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Ora Wiskind

Mysticism | October 27, 2020

Listen to “Dr. Ora Wiskind: How do you Read a Mystical Text? [Mysticism 2/3]” on Spreaker.

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we sit down with Dr. Ora Wiskind, professor and author, to discuss her life journey, both as a Jew and as an academic, and her attitude towards mysticism.

Ora grew up in a Reform family in Ohio, receiving a top-notch secular education but a minimal Jewish one. After studying in France and Germany she found herself in Israel, eventually becoming Orthodox despite her rebellious nature. With her background in literature, she has contributed unique, hermeneutic perspectives on some Hasidic masters, like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, and continues to break new ground with her scholarship on mysticism.

What are mysticism and rationalism, and what are the appeals of both mindsets? How did someone with Ora’s background end up writing about the mystical works of Rebbe Nachman? How has her background in literature influenced her writings? How does she approach her work as a religious academic, where she must stay objective about the content she studies despite it giving her religious inspiration? And how has being an Orthodox woman shaped her career? Tune in to hear Ora Wiskind discuss mysticism in the modern world and its relation to her academic work.

For more, visit https://18forty.org/mysticism/#wiskind.

TRANSCRIPT

David Bashevkin:

Welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where each month we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring Jewish mysticism. This is part of a larger exploration, so be sure to check out 18Forty.org, where you can find videos, articles, and recommended readings. There’s a great psychological writer named Irvin Yalom who has a whole host of books that I absolutely love. He describes himself as an existential psychologist. I’ve recommended the introduction to his book, Love’s Executioner, just the introduction. The stories are great, but the introduction is mind-blowingly profound, in my opinion, and he always writes that the opening question that a psychologist asks is really important in terms of eliciting the correct response to know how to treat the person.

David Bashevkin:

So the question he opens up with as a psychologist, and I just love the thought experiment: if you were a psychologist, what would your opening question be when you meet somebody? And the question that Irvin Yalom opens up with is, “What ails? What ails you?” Meaning ail, “What’s hurting you?” That usually gets the conversation going to know how to treat the person. Anybody who’s either ever been to a therapist or knows anything about therapy is that the response to that question of “What ails?” can go in a thousand different directions, and the focus of the psychologist could be a host of different points depending on the school of psychology.

David Bashevkin:

There are some psychologists who are going to make most of their focus on the behavioral dysfunction – What is it that is preventing you from leading a successful life? You’re not able to focus, you’re sweating, you’re nervous. – and figure out what’s going on there. Other psychologists may focus on what’s going on present-day in your life. What changes have been happening. Other psychologists may look at the family history, meaning what ailments, what mental health issues do your parents, grandparents, siblings, great-grandparents, what do they have? That’s going to be the key to unlock it.

David Bashevkin:

And finally, there are some psychologists, definitely analysts, more Freudian analysts, who are really going to dig deep and try to confront the subconscious and ask you about your dreams and your early childhood. What was it like growing up as a young child in your house, and relationships that you may have had with caregivers, with a father, with a mother? All of these questions I think are valid, and the great psychologists are certainly interdisciplinary, and they’re using mixed methods, and using all of these, but I’ve always looked at these different schools as a parallel in many ways in which the questions we use to approach a text, or even approach our own lives.

David Bashevkin:

In the tradition of Jewish thought, there is this four-part approach to interpretation known as “pardes”, which literally means “a garden,” and it’s an acronym for four schools of interpretation. Pey Resh Daled Samech in Hebrew, “pardes,” corresponds to pey being “pshat,” the – I don’t like the word “literal,” but the initial reading of the text, it doesn’t mean necessarily literal, but it means that first approach, the basic, the plain meaning. I think that’s the way that it’s best interpreted, the plain meaning of the text. There is a second level of interpretation, which is the resh in “pardes,” which is “remez,” which is allegorical, which is thinking, how does this text correspond, or it’s an allegory for some larger ideas? The third, the daled, in “pardes” is “drash,” which is the interpretive… I’m trying to find the right word for this, “drash” literally means to seek. It’s the reconciliatory approach, it’s what’s trying to iron out the contradictions and difficulties that may arise in a text and come to that deeper, plain meaning of the text. And then finally, the samech in “pardes” corresponds to “sod,” meaning secret, which usually corresponds to the mystical reading of the text. In those underlying, deep, deep parts of the iceberg that you may not even consider in more ancillary plain meaning of the text.

David Bashevkin:

And I think that these multiple levels of interpretation play out, not just when we approach a text, but it plays out when we approach our lives and relationships. You could walk into a psychologists office and you can give a pshat, a plain answer, for what ails, what’s going on. I’m nervous when I wake up in the morning. And obviously you can go deeper and say, “Well, I think it’s because I’m worried about my job, I’m worried about what’s going on, I’m worried about my stability in the workplace.” Then you can go a little bit deeper, that’s plain meaning, and then building in that allegory of, what are the larger correspondences that you have because of those feelings? And then you could start the world of drash, which is really to sink and find those contradictions. Where do you feel comfortable? Why do you feel uncomfortable specifically in this area in life? Maybe your family life is going well.

