On Being Free
On Being Free is a nourishing, uplifting, and inspiring collection of essays, discourses, and interviews that explores such topics as the fate of the Jewish people, the causes of assimilation, sin and atonement, and mysticism. An entire section of the book is devoted to a study of the five Megillot (Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther) of the Bible, drawing out the messages these texts contain for the modern Jew.
The reader will also eavesdrop on two candid conversations in which Rabbi Steinsaltz highlights the role of divine revelation in Judaism, unravels the secret of the tenacity of the Jewish religion, and discusses the steps man must take in order to truly “hear” God.
On Being Free enables Jews of all backgrounds to encounter sacred texts and to be nurtured by the wisdom of the sages.
Two interviews featured in On Being Free are available below:
The Command is to Hear
Interview conducted by Jean Sulzberger, March 01, 1994
JS: The call is a very great mystery. Could it be said that God’s call is a call to be here, present, in the moment? Is this why Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah all answered the voice of God with the same words: “Here am I,” “I am here,” as if the call was meant as a call to be, to be the “I am”?
RAS: The “I am” is sometimes as if you were answering “Hello” on the telephone. To a great extent, “I am here” just says “I am listening.” The call is directed and not directed; it goes everywhere, in every time, and never stops – but most people don’t hear it. When you hear the call you say, “I’m here.” Just imagine a person sitting on a star, sending messages to other planets; he’s sending messages over and over. Now what will be the breakthrough point?The breakthrough point is when there is any answer. When at the end of nowhere, somebody answers.
JS: You mean the voice is always sounding?
RAS: Yes, but we are not listening. It even says so in the Bible. It is written that the voice on Sinai was a mighty voice that did not stop. Many years later this is repeated in much of the hasidic literature, that the voice giving the Law, the Ten Commandments, never stopped.It is still giving the Law, for ever and ever, for eternity. Put in another way, there is a very clear message that is always being transmitted. The thing that has changed is that we are no longer listening.
JS: And the command is “Hear, O Israel.”
RAS: The command is, first of all, to hear. If you don’t hear the Shema Yisrael, where are you? So you must first hear. Now, if you are listening, and answer, “Here I am. I am listening,” then perhaps a message can come through.
JS: The Talmud says: “If you listen below, you will deserve to hear from above.” So is it a question of our attention?
RAS: Yes. It is a question of our attention. I once wrote about it. There’s a saying in the Talmud that there are voices that are so resonant, they should be heard all over the world. One of them is the voice of a woman giving birth, and another is the voice of a snake getting out of its skin. These voices should be heard, but why aren’t they? Because the voice of Rome, the voice of the big, busy city, has so much power, it obliterates them.
JS: But what of a heavenly voice?
RAS: It’s what I’m saying. The voice of Rome obliterates almost everything. So the real point is about listening, not so much about the voice.
JS: When the voice calls, why is the name always repeated? God says “Abraham, Abraham,” “Moses, Moses,” “Jacob, Jacob.” Is there a meaning to this?
RAS: I suppose that it’s possible that one time is not enough. It is like shaking somebody who’s asleep. At a deeper level, the double call is uplifting, causing the person to move from one level (the name) of his existence to a higher level of the same person. In the Bible, in the first prophecy of Samuel, he hears a voice, but he thinks that it’s something else.He needs to wake up. The waking up is a process, and it’s a process that has to go through different levels. On one level – again, a quote from the Talmud – “Every day there is a voice coming from Mount Sinai that says ‘Repent, errant children!” Now the Baal Shem Tov is quoted as saying, “There is a basic question: If there is such a voice, why don’t I hear it?” And his answer was that those thoughts that come to a person from nowhere somehow call him to repent, to change something in his life. These are the echoes of the voice.
JS: Can the hearer know whether the voice is the voice of God, or whether the voice is the voice of an angel?
