“On the Hidden and the Concealed” An essay by Hillel Zeitlin in Translation

Introduced, Translated and Annotated by Sam Glauber, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Herzog College 

 

Can one “sense” the presence of the divine? How much value may one ascribe to the inner stirrings of the heart? What is the role of the intellect in coming to the true knowledge of God? These are amongst the questions that concerned Hillel Zeitlin (1871-1942), the Warsaw journalist, social critic, poet, philosopher, political activist, and mystic. “On the Hidden and the Concealed,” a short essay published in the spring of 1921, in the Hebrew literary journal Hatekufa, addresses these questions, while drawing upon a wide range of sources, both from within and outside of the traditional Jewish canon. The first section of the essay, discussing the nature of intuition, visionary experiences, and the ability to describe the spiritual in physical terms, is presented here in translation for the first time.

Born into a family of Chabad Hasidim, Zeitlin, like many of his contemporaries, was religiously devout as a youth before experiencing a crisis of faith and foregoing traditional observance. Forced to leave his home due to economic difficulties, the teenage Zeitlin intensively devoted himself to an autodidactic program of study, mastering the entire canon of Jewish and Western philosophy and literature, while beginning to make his mark in the world of Hebrew belles-lettres. Having published full length studies on Spinoza and the question of evil while still in his twenties, Zeitlin  soon after began a slow return to traditional observance, coinciding with his assuming a position as a journalist in Warsaw in 1907. Publishing prolifically up until his tragic death in the Holocaust, Zeitlin wrote about the issues of his day, as well as works on Hasidic thought, kabbalah, and philosophy.

With his long beard and Hasidic dress, Zeitlin struck an unconventional figure in the largely secular world of the Warsaw literati. Sensing himself to be caught between two worlds, he strove endlessly to incorporate diverse streams of thought into his syncretic weltanschauung. Unapologetically turning to Nietzsche in order to explain the kabbalistic doctrine of “the breaking of the vessels,” he likewise translated sections of the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu text, into biblical Hebrew, in order that his Jewish readers “take sight of the spirit of humanity surging upwards in its desire to remove the mask from creation and behold the face of God.”

It is in such a spirit of religious syncretism, grounded always in Zeitlin’s mother tongue of Jewish mysticism, that “On the Hidden and the Concealed” was written. What begins as a classic kabbalistic exposition of the sequence of intellectualization, in the model of Chabad theology, swiftly moves beyond the biblical verses initially cited and develops into a much broader exposition. Zeitlin was a prolific reader, and he quotes from the writings of the German romantic poet Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) and American Christian spiritualist Ralph Waldo Trine (1866-1958). Further on, in the second section of the essay, not presented here, he refers to the works of Johann Chrysostom Magnenus (1590-1679), famed for his study on the medical benefits of tobacco, Justinus Kerner (1786-1862), a physician who treated the possessed, and Baron Carl Du Prel (1839-1899), a German occultist, as well as the recently published studies of Sigmund Freud (whom he accused of being overly selective in presenting proofs for his theories).

A few words about the publication history of “On the Hidden and the Concealed”: The original appearance of the essay in 1921 was accompanied by a note stating that the essay was, in fact, an excerpt from a larger, forthcoming, study, tentatively titled “On the Mystery.” Zeitlin noted that the essay was being published now as a response to the critics of his “Book of Visions,” his mystical dream diary, a small section of which had already been published in Hatekufa  in 1919 as “Between Two Worlds.” Like many hinted-to Zeitlin projects, neither of these larger works were ever published. “On the Hidden and the Concealed” did reappear in 1928 as part of a work titled “The Book of the Elite,” a guidebook for a religious fraternity Zeitlin hoped to found, which itself was later republished in 1979 as part a larger collection of essays of the same title.

I would like to conclude with a quote from Aaron Zeitlin, Hillel Zeitlin’s son and the only member of the extended family to survive the Holocaust. Speaking about his father in an interview years later, the younger Zeitlin recalled, “At first, my father, like everyone else, was a follower of Nietzsche. Until he turned that goy into a Jew, naturally.” The same holds true for the other non-Jewish sources Zeitlin incorporated into his mystical doctrine.

Hillel Zeitlin was a man of spirit, deeply rooted in the mystical path of Judaism, who nevertheless felt comfortable turning to other religious and intellectual traditions in order to understand his religious experiences. While he wrote this essay nearly one hundred years ago, all of us today stand to learn something from the example Zeitlin set for us, that even as practicing Jews, we may still draw from sources outside our religious canon, as we each find our own path to God.

I maintain a blog, “Between Two Worlds,” devoted to sharing the thought of Zeitlin and other modern mystics, where I periodically upload annotated translations from Zeitlin, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and various other Hasidic masters.

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On the Hidden and the Concealed

By Hillel Zeitlin

Translated and Annotated by Sam Glauber

 

  1. Hidden Senses

When we wish to accentuate that which we perceive with the intellect, to emphasize it and make it pronounced, we make use of imagery taken from our sensory faculties.

