When my mother mentioned more than a month ago that there is a new novel published in Hungarian titled “A kabbalista” (The Kabbalist) first I was concerned that it would be the translation of Berg’s “Education of a Kabbalist” or Zimler’s “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon”. But a quick check on the internet proved me wrong and I learned that this was written by Geert Kimpen in Dutch. It was published in German, Spanish and a few other languages. According to the author’s website it “will” be published in English in 2009 in South East Asia, but the publisher’s website is too barebone to find it and I couldn’t locate any other information about the English edition. So I accepted my mother’s offer to get me a copy. I read it the first chance I had, which happened to be sitting on the tarmac of Heathrow airport in London for four hours.
The book is a fictionalized biography of Hayyim Vital, a 16th century kabbalist. He was the student of Isaac Luria another Kabbalist luminary. The book’s major theme is Vital’s struggle for independence, from stepping out of the shadow of his master. His ambition was to be known as the most famous re-founder of Kabbalah, but the book suggests, that he was destined to be known only as the disciple of Luria, who would be known throughout the ages. Vital’s biggest, recurring decision in the book had to be made between the greatness he longed for via Kabbalah and the love he felt for his master’s daughter. We follow several years of his tormented life, until the pressure of making this decision cease to exist for a number of reasons, I won’t spoil.
It was a three to one mixed experience to read the book. The good aspects were the story, the style, and lessons. I kept finding myself surprised about the twists of Vital’s life. I thought there is nothing more that can happen to him, but in the next chapter something unexpected popped up and gave him a new direction. I also kept wondering how much of it was made up by the author, and how much is historical fact. Based on m limited factchecking a surprisingly large portion of the events seem to be real. The second aspect I enjoyed was the author’s and the translator’s style. I cannot judge the original, but I think Tamas Balogh did a great job with the translation. There were only a few places, where I felt that the flow of the language wasn’t the smoothest or where an expression seemed awkward. However the whole of the book was very much an enjoyable biography. The last positive aspect I want to mention was the integration of the novel with Kabbalistic teachings and principles. There weren’t too many of the latter to overwhelm the reader, but there were enough of them to teach them some of the basics. Just right proportions for me.
I have one grievance: I didn’t like the main character. I kept hoping that this is one of those character development stories, where the hero starts out being slightly on the bad side and through his tribulations learns to be good. I hoped for this, because it would have been corresponding to the book’s major theme of humility and putting God and the greater good ahead of your own fame and interest. But the Vital of this book never seemed to have reached that phase of evolution. He kept fighting the same demon: how can I be bigger than my master. One, ok I, would have thought that he can learn the lesson. I was mistaken. I would love to learn more about the characteristics of the historical figure.
Despite this last caveat I am happy that I read the book. I learned a lot about the possibly most important era and location the development of Kabbalah: 16th century Safed.
In the month of August I added 50 books (bringing to the total to 541) to Sefarim.net, the site where I catalog of books published in Ebglish about Jewish Kabbalah. Besides documenting those additions I also wrote four blog entries. There are still a lot of books to add and even more to write about. I plan to add new batches of books twice a month and write at least two blog entries a week. Once the possible additions slow down I will work on adding more features to the site.
I checked that out of the 430 books listed on Seferim.net which ones are listed at Google Books, LibraryThing and WorldCat. There were 386, 331, 394 respectively. I added all these links to the appropriate books.
Technical sidenote: In order to do so I developed a helper tool. It allows opening multiple (25-50-100) URLs at the same time. The users can paste all the URLs into a textbox and then can define how many of them should be opened and which one should be the first one. This allowed me to go through Google Books and the other two sites, 50 by 50 checking whether they have a certain book or not. I made a version of this tool a year ago, but that depended on a mySQL database table. Now it doesn’t have this dependency. I will tweak the tool a bit more and then release it for anybody who is interested.
I created the first version of the seferim.net site today. I added a few features to the list of books:
- a suggest a book feature, with a math exercise to protect against spammers and bots.
- a feature allowing to search sites related to Jewish Kabbalah. It is based on Google’s coop technology, that allows to search a limited, user-predefined set of sites. I created a preliminary set of 30-40 sites. Later I will open it up to others to add sites.
- Google Ads (and tracking the site via Google Analytics.)
I’ve been wanting to create a proper site for and around my list of Kabbalah books. I have been thinking what domain to register for this purpose.
- I wanted it short, so names like kabbalahbooks.com or kabbalahlibrary.com are out.
- I wanted a Jewish (sounding) name, so it would indicate that the site is intended to focus on Jewish Kabbalah.
- My first choice, months ago, was baruch.hu. It was even available, but by the time I got around to register it, it was taken.
- My wife suggested kabra.com, as in the combination for Kabbalah and bracha (blessing). But that and its .org/.net version were taken.
- I thought of sefer.com or seferim.com, but they are both taken.
After all these thinking today I registered the seferim.net domain.
The review of Reb Schachter-Shalomi’s new book (First Steps to a New Jewish Spirit) at J. reads like an enhanced table of contents. It lists lots of questions and wets the appetite to get the answers. Or at least get an answer provided by the esteemed author with a multitude of interests and expertise areas. When he asks I found it worthwhile to listen. He is amongst the best combination of modernity and deep tradition I know of.
A Greenflame blog entry summarizes a Newsarama piece on a comic book by Shooter and Wohl called Seven connecting “the superhero genre with the spiritual themes from Kabbalistic literature.” I think that’s bit of an exaggeration, because the article mostly talks about the work history of the authors and their intentions for the news series. Not much Kabbalah in it, mostly focuses on “today’s technology oriented youth.”
J. had a book review/introductory article on Arthur Kurzweil’s long titledbook on/with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz:
On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz: 25 Years of Pre-Dawn Car Trips, Mind-Blowing Encounters, and Inspiring Conversations with a Man of Wisdom (published by Wiley)
In three hours this morning I managed to gather the information for 122 Kabbalah related books. It took me another hour to format them and ensure authority control on authors’ names and publishers’, so I could add them to the list. I still didn’t do a systematic sweep. This means there are still plenty of more books to discover and add. But I don’t have more time right now. Here is the quick list of the new additions: Continue reading
The current issue of the Independent in Santa Barbara has in interview with professor Richard D. Hecht about Kabbalah. He is a religious studies professor with whom I took four classes. I just kept signing up for his classes because I liked his style, his in-depth knowledge and the topics of the classes as well. I learned a lot from him, not just in terms of factual data, but also approaches, ways of thinking. In this article, prompted by a UCSB student interning at the weekly, he mostly shares his view about the Kabbalah Centre and its activities. As a sociologist of religion he recognizes and states that this Madonna-style religion is a brand new one. It has all the necessary elements of a religion, but it is not Judaism.