David Bashevkin:

So you start to dig deeper until ultimately there is this subconscious. Well not everybody may think that you can actually ascertain it and grab it through therapy, but there’s no question that there are these larger, unseen icebergs in our emotional lives. That secret that is hard to express, hard to find, hard to discover, but that animates everything that we do, and these different levels of interpretation, and the great Rav Tzadok Hakohen MiLublin says, among many, many other thinkers, the same way that there are lenses to understand an approach, literary text and Torah text, there are also levels of interpretation in which we approach and interpret the very feelings and ideas that animate our own lives.

David Bashevkin:

And that is why I am so excited for my conversation today with Ora Wiskind. Ora Wiskind is an incredibly renowned writer and thinker. She’s an assistant professor at the Lander Institute of Jewish Studies at Michlalah. She has an MA in comparative literature and a PhD in Hebrew literature. She’s taught in many universities, she’s written several books, which we have links to, on the Hasidic world of Izhbitz. She’s written on Rebbe Nachman MiBreslov. She was a finalist for the Jewish Book of the Year, I’ve forgotten which category, for her book published by Littmann called Hasidic Commentary on the Torah.

David Bashevkin:

She has an absolutely amazing, amazing story, and I wish for all of her renown in writing that she was more well known in the United States, more well known in America. She is such a unique thinker in the world of mysticism. She writes on an academic level of the highest order, but I know her personally, and I’m always so deeply moved by this very palpable sensitivity, sweetness. Almost, dare I say, a fragility, like there’s something incredibly precious about her personality and how she approaches ideas. A softness, I don’t know that I’m using any of the right adjectives, but you meet her once and you say, “This person is different. This person is special.” There’s something that is animating her work and the decisions of her life that is really different than what you see, certainly with other academics. She happens to be an observant woman who has an incredible story of her own that we get into. She came to observance much later in life and became an academic, and her academic books still have this sense of mystery and wonder and reverence to the world of Chassidus and mysticism and Kabbalah that sometimes gets lost in academic studies, though it still has the sophistication, the substance, and the depth that you would very much come to expect from that world of academia.

David Bashevkin:

If I could just, before we begin the conversation, read one thing that she writes in the introduction to her book Hasidic Commentary on the Torah – again, such a wonderful book – but this is what she writes: “What is it really that the Hasidic masters are trying to interpret? True, their sermons are filled with words from sacred texts, which they read and transform in endlessly creative ways, yet the meaning they convey and the experiences that concern them go far beyond the verse. They come to bear on the most fundamental aspects of being. Here, Paul Ricoeur’s work enabled me to think about Hasidic teaching in a wider context. Ricoeur,” and I don’t know that I’m pronouncing his last name correctly. I am hoping and praying that I am but there’s no guarantees. It’s spelled R-I-C-O-E-U-R. Again, Paul Ricoeur, “taught that human experience is inherently interpretive. Throughout our lives, we engage in creative dialogue in our search for meaning. Hermeneutics, or the work of interpretation for Ricoeur, is not confined to text, nor to authors of texts: its primary concern is with the worlds which these authors and texts open up. It is by an understanding of the worlds, actual and possible, opened up by language, that we may arrive at a better understanding of ourselves.”

David Bashevkin:

I think that’s such a moving paragraph, and really speaks to the totality of her works, which open up the world of Hasidic interpretation, uses a lot of methodology of literary analysis to understand it, but with a deep reverence for the authors and the ideas that they come to transmit. That’s why I am so excited to speak with a personal mentor of mine, and to explore the world of mysticism, and how the methodology of interpretation can help open up those worlds, both possible and actual, not only in the text, but in our lives. It is my great pleasure to introduce my conversation with Dr. Ora Wiskind. Thank you so much for joining today.

Ora Wiskind:

Thank you for having me.

David Bashevkin:

It really means a great deal to have you, and I’m so excited to have a conversation today both about your scholarship and your life. I want to begin with a quote that I read from you to couch a little bit of what I hope to discuss today, and that is something you wrote about your work studying Rebbe Nachman. Let me just get it right in front of me, you write that to strike a balance between solid scholarly work with the documentation and implicit dialogue with contemporary research, it requires a personal, honest, and engagement with details, their author, and the spiritual and religious matrix that gave birth to them. And I love that idea about implicit dialogue between the work and the scholarship and the author’s own life story. That’s what I want to begin talking about, is that implicit dialogue that exists between your incredible work on Hasidut and mysticism, and the implicit dialogue with your own story, because you have such a fascinating story. Maybe we could begin with where you were born and raised and what your upbringing was like, because you were not raised in a Hasidic home.

Ora Wiskind:

I have to say that I’ve spent most of my life hiding in the ivory tower of academia, and it’s only in recent years that I’ve started to realize that there are other things or ways that I could do something in the world that includes something about who I am in addition to my scholarship. So first, I’d really like to thank you for the opportunity to be here and to speak with you and even to think about what kind of answers I might be able to come up with to some of the questions you’re asking me.

Ora Wiskind:

So I guess, yeah, in terms of background, I truthfully didn’t realize how unusual my background was until people started asking me about it. I was born in the Midwest, I grew up in Ohio, my family is Reform, I had a basic Reform education, which wasn’t much of a Jewish education. I went to a secular school, a high-achieving school, but one that obviously didn’t have any kind of religious content or Jewish content at all. In high school, I just had a regular humanities curriculum like everybody else did, and I went to college – I went to Northwestern in Illinois – and I started out in psychology and then I moved to literature. I guess, in terms of formative experiences, I could certainly mention that my junior year I spent in France, in Paris. I studied at The Sorbonne –

David Bashevkin:

If I could just interject, at this point, you are… Would it be fair to describe you as a fairly typical unaffiliated Jew? Were you engaged at this point as a college student with your Jewish identity? Was that something you thought about, religious ideas?