Wisdom — “And my heart has seen much wisdom and knowledge” (Ecclesiastes 1:16); understanding — “My ear has heard and understood” (Job 13:1); differentiation — “For the ear probes words as the palate tastes in eating” (ibid. 34:3); sensing the good — “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalms 34:9); study and knowledge — “Come, partake of my bread” (Proverbs 9:5); longings for God — “My soul thirsts for God” (Psalms 42:3); closeness to God — “Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water, even if you have no money; Come, buy food and eat: buy food without money, wine and milk without cost.” (Isaiah 55:1)

These expressions are not, as others have thought, mere figurative speech. Rather, they are exact representations derived from the external senses in order to be applied to the intellect and inner senses.

Hokhma (wisdom) [1] — the very essence of cognition, its primary component, its root, its source, the headwaters, the formless matter within it, the most concentrated essence, its static position spreading neither lengthily nor broadly, with neither progeny nor descendants; the trunk devoid of the many boughs which branch off from it; the wellsprings without the great river which flows from it.

Hokhma — the idea at its initial revelation. Or rather: as we sense within us that a new light has been revealed before us — this is the lightning flash. This inner cognitive sensation corresponds precisely to the sense of sight. A person sits in darkness. Suddenly, lightning flashes and they see. A new idea has been revealed suddenly in the soul — the vision of wisdom,

Bina (understanding) —“Deriving ideas from within ideas”. The thought expands, deepens, spreads, brings forth branches, flowers, leaves, and fruit, progeny and further descendants; the unified entity divides into divisions and subdivisions; the unfathomable, general, formless idea receives form, and in its particular entities — many forms (“Bina renders forms” in the kabbalah). The spring flowing out from the Holy of Holies of Hokhma expands into a broad river (“The breadth of the river”). [2]

This inner cognitive sensation corresponds precisely with the sense of hearing. Sight is in proximity, hearing is from a distance. “Hearing cannot be compared to seeing.” (cf. Talmud Babli Rosh Hashana 25b) To see is to grasp the matter; hearing is but an echo. A person sits here and hears that which reaches their ears. The thing is, as it were, at a distance from its root, tumbling down until it reaches the ear drum of the listener. Bina is the idea as it becomes distanced from the source, growing and flourishing. “One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard.” (Psalms 62:12)

Da’at (knowledge) — the affixing of the idea, setting it in stone, finalizing it, clarifying it. At times — the determination to actualize it. From this we have “fixed opinions” [de’ot kevuot]. From this we have “composure” [yishuv ha’da’at]. The idea is comprehensive and thoroughly grasped. This inner cognitive sensation corresponds both to taste and to touch.

“Know [da`] the God of your father, and serve Him.”(1 Chronicles 28:9) — Da’at which is actualized. “Your father ate and drank…He judged the cause of the poor and needy; Then it was well. Is not this to know [ha’da’at] Me? Declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 22:15-16) — Da’at as conduct.

From Daat as referring to the physical union (“And Adam knew Eve his wife (Genesis 4:1)) comes its usage as referring to spiritual union — “Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the LORD alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other.” (Deuteronomy 4:39)

The innermost moods of the soul also correspond precisely to the external senses. “If we desire,” writes Schlegel [3] in The Philosophy of Life, and Philosophy of Language, In a Course of Lectures, “to find once more in the alphabet of the human consciousness, which furnishes the several elements out of which syllables and then words are framed, and in which God himself is the keystone, the first element of all man’s higher knowledge, it is incumbent upon us to perceive the stirrings of the spirit as the living center of our human consciousness and uniting point of the transcendent…Now it is usual to designate faith, hope, and love as the fundamental feelings of the eternal. If we apprehend these fundamental feelings, or properties, or states of the consciousness, as so many organs for the cognition or the perception, or, if the term be preferred, for the suggestion of the divine, then we must, in this respect and relatively to their different modes of apprehension, compare them with the external senses and their organs. Thus love, in its first soul-exciting contact, abiding attraction, and finally complete union, strikingly corresponds to the external sense of feeling. Faith is the inner ear of the spirit which is open to, catches up, and retains the imparted word of a higher revelation. Hope, however, is the eye, whose clear vision discerns, even in the remote distance, the objects of its profound and ardent longing.”

Every inner revelation, every inward gaze, every submergence into the depths of oneself, every glance beyond the screen of consciousness, every sudden spiritual emergence, all that we call “intuition” — this is in fact a concealed sense precisely parallel to the external sense of vision. The idea of intuition was nicely explained by one of the great American philosophers:

“Intuition is to the spiritual nature and understanding practically what sense perception is to the sensuous nature and understanding. It is an inner spiritual sense through which man is opened to the direct revelation and knowledge of God, the secrets of nature and life, and through which he is brought into conscious unity and fellowship with God, and made to realize his own deific nature and supremacy of being as the son of God. Spiritual supremacy and illumination thus realized through the development and perfection of intuition under divine inspiration, gives the perfect inner vision and direct insight into the character, properties, and purpose of all things to which the attention and interest are directed…It is, we repeat, a spiritual sense opening inwardly, as the physical senses open outwardly; and because it has the capacity to perceive, grasp, and know the truth at first hand, independent of all external sources of information, we call it intuition. All inspired teaching and spiritual revelations are based upon the recognition of this spiritual faculty of the soul, and its power to receive and appropriate them…Conscious unity of man in spirit and purpose with the Father, born out of his supreme desire and trust, opens his soul through this inner sense to immediate inspiration and enlightenment from the Divine Omniscience, and the co-operative energy of the Divine Omnipotence, under which he becomes a seer and a master.” [4]

