A talk on the wild side

A talk on the wild side

Scholar explores Jewish occultism in Eastern Europe

Sam Glauber-Zimra
Sam Glauber-Zimra

Of all the synagogues in all the towns in all the world, Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck might be the last you’d expect to find a presentation on psychic phenomenon scheduled for Sunday morning. (See box.) The shul was founded, after all, by students of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who worked to fit Orthodox Judaism with the demands of rationalist philosophy.

But then, you wouldn’t expect to find that studying a little known but influential Warsaw neo-chasidic Orthodox writer murdered in the Holocaust would lead a student at Israel’s Yeshivat Har Ezion down such pathway.

And yet….

“I was reading some essays by Hillel Zeitlin, who very vividly describes different religious experience,” Sam Glauber-Zimra said. Mr. Glauber-Zimra, the former yeshiva student, now is a doctoral candidate at Ben-Gurion University; he will talk about his research for Rinat. A native of Portland, Oregon, Mr. Glauber-Zimra went to yeshiva in Israel after high school, made aliyah, served in the army with his yeshiva classmates, and now lives in Jerusalem.

This is one of the artifacts of Jewish engagement with spiritualism that Sam Glauber-Zimra collected.

Hillel Zeitlin — who was born in 1872, left yeshiva before ordination, becoming first a Hebrew teacher and later a writer, and died in 1942, murdered by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto — wrote quite a bit, Mr. Glauber-
Zimra discovered, “about dreams and the possibility of prophetic foreknowledge, which he seems to imply that he believed that he had.”

Mr. Zeitlin knew that such a claim might be greeted by skepticism, Mr. Glauber-Zimra said, so he sought to prove his assertion that dreams could be prophetic by citing “different 19th century parapsychologists and an American writer from the New Thought movement named Ralph Waldo Trine.”

(The New Thought movement, Mr. Glauber-Zimra explained, “was sort of the forerunner to pop psychology and the power of positive thinking — teachings that basically argue for the absolute primacy of mind over matter.”)

Mr. Glauber-Zimra was intrigued by these references. “Why is this Jewish thinker who quite frequently cites better-known writers like Nietzsche or Tolstoy citing Trine and the parapsychologists? It piqued my curiosity!”

This is an illustration of a seance, explained in Yiddish. (Courtesy Sam Glauber-Zimra)

After completing his yeshiva studies and his army service, he began studying at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. There he took a seminar with Dr. Jonatan Meir — now his doctoral adviser — on esotericism and the haskalah, the 19th century Jewish enlightenment whose intellectuals it turned out not only read European science and philosophy and literature, but also drew from non-Jewish esoteric trends like mesmerism. This was at odds with their reputation “as being very rationalist,” Mr. Glauber-Zimra said, though “actually very many of them were very interested in Kabbalah.” In his own research, Mr. Glauber-Zimra is expanding the discussion of Eastern European Jews and the occult from the intellectual elite discussed in that first seminar on haskalah, to the broader 19th and 20th century Yiddish-speaking communities.

He explains that studying Jews who worked as psychic mediums, or visited psychic mediums, “is really a useful window for looking at questions of religious and social change. For example, an uptake of interest in psychic mediums often points to social instability or greater anxiety about one’s prospects. It has a lot do with migration, whether migration to big cities or overseas to America. You have a lot of people who are living somewhere they’ve never been before and don’t quite know what to with themselves and their lives.”

Studying spiritualism also provides “insight into how people navigated the process of religious change. You have many Jews around the turn of the 20th century who were born into a more traditional setting, but then had a break with religious practice and belief, often in adolescence,” Mr. Glauber-Zimra said. “But they are still left to grapple with a lot of big questions: What happens to us after we die? Is there an afterlife? Is there more to the world than meets the eye?

“Often these esoteric beliefs and practices were very appealing due to their supposed empiricism. You didn’t have to just rely on what your rabbi told you, or what you read in a book, but you could theoretically witness things yourself, or read in a book an account from someone else who claimed to have witnessed something themselves, which is often just as good.”

This bilingual Russian/Yiddish ad is for a palm-reader and physiognomist. (Courtesy Sam Glauber-Zimra)

The rise in occult beliefs and practices coincided with the rise of modern technology “and the popularization of modern scientific worldviews” starting in the mid-18th century in America and Europe, Mr. Glauber-Zimra continued. “There was this growing interest in these different belief systems that claimed to give a window into hidden dimensions of reality while attempting to remain in line with modern science and technology. A movement like spiritualism was a great example of that, because a spiritualist will often speak in the language of ‘energy’ or ‘electricity,’ or later ‘radio waves,’ once they’ve been discovered.”

