Chapter 5 - Yeshiva
They say you haven’t really seen Israel until you’ve studied in a yeshiva, so I accepted the offer for a few days.
At the school I gave a synopsis of my book’s thesis over lunch. The audience was large and kind in its reception, with a few notable exceptions. But after I was shown to my quarters, which was shared by five other young men, an opponent to my views walked into the room. He sniffed the air as if to indicate some foul odor being present, and then stated, “I think I smell a goy.” It wasn’t the kind of greeting that I was hoping to get. Nate told me to ignore it, but I couldn’t.
By the following morning, word of my presence and opinions had reached the head rabbi before class began. The topic for the day was miracles. Those that were attributed to the Nazarene were discussed, as were those that were attributed to another false messiah, Sabbatai Sevi.
Reb Noach Weinberg pointed out that, “If a prophet predicted the sun would be blotted out the following day at 12:00 noon, and it was in fact blotted out at 12:01 P.M., the prophet was a false prophet because he had missed by one minute. That which is spoken in God’s name must all come true. The Nazarene is credited with some good predictions in the New Testament, but he is also credited with a number of bad ones, such as his frequent prophecies of a quick return; indeed, one that was to occur during the lifetimes of some who were alive then.”
I asked him how it was that Jesus could perform any miracles at all. The rabbi’s answer took me by surprise, for I had been devoid of mystical knowledge until that day.
“The Nazarene,” the Reb stated confidently, “was a master of the secret Jewish art of Kabbalah. He received his power to use God’s name when he snuck into the Temple and copied the name that no man could memorize. After copying it, which was forbidden, he put it into a cut in his foot and then walked out from the Temple undetected. The Name gave him the power. Sabbatai Sevi was another Master of the Name. With it, he too was able to raise the dead and draw wine from walls.”
I was in shock. How was it that I had heard none of this in years of research back in America? And who was this Sabbatai Sevi? Oh yes, I had heard of him before. The man was a false Messiah that lived between 1626 and 1676. He converted to Islam. I never thought it worth pursuing any further information about him after hearing of his apostasy. But now I was asked to believe that false prophets had the power to raise the dead! And through what? Kabbalah? The implications were overwhelming. For one thing, it meant that my book was instantly obsolete because it left the topic of mysticism completely out. To hear a top rabbi also credit Sabbatai with such feats also meant that I would have to do my homework again about the Turkish Jew.
Still awed by what I had heard that day, I decided to take a walk through the streets of West Jerusalem. It wasn’t long before I saw a book in the window of a bookshop that offered answers to many of my questions.
Sabbatai Sevi, The Mystical Messiah by Gershom Scholem, was a thousand-page masterpiece that included every single detail scholars had ever managed to dig up on the man. I bought it and a few other books on Kabbalah, then returned to the yeshiva and began to study. What I learned was most unsettling.
I had always known and used his first Hebrew name Itamar, though at times I had, as on the cover of my first book, misspelled it as Etomar. But on checking my circumcision certificate I learned that my full Hebrew name was Itamar Sabbatai. I shared a common name with the apostate. This was an odd coincidence, especially because I too had a certain attraction to Islam.
The book on Sevi was so long that I decided to hold off reading it all until my return to Miami. In the meantime, I chose to concentrate on Kabbalah.
The texts made it clear that one should not attempt the study of Kabbalah until the age of forty, an idea that I quickly put aside. I read, however, of four who studied it. One died, one went crazy, one apostatized and only one, Rabbi Akiba, survived with his wits intact. There were warnings everywhere I turned. While reading on a bus to Tel Aviv, I was again cautioned by a stranger sitting next to me.
“You’re too young for that!” the man advised.
“I’m nearly thirty-one. I want to know what everybody’s so afraid of,” I told him.
“Suit yourself, friend. But I know what I’m talking about,” the man replied.
I read something about a Jewish Trinity: the Holy Ancient One, Blessed Be He, was a male part; the Shechina or female Presence of God was a second part; and then there was a Son, Adam Kadmon, the archetype man. The warning about apostasy as a possible consequence of Kabbalistic studies was clear. I had sacrificed a wife and son to publish a book attacking the Christian concept of the Trinity only to now read in Israel of a Jewish one. I was depressed and confused for I had gone too far too fast. Dejected, I stopped in a shop to pick up a postcard to write Maria that perhaps I had been wrong to attack her faith. I told her that I would return soon and said I hoped that she would forgive me.
I spent one last Sabbath in Israel. I asked a rabbi if there was a Conservative synagogue in town. The rabbi told me, “In Jerusalem there is one Reform synagogue, one Conservative synagogue, and 40,000 toilets.” Israel, you see, really only has two kinds of Jews – Religious (Orthodox), and not religious (secular).
I informed him that I’d soon return to America to be with my son. The rabbi responded, “Why? He’s a goy. Forget about him!” These remarks did little to further my already shaken view of Judaism.
I returned to the travel agent to arrange for a scenic trip home. The first leg took me by a car ferry through the Greek Islands to Pireas and Athens. I then took a week to work my way through Europe by train. Munich was interesting, but I felt great anxiety when I got off the train in Hamburg. As I walked around the station, I seemed to almost remember being there during the Holocaust. I knew that was silly because I wasn’t even born then and yet flashes of memory seemed to dance about in my mind. They were so real that I never left the station to tour the city. Instead, I took the first train out. It happened to be going to Paris, but I didn’t care what the destination was. I just wanted to get far away from the place. From Paris I went to London, then flew home.