Magic and Mystery in the Clouds Down Here: Commentary on Parashat Shofetim 5782
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary

One week ago today, I prepared myself for Shabbat by putting on a nice button-down shirt and shrouding myself in mystery.

To paint the picture a bit more clearly, I should backtrack.

Like all rabbis, I am both an heir to and a messenger of Jewish practice and Jewish thought. A Humanistic rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi may each accept upon themselves and preach to their students different ideas of what ought to constitute Jewish living. Yet every rabbi accepts upon themselves the task of trying to make sense of the millennia of Jewish laws and customs that preceded them. In fact, our ancestors sought unity and community through religious acts like celebrating Shabbat and holidays, caring for those in need, and gathering for prayer.

Though Jews have always been a people of action, we have not always been a people of faith.

Whereas unifying Christians through a singular dogma has been an explicit project of various Christian authorities for nearly as long as Christianity has been around[1]diversity in Jewish philosophy has thrived ever since Jews started thinking. In the ancient Jewish world—in the words of Rabbi Dr. Louis Finkelstein:

Inconsistent maxims could equally be accepted as true… Inconsistent theological propositions did not have to be reconciled; their validity as propositions was not really important. What was significant was their pedagogical value and their poetical meaning, expressing the underlying premises on which all of life’s decisions were based… [O]pposing theological traditions had not given concern to the individual Jew of earlier days because he had not supposed that Judaism was a “system” of belief but, rather of conduct.[2]

To be a proper Jew, there was no need for a firm belief in much other than that Jewish identity was cultivated through performing Jewish deeds;[3] Jewish thought was full of contradictions. Was God perfect or imperfect? Although Psalm 92:16 praises God with the declaration “וְֽלֹא־עַוְלָ֥תָה בּֽוֹ” (“There is no flaw in the Lord”)—the narrator of Genesis 6:6 imagines “וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ” (“The Lord regretted having made humanity in the earth”). In other words, this flawless God still had occasional regrets. Our spiritual forebears were accustomed to accepting such tensions in these ideas about lofty spiritual matters.

This, in part, is why I find myself questioning whether I recently underwent a mystical experience seven days ago.

Last week, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Chicagoland to meet with students, faculty, board members, and friends of Hebrew Seminary. Every encounter I had was lively, exciting, cordial, and enlightening. Still it was impossible to engage in any conversation about Hebrew Seminary today without speaking of the loss and vital contributions of our founder, Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer זִכְרוֹנוֹ לִבְרָכָה (zikhrono livrakhah—may his memory be for a blessing). The 30 years he dedicated to Hebrew Seminary have imprinted on us several features that are rare to find in a modern-minded rabbinical school: a dedication to Jewish Deaf studies, an undying emphasis on kindness and inclusion, and—somehow, most controversially—a sincere attachment to Judaism’s mystical teachings.

I was never blessed with the opportunity to meet Rabbi Goldhamer, but—through videos of him, his writings, and my speaking with people who knew him—I have learned much about him, his brilliance, his incomparable friendliness, his endless charisma, and his sincerest lovingkindness. In the past few months I have learned more about Rabbi Goldhamer than I have about many people who have been in my life for years. The clearer the picture I get to see formed of Rabbi Goldhamer, the more I am convinced that he was not merely a scholar of Kabbalah but that he was himself a practitioner of Kabbalah, a Kabbalist in every sense of the word.

A question that emerged several times during my visit in and around Chicago centered on my own understanding of the relevance of Kabbalah to rabbinic training. The question presents itself as one that I can best answer by reflecting personally and to speak of an institution.

On the personal level—my own private spiritual life has traveled between poles of faith and agnosticism.

Some hard days, I quietly wonder how seekers like myself truly benefit from devoting ourselves to the myth of a powerful force who extricated our ancestors from a restricted land of torturous straits—in Hebrew, מִצְרַיִם (Mitzrayim, commonly translated as “Egypt” but literally meaning “the two narrow/painful places”). This exodus narrative is a powerful story, regardless of whether it is historically plausible—but could there not be other cultural nourishment to help us on days when God feels distant?

