A Kabbalist Or Not?

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Great Torah scholars are human beings, with unique personalities and interests. It seems almost trivial to point out that genius in halakhic and talmudic texts does not imply, actually generally precludes, having a cookie-cutter personality. Going back in time and attempting to determine a great rabbi’s interests and influences can be quite complex. This became apparent in a recent scholarly debate about R. Yechezkel Landau, the great Noda Bi-Yehudah. By examining one relevant text, we might be able to evaluate one, if not all, the contrary claims.

In a recent book, The Kabbalistic Culture of Eighteenth Century Prague: Ezekiel Landau and His Contemporaries, Prof. Sharon Flatto argues that the Noda Bi-Yehudah was an active scholar of kabbalah. Prof. Alan Nadler skewered this book in a review in The Jewish Review of Books (link). Prof. Flatto published an angry rebuttal in the latest issue of the magazine and Prof. Nadler responded that she had not sufficiently answered his arguments (link).

The main texts and arguments under discussion are complex and well beyond my expertise. I would like to examine here one brief responsum of the Noda Bi-Yehudah (Tinyana, Yoreh De’ah 164 – link) that features into the discussion. While we cannot reach any conclusion from a single piece of evidence, we can perhaps gain an initial impression.

The question posed to R. Landau was regarding a deceased newborn who died and was buried before being circumcised. Should they disinter the baby’s corpse and circumcise him, according to the custom? R. Landau begins with a discussion of whether child under the age of twenty can be punished for being uncircumcised. The obligation of circumcision falls on every boy’s father and, if he fails, the boy himself. Regardless, R. Landau concludes, an infant is definitely not liable for sins and will not have his good deeds diminished in the afterlife.

He continues:

אך לפי דעת המקובלים וכן הסכימו גם המחקרים שיש גלגול נשמות אם כן בכל קטן שייך חרדת הדין על מעשיו בגלגול ראשון וניוון שייך בכל קטן כי לדעתי הנינוח נוגע גם לחיים שרואים סוף האדם לניוול כזה. ולכן לדעתי אם הוא תיכף סמוך לקבורתו שודאי עדיין לא נתנוול יש לפתוח הקבר למולו שממ״נ אם לא היה מגולגל א״כ אין בו חרדת הדין ואם כבר היה מגולגל ועתיד עכ״פ לקום בתח״ה אם לחיי עולם או ח״ו לדראון עכ״פ הערלה חרפה היא לו וטוב למולו. אבל אם הוא איזה ימים אחר מותו אין לפתוח הקבר שלא לראות בניוולו.

However, according to the Kabbalists, and the Philosophers (mechakrim) also agree, that there is transmigration of the souls, therefore with every child there is fear of judgment for his sins in the first life (gilgul)…

What does R. Landau mean that according to the Kabbalists and Philosophers there is a concept of gilgul neshamos? While philosophers debate the issue (see this article: link), it is a fundamental principle of Lurianic Kabbalah. Yet R. Landau seems to distance himself from it. He doesn’t show any hint of rejecting it and even uses it as his sole reason to require digging up the baby and circumcising him. However, he writes like someone who is not particularly interested in such matters. Authoritative people — Kabbalists and Philosophers, among which he is not counted — assure him that this is a valid Jewish concept and he takes them at their word. He rules based on this concept but quickly, it seems, returns to the Talmud and Codes where his true interests lie.

After reading this responsum, it is hard to believe that R. Landau was an enthusiastic Kabbalist. It is not decisive but I think it creates a much higher burden of proof for the claim. But this is based on a single text. I leave the broader analysis to scholars like Profs. Flatto and Nadler.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. I can’t keep up with deleting the inappropriate comments so I am closing this thread. Sorry but no more comments.

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