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Kabbalah: Messianic Puzzles in Secular Tel Aviv

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Having spent the last weeks in Tel Aviv, I found myself, as always, in the midst of the most implausible combinations. I was able to enjoy a provocative dance performance (naked dancers, etc.) by Batsheva, one of Israel’s most prestigious groups, and a few evenings later, I joined my childhood friend Rinat for a lesson on the book Tanya, the Kabbalah-based work of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, first published in 1797.

The event took place in her real estate agency, nestled in the ground floor of a residential building in one of Tel Aviv’s first and by now trendiest neighborhoods. The office owner, Havah, is a chozer-b’teshuvah, meaning a secular Jew turned religious. She’s a Chabadnik now, part of the Chasidic movement that believes charity and learning the right ways will hasten the arrival of the Moshiach. Hence, a few times a week she transforms her office into a learning place, where she also serves food, just in case.

This is not your average real estate office nor your trendy Kabbalah Center, but a surrealist amalgamation of the utterly secular with a lively, existential interpretation of Jewish mysticism (at times not un-provocative for secular sensitivities).

On the glass door of the office looms large the photograph of the seventh and last Chabad Rebbe of the Lubavitch dynasty, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Inside, the small space, which also features a cupboard-sized kitchen, is crammed with two desks, at least 10 chairs, a wall crowded with religious books, a piano (yes), and a square dining table that occupies almost the entire place, covered with a festive white map and plastic cups. A few women are sitting around the table; the oldest, so I am later told, is 80. Most of them, except for the owner and two young women, are secular.

Leah, the rabbanit (female rabbi), a stout woman wearing a blond wig, is waiting patiently while Havah completes her preparations and sends her bearded husband for a last errand before he vanishes, as the evening is meant for women only.

These are the days of Hanukah, the festival of light, and the rabbanit begins with commentaries and clarifications of this fest. The talk of Hanukah tradition quickly reverts to more urgent topics like the separation of women from men (a burning issues these days especially in regards to seats on public buses). Although busy serving refreshment, Havah finds the moment to draw a map of the temple as a sure proof of the legitimacy of such partition.

The rabbanit reaches the Tanya and today’s lesson is about the two souls that constitute our psyche. At that point I’m confused; in the Kabbalah I’ve read, our soul contains five parts…

When I share that with Leah, she looks doubtful.

“What do you mean?”

I mention Shaar Hagilgulim (Gate of Transmigrations) and its intricate ideas of the soul.

Leah and Havah object: “We do not touch that material, too high for our understanding.”

I nod politely and Leah elaborates on the coexistence and conflict between our natural soul, which pertains to matters of this world, and our divine soul, spiritual and otherworldly.

Before we leave, I point at Rabbi’s Schneerson’s picture on the wall and mention something about his death.

Leah is truly alarmed. “No, not dead,” she exclaims. I don’t argue. This is Chabad’s unrestrained, enthusiastic meshikhism, the conviction that the rabbi didn’t really die and that he remains the Messiah. Irrational belief? A mystical denial of reality? Or perhaps the very essence of faith, namely the belief in what our eyes cannot see.

The enigma of messianic ardor poses an intricate puzzle, and my next few posts will be dedicated to tracing its emergence and historical manifestation through various figures, such as Sabbatai Zevi, whose influence continues to this day.

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About michal Schwartz