RAS: This is basically what I would call the human problem. You see, the Divine problem is to call. The human problem is to know who is calling. You find it throughout the Bible and later, the constant question: Whose voice is it? Some people think that the mere fact of having a supernatural parapsychological experience is meaningful. But such an experience is just that: a parapsychological experience, and that’s the end of it. Merely hearing voices does not mean that one has heard the voice of God, and that is always the big temptation and the downfall of quite a number of people. There are some who are cheats, meaning people who never had an experience, and are just imitating. But there are many people who really heard something, and their very big mistake was that they didn’t identify the voice. There is another biblical quotation: When Gideon has his experience, he hears a voice and he says, “God, how shall I know that you are speaking to me?” This is in many ways the most pertinent question. “Give me a sign that it is You who are speaking to me” (Judges 6:17).
JS: It’s an accepted teaching that Muhammad was called by an angel, not by God. What is the role of angels?
RAS: We usually say that it depends on the degree. Some people hear a voice directly.Some people hear a voice of an angel. And some people don’t even hear that. You know, in Jewish parlance, we speak about something that is called bat kol. Bat kol means an echo, but it is not an echo of the mountains. Translated literally it means daughter of a voice. You don’t hear the voice itself; you hear only the child of the voice. You don’t hear the origin of the voice; you hear it only on the second level. In the Book of Isaiah, in one of the prophesies about the future, it says, “And you shall hear a voice behind you, telling you go left or go right.” Now this is a voice, but some people don’t hear it. They hear what they call an echo, a daughter of a voice. It was again written that in the time of the First Temple, people got calls directly. The prophets of the time of the Second Temple all talked with angels. Later on, we don’t hear the voice any more; instead, we have the bat kol, the daughter of the voice.
JS: And that becomes – again, according to the Talmud – the sole means of communication between God and the humans.
RAS: Yes, that is the sole means of communication, which is directed to a single person or to many people. Sometimes this echo becomes thinned.
JS: How do you prepare to receive the echo?
RAS: Having the call at this level is a very great achievement, even if you hear the echo – even if you hear, so to speak, the echo of the echo. In quite recent times, there was a hasidic rabbi who said that in order for a person to be not just a leader, but a guide of people, he has to have ruah hakodesh, a holy spirit. According to this rabbi, some people have a kind of a clarify of vision; they know how the vision comes and what it says. There are others who don’t have that clarify. What they will see doesn’t depend on them; they are, so to say, guided unknowingly.
JS: There are many different ways that the call can be received: an angel spoke to Jacob in a dream. Ezekiel felt a hand on his shoulder. What are the different forms the call can take?
RAS: We never know. One also has to remember that not everyone who has been called is telling us. Sometimes people get not just a call, but also a message. Sometimes the call may be completely person, so it’s nobody else’s business. How the call comes, from the descriptions we have received, is by means of what it is that makes a person attentive. It can be visual or auditory. It can be tactile, or it can be any other way that the person has of knowing.
JS: What is the effect of the call? Does a chance, an awakening, a reorientation occur?
RAS: I suppose that most of these calls, like God’s appearance in the world, leave it for me – for the other side – to act. And usually, I don’t think that the call really changes what I would call my free will.
JS: But surely when one feels something from above and is touched by it in some way, one must be changed.
RAS: Even when there is a change, it depends on how deep and how clear the message is. As I say, sometimes it comes loud and clear, sometimes it comes in a much more clouded way, and sometimes a person doesn’t even know. A person may receive a very clear message without knowing it; sometimes events, life or things converge upon a person, but that person doesn’t recognize that he is being called. You may have more than one call. Sometimes the call comes not through any kind of voice; sometimes the call comes because you are put into a position in which a choice is made for you that you never imaged. It may begin with anything from an accident to a disaster. And it may come through a chance meeting. Sometimes you ask a question at large, and you receive a very clear answer when the person who answered it, who was the instrument for answering it, didn’t ever know that he was giving you an answer. So what I’m saying is that the change, whatever the change is, seems to be that there is something that I now know. I know at a certain level that I am being told something. What I do with that knowledge is a completely different thing. It could even be that I will ignore it.
JS: There’s a whole history of people who refused the call. Jonah fled.