Ora Wiskind:

That’s a good question. No. I don’t think there’s anything very typical about me at all, but I certainly wasn’t affiliated with anyone or anything. I think I was very much of a loner intellectually in every environment that I was in, in high school, in college. I didn’t ever feel like I had contact with people who understood me or who had the same kind of interests as I did. I was a real bookworm, I read philosophy and I read literature. And I had a lot of questions, not iconoclastic kind of questions or anything like that, I didn’t have any kind of a religious framework to rebel against. So I see that now as a huge blessing that I was able to build myself in a non-oppositional kind of way. But I had a lot of questions, and really not, the only sort of spiritual sustenance that I found at that time in my life was in art, and in literature, and in philosophy, and intellectual ideas, which for me was very rich. I didn’t feel that poverty laid there, I was more, the spiritual poverty that I suffered more from was American life, or lack of direction, values, meaning, which I found very oppressive.

David Bashevkin:

Where did you turn at this point? We’ll get into the evolution of your life and scholarship, but just dwelling on this moment for a second, what type of literary works were you finding some sort of spiritual sustenance from at this point in your life?

Ora Wiskind:

It’s actually interesting. I mean, all the existentialists, you know, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, it was very dark, it was a very dark period of my life. Nietzsche, that kind of thing. But also, Alice in Wonderland, I think that was the first, interestingly, Alice in Wonderland is a very profound book in terms of hermeneutics, and that was when I discovered that there are these depths in literature. So there was also –

David Bashevkin:

It’s so interesting you say that. I was absolutely obsessed with Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dodgson, as a high schooler. I’m also into art, and I used to charcoal. I think it was John Tenniel who did the original artwork in the first publication of Alice in Wonderland. I would sketch the caterpillar character with his hookah, and all this stuff, I love the magical world. I just, as an aside, you should know, aside from Kafka’s more explicit connections to the world of mysticism that we’ll get into a second I was so struck. I one time visited the main Chabad library in 770, the historic Chabad library, and I went to wash my hands at the, they have a little sink and a hand washing station, and I looked, and they have the original tilings that have been there since before the Frierdiker, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, moved in there. And on the walls of the Chabad library are woodcuts from Alice in Wonderland. The mystical undertones of that book, if you believe in that sort of stuff, must have had some, by divine providence, wound up on the walls of the library at 770, which I got an absolute kick out of.

Ora Wiskind:

That’s a great story.

David Bashevkin:

So at this point, you were enamored with these existentialist, absurdist, fantastical ideas in Kafka, Nietzsche, and in Alice in Wonderland.

Ora Wiskind:

I don’t know, I wouldn’t say that I was enamored with them, I would say more I was, they were part of… I was searching. I mean, that was the motif of my life for most of it. I was searching, and those were some places that I searched because I had some sense that there were depths there that I didn’t see in other places. But it was more, now when I think about it, it was more like the honesty that I found there in naming and describing difficult aspects of life. I mean, I have a blessed life, I didn’t suffer at all in any sense compared to the vast majority of Jewish people through the course of history, I didn’t suffer from anything. But, I guess a soul can have its own suffering regardless of the external surroundings, and that was where I identified more, I guess, with these kinds of sources. But some –

David Bashevkin:

A more quiet, internal form of suffering, I assume you’re referring to.

Ora Wiskind:

Right, right. Mm-hmm.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. So tell me, the big shift in your life, at some point, where you are now, I certainly, I remember the first time you had mentioned this to me, very casually, “Oh, I’m actually from Ohio.” I fell off my chair. So how did a girl from Ohio wind up in the world of academic scholarship of Chassidus? When was that turning point?

Ora Wiskind:

Well, actually there were quite a few turns in the road. So as I was saying, after I finished high school, I went to college, and then my third year of college I spent in Paris. That was an eye-opening experience for me, I discovered at the time as an American this whole other layer of history, older than American history, and our religion – Christianity of course, not Judaism – but architecture and traditions and European culture, which much more corresponded, I guess, with my own internal language. I had felt very, very alienated in the United States, and when I left, when I was in Europe, I felt much more at home.

David Bashevkin:

That’s so interesting.

Ora Wiskind:

So then I finished that year, I came back to the States, I finished my degree, and then after that I left again for Europe. At the time I was thinking that I wanted to do a doctorate in comparative literature. I needed a second language, I only knew French and English, so I went to Germany. I had a teacher in college, a man who very much influenced me, Erich Heller, who is actually an Austrian Jewish Holocaust survivor, which I didn’t know at the time. He taught [foreign language]. He was a true man of culture, and so I wanted to learn German. So I went to an Ulpan in Bremen in the north part of Germany, and then I went to Heidelberg, where there’s a university, and I started studying German there.

