The Important Dialogue Today is Between Mecca and Jerusalem

Having recently completed a comprehensive translation of The Niche of Lights, the magnum opus by Sufi mystic Muḥammad al-Ghazālī, a prominent Islamic sufi mystic who lived nearly a thousand years ago, Professor Avi Elqayam finds time to discuss the Faculty for Prophetic Studies he had hoped to establish, his failed attempt to introduce Kabbalah studies to secular public high schools in Israel (“the mission is to induce secular Jews into being God-intoxicated, regardless of whether they are observing Jews”), and the ills of contemporary Kabbalah research, that cause him to call to “liberate Kabbalah from academia.”

Professor Avi Elqayam has given up on academia. A researcher of Kabbalah and mysticism noted for his non-conventional teaching methods, such as the integrating music, dancing, or looking at candlelight while teaching the Zohar, and until recently the head of the Department of Jewish Thought at Bar-Ilan University, now declares that Kabbalah must no longer be taught in universities. “Kabbalah is hurting,” he told me in his Bar-Ilan office. “The Kabbalah is suffocated by academia. We have to give it some space to breathe, we must rescue it from the dungeon in which it is imprisoned. Kabbalah is paying too steep a price, and the time has come to free it from the talons of the academic world.”

Image courtesy of zeevveez/Flickr.

We will elaborate below on this unusual announcement, which Elqayam says is a result of his own failure to imbue university Kabbalah studies with his particular teaching methods. He is the first one to admit that he has also failed in other projects that he tried to initiate: integrating Kabbalah studies into the secular public curriculum, as early as nursery school, and establishing a Faculty for Prophetic Studies. But he can probably be justifiably happy with one domain of his efforts, that for which I am meeting him today: the translation of mystical Islamic writings into Hebrew and the heightening of research awareness into the Jewish-Sufi world. Most Kabbalah researchers of the previous generation, Elqayam argues, ignored Jewish mysticism in Islamic countries, and he has made it his goal, in his lectures and articles, to shine a spotlight on this phenomenon, which is gradually receiving the attention it deserves. The way to do this, he says, begins with studying the various Islamic thinkers and mystics who were well-known to the Jews of the Islamic countries; beginning with the most important of them, Muḥammad al-Ghazālī being the first and foremost of them.

Elqayam recently completed a comprehensive translation of al-Ghazālī’s work Niche of Lights (published by Magnes Press), the magnum opus of this leading Sufi Islamic mystic, philosopher and theologian of the 11th century AD. His is the third Hebrew translation of this classic work, and it gives rise to unique questions having to do with this genre, translation of theological texts: how does the translator approach such texts? How can contents be transmitted from one religion to the other, and what is the translator’s unique role in this context? Elqayam maintains that the translator’s task today is as it was in the Middle Ages, to lay down the foundations for what may develop later into an interfaith dialogue.


Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī, born in 1058 in Persia, personified the integration of mysticism, philosophy, and religious law. “He was one of the intellectual giants in the world of Islam, and of humankind in general,” Elqayam says. “He was defined as the reviver of Islam. Al-Ghazālī’s unique contribution is his synthesis of religious law and mysticism. Mysticism has an antinomian, destructive force, risking breakdown of religious law and community. In the Jewish world this was epitomized in Sabbateanism, and in the sufi Islamic world the one to epitomize this effect was al-Ḥallāj, who proclaimed himself to be God – a declaration that shocked the Islamic world and practically pulled it apart.

“Following the trauma of al-Ḥallāj, the tendency was to marginalize the Sufi mysticism. Al-Ghazālī responded to this trend by seeking to form a synthesis between religious law and mysticism, trying to show how mysticism could exist within the borders of religious law. This is why he rejects the radical mystical streams. As a man of religious law, he could not accept mystical radicalism, and he came out strongly against spiritual directions that would undermine religious law. For al-Ghazālī, religious law sets the boundaries, and if mystical thought breaches these boundaries, it is no longer legitimate.

Even though this makes for weaker, less powerful mysticism.