RAS: Yes, people refuse the call in different ways. Somebody said a prophet can refuse the call, but he will pay for it with his life. In Ezekiel there is the parable of the watchman who has to warn the people. Now, what happens if he doesn’t give the warming? If he tries to flee, or tries to ignore it, later he may pay for it very heavily.
JS: At the same time that God is addressing us, we are addressing God. Is prayer our side of the dialogue, or is there something else?
RAS: Well, prayer is clearly meant to be something like this. I’m very busy these days finishing a book about the Siddur [prayer book], a big book that will appear in English. One of the things that I say is that prayer is basically a kind of very direct talk. Prayer is “I am telling You,” and this is something that changes. Some prayers or blessings are just a few words saying, “Thank you. I just want to say thank you,” nothing else. In some prayers, I ask for something. In others I just complain: “It’s not just, it’s not fair. You dealt with me wrongly.” All of these are prayers, and they can range from a feeling of bliss to a feeling of extreme anger.
JS: When we pray, who is listening?
RAS: The fact that God is listening is no wonder. We want also, from time to time, to get some kind of a sign that our prayer has, at least, been received. I remember this feeling. It is like the times that I’ve been left alone in a radio booth. The people trust me not to botch it, so they go out for tea and leave me alone to broadcast. Then I feel: I am talking; is anybody listening? I want at least to get some kind of a confirmation that somebody is listening. As there is a command from the one side – Shema Yisrael, “Hear, O Israel” – so there is a petition from the other side in the Book of Psalms, or the prayer book – “Hear me. God, hear me, listen to me.” I want to know that somebody is hearing. As it is, except for perhaps a few people throughout history, nobody has this kind of an immediate response, the feeling that the message has been received. I’m not speaking about being answered favorably. I’m speaking about the message being received at the other end.
JS: How can we be better receivers?
RAS: We are not always well equipped for receiving. I hear a call, and I’m not equipped.Let’s take this room, for example. On a completely physical level, this room is full of voices and images. If I have a radio receiver I’ll hear voices, and if I have a television receiver I’ll see images. So the images are here, the voices are here. They are all over me, they are overwhelming, but I don’t see or hear them. But not everyone is so closed. A hasidic rabbi once said that he was prayer to have the voices a little bit dulled. He couldn’t rest, he couldn’t sleep, because he was hearing voices all the time. He was distraught from having a very broad range receiver.
JS: Is there a finer energy that can connect us to a current of life from which the call from above comes?
RAS: I have always been very, very suspicious about finding artificial means – it doesn’t really matter whether it is a mantra or a drug. Do you know that book by Aldous Huxley about the gates of heaven and hell? One of his basic points (which I think was a mistake) was that he thought that somehow he had found the key to another realm. That was the basic notion, and he wrote very beautifully about it. Now, as more and more people that tried it found out, you don’t get a gateway to heaven. You get, at the most, a gateway into another chamber within yourself.
JS: Isn’t what we are searching for within ourselves?
RAS: No, that is not the real search. We may have wonderful experiences and clearly have within us more than we know, more than the eye catches, but we’re trying to pass over and through the self to the Other. Now I may find out lots of beautiful things or horrible things within my microcosms, and there may be ways and means and exercises to get there, but the real problem is that this is still my own realm, and what I really want is to go to the Other Side.There are, I think somewhere in the United States, a few miles of receiving antennas that are meant specifically to receive calls from outer space. Just imagine that you receive such a message – you are overjoyed. You hear a voice, and it’s coming from a very small transmitter on the other side of the earth. It’s a wonderful discover, but that wasn’t what you were searching for. You were searching for something from the other side of nowhere. You didn’t want to find something within your realm.
JS: The sound of the shofar in synagogue on Rosh HaShana seems to be a call. So in a sense the call doesn’t have to come from another world. There’s a certain sound of another world in the shofar. There’s a reminder in it, an awakener.
RAS: Yes, but it is like getting a beep before the news. That is what it says. It’s not the news, it’s just the beep telling you, I’m here tuned to the news.
JS: But at least it’s a reminder.
