At a time when Jews of every ilk are seeking more personally meaningful connections to Judaism, and searching for purpose and direction, Dr. Eitan Fishbane, assistant professor of Jewish Thought in the Department of Jewish Thought at The Jewish Theological Seminary, is opening doors to Jewish mysticism, religion, and spirituality, and to academic and individual exploration.
Dr. Fishbane's perspective is deeply rooted in the study of medieval Judaism and in the set of mystical Jewish teachings known as Kabbalah. In his first book, As Light Before Dawn: The Inner World of a Medieval Kabbalist (Stanford University Press; June 2009), Dr. Fishbane offers interpretations and reflections as he explores the work of a highly respected innovator in the history of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Isaac ben Samuel of Akko, a turn-of-the-fourteenth-century Kabbalist.
How long have you been teaching Jewish mysticism?
I received my PhD from Brandeis in 2003. After that, I began teaching at Minnesota's Carleton College, then joined the faculty of HUC in Los Angeles, and later came to JTS. I'm very happy here: it's one of the few places where one can teach these texts in the original Hebrew and Aramaic, have high-level discussions with the students, and engage with the great spiritual questions of our day. To be able to combine that with the development of tomorrow's spiritual leaders is very exciting.
As Light Before Dawn is your first book and it focuses on one particular mystic. Why did you choose this specific kabbalist?
Rabbi Isaac of Akko was an extraordinary mystical thinker from the northern land of Israel. He wandered the different parts of the Jewish world of his time, collecting pieces of wisdom and integrating them into his own system of thought. I was especially drawn to his remarkable articulation of mystical experience and his use of the autobiographical voice in talking about his own religious life-an unusual phenomenon in the history of Jewish mysticism. The kabbalists of that time were not inclined to report on their own spiritual lives; they wrote primarily in the instructive and interpretive voices.
Isaac of Akko contributed to a genre of literature that sought to interpret the kabbalistic meanings of the Ramban, Rabbi Moses Nahmanides. It was the Ramban's commentary on the Torah that had a major influence on the history of Judaism and it is peppered with very cryptic illusions to kabbalistic meaning that intentionally sought to conceal this knowledge from the uninitiated. Isaac of Akko sought to unpack the hidden intentions of the Ramban while simultaneously integrating other mystical developments of the time. Because of his itinerant life, in which he was both individually creative and an idiosyncratic collector, his writing reflects a fascinating eclecticism. He gathered together the different traditions and experiences that he encountered along the way, weaving them together into a remarkable tapestry of spiritual wisdom.
The advance reviews of your book included some of the most glowing professional endorsements an author can receive . . .
Thank you. The book represents the first major stage of my scholarly development, so it's an important milestone in my own journey as an interpreter of this literature. It was very gratifying and meaningful to me to have my work received in such a positive way by my esteemed senior colleagues in the study of Jewish mysticism, and also to receive an affirming assessment from Professor Bernard McGinn, who is one of the premier scholars of Christian mysticism in the world.
When you're teaching outside JTS, what do people want to know?
The adult learners I encounter are very thirsty for spiritual nourishment; they have assumed that Judaism doesn't have that kind of spiritual side. That Judaism is all about . . .
Following the rules . . .
Right. And so they're very excited to learn about this other side of Judaism. Of course, inevitably, people are curious to know why there is such a fascination with this subject in the New Age spirituality of Hollywood, so I try as best as I can to offer reflections on that. More than anything else, the joy of teaching in the congregational context is to be able to help people see the meaning of their spiritual lives and of their relationship to God in a very different way than they might have imagined.
The literature of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, more broadly, is the legacy and inheritance of all Jews, despite the fact that for a long time it was certainly the province of scholars and spiritual practitioners. I think it has a great deal to offer people who are searching for spiritual meaning in their lives.
Many people may feel they're missing that spiritual piece, that personal connection. It seems that you cover both bases: the scholarly and the personal . . .
That's what I try to do. It's important to me to engage well with both dimensions. I don't want to sacrifice my scholarly life for the sake of my contemporary theological life, and my personal spirituality need not be repressed for fear of losing my critical perspective. I don't think one has to sacrifice either one of those things. I'm still deeply committed to my academic, scholarly pursuits, and yet I think that it's both of personal interest to me and our responsibility as JTS scholars, as JTS faculty, to give back to the community, to contribute to the ongoing formation of Jewish religious life and spiritual development in our own day.