Perhaps the key term in musar writing is yir’ah. In early modern musar texts, usually incorporating kabbalistic discourse, this term is rendered as ‘fear.’ A striking exception is R. Moshe Ḥayyim Luzzatto’s Mesillat Yesharim, arguably one of the canonical texts of Jewish modernity. A close reading of the chapters devoted to yir’ah reveals that Luzzatto frames this term as ‘awe,’ moving away from the discourse on punishment and hell typical of early modern musar. An examination of the psychology behind this move shows that Luzzatto associates fear with the lower instinct of self-preservation, calling for its sublimation into self-abnegation in awe of divine presence. Mesillat Yesharim then became foundational for similar moves in later Jewish modernity. Without wishing to venture into claims as to inter-religious influence and response, it is instructive to compare Luzzatto’s approach to that of his Christian contemporaries, the ‘fire and brimstone’ preachers of the Great Awakening.
In this paper, two test-cases for examining the role of doubt in late modern Kabbalah are addressed and compared: R. Gershon Henikh Leiner (1839–1891), leader of the controversial Izbiche-Radzin school, and R. David Kohen (1887–1972), an important student of the famous R. Avraham Itzhak ha-Kohen Kook. In the former case, Leiner frames doubt, even with regard to God’s existence, as central to the existential human condition, and thus to divine worship. For Kohen, doubt was bound up in his very identity as a religious philosopher, as well as a constant companion of his often-frustrating quest for prophetic experience. He thus provides the most extensive explicit treatment of scepticism extant in kabbalistic literature. Based on these prominent examples, from adjacent yet discrete historical, cultural, and geographical settings, it is claimed that as modernity progressed, doubt occupied a more prominent and challenging place in Kabbalistic writing and experience.
Studies in Musar aims at strengthening the study of Jewish devotional literature and spiritual guidance (musar) in the field of Jewish studies. Covering all geographical areas and languages, the series focuses on the great diversity and versatility of musar from the Middle Ages to contemporary times and its place in philosophical, rabbinic, kabbalistic, Sabbatean, Hasidic, Lithuanian, and New Age thought. The Series particularly promotes comparative research that reads musar in the context of Christian and Islamic spirituality, as well as interdisciplinary approaches that adopt innovative methodologies from the anthropology of religion, gender and feminist studies, the history of emotions, the history of the Hebrew book, linguistics, literary criticism, and ritual studies.
Studies in Musar is a double-blind peer-reviewed subseries of Studies in Jewish History and Culture. Monographs, collected volumes, as well as editions and translations of high scholarly standard are welcome.
Patrick Benjamin Koch, PhD (HUJI) is Emmy Noether Research Group Leader of the “Jewish Moralistic Writings of the Early Modern Period” project at the Institute for Jewish Philosophy and Religion at the University of Hamburg, Germany.