RAS: In many ways the religious life is supposed to be a reminder. Now, as it happens, people get accustomed even to the reminder. The alarm clock is ringing and you go on sleeping. You become so accustomed to these calls that you sleep through them, and just weave them into your dream.
JS: What could be an awakener?
RAS: If I may quote the Almighty, he says in the book of Deuteronomy: “Who will make them, or lead them, who will make them listen to Me as they are listening to Me now, that their heart will be ready for Me as it is now?” But people are not always willing to repeat this experience, because hearing such a voice is a terrible burden. It is always a shocking thing to have, so the notion of delegating it comes from a desire to protect myself from that pain, from the too-big experience. People are willing to have small adventures, small thrills, and small frights. But how many shocks can I have? Sometimes one is enough for a lifetime – I don’t want to repeat it. Sometimes you have experiences that you want to repeat, but you just don’t get the chance; and sometimes one is more than enough – it has been great, important, stirring, but one does not wish to go through it again. Some experiences are such that, if it is a real voice that has been heard, it is always connected and involved with either pain or very great suffering; what is called a dark, big fear is a part of it. You can see it in the biblical descriptions of the prophet. It is really suffering.
JS: Are you saying that we need to suffer?
RAS: I am not speaking about the need to suffer as cleansing. I am speaking about how the experience of getting such a transmission is on its own a very painful one, and that is why people subconsciously shy away from it.
JS: At the same time – the call is maybe another word for grace, and we have the written experience of many people whose lives have been transformed by this touch from above.
RAS: Let me put it this way: There are some people who are blessed. They get a blessing, but they do not always get a call. To get a blessing is, in a certain way, a passive experience, and to hear a voice is a listening experience. This kind of listening, an active listening, demands a great effort from the listener.
JS: When Parabola interviewed you for the “Wholeness” issue (10:1 : 80-85), you said, “One of the first conditions is to listen. He is speaking all the time. The voice doesn’t stop; we just stopped hearing. It isn’t a phenomenon in time, but a phenomenon in eternity. It is our work to be ready to do the listening.”
RAS: So I didn’t change that much!
JS: It seems that really the most important thing for us is to listen.
RAS: To be able to listen.
JS: But how do we learn to hear?
RAS: We don’t learn to hear. The only thing that we can really learn is that something may happen, and when it comes, to listen. In the first revelation to Moses, he is not sure what has happened; he has to be given some kind of sign. There’s an immediate call to see a sign, the burning bush, just in order to come close, which is again the same thing: it’s like knocking on the door, like feeling a hand on your shoulder. It’s not in itself a message, but it is a kind of awakening. Moses hears it. The Midrash says that later, Moses says to God, “Reveal Yourself to me.” And God says, “You cannot see My face?I will cover you and you will see something anyway.” And the Midrash says that God told Moses: “When I wanted it, you didn’t want it. You hid your face. When you want, I don’t want it.” Sometimes the only thing to be learned is this: when the call comes, jump!
After the Bright Light of Revelation
Interview conducted by Yehuda Hanegbi, May 01, 1989
YH: Since the Jewish tradition is one of the oldest in human history, it would be valuable to learn something of its origin and durability. Is it possible to ascertain the sources of this tradition? Are they specifically Jewish or are they not also drawn from a broad ancient prehistory, like the stories of Creation and the Floor, original monotheism, primitive worship of the heavenly bodies?
RAS: Even though much of the biblical traditions relates to legends and events that occurred before the giving of the Torah, this total Revelation at Mount Sinai stands at the center of the world of Jewish consciousness. All the other sources that presumably preceded it, like certain stories of the creation of the world, the origins of the laws and customs of ancient society, and so on, did not reach Judaism independently; they passed through the great filtering of Divine Revelation at Sinai. The influences of the outer world, ancient legends and lore of the nations round about, certainly spread to the Jewish people of the time, but it was all cast into the melting post of the Jewish tradition itself. The bright light of revelation of the Torah at Sinai fused it into a single entity. It was a process that was repeated in subsequent generations. To the extent that external influences did find their way into Judaism, they almost always appeared as subsidiary, not intrinsic to the core. And indeed there was a certain opposition to them; if they could not be merged, they were ultimately ejected. When they did melt into the Jewish tradition, they were so thoroughly integrated that it would be almost impossible to identify them as foreign.
