Wisdom of the Heart: The Teachings of Rabbi Ya'akov of Izbica-Radzyn
By Ora Wiskind-Elper
Jewish Publication Society, 2010, 273 pages ISBN 978-0-8276-0894-8
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 27, 2010
This is a scholarly book written for people interested in Jewish mysticism. It introduces the mysticism of Rabbi Ya'akov. Rationalists may be fascinated to read how markedly the rabbi's views are frequently different from what they think are rational.
Rabbi Ya'akov's writings are often obscure and Dr. Wiskind-Elper interprets them. She describes the early history of the Chassidic movement to set the scene for Rabbi Ya'akov's life (1818-1878). R. Ya'akov was the leader of a community of Chassidim in Izbica and then in Radzyn. Many of the Radzyn Chassidim were murdered by the Nazis, but there are still some small groups of them in the United States and Israel. The following are some of the rabbi's ideas.
Like many other mystics, R. Ya'akov downplayed the importance of the body. Yet, he wrote somewhat vaguely, "God can dwell in the human body…no place is devoid of His presence." He also said that humans are more perceptive than angels who have no names because "they cannot manipulate names." He also saw no problem in inanimate objects having emotions. The ancient "Temple had to be inaugurated to grant it strength and confidence, and assuage its fear of shining with the divine light invested in it."
Some of his ideas are more reasonable, but are entwined with those that are not reasonable and with somewhat novel interpretations of biblical verses, rabbinic statements, and the mystical book Zohar. For example, in his Symposium, the pagan philosopher Plato (429-347 BCE) tells the tale that the first human was a single being who was male and female who was later divided. The Talmud used the same story. R. Ya'akov made the fable his basic idea of life. Adam was both male and female until God separated him. He was perfect when he was composed of both sexes. But when he was separated, he was no longer perfect. Now, Adam had to make choices. This requirement to decide, R. Ya'akov insists, and rationalists would agree with his conclusion if not his analysis, is a basic human duty.
God, according to R. Ya'akov, is involved in and controls the world, although God gives humans free choice, but God hides the divine involvement. R. Ya'akov reads God's command to Adam in an unusual manner, by placing a semi-colon in the middle of the decree. "Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat and of the tree of good; and evil you must not eat." Adam, he writes, only ate the "good" of the tree, not the "evil," so he did no wrong. But since Adam did not understand the distinction in God's command, he thought he did wrong. Why did God hide the truth? Because God is hidden in the world and so "that Adam could choose and strive himself and discover his own path."
The rabbi does not see Adam's statement, "The woman whom you gave to be with me – she gave me of the tree and I ate," as a cowardly attempt to switch blame to Eve. He is making "a courageous statement of being for the other. Adam declares his decision to tie his destiny with that other." This, according to the rabbi, is good; it shows that Adam is determined to make choices, and to work with others in doing so.