To varying degrees, this intuition is the prerogative of true philosophers, of those who sing of the “Divine grace”, of the true artists, of all those who are elevated to great heights not by their fine technique but by the spirit within them which forms works of eternity. This intuition rescues them from errors and mistakes, shows them the current center of every thing — the place where heaven and earth doth kiss, opens before them broad and great horizons, brings them to soaring depths and the abyss of the underworld, unrolls before them the scroll of the world as they read uppermost thoughts.

Intuition is generally revealed in these ones as an inner feeling, as an inner truth which has no need for sight, as a thought or an image.

However, there are those, and these are very few, to whom intuition is exposed as a vision or visual or apparition. That which others merely think of feel, these ones see as though with their actual external eyes. That which comes to others as an abstraction or a hazy feeling, comes to these ones as something fully formed or coming into being in fine detail.

At first thought, this sort of perception is the hallmark of the mentally ill and is a false vision, for their sight is only a reflection of the external vision and imagination of an ill mind.

But true visions of this sort are also had by “the elite of few number”, “those who ascend to paradise”, “those who gaze upon the eye of the world”, and “the seekers of hidden treasures.” [5]

Materialist science and superficial idealism — satisfied by the formal metaphysical abstractions which they view to be the solutions to the riddles of the world — intentionally conflate these two types of visions: the vision of the mentally ill and the vision of the mystic; but in truth, the vision of the first type, the vision of the ill, is the product of an ill mind, while those of the second type, the mystical vision, is derived from intuition most deep, or more precisely, from the expectant gaze, which, when accompanied by an imagination rich in imagery and exalted aspirations, beholds the ultimate, inner, hidden truth, as well as deeds distant in both place and time, in living images, sometimes in allegory, and sometimes — in the true essence of apperception.

It is however, true, that one must exercise great caution when engaging in such revelations, for at times an incessant and overly intensive spiritual life can give rise to psychic phenomena which are not quite healthy. The superficial science notes these phenomena and lays down a judgement the very character of the revelations themselves, invalidating them. In truth, these are two distinct matters: revelations, on the one hand, and undesirable phenomena, on the other. The revelation arises from the source of truth, while the undesirable phenomena derive from excessive spiritual exertion, from the “destructive desire to ascend”, and “the vessels which could not bear the greatness of the light.” [6]

Therefore, all who sense within themselves a true (and not imagined nor ill) inclination towards the mystical, must always observe themselves, always critique themselves, to become accustomed to an inner groping and poking, in order that they may separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth vision from the apparition of the senses, the eternal — from the illusion which passes and is no more.

There are many levels within these revelations. Their beginning — the dream; their end — the true vision of the prophet of God. There are many rungs on Jacob’s ladder, “set against the ground with its top reaching the heavens.” (cf. Genesis 28:12)

Who shall ascend this ladder? Many “gazed and were damaged” (cf. Talmud Babli Hagigah 14b), many “brought their heads in between great mountains which crushed their skulls.” Many ascended several rungs, falling backwards and breaking their joints.

““Who shall go up on the mount of the Lord, and who shall stand up in His holy place? The clean of hands and the pure of heart…” (Psalms 24:3-4)

This ascent requires an individual who, aside from possessing tremendous natural intuition, lives with a pure life of great ideas, whose thoughts are ever attached to the true God.

 

[1] Over the course of the following paragraphs, Zeitlin presents the kabbalistic model of the formation of thought (Hokhma, Bina, and Da’at), as it proceeds from the most primal abstract point to a well-formed idea. Paradoxically, the more complex the development of the idea, the most removed it is from its more pure form. This model is most strongly adopted by Chabad Hasidim, whose movement takes its name from the acronym of the three aforementioned terms.

[2] “The breadth of the river” (Rehovot Ha’nahar) is the name of the kabbalistic siddur of R. Shalom Sharabi (1720-1777), which constituted a reworking of the existing system of complex prayer intentions innovated by R. Isaac Luria in the 16th century.

[3] Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) was a German poet, philosopher, and philologist. Together with his older brother, August Wilhelm Schlegel, he was a leading figure of the Romantic movement. The present translation is adapted from that of A.J.W. Harrison, published in 1847, pg. 451-452.

[4] Ralph Waldo Trine, In Tune with the Infinite (1897) pg. 39-40. Trine (1866-1958) was a leading figure of the American New Thought movement, which claimed amongst other things that the “Divine Mind” or “Infinite Intelligence” is everywhere, that all humans are spiritual beings, and that “mental states are carried forward into manifestation and become our experience in daily living.” The movement bears many similarities to Christian Science. In Tune with the Infinite enjoyed wide popularity throughout Europe and was translated into many languages.

[5] All of these idioms are classical references to mystics in the Jewish tradition.

[6] A reference to the Lurianic doctrine of the shattered vessels.