YH: What is the role of Divine Revelation in Judaism, especially considering the preponderance of law and custom?
RAS: As we have said, theological and not only theologically, the Revelation at Mount Sinai is the core of Judaism. And this not only because it is the beginning but because it is apprehended as a total and all-inclusive revelation. That is, this revelation is considered the opening point, the transition point, between the higher essence and the lower essence – between God and man. After this revelation there is actually no need for a new revelation because besides being the first or original of its kind, the Revelation is a one-time event that includes all the other revelatory events. It has been compared to the primordial act of the creation of the world, which was also a first and single act and included all that was and will be in the world.So, too, the Revelation at Mount Sinai is such a unique event containing in it all that afterward will ever be made known about the connection between God and man.
Therefore, the Jewish tradition is full and complete – not because it relies only on an ancient single sources, the Bible, but because it is open to additions. All the accumulated oral traditions are considered part of the original written Torah. Even details of the oral Torah, obviously belonging to a much later period, are considered to be continuations of the original revelation. It is all the same revelation, written or oral, and includes the ancient text and the ever-changing unwritten social form and custom.
In Pirkei Avot, the tradition is described as a Shalshelet Kabbalah, a chain of reception, a process of handing on, from one generation to the next: from Moses to Joshua and from Joshua to the elders and from the elders to the prophets, until the last of the sages. This concept of a continuous chain is central to the whole Jewish outlook on tradition. And it does not only go back to Revelation. The very notion of the inspired person or persons who act as a link in the chain throughout the generations is a profound contribution to the Revelations without necessarily changing it. The original revelations contained all that was eventually relevant to it. Those men who contributed to knowledge were in reality discoverers; they did not invent new ideas or theories – they merely uncovered truths that were already there.
YH: What is the secret of the tenacity of the Jewish religion, outlasting persecution, dispersion, the fall of civilization, and even the influence of modernity?
RAS: There are certainly many reasons for the lasting existence of the Jewish religion. In a certain sense it is one of the riddles, or permanent secrets, of the reality of things. As the philosopher Kant is believed to have said: There are two proofs of the existence of God. One is the stars in the sky; the other is the existence of the Jewish people. One may discern that there is a secret here, a hint of the dialectic interrelation between tradition and historic reality, because when tradition is all-embracing, beyond the influence of time and place, it becomes that in which reality is contained. If and when a collision does occur between tradition and unanticipated aspects of changing realities, the individual person will reach out to find in his tradition those elements of coherence and certainty that are relevant to the new situation, whether it be a material or spiritual challenge. And the Jew has known a great number of such challenging confrontations: exile, servitude, harsh decrees, antagonistic opposing philosophies, and oppressive circumstances. His return to tradition has taken many forms; it was never the mechanical restoration of a fixed structure. The tradition itself adjusted to the new situation. New responses were elicited. This is because the Jewish tradition is not an inert inheritance; it is like a living organism able to react and response to a variety of changing circumstances.
YH: How does the concept of Knesset Yisrael function in the preservation of the tradition? Is it as a mystique of the national ego or as a mystique of egolessness (contained in the concept of the Shekhinah, or spirit of God), which is its counterpart?