Esotericism was just one of the contemporary philosophical currents that Hillel Zeitlein was engaged with, Mr. Glauber-Zimra said. But while he read writers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, “he had social interactions with non-Jewish Polish occultists, specifically members of the Theosophical Society who studied Kabbalah with him.”

That intellectual exchange turned out to go both ways.

“In quite a few of his essays on the Zohar and the Kabbalah, he avails himself of different models taken from theosophical literature to explain things,” Mr. Glauber-Zimra said. “It could be that he’s just borrowing this contemporary language as a way of accessing readers who presumed to be familiar with that literature but less familiar with the traditional Jewish Kabbalistic literature — but it’s an interesting idea that a Jewish thinker writing in Hebrew would want to avail himself of these non-Jewish occult teachings to better reach his Hebrew-reading audience.”

The Hebrew advertisement below asks “Are you interested in spiritualism?” For Hillel Zeitlin, left, the answer was yes. (Courtesy Sam Glauber-Zimra)

But Mr. Glauber-Zimra said that late in his life, Mr. Zeitlin wrote a review in a Warsaw Hebrew newspaper of a book published in Jerusalem in 1935 “that draws on all sorts of parapsychological and occult literature about clairvoyance and prophecy to make an argument that prophecy is real. Zeitlin basically says that this book is the groundwork for a new science of religion. So he was clearly interested in what this had to offer.”

Hillel Zeitlin was Mr. Glauber-Zimra’s gateway into Eastern European esoteric thought, but other, more secular Jewish writers also imbibed from esotericism. “Quite a few Yiddish writers — Isaac Bashevis Singer is the best known but also quite a few others — drew upon occult ideas to be a surrogate metaphysics, even if they themselves were not committed to traditional Jewish practice,” he said. “Occult beliefs were a way for them to preserve their traditional beliefs but on a different footing.

“I think that speaks to something today. Judaism and Jews are in constant dialogue with whatever cultural trends are popular at any given moment. Spirit communication is certainly out of line with the common understanding of Jewish law, but there were many people who practiced spiritualism who also cared about halacha. They found different loopholes and reasonings to argue that it was permitted.”

Given that transitions are a force leading people to embrace forms of spiritualism, and given that Israel is a place with many people who recently moved there and faced major cultural transitions, is there a similar phenomenon of esotericism in modern Israel?

“Yes, there is really a tremendous amount of interest in Israel in all sorts of New Age things,” Mr. Glauber-Zimra said. “The term New Age is really a fairly direct continuation of these different early 20th century occult currents that I study. The term New Age was coined in the 1920s, even though it was only popularized in the 1960s and ’70s. In contemporary Israel, there’s tremendous interest in Sufism, in Buddhism, in all sorts of Indian meditations. There’s also a lot of interest in different sorts of psychological theories of self-development. It’s very popular to go to workshop retreats for a week do some sort of mind development — both for people living in the religious world, and also people who living within the more secular world.

“This can really be traced back to Margot Klausner, an early popularizer of Israeli New Age alternative spirituality who was also a pioneer of the Israeli film industry. She was born in Germany and moved to Palestine, I believe in the 1930s. Starting in the 1950s she had a spiritualist circle that met in her home in Tel Aviv and held regular seances. In the 1960s she founded an organization, the Israeli Parapsychological Association. And she had a magazine, Olam Hamistorin, Mystery World, in which she popularized all sorts of different beliefs. She held a tremendous number of lectures and retreats to popularize seances and astrology and meditation and yoga and stuff like that.”

Has all of this study of spiritualists and seances changed Mr. Glauber-Zimra?

“It’s made me much more interested in hearing about other people’s perhaps unconventional or heterodox beliefs and practices,” he said. “In the past, I would be more skeptical or critical. Now, I think I have a greater appreciation for the psychological forces and the social conditions that lead people towards these sorts of things, even if I don’t think I’m interested in engaging with these practices on the personal level.

“I do have more sympathy for people who take up with different practices and beliefs that are commonly viewed as outside the mainstream.”

Save the Date
Who: Sam Glauber-Zimra
What: Talk, “Séances and Psychics in the Alter Heim: Jewish Occultism in Eastern Europe.”
When: Sunday, October 28, 10 a.m.
Where: Online on Zoom, courtesy of Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael; login details at rinat.org

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