Ora Wiskind:

While I was in Heidelberg, Hashem has his ways of guiding people in certain directions, it was a total unexpected kind of a event. I found this Jewish, very small – I found a shul, actually. I was walking on the street one day Erev Shabbat and I saw this Jewish star, and I walked into the courtyard, and there was a shul there. It was a very, very elderly community, mostly of survivors, but there were a few young people there. Then I found out that there was a college of Jewish studies within Heidelberg University. So I started taking some classes there. I met some other wonderful people, professors who were on a sabbatical in Germany from Israel. The man who really changed my life was Yehoshua Amir. He’s the translator of the Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption, he translated it from German to Hebrew, and he was at the time was in his 70s, lovely, lovely man, and I started learning with him.

David Bashevkin:

I just want to interrupt because as you were telling your story about walking aimlessly into a shul, and you weren’t, at that point in your life, if I understand correctly, somebody who was careful not to miss davening during the day.

Ora Wiskind:

I didn’t know what davening was.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, actually, as you said that I’m like, it sounds like Rosenzweig’s conversion story. It sounds like that Yom Kippur moment of being pulled into your own heritage, it reaching out and grabbing you. That’s so fascinating that your introduction was the person who translated Rosenzweig’s very book. So at that point, were you starting to make changes in the very way you were living at that point or –

Ora Wiskind:

No. No, not at all, I moved very, very slowly. I was very nonconformist, and I refused to let anyone influence me in any way that I didn’t want to be influenced. So at that point it was really, I started learning, I didn’t know anything really about anything. So that year I started learning Jewish texts, I learned Kuzari with Professor Amir and Rosenzweig, and a little bit of Medrish.

David Bashevkin:

You already had a proficiency in Hebrew at this point?

Ora Wiskind:

No. No, no. No not at all.

David Bashevkin:

Remarkable.

Ora Wiskind:

But I was learning German. So I think that I actually learned Rosenzweig in German. I must have spoken with Amir in German too. My German got pretty good during that year. Anyway, so at the end of the year, that was my big decision where to go. So I had applied to a few universities in the States and I was rejected. First time in my life I’d been rejected for anything, because I wanted to do Jewish studies and I really didn’t have any background in Jewish studies and that’s why I wasn’t accepted. So friends of mine, and Yehoshua Amir, among them, told me I should just come to Israel. So that was the turning point, that instead of going back to the States at the end of that summer, I came to Israel.

David Bashevkin:

Wow. And in Israel, that’s when –

Ora Wiskind:

It also took a long time, at first I didn’t know Hebrew, so I lived in a dorm at Hebrew University, and I started going to Ulpan, and I spent a whole year learning Hebrew, and then I started going to classes at the university. Then I made Aliyah a year after that, but I wasn’t shomer mitzvot yet. It took a long time, because I felt like I didn’t want to go… I didn’t just want to go the regular way that other people did things, I had to do it my way. So it took a long time.

David Bashevkin:

Just to return back, where you are now, do you still have connections in Ohio? Do you still have family there who you’re in touch with? How did this change affect your relationship with your family? I mean it’s such a drastic transformation.

Ora Wiskind:

I mean, I’m, baruch Hashem, my father still lives in Ohio, and my mother’s not alive, and my siblings live in the States, no one lives in Ohio, they live in other parts of the country, and I have contact with all of them, we’re good siblings. Their lifestyle is probably much more similar to my parents than mine is, but yeah, they’re very supportive.

David Bashevkin:

So at what point, at this point you’re obviously more engaged, you’ve learned Hebrew, and I am always fascinated by the personalities who are drawn to certain strands of Chassidus. There are generalists, and then I find that there are two strands of Chassidus which are certainly related, that generate a particular personality who’s interested in them. Maybe you’ve already described that personality. It’s something that I identify with a great deal, and those are the schools of Breslov, of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, and the school of Izhbitz started by Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner. This very initiative is called 18Forty, and so much of the reason why we called it 18Forty is because of the role and influence that Izhbitz had in my life and the significance of the year 1840. Even though technically, as you mentioned, it was 1839, but the significance – doesn’t have the same ring – but the significance that that year played in the beginning of that very controversial Hasidic movement, you were drawn to both of them. It feels like you hit all of the, you were immediately drawn not just to mysticism in general, or Chassidus, you found some of the most sophisticated and complex schools of Hasidic thought and were drawn to them. What brought you initially to Breslov?

Ora Wiskind:

First of all, it is totally an accident, or Hashgachah Pratit, that brought me to both of them, it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision. I started, I was drawn to Rav Nachman from the literary side of it. My doctorate was about his stories, the images in his stories and the literary elements and the dimension of the fantastic, that was the central part of the dissertation, and then it became my first book. So of all of the Hasidic masters, I guess, I think it’s universally recognized that Rav Nachman was the most, the one who was most extensively engaged in literary creativity. So that was a natural opening for me. My master’s thesis I wrote on German romantic short stories, and the comparison between those stories and Rav Nachman, which is what I tried to talk about was a similarity in terms of cultural atmosphere and other common elements. So then, when I moved from comparative literature to Hebrew literature, I carried on with Rav Nachman himself without that comparative element.

David Bashevkin:

How would you describe, in an interview you once gave, you described that Rebbe Nachman speaks Rebbe Nachman. He invented his own language of interpretation, and it’s a really, even more so than in his stories, in his methods of interpretation, it’s so ornate and seemingly tangential the way he strings pesukim together and Talmud together. How would you describe, what language was Rebbe Nachman trying to create?