“True. It’s a price. If you want to see vibrant mysticism live within a world of community and society, there will necessarily be a castration of the individual and of his or her optimal spiritual path. On the other hand, itis also a salvation for the togetherness. You can’t build a society where the forces within it are taking it apart. For the sake of building a community, mysticism must remain within the boundaries of the law. Al-Ghazālī did this in a fascinating manner, and thisis why he so fascinated Halakhic Jews as well. He built the prototype. The work Chovot HaLevavot (Duties of the Hearts) by Rabbenu Bahya ibn Paquda, who preceded al-Ghazālī, did not deal with the obligations of various organs in Jewish Law, that is, with Halakha, but focused on the Duties of the Hearts. He did not build a structure for dealing with radical mystical streams; al-Ghazālī is the one who built this model.

“It is a separate issue whether such a move, connecting mysticism with religious law, is appropriate for our more secular times, in which religious praxis is no longer the default basis for community ties. On the one hand, this is a great source of liberation for spirituality and mysticism, which no longer have to remain within the boundaries of religious law, or any specific religion, for that matter. It makes mysticism truly universal, beyond religion, nationality, and culture, thus opening indefinite potential for crossfertilization. On the other hand, this might be too easy. Without any discipline, mysticism and spirituality can far too easily become self-indulgent and escapist, a vacuous navel-gazing without true aim. The trick is to find the right balance between mystical freedom, community bounds, and individual selfrealization.

“In addition to unifying religious law and mysticism, al-Ghazālī’s second move was in the domain of Quranic commentary. He dealt with two trends in Islam, and in his Niche of Lights he proposed their synthesis. One trend was that of the materialists, who gave materialist, anthromorphic explanations to the Quranic text. For instance, when the Quran speaks of the Divine Throne, they said that it meant a physical chair in the Heavens. Al-Ghazālī attacked this approach, in a way reminiscent of Maimonides’ approach some time later.

“The second trend thatAl-Ghazālī cameout againstwasthe oppositeofthe first one. It proposed an inner meaning to the verses. For instance, when Allah tells Moses ‘put off thy shoes from off thy feet’, the proponents of this approach say that Moses did not do so in actual fact; rather, the shoe represents the material world, and Moses was instructed to put off his shoes off his feet, that is, to divest himself of his physical existence. This trend also threatens the religious legal system, for the commandment to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, for instance, could also be interpreted as a spiritual ascent rather than an actual physical pilgrimage, which practically takes apart the world of religious praxis. Al-Ghazālī proposes a middle path: you must first of all fulfill the religious praxis in body, and then, as a spiritual person, you give them meaning. Al-Ghazālī builds a model of balance between peshat (the literal meaning) and sod (the esoteric meaning), where neither annuls the other.”

Al-Ghazālī’s primary work is called Iḥiyāʾ ʿulūm ad-dīn (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), and Elqayam maintains that the Sufi mystic revived not only Islam, but Judaism as well. “His mystical journey is very central in the world of Judaism,” he says, “truly changing it. Consider Maimonides, for instance, who begins his great Halakhic work Yad Ha-Chazakah with the Book of Knowledge. This is something entirely unknown until then. And when you look at al-Ghazālī, who preceded the Rambam by a few decades, you see that he did the same thing: the first part of al-Ghazālī’s Iḥiyāʾ ʿulūm ad-dīn is called the Book of Knowledge. That is, Maimonides accepted Al-Ghazālī’s position regarding the perception of religiouslaw.”

“Al-Ghazālī’s more dramatic influence was on Maimonides’s son, Abraham Maimonides, author of Kitāb Kifāyah al-`Ābidīn (A Comprehensive Guide for the Servants of God), a work which both in structure and Sufi style of thought relies very heavily on Al-Ghazālī. His influence there is nearly absolute. Maimonides, too, at the end of his life, was influenced by Islamic Sufi mysticism, but his son was completely there. We see sages in later generations as well who are reminiscent of al-Ghazālī, because he built the model of integration between mysticism and religious law. This is the model that dictated the place of mysticism by Abraham Maimonides and members of his circle, and in fact generally in the Jewish communities in Islamic countries, communities whose spirituality is Sufi spirituality. When Abarbanel explains the verse at the end of the Book of Exodus citing the pillar offirewalking before the camp, he mentions what was said by ‘the elder Muhammad Al-Ghazālī in his work The GodlyLights.’ And this is one of the classic commentators whose works are found in every synagogue.”


