“[Truth is] envisioned in the encircling dance of represented Ideas” [vergegenwärtigt im Reigen der dargestellen Ideen]”


—Walter Benjamin

A strange constellation occurred this Sunday in San Francisco— Haunted Reflections brought one Yankee kabbalist out of bed early coinciding with the yahrzeit of another American mystic already resting in his eternal home.

David Meltzer held court at the Contemporary Jewish Museum part of the week-long symposium—Haunted Reflections: Walter Benjamin in San Francisco while today also marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Reb Shlomo Carlebach on the 9th of Heshvan. I was struck by the “constellation” of ideas and experiences into which I was journeying on this auspicious day.

The possibility of “constellation” really first came to light in the esoteric thinking of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), where he compares the virtual objectivity of the Idea represented through the reconfiguring of actual phenomena to an astrological constellation. Just as a constellation simultaneously groups together and is revealed by the cluster of individual stars, so for Benjamin criticism virtually reassembles the “fore-” and “after-history” [Vor- und Nachgeschichte] of the phenomena into a historical “constellation”, in which the Idea is represented and the phenomena redeemed. In the process, there is a messianic redemption in relation to the historical Absolute that emerges. I was beginning to lose my hopes for redeeming an otherwise lackluster Sunday as Martin Jay, Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History at UC Berkeley concluded his scholarly comparison of Walter Benjamin and Isaiah Berlin. What relevance this kind of academic exercise had for contemporary seekers gathering at the Contemporary Jewish Museum remained to be seen in the Q& A. Next up was San Francisco poet and musician of the Beat generation and the San Francisco Renaissance, David Meltzer, who hobbled up to the podium for the conclusion of the week-long, Haunted Reflections. It was at this precise moment that for some reason I deeply sensed an aroma of redemption.

Described by beat writer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti as “one of the greats of post-World-War-Two San Francisco poets and musicians,” Meltzer is a unique brand of self-proclaimed American mystics or what he calls “Yankee Kabbalah”, of which I had heard ruminations of while in rabbinical school but never really pursued.

Meltzer began a kind of jazz improve through his own biography, beginning with his discovery of Kabbalah. It was that moment in 1964 when his mentor, poet, Robert Duncan emerged from the bookstore bathroom that Meltzer tended to that changed the course of this young Jewish poet’s life.

Duncan was livid in finding an overdue library book sequestered in the bookstore bathroom—Meltzer was intrigued by Duncan’s ire. The book turned out to be none other than Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941).

From that point onwards, Meltzer committed himself to exploring an as of yet undiscovered language of esotericism called, kabbalah, as transmitted by Scholem. As a secular, leftist Jew transplanted from Brooklyn to San Francisco, Meltzer began pouring through Scholem’s renowned lectures, and found himself mostly uninterested, until he got to the lecture on Abraham Abulafia: Prophetic Kabbalah— “this I could sink my teeth into” Meltzer mused. In perusing Scholem, of course, he could not avoid Benjamin as well, given that Major Trends’ opening epithet is dedicated to the memory of Walter Benjamin. Of all his relationships, it was in 1915 a friendship began between Benjamin and Gerhard (Gershom) Scholem, a fellow student at Berlin, which had a lifelong influence upon Benjamin’s relation to Judaism and Kabbalah. Scholem was instrumental in introducing both Benjamin and Meltzer to kabbalah, as well as shaping the legacy of the former’s posthumous works. Meltzer corresponded frequently with Scholem in the 1970s, sending him copies of obscure esoteric journals he was editing, like the 8 volume, Tree, for which Scholem was immensely grateful. In one letter Meltzer shared, Scholem confessed an inability to really understand this American Kabbalah, the same kind of perplexity he found himself caught in while trying to read French Kabbalist, Edmond Jabes. What Meltzer embodied that morning was a passion for Yankee Kabbalah that continues to offer redemptive pathways for an otherwise highly assimilated San Francisco (not so unlike the Berlin that Benjamin and Scholem were rallying against).

Then there was the second step in the encircling dance of the constellation this Sunday— the yahrzeit of Reb Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994). While the revolutionary House of Love & Prayer was born and bred in San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967, my first encounter with Reb Shlomo Carlebach was at this Upper West Side shteibl, dancing for Simhat Torah.

My first year of rabbinical school coincided with the last year of Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s life, dancing ecstatically together, receiving my first key to kabbalah that he gave me to dance with—Liqqutai MoHaRaN.

As it happened, I could not earnestly open the collected teachings of Reb Nahman of Bratzlav, called, Liqqutai MoHaRaN, until I met longtime teachers and friends, Shaul Magid, who began teaching at JTS two years later and Elliot Wolfson, teaching at NYU. Magid brought me under his wing, as scholar and (anti) rebbe, teaching me how to read Hasidic texts and introducing me to Wolfson. And it was in those NYU seminars that Wolfson brought me under his wing, teaching me how to read Zohar as a philosopher and showing me how to reclaim my all but lost love of French literature and philosophy in the critical study of my Judaism that remains ingrained in our ongoing Sprachedenken. I also recall another privileged moment, early on in that formative dance, as a new book on Reb Nahman of Bratzlav, God’s Voice From the Void (2001) was emerging under the editorship of Magid, featuring a contribution by Wolfson, in which I found myself honored to contribute my first piece of published scholarship— an annotated translation of Reb Nahman’s Shir Yedidut. It felt like I was destined to return to the academe I had left behind to enter the rabbinate. The day after my ordination, which was primarily head-centered, I vowed to seek a second ordination–this time of the heart. This planetary path to a Torah of the heart is one I continue traversing to this day in my studies with Rabbi Moshe Aaron Krassen. Following my first ordination, however, there came doctoral studies and fifteen years in the trenches of the rabbinate, deployed to a harrowing pulpit in Harrison, New York, and early on in that journey I was recommended to seek the homiletic coaching of the master, Rabbi Jack Reimer. At the time, I trusted in the process, and found myself in the care of Rabbi Jack half a year before High Holidays. During those years I served in the rabbinic trenches of the Northeast, I would annually take leave of my pulpit in Harrison, New York, to fly out and spend time with my “snowbirds” and more importantly, see Jack, in Boca Raton, Florida, sharing sermon ideas for days on end.  In the midst of sharing stories, it emerged that Jack Riemer was one of the few  rabbinical students who stopped by to listen to Reb Shlomo at JTS in the early 1950s. Jack was not phased by the unusual sight of seeing a Chabadnik playing chasidic melodies at 3080 Broadway. This may be why Jack also became one of Shlomo’s lifelong friends, later opening the doors to his performing at non-Orthodox congregations. To this day, Jack reminds me of the need to find the “soul of the story” in every sermon I deliver—something that I continue to see was so important to Reb Shlomo.  And so this Sunday in San Francisco, with the conclusion of Haunted Reflections, I found myself looking back from the vantage point of two decades along this path. At this moment in the encircling dance— beginning with Reb Shlomo, joining with scholars like Magid and Wolfson, along with story tellers like, Rabbi Riemer, reaching out to misunderstood mystics like Walter Benjamin and Yankee Kabbalists like David Meltzer— I have come to an ever deeper appreciation of the course my life has taken to reach this homecoming to truth.