by S. Vale, rabbi and storyteller
I first much mention a bias here (of mine) in the spirit of full disclosure: Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, Z”L (to remember him is a blessing), the original 19th century author of this great commentary on the Torah (Five Books of Moses), Kedushat Levi (aka “Kedushas Levi”), is an important teacher and master for me. I love his teachings, the stories about him (some of which the editor includes at the back of this 3 volume commentary! That alone makes sure, for me, of giving it an extra star, regardless of what my base rating would be!). In common parlance, I guess you could say, I am a fan. But much more than that, I feel like I am a student of this teacher who died more than two hundred years before I was born.
And I and many others have been waiting for a complete translation of this work into English for years (there have been excerpts of it in works such as the superb, God at the Center by Rabbi David Blumenthal and The Life of a Hasidic Master by my beloved teacher, Rabbi Samuel Dressner, may he rest in shalom and always remembered for a blessing. But until now no complete translation).
On the other hand, because of my bias, it might be said, that any translation that might not do justice to this great Hasidic Master, Rabbi (a true Rav, even before he turned towards Hasidut), Talmud and Kabbalah scholar (ditto. And these things were rare at that early stage of Hasidut–this Eastern European school of Jewish mystical teaching and practice– for many Hasidic spiritual leaders), would be even under more scrutiny due to my great reverence for the original text.
Professor Munk (he is not a rabbi, nor does he have a PhD, but for me, this scholar, translator and editor, has more than earned the title “Professor”, not only for this work, but for his many other translations) has done a wonderful job here. He not only translates, but he often elucidates the text.
One of the reasons, I love Kedushat Levi, is that although it includes many kabbalistic and mystical insights, it is yet often remarkably simple. R. Levi Yitzchak, aka “The Berditchiver” z”l, wrote these insights, not for scholars, but for the average person. And he often goes out of his way (in the original text, sometimes by repeating an idea over and over again, in different ways) to make sure that he is understood.
Professor Munk, in trying to make this translation more readable, leaves out some of that. And although I miss it in the translation, I understand why he did it. And in my humble opinion, it is very much in the spirit of The Berditchiver, in trying to make these ideas clear.
Are there places, due to the kabbalistic nature of this commentary, that it might be hard to understand? Yes, some. But not nearly as much as many other kabbalistic works, either from Hasidic schools or non-Hasidic schools (there is a misnomer that the big divide between Hasidic and non-Hasidic orthodoxy is that the former teaches kabbalah and the latter does not. Untrue. There are differences in the way that Kabbalah is taught, even between sects of either larger school or way of teaching, but Kabbalah was and is an important aspect of all Jewish spirituality. However, to be fair, non-Hasidic orthodoxy and even non-orthodoxy (up until recently) in the Ashkanazic (Eastern and Germanic European) Jewish world did not make it easy for the lay person to enter into this teaching (it is some what different among the Sephardic Jews, originating out of the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 and Middle Eastern Jewish world). There is much Kabbalah in that world that is a part of every day life, even from early childhood). It is the Hasidic Masters, who were able to translate often very esoteric teachings to make it “digestible” and easier to understand for the average person. And no one better than The Berditchever.
Professor Munk also has a nice introduction to the work, explaining why he, a Jewish man of German Orthodox origin, where Hasidic teaching is at best, ignored, if not disdained, chose to translate this work. He also explains a little of his methodology in the work.
And then including what he calls “anecdotes,” what I call great stories of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak bumps this work up in my estimations (again, in full disclosure, in addition to being a rabbi, I am a professional storyteller – do try this at home, kids! – and I was first introduced to the Berditchever by my rabbi, Rabbi Ted Falcon, author of a number of books, most recently a co-author of Getting to the Heart of Interfaith. So the stories are as important to me as his commentary). He also includes as part of this “bonus” section, the “kaddish” prayer of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, which has been sung by many famous cantors and singers, including among them, Paul Robeson!