Elqayam’s translation of the Niche of Lights, a work that is made up entirely of a mystical-philosophical commentary on one verse in the Quran known as the Verse of Light, is the third Hebrew translation of this work. Two translations were written in the Middle Ages: one anonymously, and one by Rav Yitzchak Alfasi. “In the Middle Ages,” Elqayam explains, “the translator was on a rank equal to today’s Rosh Yeshiva and Bible commentator, because he was the one who transmitted ideas from religion to religion. He was the intermediary between the religions, and thus the one who decided which aspects of one religion would be incorporated in the other, and which would not. He faced a theological challenge, of what he could transmit and what not.

“consider, for example, a topic such as the translation of the verses of the Quran. Al-Ghazālī quotes verse after verse from the Quran to anchor his commentary. So what can the translator do with the verses of Quran? Al-Ghazālī’s two translators adopted different strategies. The anonymous translator’s strategy was to translate the Quranic verses into Hebrew, thus introducing the Quran into Jewish culture and legitimizing it as a revelational religious text bearing the mystery of the Divine light.

The other strategy, which Alfasi adopted, was replacing the Quranic verses with verses from the Bible with similar meaning. He found it too challenging to introduce Quran verses into Jewish culture, or to perceive the Quran as an authorized text to build a spiritual world, so instead, he quotes the Bible. But once we delve deep into this strategy, we can see that it results in a medieval Jew reading a sufi Islamic text, which seems to interpret Biblical verses. Thus this medieval Jew practically accepts a Biblical text with Islamic commentary, as though it were an Islamic interpretation of the Bible. Paradoxically, Alfasi’s move is more radical than the other, the one that incorporated the verses as they were. I am inclined to say that he did this on purpose – he wanted to bring Islamic Sufi mysticism into Judaism in a clever way, in a conservative guise, where the revelation of God’s word is to Moses, and the commentary is Islamic.”

For Elqayam, his translation challenge was not the Quranic verses, but rather the Lord’s name. Should he translate as Elohim (God) everywhere that alGhazālī mentions Allah, or leave the Islamic name? Elqayam notes that when Prof. Uri Rubin of Tel Aviv University translated the Quran into Hebrew, he wrote “Elohim” in his first edition, and in the second he changed it back to “Allah.” With this, he said, Rubin continued a tradition started by Rav Saadia Gaon, who translated the Bible to Arabic and made a seemingly-simple translational decision, but one that, argues Elqayam, had profound impact on the world of Halakha and Jewish-Muslim relations.

“I picture Rav Saadia Gaon sitting and trying to translate the first verse in the Bible into Judeo-Arabic. But what does he do with the word Elohim? He decides to translate it to Allah. And thus, via the translation used by both Jews and Muslims throughout the Islamic world, God is known as Allah, which becomes a holy name in Judaism. This is a remarkable move, theologically. Centuries later, when the Ben Ish Chai ruled that it is forbidden to say the word Allah in filthy alleyways because of its sanctity, he echoes Saadia Gaon’s translational decision. And so when I, as a translator, choose to translate ‘Allah’, Rav Saadia Gaon stands right behind me.

“And when my grandmother, an eighth-generation Jerusalem-born, used to bless me when I left the house and say ‘May Allah be with you,’ it comes from the same amazing, non-trivial decision by Saadia Gaon. This was a tremendous revolution, that enabled the Jews in Islamic countries to live with their neighbors. This is the cultural and ideological mission of the translator. In his genius, Rav Saadia understood that we Jewslive in Islamic lands, and we must have common theological grounds, we must understand that the God of Israel and the God of Ishmael are one and the same.”


Is this mission of the translator relevant still for you today?

“I think I chose to use the name Allah rather than Elohim as part of the insight that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael is one. This choice reminds us that, despite the political and territorial divide between us and the Muslims, the Islam, as Maimonides wrote, genuinely believes in one God, is truly monotheistic. Theologically, Judaism and Islam believe in the same Allah, the same God. The mission of the translator from Arabic to Hebrew today is to weaken the points of friction between the us and Islam. Our quarrel is political and territorial, it is not theological.