RAS: In many respects, tradition in Judaism is called Torah. And this is one of the words that have no exact translation; the accepted translation, law, is certainly incorrect. Torah, even in its verbal meaning, includes the Bible as well as the law, philosophy, dream, legend, and everything else that constitutes human life. The one word, Torah, signifies that which instructs and enlightens; it is much broader and more dynamic a concept than simply the teaching. And the subject of Torah, that which carries it, or the medium through which it is manifest, is Knesset Yisrael. The translated concept is “the assembly of Israel,” but it is not at all a statistical totality or a numerical sum of a particular group of people. It is that which one may loosely call the soul of the people. Most important is its function as the bearer of the Torah. In many ways its life and actions are themselves among the creative forces of Torah, of tradition. The Jewish community keeps determining Halakha, doctrine and custom, at every crossroad. The decision is made by consulting the Torah and then itself becomes Torah, so that Knesset Yisrael is not the passive bearer of a yoke of Torah and law that has been thrust upon it – it is an active component of the Torah. Its entire being is a constant merging of life and Torah and the result is the essence of Jewish tradition. Not in vain has the relation between God and Knesset Yisrael been likened to that between man and wife. From this is may be understood that the interaction, besides the love and respect between them, has a great depth of intimacy and potency. In order for something to be born, for anything to happen, the role of Knesset Yisrael is that of the bearer, the means, or the vehicle. As such Knesset Yisrael is the many-sided subject and instrument of Torah and Jewish tradition.
YH: Can one say that Judaism has a special relation to time, enabling it to transcend the natural forces of decay?
RAS: The problem of the relation to time is indeed intrinsic to the tradition, but not in the sense of a fossil, of something petrified. Time itself is an entity within the tradition. The image is generally that of a tall tree, a living organism: the more time passes, the taller it grows. The tradition thus does not undergo drastic changes; its essence remains the same. Like certain trees, thousands of years old, that live as a biological unity, the tradition creates from within itself the parts that renew the intrinsic form. The factor of time, as a process of decay, has relatively little influence on its basic essence. It can be uprooted only by some massive upheaval, but not because it has reached a certain point in time. Unlike anything fabricated or man-made, it has the capacity of restoring itself by division and multiplication and growth, and by a stubborn retention of essence.
YH: What are the modes of transmitting the tradition? It is mainly through written works like the Bible and the Talmud? Or are other factors, such as custom, holidays, and oral transmission, more important?
RAS: When the tradition is vital and active within the community, it carries on almost without words, without saying anything. It is transmitted because the Jewish tradition is not only a verbal deposit; it is a very inclusive message that relates to the whole of life and not only to religion or to the historic past.Therefore it is passed on via almost all the channels of daily life. The written past of the tradition lives within the details of contemporary work and food and blessings. One may even define the tradition as being composed of two elements: One is that of life – habits, speech, and manners, from the preparation of food and the choice of garments to the various rituals of passage and the facial expressions of the people. The other is that which is transmitted by written texts and verbal teachings.
The relation between those two aspects of the tradition is, on one hand, a very conscious application and carrying out of the inherited legacy. On the other hand, it is an unspoken belonging to the written Torah.That which is not articulated is not less important. The conscious and the unconscious transmission proceed together to create the wholeness of living tradition. And wherever there is a crisis in any one aspect of transmission (if the conscious community connections are severed or if there is a break in the educational conveyance of the past), the tradition tends to become atrophied into some kind of mask of itself, or else it becomes excessively vulnerable to outside influences without even knowing what is happening.
In a community that manages to live in some sort of integrated wholeness, there is a dynamically proportional relation that is not the same for all the members of the community. The functions are divided.For certain people the conscious component is greater; for other it is much less. For all of them, however, there is a need to combine the two components, the conscious and the unconscious, so that the society finds itself automatically structured by them. There is an ordering of functions, as in a living body. The brain, which consists of the more intellectual and learned part of the community, has to be maintained at a high level. The rest of the body, whose level of consciousness is different, divides itself, and each part relates with great plasticity to the rest of the being. To be sure, it is impossible for any part not to have some degree of consciousness or connection with consciousness. At the same time, there is no part without its relatively unconscious physical elements of existence, blood vessels and bones and flesh. The whole is what makes each part function.
YH: As far as the documentary evidence shows, the Kabbalah was never a prominent feature in the life of the people, yet there can be little doubt as to its profound influence on the religion, customs, folklore. What was its place in the past? What is its role today?