I have a few nitpicks: In addition to the redundancies of Hebrew editions, I miss some of the commentaries and thoughts about the Jewish Holy Days, interspersed in most Hebrew editions (all that I know of) throughout the commentary in the place that they would appear in the Torah calendar cycle. Yet, there too, I understand why Professor Munk chose to leave these out (and he explains this to some extent, although not directly about this issue). Basically, much of this commentary is “sermonic” in character and in fact were sermons of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak (and for me, as a rabbi and teacher myself, that gives it more value, not less!). Professor Munk, wanted to make this translation, like his other translations, more of a Torah commentary and wanted to focus on that aspect of the work. He also points out, that many editions (and there have been many!), are a mess, editorially speaking, and some of that comes from the posthumous nature of the publication of this work: It was The Berditchever’s sons who brought this work out and they added things to it. It is likely a lot of the “holiday” commentary, might be a result of that. There are also appendices in many editions that Munk does not translate here. Probably for the same reasons. And in any case, some, if not much of those Holy Day remarks and insights are included throughout the Torah commentary in the context of the verses being commented on. So although it is not as “user-friendly” for rabbis or other preparing sermons for those holidays, nevertheless, a lot of material is still here for that purpose, if one but looks. Still I miss the order of the Hebrew editions.
And sometimes, I find Professor Munk’s translations and editors notes, just a tad pedantic. On the other hand, it kind of nice to have them there sometimes, because you feel like you have a teacher with you, or at least a study partner also working through the text.
And in any case, what you do have here is a great three-volume translation, of an important spiritual Torah commentary (unread by many lay people and those not familiar with Hebrew, and even many rabbis and Torah scholars), translated by a great modern, scholar, translator, editor and teacher (30 years in Jewish education!), and for a great price (especially here at Amazon! I first saw this in a Jewish bookstore in NYC, whose name will remain unspoken here, as they always have high markups, for over a hundred dollars. And even then I was tempted to buy it right there on the spot, I was so excited that it existed! I then found it on line for less than that. But Amazon, so far, at least right now, has the best price. Most are at least 10 to 20 dollars more than this. And if you have Prime, free two day shipping!). And I also recommend the 2 volume Hebrew edition that includes vowels and punctuation (aka “menukad”) that can be found elsewhere online for about $35. This is great for those who can read some Hebrew. And I say “some Hebrew” because the Hebrew of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is a very primitive and almost naive Hebrew. It is a very easy to read in most cases, even for those only have a beginning Hebrew vocabulary. It is then helpful to have a dictionary. And for some terms, you will either need a Talmud dictionary or something akin to that, because he uses from time to time, these Aramaic and Talmud study technical terms and abbreviations in his Hebrew. But now, with Professor Munk’s translation and that Hebrew edition, it makes a fairly “complete” Kedushat Levi in Hebrew and English for the first time in the history of the world!
Get this translation if you are at all interested in Kabbalah, Jewish spiritual teaching, Torah commentary and study, spiritual teaching of any kind and/or Hasidut (aka “Hasidus” that teaching that came out of Eastern Europe developed in the early 19th century, with many sects today, the best-known of which is Chabad. However, Hasidut is a far richer world and source of insight than just Chabad. Nothing taken away from them, but people who only know Hasidut from Chabad or only know Kabbalah from Chabad are missing out on a lot. To be fair to Chabad and to make it clear how important Kedushat Levi is and how important The Berditchever was and is, not only does Chabad study this work – and it should be also stated that The Berditchever is one of the only, if not the only, later Hasidic masters who never left a dynasty or a sect. There are no Berdichev Hasidim. ALL Hasidic sects, no matter how much they might disagree with each other – and believe me, they do, so much so that between some of them, for their children to marry into a different sect is considered an intermarriage (!) – all of them own and study Kedushat Levi as a holy text.
Not only that, but even many mitnagdim (aka misnagdim, those Orthodox Jewish teachers and schools who opposed and continue to oppose Hasidut and its teachers and teachings), study and own Kedushat Levi! Not only that, but many non-Jews in the town of Berditchev during his life time and since, revere the memory of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. His burial site is a holy place, not only for Jews, but for non-Jewish natives of the town, and this is in a land, not known for its love of the Jewish people, the Ukraine.
In Judaism, we use the word “Tzadik.” In other traditions, they might call him saint or master, guru or Boddhisatva. Whatever you call him, he was a truly great man and noble spirit. Part of his teaching is that everyone has a “hidden Tzadik” inside them. And this work, translated by Professor Munk, is a must buy. I believe most people who have read this far or just are looking for spirituality in world classics, will love this book.
May there be many blessings to Professor Munk for doing this work.