“Because of the political dispute, we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater, ignoring the Muslim religion and dismissing it. We give up on a great spiritual movement that emanated, ultimately, from us. Hagar and Ishmael came from our Patriarch Abraham, and they are part of the Abrahamic religions. Muhammad built Islam upon Judaism, not upon Paulus. The most important personage through which he shaped Islam was Moses, who is mentioned more times in theQuran than anyone other than Muhammad. Both Judaism and Islam are religions of revelation, and both are religions of Biblical commandments and religious praxis. Unfortunately, though, we basically Islam, and there are even those who treat this religion with hostility.

“A friend of mine told me that he invited a relative who lives in Hebron to his Passover Seder, during the course of which he, the host, cited an Islamic philosopher in his analysis of an idea in the Haggadah. Afterwards, the guest called him to say he would no longer visit him, and how dared he even mention an Islamic philosopher at the Seder table. And let us remember that Abarbanel had done exactly the same thing. This shows the distance between the great and wonderful world of early Biblical commentators and what is happening today. Part of what I as a translator am creating is connected precisely to this point: to legitimize al-Ghazālī within Jewish discourse, that it would be possible to cite him at the Seder, just as was done centuries ago. Thus, the translator not only hands down texts from the Islamic spiritual world, he must also neutralize the friction. ”

There is a paucity of Islamic mystical literature in Hebrew.

“very much so. Since the establishment of the State of Israel seventy years ago, the Niche of Lights has been translated twice into English, as well as French, Italian, German, Japanese and Chinese – but not again into Hebrew, up until now. Whereas in the Middle Ages, this work was translated into Hebrew twice within a seventy-year period. Look at the power of Jewish philosophy during that period, compared to the way we today neglect the theological-mystical world of Islam as a basis for Jewish culture. We have distanced ourselves from Islam.”

“For Maimonides, the important dialogue was between Athens and Jerusalem. The encounter between Aristotle and Plato and the teachings of Moses enchanted him. Moshe Hess wrote about Rome and Jerusalem, fascinated by the dialogue between Christianity and Judaism. For me, I think our era is the era of Mecca and Jerusalem. The challenge to Jerusalem today is Mecca. This is where we are, politically, geographically, spiritually. But Israeli culture has not launched a project of exemplary translations of Muslim theology – not medieval, and certainly not contemporary. We do not know what is happening in the Islamic spiritual world today; there are no accessible books on the subject.

“Regrettably, the problem is even more wide-ranging. There is little wonder that in the seventy years of its existence, our cyber and hitech state has not produced even a single philosopher of an international caliber. Yeshayahu Leibowitz was a local philosopher, he is not taught in universities around the globe. I’m talking about someone of a similar caliber to Maimonides, or even Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, whose writings are known in faculties worldwide. And this sorry state is enabled because there are no translations. In order to produce someone like Maimonides, who influenced Christian and Islamic cultures, translations are vital. Maimonides needed translations of Aristotle and Plato in order to become what he was. The translations created the ecology that nurtured and gave rise to the great philosophers of the Middle Ages. We today do not have this ecology. There are translations from Europe, but our challenge is not Europe. We have to know what is going on in the spiritual world of billions of people, and we do not have this to hand.

“This domain has been neglected in academia as well. In his important work Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, the great Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem ignored Jewish spiritual mysticism in Islamic lands. Scholem was a great Torah scholar, but he lived in Berlin and his worldview was Eurocentric, Orientalist. He ignored the spirituality and mysticism of our great poets such as Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levy, Ibn Gabirol and Ibn Ezra, in whose writings Sufi mysticism is powerfully present. He did not study Chovot HaLevavot or Rabbi Abraham Maimonides. The Jewish-Sufi trend has not been properly studied, and I made it my mission to give it its proper place in the world of research.”

You speak of the common theological basis of the two religions, and about Allah and Elohim being one and the same. But you too, as a religious Jew, would agree that there is still a difference between Judaism and Islam. It is not a single religion.