RAS: The Kabbalah was never a conspicuous part of the daily life of the Jewish people. To be more precise, we would say that the Kabbalah as a conscious study was restricted to a small elite. This was usually a closed circle of people who could devote themselves to it – not only because of the intellectual complexities of the Kabbalah, but because, more than in any other field of Jewish tradition, a very great moral purity was required of the student. Such a high level of moral and spiritual experience could scarcely be expected of an ordinary person. In any case, by its very nature, the pursuit of esoteric wisdom is limited to a chosen few.
Nevertheless, the Kabbalah has had such a profound influence on the tradition that one may even see it as the theology of Judaism. This is especially true of the last five hundreds years or so – in spite of the fact that in our own time the Kabbalah is just beginning to emerge from the obscurity into which it was thrust by enlightened rationalism. What is apparent, however, is the influence of the Kabbalah on almost all the features of daily life, from ancient times to the present. True, not everyone is aware of it, but almost every Jewish custom is likely to have some kabbalistic significance or at least to have been fashioned by some such influence.
This means that the practical Kabbalah – not in its crude magic and miracle-making folk expressions, but in its deep penetration into the action, rituals and prayers, laws, language, and customs of the people – is still existent. There is a core of those few who have made the Kabbalah a source of inner transformation and esoteric knowledge. But there are widening circles whose authority was never significant but whose influence manages to be felt somehow. To be sure, only the inner circle is likely to know the meaning of many of the old expressions and actions. In the further circles, people simply know that this is the way things are done; certain words are said, ritual actions are performed without comprehending why or how they came into being. From this point of view, the Kabbalah is still very much present – even if unknown to the majority of the people. Most Jews would probably angrily reject the notion that many of their traditional modes of expression are “kabbalistic.”
YH: What lies behind the various legendary versions of the carriers of the tradition in every generation, such as, for example, those mentioned in Pirkei Avot, or in another sense entirely, the thirty-six hidden tzadikim (wise men) whose existence sustains the world?
RAS: The tradition of the Shalshelet Hakabbalah, the Chain of Receiving, is basically the tradition of Jewish leadership. It is a listing of a certain number of the more prominent persons who were bearers of the light of knowledge; it does not deny that there were others who also carried it. The point of the chain is that there was a continuity, an uninterrupted flow.
We also have the concept of the thirty-six tzadikim whose existence sustains the world from one generation to another. In this age-old tradition, it is not a body of people who are in touch with one another; each one is alone and for the most part does not have any idea about himself or the others. They simply do not know who they are or what they’re doing. The important thing is that, from the point of view of Divine Justice, the world cannot continue to exist except if there are a certain number of persons who justify its existence. As an archetype, we have the story of Abraham and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The question is: Why should any place that is full of wickedness be allowed to perpetuate itself? And the answer is that a minimal number of righteous persons can compensate for the evil of the many and check the course of retribution. Thus, if there were not a certain number of tzadikim who justify the continued existence of the world, the world would be destroyed like Sodom, like the world at the time of the Flood. Therefore there is the tradition of the thirty-six saintly persons whose existence on earth in every generation, whether they know it or not, keeps the world from being annihilated.
YH: Can there be said to be a definite Jewish body that carries the tradition, whether national, racial, or social?
RAS: Even in the distant past, there was probably no single body to which one could point as the sole bearer of Jewish tradition; but let us return to the analogy of the body. Generally, we can claim that the center of consciousness is in the brain. But at many periods of time during the day or the night, the point of consciousness moves to different centers. Sometimes it’s at the speech center; sometimes it is concentrated in the eyes or some other organ of perception. The movement of consciousness seems to be one of the signs of life and one could almost imagine light bulbs going on and off all over the body to indicate where awareness is being focused.
Every part of the organic wholeness, which is both the mystical and the material body, has a special function that is his and only his. His role is vital to this body and no one else can fill it. And the way a person fills his role is significant, just as a person cannot be sick only in his little finger, and just as any sickness of a part imperils the well-being of the whole body, so too is there a vital interrelationship between the individual and the community. The way the individual Jew assumes his rightful place in the organism determines the shape of his life and the life of the whole.
