Remembering Prof. Joseph Dan (1935-2022), z”l

Joseph Dan— Yossi, to his friends— was the foremost scholar of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism of his generation, Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel Prize laureate, and author of scores of scholarly books. I first met him in the early 1990s when he came to lecture at Columbia in New York. The lecture, which was later published as “The Language of Creation and its Grammar”, dealt with the strange, short pre-Kabbalistic text known as Sefer Yetsira, the Book of Creation. Essentially in two parts, the little work describes how a proto-language was generated by the combinations of pairs of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet from two rotating wheels into bi-literal roots; and how the armature of the universe was made by the construction of an array of nodes connected by lines. These nodes, which are called sefirot (counters, null sets, place-holders) are empty (Hebrew belimah) and are potential receptacles for types of Divine energy.

Professor Dan’s manner was that of an old-school Central European scholar: precise, eloquent, careful, profoundly civilized and judiciously humorous.Sefer Yetsira, though of unknown origins and uncertain date, is well known to scholarship, both religious and secular. What made Dan’s lecture so memorable was his insight into its utter strangeness. Though Abraham appears at its conclusion, does not mention any familiar theological or sacred historical topic in Judaism at all. The language postulated is wholly arbitrary, with no other relationship of signifier to signified that the movement of the generating mechanism. Good and evil are mere dimensions (the approximation of Hebrew ‘amuq, literally, depth), like up and down.

I was thrilled, and suggested to Prof. Dan that although Sefer Yetsira was anomalous and enigmatic in the context of Judaism, it would be matter-of-fact in India: the proto-language would correspond to the idea of supra-rational mental instruments, mantra; the tree (ilan) or other pattern of sefirot, to the complementary Hindu or Buddhist concept of yantra.

That was the beginning of a correspondence that was to become a friendship of decades. I was up for tenure that year at Columbia, where two of my courses were in the list of the university’s top ten. But I was told by several senior colleagues that there was strong opposition to my promotion: I did Armenian studies and the Armenian community- they bluntly explained- did not want a Jew teaching their language and culture. Neither did they. My students were outraged; but academics are notoriously cowardly, not to say amoral, and that was that. But I was awarded a fellowship to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and spent an extremely happy and productive year in Israel before finding another job in the US.

When I did move back, it was to an institution where Yossi’s partner was teaching Modern Hebrew. I found an apartment down the block from them and was a frequent visitor to their home: she threw big parties for all sorts of visiting Israeli luminaries and local scholars and friends, and at some point in the evening a few people would retreat to Yossi’s study, where he expounded in his slow, deep voice on this or that learned topic.

The institution where we taught was not a happy place. One day I was so depressed after my daily swim at the university pool that an Israeli friend in the locker room became worried. He rang Yossi and suggested the latter invite me over for some Israeli instant coffee to lift my mood with the smell and flavor of home. Yossi did so at once, and while we were seated in the tiny alcove next to their kitchen, Yossi asked, feigning naïveté, whether I was interested in Soviet tank battles of the Great Patriotic War. This was like asking a bee whether it was partial to honey; and I proceeded happily to re-enact the Battle of Kursk with spoons, cups, and a salt shaker.

Then Yossi sat back and asked whether I knew how he had come to the Land of Israel. He proceeded to tell me his story.

His family lived under Hungarian rule and in the late 1930s did not yet face a threat from Hitler (or their own fascist countrymen); so his father obtained Czech papers. This would protect them against deportation back into Nazi territory by the British if they reached “Palestine” (as the Mandate was called). The first stage of the exodus was to Beirut. Yossi’s mother was distraught: Where have you brought us? Dust! Heat! Noise! The Middle East! His Dad said: Wait.

One day a car came and they traveled till it was night. They got out and sat on their suitcases in an open field in the pitch dark. The car drove away. After a while a man emerged from the far side of the field and led them to a town, where they bedded down in a basement.

Yossi paused for effect, then continued in his deep Central European tones: “In the morning, we found out we had slept in the cellar of the synagogue of Kiryat Shemona, in the Land of Israel. That is how I made Aliya.”

There will be many tributes in the coming days to this giant among scholars. His work on the medieval Hasidim of Ashkenaz, on Kabbalah, on religious experience, his editions of medieval Hebrew texts– all that will endure and I will return to it again and again as long as I live. But it is as a friend most of all that I will remember him. Strangers now live in my apartment, in Yossi’s apartment, in that cold American city thousands of miles to the east of here. The monstrous farce that is called American academia grinds on, destroying lives, perverting knowledge. Yossi is gone; I am an old man and my days are numbered, too. The world is not looking very hopeful.

But I had the privilege, the gift, to know a great man, an authentic scholar, a worthy son of the nation of Israel, whose learning and friendship enlightened and warmed those around him, in the waning years when institutions of higher learning in this unhappy land were still worthy of the name, when real scholarship was respected, when it was possible for a man of character to thrive.

Yossi’s immortal soul is waking now in a shadowless day. He walks upstairs into the bet midrash, the study hall of the Yeshiva shel Ma’ala, the Heavenly Academy, and there are our Teacher Moses, our Father Abraham, Rabbi Akiva, Moses de Leon, the author of An’im Zemirot and the author of Sefer Yetsira, waiting to greet him and bring him into the minyan and daven Shacharis together.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, Emeritus, at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University; the journal Linguistica Petropolitana, Russian Academy of Sciences; and the journal Homo Loquens, Russian Christian Humanities Association, St. Petersburg. He is a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. He holds the PhD in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; B.Litt. (Oxon.); B.A. (summa) (Columbia). His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.

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