Ora Wiskind:

I actually wrote about that a lot. I mean, his thinking is associative. Which is, creative thinking is always associative, that you have one idea and it leads you to another and it leads you to another. I guess the distinction between a successful artist and an unsuccessful one is if people can follow you. So Rav Nachman, I think part of the fascination that he arouses is because you can follow him, but it takes a lot of effort, and sometimes you don’t get it but it works anyway. So it’s that magic, really, that is very compelling.

Ora Wiskind:

What I tried to do in that first book was to trace the jumps that he made and find the sources that he was basing himself on, and then look closely at the dynamics of the associations, and understand, they’re not just flights of crazy fantasy, they’re really textually based. It was a lot of detective work, and it was a lot of really solid analytical thinking that enabled me to do it, but in the end I was able to do it because I understand how literature works. I felt that if that was, in a doctorate you’re supposed to contribute something to the field, and I felt that that was sort of a lacuna in existing scholarship on Rav Nachman at that time, that people had analyzed his work from many different points of view, but the literary aspect in the sense that I just described didn’t get a lot of attention.

David Bashevkin:

Turning the implicit dialogue that we began with in reference to your own life, and initially you were using it to describe Rebbe Nachman, I was wondering if you could talk more generally, and then specifically about Rebbe Nachman, about, how do you make sense of the personality of the mystical leaders like a Rebbe Nachman? How do you connect? Or how do you view their connection between the idiosyncrasies of their scholarship, and, as specifically with Rebbe Nachman, so much attention has been paid to the struggles of his own life. Do you think that that implicit dialogue is there? Are you of the school that his life story is being retold through the chaos of his Torah?

Ora Wiskind:

I’ll put it a different way. I feel like other people have done that so well, I mean that’s basically Art Green’s Tormented Master. That’s his take. So Art Green did that beautifully, Yosef Weiss, that’s also his take on Rav Nachman. So I don’t know if there’s any need to belong to that school. I mean, no one needs me to say better than they did. So I feel that, in general, it’s also, it’s related to many other questions about how we relate to the texts that we’re reading, and how we try to sense the person who wrote them and what difference it makes, the historical circumstances and the gender and the religious orientation and all that, all that, that whole set of questions.

Ora Wiskind:

What I do in my own learning, in my own writing, I come in from a very different direction with a different set of tools. The ideas that I’m bringing with me to the text are more from the field of hermeneutics. Gadamer, Hans Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, those are two figures that I engage with extensively in my most recent book on Hasidic commentary, in which the idea of dialogue, indeed, it’s essential, but it’s not in a narrow, biographical, historical sense. Who is this person? What is he thinking about? What events affected him? Et cetera, et cetera, that’s the revealed literal aspect of the author’s presence in his work.

Ora Wiskind:

The whole hermeneutical approach to a text is that I as the reader, I’m engaging in a dialogue with the text, the text or the person who wrote the text. The person who wrote the text has something to say, and he gives it this levush, he gives it a garment of words, and pesukim, and ideas, et cetera, that’s the textual fabric. Text, of course, means texture, it’s fabric. That’s the fabric of the work in front of me. But then he left it, he left the world and he left his book, and then someone else comes along, in a different historical context, with a different personality and different needs and different questions, and takes this remnant of what this person’s life was, the author, and starts to try to appropriate it, to understand it, to ask, to try to hear what it’s saying. But just like every conversation, I can say one thing, and you’re going to hear something a little bit different, but you hear what you’re able to hear from what I’m saying.

Ora Wiskind:

The same thing with the text. So I find that that’s really the power of learning in general. The question is always how does the text resonate with me, with my internal life, with my tools, and to what extent am I able to let it affect me? That is a true dialogue. That’s a true dialogue. That’s what I want to say. In other words, when we come out of a conversation, we feel like we had a dialogue, it’s because we were able to make an impression on the person we’re talking to, and we allow them to make an impression on us. That’s dialogue, because we’re sharing words, and we’re truly sharing them. They become a part, each of us internalizes the words of the other person.

David Bashevkin:

What would you tell… I’ve noticed that nobody likes dividing the world up into personalities, and certainly not the rich history of Jewish thought, but there is people who feel maybe more comfortable, or it makes more sense, a more rationalistic sequential form of thinking. Then there are people who are drawn – maybe for personality reasons, or for their own life experiences, or because they find it compelling – to mysticism, and I’ve always felt that the mystic understands the rationalist, but the rationalist stares back at the mystic and just scratches his or her head and says, “What on earth do you find compelling in this?” It seems like what Lieberman said. It echoes as an insecurity through this whole corpus, it can seem like nonsense. I’m wondering, what would you tell the rationalist, who’s staring back at mystical writings, at the work of Rebbe Nachman, at Izhbitz, at mysticism in general, and just says, “This isn’t real, what are you getting involved in this for?”

