Questions for Book Club Discussion
- Most of us don’t really know what Jewish spirituality consists of. We think of Judaism in terms of ritual, social and cultural customs, ethics and Tikkun Olam. These are more outer elements of Judaism. But during the 19th century the inner dimension of Judaism got quite lost. This book portrays what an inner Jewish spiritual path actually consists of. Which aspects of Judaism as a spiritual inner path surprised you? Which aspects spoke to you?
- Pick out from the life of Rabbi Ashlag which elements you see that illustrate his soul connection with the Creator. Did any of them surprise you? Were there any elements of this soul connection that upset you? Inspired you?
- Did the lack of the presence of the women/ feminine in this book bother you? As translator of the book I did my best with the masculine orientated language, but to an extent I accepted that this lack of gender awareness reflected the customs and language of the time. Are you able to put aside your needs for gender equality for a while in order to appreciate what is in the book? Which buttons did the masculine language press for you? Are you able to accept the Kabbalah notion of language referred to in the Translator’s Introduction that God when referred to as “male” relates to the Creator in the aspect of giving, and the female as aspects of receiving? Can you see how, using that definition, we are all both male and female? Did knowing that definition reconcile you, somewhat, to the use of the male tone in the traditional liturgy? Or at least help you understand it?
- What is your view on Rabbi Ashlag’s vision of a just society, a society based on mutual giving? It is a real contrast with the capitalist world of the West with its individualism and independence. Our present world suffers right now from a tremendous disparity where a few control vast resources and the majority of the world is left floundering around and struggling. What would a world founded on mutual help, working for each other and for God really look like? How would the individuals of such a society feel when asked to help a fellow human being? Has the coronavirus situation moved us towards or away from Rabbi Ashlag’s view of a world which needs to function together through unconditional giving to each other?
- Were you surprised that a sage like Rabbi Ashlag could display anger or scorn? I certainly was. It didn’t fit in with my preconceived ideas of what a holy man should be. What does it mean for you that the whole gamut of emotions, from joy to sorrow, from pleasure to anger, is portrayed by this holy man?
- Rabbi Ashlag writes that an individual’s deeds affect humanity as a whole. When we act with intention, trying to do good for each other in our own circle, or in our own relationship with God, we actually affect the inner aspect of the world as a whole. This is a powerful statement as it implies that we actually have more power to affect the world than we thought we had. Think globally, act locally, might be another way to say the same thing. How does this thought empower you in your life?
- This book portrays a rabbi born into a chareidi community, within a chasidic sect. While its mores and customs may have been familiar to our great- grandparents, they are no longer familiar to most of us. Did reading the book wake up any memories of your own families? Did it inspire you to look into your past and try to discover anything about your own religious backgrounds?
- Included in this book are texts of actual Kabbalah: These are texts from the Zohar; the ideas found in Kabbalah; Rabbi Ashlag’s letters to his students; his cryptic memoirs, some of which even need commentaries for us to understand; ecstatic poems of union with God. When faced with material such as this, some of which is really impossible for us to comprehend, what is your response? Do you put the book down, feeling it is not for you? Or do you feel thrilled to be in the presence of something great, something that is, as yet, not within our comprehension, but is beckoning to us, in the same way that a great painting or a magnificent view might beckon to us? Does it wake up your curiosity or your sense of wonder? Pick out one of the poems or passages that specifically spoke to you, even without your comprehension.
- There is a use of Hebrew terms in the book, some of which you may be familiar with and others unfamiliar with. Did the Glossary help you? Di you find yourself irritated or intrigued by the use of these terms, some of which are used in different ways than we are used to today.
- What did you feel about the students? Did you like any student in particular? Although the students followed the same path we can see how very individual they were. Their stories are more approachable than that of the sage himself. What did you think of the relationship of the sage with the students? What did you think of the relationships the sages and students had with their families? It was clearly not all plain sailing.
- At the end of the book there are six essays on the Loving one’s Companions. This follows on Judaism’s Golden Rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s the ideal. But we see that it is very hard to implement in practice. However the suggestion given here is to start off with people who are closest to you in inclination. Do you think the advice given here is practical? How has the coronavirus issue altered our ability to interact with others and help them?
Let me know of other ideas or questions that come up for you when reading the book! I will be delighted to receive your feedback. Yedidah