the moral indifference and spiritual insecurity wrought by the modern revolution.” By way of comparison and contrast, we bring an article by Rani Jaeger , co-founder of the secular Tel Aviv synagogue Beit Tefilah, which demystifies the mindset of hiloni Israelis who avidly seek Jewish spiritual fulfillment while keeping religious observance at arm’s length.
Moshe Idel , Hebrew University professor, Israel Prize laureate, and senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, has lately published Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism , which won the National Jewish Book Award for scholarship. Idel is the author of scores of path-breaking books and articles in the field of Jewish mysticism, and Ben, which explores in depth the various ideas of the son of God in Judaism, represents an intellectual milestone with profound religious implications. “The book just emerged, like a golem, without any clear intention,” says Idel, in a frank and wide-ranging interview published in this issue. “Looking back, I can say that I myself was surprised by the richness of the category of sonship in Judaism.”. Idel stresses that these ideas of sonship “reflect a search by Jews for a special affinity with the Divine." Accompanying our conversation with Moshe Idel is an essay by Ron Margolin , lecturer in Jewish thought at Tel Aviv University and SHI senior fellow, which we hope will enable lay readers to appreciate the broad significance of Idel’s brilliant scholarship.
Once again, we complete our issue with Afikoman: Old Texts for New Times, discovering rare poetic insight in a late 19th-century sermon from Kaufmann Kohler, the German-born rabbi who served as president of Hebrew Union College from 1903 to 1921. We at Havruta were struck to find, in this classical Reform text, teachings that transcend doctrine and echo the spiritual yearnings of 21st-century Jews. As always, we welcome your response.
Stuart Schoffman
Editor, Havruta

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