Ora Wiskind:

Mm-hmm. I feel like, first of all, I think in terms of, mysticism can mean a lot of things. If we’re talking about a phenomenon, a human phenomenon in a most general sense, I think basically, the way you’re using the word “mysticism” is to say that there are things that are rational, that could be explained in positivist terms. They’re logical, and they’re inarguable, you could prove them, you can measure them. As opposed to other, more amorphous things that you can’t prove, and they’re relative, and they are ephemeral, and they’re difficult to describe, and some people understand them and some people don’t. In that sense, that’s how it sounds to me according to the dialectic that you’re presenting, that that would be mysticism. So basically, right? Is that –

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, that’s definitely on –

Ora Wiskind:

So indeed, there are people that, if you can’t measure it and give it a name and it has an objective definition, for some people, that makes them feel uncomfortable. That’s also a reason that a lot of men feel uncomfortable with women’s feelings, because it’s something that changes all the time and you can’t get a handle on it, and you can’t control it. So then that certainly would create a situation of distrust. But on the other hand, if I continue with the metaphor that I adopted, men have emotions too. Mathematicians might be afraid of the dark. There are aspects of human experience that certainly a person, if they’re honest, and they put their barriers down, that they can identify with. So to that extent I would say that people who have this objective, positivistic perspective, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the only way they can see the world, but rather, that that’s the way they choose to see the world, perhaps because they find other ways of seeing the world more threatening, or less controllable.

David Bashevkin:

You raise this, the gender typology, and I was wondering if we could talk just a little bit about that. It’s always fascinated me. There are two things that I think don’t make you completely unique, but it certainly is not typical. Number one is that now, in many senses, you’re an ultra-Orthodox Haredi, or –

Ora Wiskind:

I’m not ultra-Orthodox, I don’t want to call me that.

David Bashevkin:

Okay, let’s let’s scrap that moniker. Nobody likes that one anyways. Nobody’s ever woke up in the morning, looked in the mirror, and said, “I’m ultra-Orthodox.” But you are religious – an Orthodox Jew – in scholarship, and you’re also a woman in the world of academic Hasidic work, both of which is not typical, and I was wondering, and you talk about this a great deal in your book on the Beis Yaakov, the role of gender in Hasidic thought. Most Hasidic – if not all Hasidic – leaders were men, and they do use a great deal of gender typologies in describing mystical and Hasidic ideas, and I’m wondering if ever you find it off-putting, or it resonates, and how you negotiate the fact, as a woman, with the role of gender in Hasidic thought.

Ora Wiskind:

So I actually wanted, there are two parts of my answer here. First of all, you’re right, in the second book I wrote, it’s called Wisdom of the Heart, it’s on the Beis Yaakov, Izhbitz and Radzyn, but specifically on the Beis Yaakov. But my point, actually, is that this Hasidic school of thought overturns dialectical relationships. In other words, whereas there is, there are these dominant oppositions, body and soul, night and day, heaven and earth, that they’re hierarchical in traditional Jewish and Western thought, but what I was trying to show in this book is that in this Hasidic tradition, they’re actually reversed. That many times they’re just reinterpreted in a very innovative way. So that was my entrance point, to say Hasidic thought is not necessarily so traditional as people might think it is. Anyway, that’s just one point in terms of this Hasidic school as it is. But in a general sense you’re asking how I see myself, I guess, as a female scholar of Hasidut. I’ll tell you what I want to talk about, maybe I’ll just reformulate your question-

David Bashevkin:

Go ahead. Reinterpretation, that’s your expertise.

Ora Wiskind:

Right. The interesting aspects of your question, I would think, for me, is what do I bring to the study of Hasidism that might be different from the dominant trends of scholarship up till now? Or even, to put it in a more general sense, what can a woman bring to reading texts that might be different from what a man is bringing to learning them and to experiencing them? Right, is that okay?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, that’s great.

Ora Wiskind:

Alright. So actually, I have given this quite a lot of thought after doing it for many years, and people have started asking me about this gender issue, which I never thought very much about. I just like to open with a reference to one of the first or most important figures who discussed this whole issue of gendered reading, which is Carol Gilligan, her famous work in the 1980s, In a Different Voice. Some years later, a few decades later, she revisited this seminal publication of hers, it was an essay, In a Different Voice, and she defined what this different voice is.

Ora Wiskind:

So what she wrote is, “The different voice is identified not by gender, but by theme. Its difference arises from joining reason with emotion, self with relationships, undoing patriarchal splits and hierarchies. It articulates democratic norms and values, the importance of everyone having a voice, being listened to carefully and heard with respect.” So that’s end of quote. The different voice that I think that a woman can bring to Jewish studies in general, to the study of Hasidut, Jewish spirituality in particular, is identified not by gender, but by theme.

Ora Wiskind:

In other words, there are lots and lots of themes in Hasidic works that really demand attention. They have to do with topics that people don’t tend to think are important or worthy of concern, such as uncertainty, fear, failure, loss, the possibility of transformation, compassion, relationships, et cetera. So what I try to do in my own work is to be attentive to these other aspects of what the Hasidic teachings are actually trying to talk about – attentive to other themes, motifs, symbols – and to come to them from a different place. That is a perspective that some women have, and some men might have too, and some of each don’t have.

David Bashevkin:

Allow me to, and that’s so beautifully said, I absolutely love that quote from Gilligan. But outside of gender, let me return to the first duality that I think marks a lot of your scholarship, which is the fact that you’re an Orthodox woman who is deeply religious and also a scholar. I was wondering if you could talk a moment about how you balance those two parts of your identity. In general, scholars of mysticism, Scholem had a very complicated relationship with his own religiosity. I was wondering, when you engage in these texts, how do you balance your the stereotypical image of the sober, detached scholar, and an inspired and engaged religious soul? How do those two interact when you approach scholarship?

