Tag Archives: Talmudist

Jew of the Week: Ramchal

The Unparalleled Kabbalist Who Became the Father of Modern Hebrew

Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) was born in Padua, Italy to a wealthy Sephardic family. He studied under some of the great Italian rabbis of the time and was quickly recognized as a prodigy, receiving rabbinic ordination himself while still a teenager. He also took up studies at the University of Padua, and by the time he was just 20 years old had complete mastery of Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), as well as philosophy, medicine, and alchemy. He had also written a textbook on Hebrew language and grammar, Leshon Limmudim (predating Eliezer Ben-Yehuda by some two centuries!) Meanwhile, Luzzatto wrote several plays including a dramatization of the Biblical story of Samson. Around the same time, he started writing a book of 150 psalms to mirror the 150 Psalms of King David in the Tanakh. His Hebrew and poetry were of such a high level that people had a hard time distinguishing between the psalms of Luzzatto and the psalms of David! This drew the anger of many rabbis, who banned the work. The final straw was when Luzzatto revealed that he had been visited by a maggid, an angel that taught the mysteries of the Torah. He started writing these teachings down, and relaying them to a small mystical circle. When word got out, the Italian rabbis sought to excommunicate him for good. To avoid the decree, Luzzatto agreed to stop teaching and leave Italy. He resettled in Amsterdam and made a living as a diamond cutter and lens grinder. During this time he produced his greatest works, which would become classics of Judaism and standard textbooks in yeshivas to this day: Mesillat Yesharim (“Path of the Just”), a manual for personal development and character refinement; Derekh Hashem (“Way of God”) on the fundamentals of Jewish theology; Da’at Tevunot, a unification of Kabbalah and rationalism written in the form of a conversation between the Soul and the Intellect; and Derekh Tevunot, a manual for Talmudic study. He also wrote a number of commentaries on the Zohar (the central text of Kabbalah) and countless other discourses, most of which have been lost. After being barred from teaching in Amsterdam as well, he headed to the Holy Land and settled in Acco. There he helped build the Jewish community and a new synagogue (destroyed by Bedouins in 1758). Sadly, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (or the Ramchal, his initials, by which he is better known) perished in a devastating plague that broke out several years later. One of the early Hasidic leaders, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezerich, would later say of the Ramchal that “His generation did not have the merit of this great man.” The Vilna Gaon famously stated that had the Ramchal still been alive, he would have walked all the way from Lithuania to Amsterdam just to meet him, and that the Ramchal was the only person to understand Kabbalah since the Arizal. The Ramchal was seen as a hero and inspiration by secular Jewish and Haskalah leaders, too, who crowned him the “father of modern Hebrew literature”. Today, the 26th of Iyar, is his yahrzeit.

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Words of the Week

He who confronts himself with the paradoxical, exposes himself to reality.
– Friedrich Durenmatt

Jew of the Week: Léon Blum

Prime Minister of France

Leon Blum, Three-Time Prime Minister of France

Few can claim having lived a rollercoaster life like that of Andre Léon Blum (1872-1950). In his youth, he was inspired to join France’s socialist community while studying at the Sarbonne and living through the infamous Dreyfus affair. Writing for a popular journal and rising through the ranks, he became a well-known champion for the little guy. It eventually won him the role of prime minister of France – no less than three times! This, in an era of open Jew-hatred. In fact, before becoming PM he was dragged out of his car and nearly beaten to death by a royalist anti-Semite band known as the Camelots du Roi. When Blum was elected, an opposition leader had this to say: “Your coming to power is undoubtedly a historic event. For the first time this old Gallo-Roman country will be governed by a Jew. I dare say out loud what the country is thinking, deep inside: it is preferable for this country to be led by a man whose origins belong to his soil… than by a cunning Talmudist.” With the start of World War II, Blum chose bravely not to flee and stayed in his country. He was arrested and imprisoned, first in Vichy, then in Germany. At his trial in 1942, he argued so eloquently that it embarrassed the entire Nazi regime and the Germans called off the trial! Unfortunately it did not save him from the concentration camps. Blum suffered first in Buchenwald, then in Dachau. He only survived thanks to local authorities who disobeyed orders to kill him. Incredibly, after surviving all of these ordeals, he became prime minister of France yet again after the war. A wonderful writer, Blum penned many gems about life: “When a woman is twenty, a child deforms her; when she is thirty, he preserves her; and when forty, he makes her young again.”

 

Words of the Week

Light attracts. Where a lantern is placed, those who seek light gather around.
– Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1880-1950)