Visions of Light: Itzhak Eyzik and Joseph Smith

We at Worlds Without End are pleased to host a guest post by one of our regular commenters, Allen Hansen. This post is adapted from his presentation at the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities conference on March 16th, 2013.

Ilya Schor, Kabbalah, 1949.

Ilya Schor, Kabbalah, 1949.

Shortly before his death, Rebbe Abraham Joshua Heschel published a remarkable book titled A Passion for Truth. In it he explored the life and teachings of Søren Kierkegaard and the Hasidic master R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk. The first time that Heschel read Kierkegaard, the teachings felt familiar, and he found that they reminded him of the Kotzker Rebbe. Kierkegaard and Mendel had never met and their worlds were very different, yet Heschel detected what he termed an “affinity of strangers.”[1] Such comparisons are fruitful because, as one scholar has stated, “an examination of other revival movements and their characteristics will also provide a new background against [which what] is distinctive in Hasidism will stand out in clear relief.”[2]

There are, in my opinion, very good reasons for applying such an approach to Mormon studies. Studying Mormonism in light of other traditions and movements will help us better recognize not only what is different and unique to Mormonism, but also how and why. Such an approach can lend our work a broader perspective. As a case study I will look at two visions which occurred in the same year. One is Joseph Smith’s, and the other a Hasidic rebbe’s.

The Hasidic movement grew out of the teachings of a mid-eighteenth century rebbe named Israel Baal Shem Tov (known as the Besht). A healer and a kabbalist, the Besht prescribed various remedies and amulets with holy names. He combined study of the esoteric aspect of Judaism with ascents of the soul into heaven in order to attain greater knowledge and intercede on behalf of the Jewish communities. After the Besht’s death, a loose-knit movement coalesced around one of his disciples, whose own disciples in turn spread their teachings throughout Eastern Europe, and by the nineteenth century it became the dominant Jewish movement there. The movement was diverse, but the common denominators were some connection to the Besht and the concept of tzaddikim– Hasidic masters. A tzaddik was a holy man who could intercede with God on behalf of his followers, drawing down blessings. He could also purify and uplift their souls. In return they were to cleave to him, and support him materially.[3]

One of the more kabbalisticaly minded tzaddikim was Rebbe Itzhak Eyzik Yehudah Yehiel Safrin, born in Komarno (modern day Lviv Oblast, Ukraine) on the 25th of Shvat, 5566 (that is, February 13th, 1806), less than two months after Joseph Smith. As shown by “Megilat Setarim,” his mystical “memoir,” he did not limit himself to mere theory. The author’s purpose in compiling his visions, dreams and revelations was to “tell my brothers some of the ways of God: Who I am and what I am, and why I came into the life of this world.”[4] Itzhak Eyzik considered himself a prophet and messianic figure who would redeem the transmigrating souls, paving the way for the Messiah of David who would complete the process of healing and redeeming the cosmos. For a brief period in his childhood Itzhak Eyzik prophesied, answering all questions precisely and accurately by means of divine light. He later continued to seek heavenly inspiration through yihudim—contemplating particular permutations of divine names.

In 1823 Itzhak Eyzik devoted himself to intense, secluded study, sleeping only two hours daily. Due to poverty he had little to eat and no firewood to heat his room. This caused a severe bout of depression, lasting three months until he studied a talmudic tractate for the sole purpose of glorifying God. “A great light fell upon me. The whole house was filled with light, a marvelous light, the Shekhinah resting there.” The Shekhinah, or divine presence, was the feminine aspect of the godhead.

Joseph’s first encounter with Moroni also occurred in 1823, and exhibits a similar pattern of youthful despondence giving way to a heavenly manifestation of light. “After I had retired to my bed for the night, I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and standing before him; for I had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had one. While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor.”[5]

Itzhak Eyzik’s vision of the Shekhinah did not fill precisely the same purpose as Moroni’s visit. In Joseph’s vision, Moroni was an angel, not an aspect of the godhead, and he both expounded upon scripture and delivered instructions for a future task. These elements are missing from Itzhak Eyzik’s vision. Were he told of Moroni’s visit, Itzhak Eyzik would likely have considered it inferior to a revelation of light from the Shekhinah. This light was “authentic without error or confusion, a wondrous delight and a most pleasant illumination beyond all comprehension.”

Itzhak Eyzik described his depression as “smallness of soul,” which is a state in which the divine flow of intelligence or consciousness is lessened, and man seems remote from God. He further characterized his condition as an assault by demonic forces, the kelippot, or husks, which brought about immense sadness. “Many harsh and demonic  forces (kelippot) rose against me to dissuade me from studying the Torah.” Joseph Smith was similarly assaulted before his First Vision, but there was no demonic attack preceding Moroni’s 1823 visit—merely guilt resulting from frivolous teenage behavior.

As Itzhak Eyzik understood it, the manifestation of light refined his senses, rendering him pure, but a single experience was not enough to properly attach himself to God. “Afterwards I fell once again for a time so I came to realize that I must journey to the tzaddikim who would draw down His light, blessed be He, upon me since I already had a refined vessel wherewith to receive the light.” In contrast, each of Moroni’s fourfold visits expounded upon scripture and contained specific instructions for Joseph.

Both visions, however, were manifestations of divine favor. This understanding of Joseph’s vision seems somewhat neglected as people tend to focus more on elements such as Moroni’s instructions regarding the gold plates. Curiously enough, in this instance it is Joseph who takes the initiative and seeks a manifestation, whereas the vision of Itzhak Eyzik came without him seeking it.