“Hassidic thought features the concept of unity of opposites. Part of the ability to live in peace is to tolerate differences. There differences between the religions exist, but they exist in our dimension, the dimension of multiplicity. When you rise higher, to the Divine dimension, unity prevails. Within the dimension of unity, I see no difference between Judaism and Islam. Only when the Divine unity is broken down into a world of multiplicity, into groups, nations, only then there are differences. A person who is peace-intelligent knows how to bear the opposites within him- or herself. Not to reject them, but to bear within oneself Islamic spirituality.”

Does this also have practical significance? In the way in which you practice the mitzvot?

“A few years ago I visited a mosque in Istanbul, and the head of the mosque told me how, in the winter, when there is snow, the Jews, whose synagogue is farther out, cannot reach it, so they pray in the mosque. They do not recite the Muslim prayer, they recite their own Jewish prayers, and they do this in this sacred place called mosque. The local Muslims allow them to do so, and there is no conflict. In Israel this sounds entirely unreal. Here they tried to pass a law to silence the muezzin. How can a religious person, who understands the importance of rising to serve the Creator, silence the voice that calls upon his neighbor to arise to prayer? He worships his Creator through the muezzin, you should respect this. I think that a spiritual person can combine within him- or herself both processes, just like the Sufis ofthe Middle Ages could, and just like Abraham Maimonides did. This is how I was brought up.”


Elqayam is currently active in Derekh Avraham (the Way of Abraham), an organization that brings together Israeli Jews and Muslim-Sufi sheikhs. A participant at its founding conference was the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, with whom Elqayam had good rapport, and even traveled together to Gaza several times. “The last time I was in Gaza was twelve or thirteen years ago,” he recounts. “I was invited together with Rabbi Froman to a Sufi order celebrating Mawlid, the birthday of the prophet Muhammad, and Sheikh Abdullah Babli, the Palestinian representative on the Supreme Sufi Council in Cairo, received us.

“We were there, in the Museirat camp in Gaza, and I accompanied Rabbi Froman and helped him by translating the discussions with the Sheikhs. Rabbi Froman had dialogues with the most radical Imams. The Sufi Sheikhs were more moderate, but he insisted that we should go to the most difficult places. He had genuine passion for peace. Iremember thatI one day Imet himinGaza, and he told me that he had decided to remain there for the night and to sleep on a bench in the police station. He was dedicated to this.”

Elqayam, married, father of one and grandfather of two, grew up in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv and lives today in the suburban town of Givat Shmuel. He completed all three academic degrees at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and he lectures at the Department of Jewish Thought at Bar-Ilan University. Up until recently he served as the Head of Department. He has recently established, together with Dr Daphne Levin, a unique academic publishing house called Idra, whose aim is to publish research and thought books in mysticism and spirituality. Elqayam also serves as a co-Editor in Chief of the academic journal Da’at, a journal of Jewish philosophy, and Head of the Shlomo Moussaieff Center for Kabbalah Research.

Like many academics who translate, Elkayam criticizes the fact that the work of translation is not taken into account in the process of university promotion. “Unfortunately, academia does not encourage translations,” he says. “This is a very grievous mistake. To advance in academia, it is better to publish an article than to publish a translation, and so researchers who have a talent for languages do not translate. They want promotion and the translation holds them back. My mentor, Prof. Nathan Spiegel, used to translate from ancient Greek, mainly after he retired. Translation is very important to a culture, it enriches it. We cannot enrich Israeli culture without having a system of translations in all domains.”

You are Head of the Shlomo Mousaieff Center for Kabbalah Research. How do you relate to the phrase “kabbalah research”?

“My opinion is that Kabbalah and research do not go together. Gershom Scholem did something radical by introducing Kabbalah into the Hebrew University, by no means a trivial move. What does Kabbalah have to do with the rational worlds of science and inquiry? Why teach Kabbalah as a field in itself, and not as part of anthropology or literature? This is Scholem’s revolution, but he was unaware of the proice that Kabbalah pays for this. When I started studying at the university, I did not meet the Kabbalah that is taught at Yeshivat Shaar Hashamayim, or the Kabbalah taught by my grandfather, Chacham Nissim Yagen. I saw something else. And I experienced this conflict even as a student, this difficulty of studying Kabbalah at university.