Other days, I find myself closing my eyes and imagining myself in a museum, searching for God next to the reconstructed skeleton of a dinosaur. In this latter spiritual exercise, I admire the beauty of this divine creation now long gone, and I recognize that there is something Divine in this once-flesh-covered creature that moved, breathed, and thought—just like I do. My mind tries its hardest to synthesize what I have studied about cosmogony—the beginnings of the universe—which I have gleaned from the classical medieval Jewish Neoplatonist philosophy of Solomon ibn Gabirol’s Fons Vitae (“The Fountain of Life,” the surviving Latin translation of ibn Gabirol’s now-lost Judeo-Arabic philosophical work of the 11th century C.E.[4]); the arationalistic kabbalistic writers whose visions taught us how God’s sefirotic existence and layers of emanation birthed our reality; and the hyperrational scientific research that has tried to trace the origin of our species through evolution and back to the Big Bang, our shared pre-atomistic beginnings. In this multidisciplinary visual fantasy, a nearly invisible divine essence, like a miniscule whirlwind emerging from darkness, erupts and emanates this creative force called Will (the Will to live, the Will to procreate, and the Will to innovate).[5] This Godly power of Will drives certain atomistic and chemical combinations to converge and to be gifted with a variety of senses that can touch, see, smell, hear, and/or taste God and God’s new Godly creations. After millions of years of God’s ethereal winds blowing around experiment after experiment of new permutations of molecular and chemical unions, eventually there arise several generations of dinosaurs who dominate one of God’s most fortuitously breathable planets, Earth. These dinosaurs are not God, and they are not necessarily God’s image, but they are necessarily Divine—an emanation of the same God who, millions of years later, would allow mammals just enough genetic mutations to master the recipe for primates and eventually the special recipe that yields human beings. Still, in this prehistoric moment, dinosaurs have certainly not met humans, God has not yet met humans, and dinosaurs might not have met God.[6] Genesis 1:26 recalls God’s decision that human beings should at last be made, formed in the divine image—and humans may have been the first species to sense that there is a God out there.[7] I am certain that the same God who concocted dinosaurs and imbued them with sensory capabilities must have invented each of us and our neurons too.[8]


Stock image of artist’s rendering of dinosaurs traveling in a pack across a grassy plain, with trees in the background; borrowed with permission from on September 1, 2022.

Firm as my belief may be in God’s (metaphorical) hand embracing us into existence, and moved as I am by kabbalistic discourse—I sometimes struggle to understand how the storied traditions of Jewish magic fit into my own experience of the world. I am a spiritual Jew with a rationalist bend. Yet—just as there is no singular Jewish theology to dictate what a Jew must believe—our tradition is one that is both wary of false prophets yet open to cautiously studying belief systems that may not come natively or naturally to ourselves.

This week’s Torah portion, שֹׁפְטִים‎ (Shofetim, “Judges”), includes God’s warning the Israelites in Deuteronomy 18:14, “כִּ֣י ׀ הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ יוֹרֵ֣שׁ אוֹתָ֔ם אֶל־מְעֹנְנִ֥ים וְאֶל־קֹסְמִ֖ים יִשְׁמָ֑עוּ וְאַתָּ֕ה לֹ֣א כֵ֔ן נָ֛תַן לְךָ֖ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃” (“these nations whom you are inheriting listen to those who predict the future by examining clouds and to augurs; however—as for you—the Lord your God did not grant as such”). In the spirit of this verse’s message and in attempts to ward their coreligionists away from the influence of non-Jewish belief systems that have influenced popular beliefs about the Zodiac, many Jews have shut down astrological speculation by quoting the talmudic dictum “אֵין מַזָּל לְיִשְֹרָאֵל” (eyn mazzal leYisra’el, “there is no constellation for Israel”)[9]. Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein has contextualized this aphorism though as a statement that, in fact, “does not reject astrology outright. The instantiations of this expression point to the notion that the fate of Jews is not determined solely by celestial bodies, though they certainly have some influence.”[10] Indeed, Rubenstein demonstrates several stories in the Babylonian Talmud where the careers of rabbis are terminated or enhanced by predictions drawn from astrological readings.[11]

This sort of inconsistency makes me ask: Am I a weaker human when doubting the meaningfulness of magic or superstitions or coincidences? Am I stronger for holding steadfast onto clear-minded rationalism?

All of this takes me back to the scene on Friday last week. With only a few hours left before Shabbat would begin, I figured I would open the wrapping to a word game I never heard of (Up Words) but once acquired as a prize in a contest. I have loved word games for a long time, and Scrabble was a favorite pastime of mine as a child. For several years, hardly a week would go by without my playing Scrabble with either my grandmother Mildred Simson or my grandfather Marvin Simson. I am looking forward to the day (hopefully not hypothetical) when I will be able to play Scrabble with my own children, and opening Up Words, I figured, may be an act that bridges at least one of my descendants into playing Scrabble.

With the box unwrapped, I turned to the inner contents that Friday afternoon, and as I cut open a bag containing letter tiles for Up Words, two (and only two) tiles shot forth from the bag accidentally, both face-up: the letters M and S. Immediately my mind traveled back to playing Scrabble with M.S. and M.S.—Millie Simson and Marvin Simson—at their kitchen table. Although I played Scrabble with most members of my family when I was young, it always seemed to me that my grandparents were likely to put up a tough competition; they often won. Had the M and S landed to bring me that warm memory of my grandparents?

The Shabbat that most recently passed was sandwiched between two flights for me: travels to Chicago for work, and traveling to Los Angeles for the unveiling of my late brother’s tombstone. As Shabbat progressed, I recalled my upcoming excursion to the cemetery where my brother is buried—M. S., Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries. My brother, Rami, zikhrono livrakhah, was also one highly competitive Scrabble master, and it was never clear who would win when he and my grandfather played one another. Did the M and S reveal themselves to me to remind me that I would soon visit my brother again—at Mount Sinai?