Historically, too, there is such a movement of the center of Jewish consciousness, from country to country, from place to place. Of course there have been occasions when the center was not in any particular place or country but could be seen as scattered, or existing simultaneously in a number of places.
YH: How much of the tradition can you guess has been lost?
RAS: From the very nature of things, it is very difficult to know the quality and the value of whatever got lost. In those instances where fragments have remained we can only surmise what had once been there, like the stump of a tree. But even less than that can we know anything about human traditions that have left no mark. And this is true of every realm of human life – law, custom, mysticism, art.
In recent generations especially, the wandering (and changes) of the Jews have been characterized by a brutality and swiftness that are almost unprecedented. We can observe how, before our very eyes, the inability to permit adequate transition and acclimatization of well-established structures (education, religion, social services) and of life patterns in the family has entailed the loss of thousands upon thousands of details.
In spite of efforts to save some fragments of the tradition, most of it is irretrievably gone, and it does not matter whether it’s old songs or ancient wisdom or the food preparations of a millennium. A large part of the Jewish tradition is thus continually being lost; and it’s not only that most of the old ways and social forms are institutions are being swallowed up by more modern methods – it’s the tone and inner unity that go.
To follow the metaphor of the tree, one would say that the whole or branches of the tree had been cut off by a combination of many outside forces. But there is always the hope that when circumstances change, some of the buds that have always remained will grow again – with the renewal of those branches the form and the content will be complete.
In the large scheme of history, it may be observed that the Jewish people, which grew up and reached a certain maturity in its own land, was in exile for hundreds of years. And this meant the loss of much more than national sovereignty; whole areas of tradition were abandoned and only vague hints survived in memory. One can hardly reconstruct the richness of this tradition from the written evidence. To a degree, the temple, the legal and social structure, the schools and synagogues can be pieced together in some fashion or other. The mystical traditions are far more elusive to the modern researcher. Most of them have been totally wiped out by time, such as the schools of the prophets. We have nothing resembling such schools, either in Israel or in the Diaspora. In fact, there are been attempts to make such a restoration by pasting scattered indications together. Some of this material has survived only in written form; most of it is considered irretrievably lost. Nevertheless, the dream or hope or restitution has remained. In the days to come, a regeneration is possible, if the right stimulant appears. This anticipation is possible because, as in every organic entity, the code of the whole is contained in the fragments, so that from the little that has come down to us it may be possible to reconstruct a semblance of the ancient tradition.
YH: Can you point to something definite that has been learned by the Jews that would help other tradition now in danger of extinction?
RAS: There is at least one thing that other traditions can learn from the Jewish experience, and that is that a tradition in itself – even if it is almost hermetically sealed, something that doesn’t exist any more, cannot continue to exist only by the force of inertia. A tradition cannot leave things in a state of unchanging status quo. In the Jewish experience this factor has been very prominent; the group awareness was always alive to whatever threatened it and ready to invest energy to guard the tradition and to maintain it – not necessarily to freeze it. Whenever the group was unwilling to pit itself against imminent change by investing thought and effort, the change was destructive to the tradition.
The question here is not the value or the resilience of the tradition, but the fact that any social form that does not keep reinvesting energy into its continuation will tend to die out. The efforts required are always very great. True, many traditions have survived in conditions of relative isolation. But today, folk cultures are being destroyed by no more than superficial contact with some outer influence. And this is because the people involved are without adequate consciousness of themselves or without the will to do anything about it. They are not prepared to invest the enormous effort required to meet the challenge of the contact with alien forces. But this has to be learned – and sometimes it comes too late.
The Jewish world has almost always been intensely aware of the problem. And over the centuries, a very great deal has been poured into education, in the preparation of spiritual guides and teachers of all sorts, and in the maintenance of the general framework of the tradition. In many places it amounted to one third or even more of the general expenditure of the local or national body. This was one of the main factors that helped keep the tradition going in spite of very difficult external conditions. Therefore, one can say that any group or tradition that is willing and able to invest considerable effort in maintaining its existence is that much more able to withstand the process of decay from within and destruction from without.