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.
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.” 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.”
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.
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.” 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.”
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.
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.
 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.
 Joseph Smith History 1:29-30.