Ora Wiskind:

Well it’s a really good question. I guess the art of it is that we have a long time to do all sorts of different things before we actually publish. In other words, some days, you just can’t afford to feel too much, you need to read 15 articles on a topic, you need to learn everything you can about a specific field, and then there’s really no place for emotions and impressions and suffering and existential trials. You just put it all to the side, and then in between, you eat, and you daven, and you learn the parsha, and you have a Shabbos meal, and you cook for it, and that’s life. That’s just, no matter who you are, as a Jew, we have those different aspects of how we spend our time.

Ora Wiskind:

So I guess there are two ways to go about it. One is to not be a Jew while you’re being an academic and not being an academic while you’re being a Jew, or there’s a more harmonious way of doing it, to approach your academic work with yirah and with love, and to approach your Jewish practice as an intelligent, learned individual. So I think that I’m, in other words, it doesn’t have to be a dichotomy, I think that the true challenge is to combine it all the time. A person can be an academic and also have a heart. It doesn’t mean that you have to turn off your emotions or anything when you’re an academic, it just means that you have to know when to apply your critical thinking, and to be able to be objective and know your material as best you can, but that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have it affect you.

Ora Wiskind:

I guess, maybe that’s the critical point, because if you build a wall between what you’re trying to learn and your inner life, I personally don’t think you are able to understand it. These texts, they’re religious texts, they’re written for religious people, they’re written for people to enhance religious experience. Regardless of what the person’s practices are, religious texts are made to enhance religious experience. So if you relate to the text as something else, you’re betraying it. So you can deal with it, but you really won’t ever be able to understand it.

David Bashevkin:

So given that idea that was so well said, I’m wondering, on that other side of you, not the academic, but as just a Jew, I’m wondering if there is a specific Torah or idea that you find or that is inspiring you now. Meaning, do you have, looking back, you have these big schools of thought – Breslov, Izhbitz – but are there specific ideas, like a specific Torah, a line, that you find continues to animate who you are as a Jew?

Ora Wiskind:

Thank you, that’s a wonderful question. I’ll tell you what, I’ll start with something that I guess was a seminal concept for me that really changed my life, and then I’ll talk a little bit about a more contemporary teaching or concept that continues to affect me. The turning point was in this idea of the meaning of galut, sod hagalut, the secret of exile. In Hasidic tradition, exile is physical, but much more importantly, it’s spiritual. I think that for me, putting a name to this, my own years of wandering and feeling lost, it was exile, it was galut. It was very redeeming for me, even while I was still in the galut, to know at least that it had a name, and that other people knew what it was, and that there’s another half of it too, which is of course redemption, geulah, that it comes together, once you’ve lived through and understood and experienced the exile then you are opened to redemption. So I think that was a moment of illumination for me.

Ora Wiskind:

In terms of a teaching that continues to accompany me, I guess I would choose, there’s a beautiful teaching of the Beit Yaakov, Rabbi Yaakov of Izhbitz and Radzyn, he evokes this medrish in Bereishit Rabbah that says that Hashem created worlds and destroyed them, created worlds and destroyed them, until he created this world, this world of tikun, and that’s the medrish. Then, of course, there’s the question of, if Hashem is all powerful, how could it be that he created things that weren’t worthwhile having existence, and then he just destroyed them, and then he did it again? Well, first of all, why did he have to create things that would be destroyed? And then, secondly, what larger meaning does that have?

Ora Wiskind:

From there, the Beit Yaakov evokes this kabbalistic idea of the breaking of the vessels, shvirat hakeilim, and explains that every process of creation involves destruction, because in order to become something else, you have to put off, put aside, what you were before. It’s painful, and you can feel it as a disaster or as a huge loss, but really, recreation, self creation, transformation always involves that painful loss of something that doesn’t work anymore. So that’s basically, I guess, again, a huge, beautiful, awesome concept that never loses its vitality, because it applies to so many situations in life and so many difficult moments that if you can hold on to that larger picture, that broader horizon, it can be very, very empowering.

David Bashevkin:

So beautifully said, and that act of destruction and creation in the formation of self is certainly something that has always drawn me to your Torah. I want to start winding down, and I guess I wanted to end with a more general, but in a way a more specific question, and it relates to the world of Izhbitz, which has fascinated both of us. I was very fascinated by the way that they couch, in the introduction to Beis Yaakov, which I believe was written by Yakov Leiner’s son, Rav Gershon Henoch, in the introduction, and how the year 1840 couched in this Zohar, which says that that’s going to be a year of great revelation, was actually a year of great modernity and industrial progress and technological advancement.

David Bashevkin:

I’m wondering if you could speak more generally, but maybe if you have a thought about what it meant in the world of Izhbitz: is mysticism more relevant in the modern world, or does it only become less and less relevant? Because people usually talk about, as we become more modern and understand more of the world, then mystical thinking has lost its relevance and its applicability, we know why and how things function. So why is it that so late in Jewish history do we have people presenting new mystical ideas specifically for the modern world when at first glance, you would think that they are, that as we become more modern and develop as a society as individuals, this type of thinking becomes less and less important?

