Thinking about the ineffable

Thinking about the ineffable

Eitan Fishbane offers a podcast and an online course in Jewish mysticism

Eitan Fishbane
Eitan Fishbane

It’s hard to be complacent in the world as it is right now. There’s too much to think about, too much to live through, too much to come to terms with, to allow for comfortable disengagement.

That’s in part why Eitan Fishbane’s specialty, Jewish mysticism, is particularly appealing now, Dr. Fishbane said.

“I think that we are living in a time of intense spiritual questing and searching for meaning,” he said. “One of the core elements that I see in Jewish mysticism is the attempt, by kabbalists and by mystics, to argue that there is a deeper spiritual dimension to reality, to the Torah, and to human life than meets the eye at the surface level. To the sense that there is a deeper spiritual meaning to life, and that part of the meaning of life is the discovery of the presence of the Divine in unexpected places, and also the training of the mind and the heart and the soul to be attuned and aligned to the markers, in our earthly word and in the Torah, that point to the inner mysteries of divinity.”

Dr. Fishbane, who lives in Teaneck, is a professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he specializes in kabbalah and chasidism, and “teaches courses on aspects of Jewish spirituality, Jewish theology, and Jewish mysticism,” he said. “My research has focused on the Zohar as mysticism and literature, and the meeting of mysticism and literature, and other sorts of mystical experiences.” Although he teaches about Jewish mysticism, he always includes “a comparative dimension of religious studies, situating it in the larger study of religion,” he added.

Dr. Fishbane, who is marking his 18th year at JTS — “the end of my chai year of what has been a very meaningful and fulfilling time of teaching and writing in a community of fellow colleagues, with conversations about all kinds of deep ideas and new perspectives, and with wonderful students” — has made some of his teaching about mysticism available to the world outside the seminary.

He’s made a seven-episode podcast, “Exploring Kabbalah,” that’s available on JTS’s website,, and he’s about to begin an online course, “Mystics on the Parashah and the path to Shavuot” — this one’s not through JTS — that will begin on May 6 and go through June 3.

The podcast “is short form, but they’re dense,” Dr. Fishbane said. “They range from 12 to 18-plus minutes, and they are my take on the history of Jewish mysticism.

“Their intended audience is the broad Jewish — or for that matter non-Jewish — public. It’s substantive in terms of ideas, but it doesn’t presume any background.” In other words, it’s for smart people who may or may not have a solid background in Jewish thought.

“It’s the history of Jewish mysticism, its big ideas, and some foundational examples, from the Hebrew Bible to the rabbinic era to the origins of kabbalah in medieval Europe. There’s also an episode on the Zohar, and one on meditative kabbalah. That one’s not a guided meditation, but it’s about various kabbalists who spoke explicitly about mystical experiences and intention in prayer. There’s an episode on the renaissance and revival of Jewish mysticism in the 16th century, about HaAri, Isaac Luria, and others. The last episode is on chasidic mysticism.

“So it’s both a historical sweep and about recurring thought lines.”

The other course, aimed more at rabbis and other Jewish thinkers, will be more text-based; although Dr. Fishbane will translate as he goes, it would be useful to understand the Hebrew, he said. It will be live on Monday afternoons, from 2 to 3:15, and it’ll also be recorded. (It’s helpful for rabbis to have such parashah-focused programs on Mondays, he said; it allows the ideas they discuss to percolate in their heads as they prepare to write their divrei Torah in the next few days.)

It’s the third such series he’s offered. The first one was in October, he said. “It was weird. We had started, and then October 7 happened. It was a very meaningful experience, but everyone was carrying so much weight.”

This new session has a built-in spiritual component as it moves through the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. Sefirat haOmer — the counting of the Omer, which begins on the second evening of Pesach and culminates with the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, “is the preparation of the spiritual self to receive the Torah into our hearts, minds, and souls,” Dr. Fishbane said. “Tikkun leil Shavuot” — the all-night-long Torah learning that begins on erev Shavuot — “was a mystical invention, based in part on the Zohar, that has its own part in the mystical imagination.”

So why mysticism?

Paraphrasing Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dr. Fishbane said that mysticism “takes us to a consciousness of mystery, a consciousness of the ineffable, a consciousness of wonder.”

It leads to a state of mind that’s hard to discuss straightforwardly. “Like with poetry, like with great art, I can’t always put it into rational, analytical words, but these states of mind and heart open the person to mysterious wonder and the spiritual depth of divine being that permeate the cosmos, permeate our world, and fill our experience.”

Jews often feel “a curiosity, a yearning to find spiritual nourishment and inspiration within Jewish experience,” he added. “And another core element is the idea that many mystics argue — and most Jewish mystics claim — that all of reality, all being, is one. It is all interconnected. And that unity is God. That’s essentially a kind of pantheism, in a positive sense. All is God.

“Mystics fundamentally believe and feel, with their whole selves, that God fills everything, and that God is the oneness of everything. Our fragmented experiences of separateness in the world, of the manifold nature of reality, which can have its own great beauty, is also at a deeper level, interconnected.

“As an early teacher of mine said, where I thought there were many, there’s really just the one.”

Dr. Fishbane has discussed this and much more in his new podcast series, and he will delve far more deeply into it in his online course.

Learn more about his podcast series at — the easiest way to find it is to search for podcasts. Learn more about his online course on his website,

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