Had two other Up Words letters fallen out, would I have even thought about which letters they were, and would I have bothered trying to find meaning in this coincidence? I do not know the answer to this.[12] Yet I do am grateful for whatever magic—real or not—helped me remember three of my loved ones this past weekend. Magic, healing, superstition, mysticism, and knowledge of what is beyond us is undoubtedly deserving of our attention.

Despite my own stubborn rationalistic leanings, I am moved by mystery, and I am grateful for our Seminary’s courses in healing, mysticism, and even a little magic.[13] We at Hebrew Seminary are all indented to Rabbi Goldhamer for impressing upon our community how a serious engagement with imaginative and contemplative content can yield restorative results.

In truth, the rational mind should not be satisfied by rational thought alone. Dr. Kevin Nelson, conceding to the impossibility of understanding fully how and why there are spiritual experiences humans encounter, writes:

Basing one’s spirituality on science is as foolhardy as basing one’s science on spirituality. No matter if we could know how every single brain molecule makes spiritual experiences, why the brain is spiritual will remain for many of us our most treasured mystery. [14]

Rabbis must be here to explore the mysterious together.


[1] Cf., e.g., John Alfred Faulkner, “The First Great Christian Creed,” in The American Journal of Theology 14:1 (January 1910), pp. 47–61. In this piece, Faulkner reflects on the significance of the Nicaean Creed, as composed in the early 4th century C.E..
[2] Louis Finkelstein, “Introduction to New Edition,” in Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology: Major Concepts of the Talmud (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1961), pp. ix and xii.

[3] Acknowledging such a stance, Rabbi Dr. Shai Cherry has advocated for permitting agnostics and atheists to be accepted for conversion to Judaism. See Shai Cherry, “Bracketing Belief: Giyyur for the Godless,” in Conservative Judaism 66:1 (Fall 2014), pp. 83–106, esp. p. 86ff.

[4] Cf., e.g., Shelomo Pines, “Fragments of the Arabic Original of Fons Vitae in Moses Ibn Ezra’s Work Arugat HaBosem” in Tarbiz (in Hebrew: ספר ״ערוגת הבושם״ : הקטעים מספר ״מקור חיים״ in תרביץ) 27:2/3 (Tevet 5718 [i.e. December 1957–January 1958]), pp. 218–233.
[5] Note the frequent kabbalistic motif of equating God’s סְפִירָה (sefirah, “recountability”) called כֶּתֶר (Keter, “Crown”) with the notion of רָצוֹן (Ratzon, “Will”). Will is also a frequent theme in Neoplatonism; see, e.g., Sarah Pessin, “Jewish Neoplatonism: Being Above Being and divine emanation in Solomon ibn Gabirol and Isaac Israeli,” in Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003) pp. 91–110, esp. pp. 94–100.
[6] In exploring neurological phenomena people concurrent during spiritual experiences, Dr. Kevin Nelson suggests:

Given that we share many of the structures and systems in our brains with other creatures, we may not be the only primate with spiritual feelings. Great apes mourned their dead, and evidence suggests that Neanderthals believed in an afterlife. In fact, I strongly suspect that mystical feelings could exit in the many other mammals that are endowed with a limbic system that is very much like our own. And why can’t dogs have out-of-body experiences? (Kevin Nelson, M.D., The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience, [New York, NY: Dutton, 2011], p. 258.)

Though dinosaurs were not mammals (let alone primates), it is conceivable that certain neurological features of a dinosaur’s brain could have held paved the way for the animal to undergo what humans typically report as an internal spiritual experience.
[7] See fn. 6.
[8] Although many sources inform my understanding of these subjects, I wish to highlight here Pessin, ibid; Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, “Philosophy and kabbalah: 1200–1600,” in Frank and Leaman (eds.), ibid., pp. 218–257; Gershom Scholem, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah (translated from German into English by Joachim Neugroschel; New York, NY: Schocken, 1991); Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism (Edison, New Jersey: Castle Books, 1997); and Matt, God & The Big Bang: Discovering Harmony Between Science & Spirituality (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1996).
[9] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 156a.
[10] Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, “Astrology and the Head of the Academy,” in Shai Secunda and Steven Fine (eds.), Shoshannat Yaakov: Jewish and Iranian Studies in Honor of Yaakov Elman (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2012), pp. 303–321, esp. p. 312.

[11] Rubenstein, ibid, esp. pp. 302–312.

[12] An aside: We did not play Up Words last Shabbat, but, without my mentioning of Up Words, I heard a report from a family friend that my eldest did play Junior Scrabble—for the first time—this past Shabbat.
[13] Each of these courses is, tentatively, expected to return to our roster of offered courses within the next academic year.
[14] Nelson, ibid, p. 259.