Joseph Smith and Itzhak Eyzik never met. They lived on different continents, came from conflicting faith traditions, and read somewhat different sacred books. Yet, despite all the differences, there is still a deep “affinity of strangers” between the two that ought to be explored at greater length.

 

NOTES

[1]Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, 1973.

[2] Arthur Green, “Early Hasidism: Some Old/New Questions,” in Hasidism Reappraised, ed.  Ada Rapoport-Albert, Vallentine Mitchell & Co. Ltd., London, 1997, p. 443.

[3]Moshe Rosman, Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Baʼal Shem Tov, University of California Press, Berkley, 1996, chapter eleven in particular. Arthur Green, “Typologies of Leadership and the Hasidic Zaddiq,” in Jewish Spirituality: From the Sixteenth-Century Revival to the Present, Crossroad, New York, 1987, and “The Zaddiq as Axis Mundi in Later Judaism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 45:3 (1977), pp. 327-347.

[4] Megilat Setarim, p. 2.  The book circulated in manuscript form among a few select individuals until it was published in various forms in the mid-twentieth century. The only complete English translation is found in Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets, trans. Morris M. Faierstein, Paulist Press, New York, 1999. Selections can be found in Louis Jacobs, The Schocken Book of Jewish Mystical Testimonies, Schocken Books, New York, 1997, and Harris Lenowitz, The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998. All subsequent quotes from Megilat Setarim in this post will be taken from p. 294 of Jacobs’ Mystical Testimonies.

[5] Joseph Smith History 1:29-30.

Comments

Visions of Light: Itzhak Eyzik and Joseph Smith — 7 Comments

  1. Allen, you wrote,

    Studying Mormonism in light of other traditions and movements will help us better recognize not only what is different and unique to Mormonism, but also how and why.

    I wonder what you make of the “how” and “why” in the Itzhak Eyzik case. The similar pattern of youthful despondence and demonic assault followed by heavenly vision is certainly striking, and so are the differences: mystical union vs. propositional revelation, seeking a vision vs. not seeking one. What, though, would you say is the significance of these comparisons? If I had to hazard an interpretation, it might be that Mormonism and Kabbalistic Judaism reflect different conceptions of the divine. In both cases God wants to ease our suffering by revealing himself to us, true. But the Jewish conception makes God transcendent, which implies that any communication has to be sovereignly initiated by him; the only way to access him is to make ourselves more receptive through self-emptying. In Mormonism, by contrast, God is more imminent and more like us, and he elevates us to his level not by effacing and replacing the human self but by amplifying and exalting it. There’s more of the American spirit of hard work and human potential here, maybe. What say you?

  2. Chris,
    First of all, a big thank you not only for posting this, but also for your suggestions which improved the post immensely.

    “I wonder what you make of the “how” and “why” in the Itzhak Eyzik case.”

    Fair question. To be perfectly frank, I am still working out the why.

    “But the Jewish conception makes God transcendent, which implies that any communication has to be sovereignly initiated by him; the only way to access him is to make ourselves more receptive through self-emptying.”

    Well, yes and no. God in Judaism is transcendent, true, but on the other hand there is the idea of “awakening from below,” which is that human efforts trigger a divine reaction. When Itzhak Eyzik devoted himself to Torah study, he described his motive as “adorning the Shekhinah.” In technical terms, this meant study directed at separating the Shekhinah from accrued impurities (the separation of truth from error and forbidden from permissible achieved during study mirrored the divine pattern) which would allow the Shekhinah to unite with her Husband, and righteousness (tzeddek) to unite with the tzaddikim. Because he conducted his study for no ulterior motive and in the face of significant opposition, he merited a direct encounter with the Shekhinah. On other ocassions, Itzhak Eyzik very actively initiated communication with the divine, a 19th century Prometheus of sorts.

    The Schor engraving actually serves as a perfect illustration for Itzhak Eyzik’s understanding of his encounter. He came into the world to mend certain processes which had gone wrong. However, he himself became entangled in the demonic through materiality. The godhead, on the other hand, enticed him to the right path by means of divine light. Thus, the two paths were equally balanced, leaving him free to make his own choice.

    I would nuance your observation by suggesting that [i]proccesses[/i] within the divine are what separate the Jewish (particularly the Kabbalistic) conception from the Mormon one. It goes a long way towards explaining why some aspects are prominent in one, but muted in the other. Theurgy, for instance, is central to Lurianic Kabbalah, but plays a minor role only in Mormonism. The Kabbalah portrays these processes in terms of sex and families to which human dynamics correspond, but Mormonism goes further by making it who God really is, seeing him and us as an actual family consisting of fully separate individuals.

    There is more of the “why” that I plan on investigating. I’m rereading Sam Brown’s book and trying to track down his sources in order to get a better grasp of Joseph American background. Do you have any suggestions?

  3. It seems to me that there are more and greater similarities between Itzhak Eyzik’s account and the earliest accounts if Joseph Smith’s First Vision: the divine presence, the resistance from evil forces, Joseph’s reported motivation of seeking forgiveness, etc. The dates aren’t quite as nicely aligned, but I wonder how your analysis would differ if you took Joseph’s First Vision as the primary object of comparison.

  4. “The dates aren’t quite as nicely aligned, but I wonder how your analysis would differ if you took Joseph’s First Vision as the primary object of comparison.”

    The age difference would certainly need to be accounted for. Another factor is that neither of the 1823 visions were their first encounter with the divine. Joseph had the First Vision, and Itzhak Eyzik his childhood state of divine light. The demonic resistance was also spaced out through multiple weeks. That being said, you do raise some valid points and I will reconsider the FV accounts.

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