Ora Wiskind:

It’s very interesting, actually this whole idea of 1840 is based on a passage in the Zohar which promises that it will be a year, either that Mashiach will come, or that the world will be redeemed, or that some cataclysmic change will occur in the world. It was a year of tremendous anticipation, just like every millennium, the passage in the Zohar actually says that in that year, the wellsprings of wisdom will flow forth and spread through the world. The Hasidic masters, starting with Izhbitz but many others, interpreted that as the spread of Hasidic teaching. Chabad of course made it there by word, but really, it doesn’t originate in Chabad at all.

Ora Wiskind:

In fact, one of the Hasidic thinkers who wrote intensely about this whole idea was the Esh Kodesh, the last rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto. He felt that it was Hasidic teaching that would redeem the world. Basically, that’s the Hasidic interpretation of that Zohar concept. So what happened, or what is designated by the confluence of this explosion of spirituality on the one hand, and the modernization and transformation of the world in what seems to be a totally opposite secularizing direction. So I think that if you – and I actually wrote about this too in my Hasidic Commentary – that if you think about this Zohar passage and how it’s manifest in Hasidic thinking, there is this idea that there are certain generations that are ready for ideas that weren’t ready, that weren’t available to be heard before, that the generation didn’t have the ears to hear it.

Ora Wiskind:

So I don’t think it’s a paradox, and I don’t think that it’s a coincidence, that at the same time that we have a renewal of interest in spirituality, we also have a super modern, efficient world that is at a total loss of where to discover, or rediscover, where to find meaning. So I think that in our days, whereas there are endless new possibilities for knowing things and accomplishing things, you have that very, very sharp contrast between the outside and the inside, the outer dimension and the inner dimension, or what’s immediately visible and this dimension of the transcendent. Because the modern world is so compelling and so impressive, it seems to be so complete, it’s also threatening and alienating and can leave us with this terrible spiritual poverty. So that’s how I see, that Hasidic teaching is the call of the hour, if you can only hear it and understand it and translate it into a way that will correspond with contemporary needs.

David Bashevkin:

So beautiful as always. I like to end with a little bit more rapid fire questions, if you will indulge me for a few more minutes. Allow me to ask you, your schedule: when do you like to do the bulk of your writing? Are you a morning person or a late at night person?

Ora Wiskind:

Thank you so much for some easy questions that I can just answer. I’m a morning person, yes.

David Bashevkin:

You are a morning person. If somebody who, Hasidic ideas, maybe they never approached them, they never studied them, maybe the Hebrew was too daunting. Where would you suggest someone to start starting Chassidus?

Ora Wiskind:

Well, now today there are some wonderful translations of Hasidut even if you don’t know Hebrew. I’ll just be egotistical, yeah, I would just be egotistical, I think you can read one of my books, maybe Wisdom of the Heart.

David Bashevkin:

Push product, push product, I love it. I read your Wisdom of the Heart and I absolutely loved it. You may already be working on this, but if you had the luxury, no teaching, no responsibilities, nothing else going on in your world, which is obviously fantastical thinking in and of itself, what is the book that you would want to sit down and write now, having already written on Breslov and Izhbitz and Hasidic interpretation? If you had that luxury to sit down and write a book, maybe you’re already doing it, what book would you write?

Ora Wiskind:

Hmm, I’m actually, well I am writing another book, but I won’t talk about that right now. The book that I would like to write, actually, the two books I’d like to write, one of them I’ve started working on already is a meeting between art and Hasidic thought. Actually, something that would combine paintings and Hasidic teachings, letting them dialogue with each other, illuminate each other. So that’s one project that I would really like to embark on. The other one, and that’s more a direction that I’m thinking about now, is integration of Hasidic teaching and therapy, which I think is very, very fruitful. It would involve a less scholarly engagement with Hasidic texts, but I think that it could potentially be very, very well received and fruitful for me in any case.

David Bashevkin:

If you have time to write a third, and maybe this is really the undertone of the second book, I would love to see your memoir on your list of books that you plan on writing.

Ora Wiskind:

Thank you. I would like to too, we’ll to see what there will be to write in that book.

David Bashevkin:

Your stories, your ideas, and your entire approach to life, scholarship, and everything in between is so refined, dignified, vulnerable, and honest, and I can’t thank you enough for spending time today speaking with me. I am so appreciative, and thank you so very much.

Ora Wiskind:

Thank you, David.

David Bashevkin:

My conversation with Ora, and anytime I speak to her, to Dr. Wiskind, I know her quite personally, Ora, and anytime I speak to her, I walk away and think about, what is the method of interpretation I use when exploring my own life? Am I using the world of pshat? Do I do a plain reading of what’s motivating me? What’s ailing me? What’s hurting me? Am I using allegory, the world of remez? Am I maybe using something more reconciliatory to find those contradictions? But ultimately, I think everyone needs to ultimately find what’s that sod, what’s that secret, that mystical idea that motivates and animates the trajectory and narrative of their lives. And it’s something that I am always in search of, and I think that if more people spent more time interpreting their own motivations, ideas, and sense of self in a healthier way, our very dialogue and the richness of interpretation that came out from the texts of our lives and the texts that we interact within Torah would yield far richer results.

David Bashevkin:

So thank you so much for listening. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of shnorring, so if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and review. Tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered, be sure to check out 18Forty.org, that’s the number 1-8, 18, followed by the word “forty,” F-O-R-T-Y.org. You will also find videos, articles and recommended readings. Thank you so much.

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