“First of all, how can you learn Kabbalah between ten and twelve in the morning? Zohar is supposed to be studied at half past one a.m.! This is an encounter between opposing forces – the world of mysticism and the world of academia, logic and science. How can you use these tools on the mystical world? How can you even use this scientific-logical tookbox when you study mysticism? Mysticism requires something else. Breathing, for instance. How do you breathe when you read a Kabbalistic text? When reading the text, you must reach a state of breathing so as to put you under a mystical state of consciousness while you read. This can happen through breathing, or dancing, or music, or the green leaf.”

And the you will understand the text better?

“What do you mean by ‘understanding’? What is understanding? Academic, logical, rational? The Baal Shem Tov said that when he opened the Zohar, he saw the Divine Light from one end of the world to the other. In academia, you open the Zohar and you see a literary text that is analyzed using the same tools used for Aristotle, Nietzsche, or Amos Oz. Whereas the goal is to attain the level of the Baal Shem Tov, to see the Divine Light from one end of the world to the other. How do you turn these letters into light? You must enter a different state of consciousness.”

Still, you are trying to do this in academia as well.

“I’m doing it a little, whatever I can. I play music in class, have a little dancing. This is the price, indubitably, the price that Kabbalah pays for getting into academia. With sorrow and despair, I think that Kabbalah should be liberated from the bonds of academia, and released to develop in its own ways. We should stop teaching Kabbalah in academia. If we can’t approach Kabbalah with the toolbox I mentioned before, there is no point in all this. We can give up on Kabbalah. I have been struggling all these years to try to change academia from within, but I have given up.”


At this point, Elqayam mentions some other of his projects that have failed to get off the ground. “I wanted to establish a Faculty of Prophetic Studies that would produce sons of prophets, and I failed. Like Maimonides, I think that a person’s sanctification can be achieved not only via Torah and observance, but also though the study of the sciences. The university provides the basis of scientific studies, and then all that needs to be done is to build another floor, one of spirituality, and then we shall have a faculty for sons of prophets. This did not happen. Prophecy is not at the center of Judaic studies, and we have not constructed tools to produce our next prophet.

“I also failed in my attempts to introduce Kabbalah studies to public secular high schools. I did not even try it in religious schools, I started with the secular ones. I had a long discussion with a regional supervisor for Jewish Thought in the secular school system, all for naught. The Israeli educational system is not open to accept Kabbalah. A kid goes out into the street, hears about Kabbalah and Kabbalists, they should know what these are, read a couple of texts or so. If we don’t start planting this seed in nursery school, when else can it be done? But our the education system is Israel is not open to spiritual mystical streams. Our Minister of Education is interested in math, not in Kabbalah.”

Why did you choose to start with the secular schools?

“I want to cultivate secular spirituality in Israel. It exists, and it must be encouraged and legitimized, rather than reduce spirituality only to those who observe the Torah’s commandments. Religion is problematic: it distracts us from God. Shabbath, for instance, has become just a day of going to synagogue and eating three meals. You get back from shul at eleven a.m., eat, sleep, get up, eat the Third Shabbat Meal, pray Mincha and `Arvit, and poof, Shabbat is over. It’s a degeneration of religious life.

“For the Kabbalists, however, the Shabbath was a sort of Yom Kippur; they would dedicate themselves to fasting and inner meditation, and not waste precious time on three meals. This type of potential could blossom in the secular public. A secular person does not need Torah observance. He or she needs spirituality, a religious experience vis-à-vis God, and he needs the tools with which to do this. I want the secular to sense the exaltedness, the religious experience of the presence of God. It does not have to be via Torah and mitzvot.

As Prof. Elqayam teaches, “the mission is to induce secular Jews into being God-intoxicated, regardless of whether they are observing Jews or not. Some people say this is too fluid because there are no obligations; au contraire, I am in favor of fluidity. I think that today, with all the interest in New Age, with people coming back from India and trying to form communities, it could happen. I believe that every person has an inner yearning, and we as a society must have tools to actualize and enable it. For me personally, it is hard to see secularism without spirituality. I think that a person who has never experienced a religious experience of this nature, it is as if he has not lived. This is why we must make efforts and provide the tools so that everyone can connect with their own spirituality.”


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