Book Review: Navigating Worlds by Zevi Slavin
Title: Navigating Worlds,
Collected Essays (2006-2020)
Author: Bezalel Naor
Publisher: Kodesh Press
Reviewed by Zevi Slavin
Reading Naor is different. Reading Naor is exciting. I often wonder what it is about his writing that still manages to excite even the jaded reader. The answer is rather simple. Naor is excited by the words he spins and spells out on the page, he’s captivated and drawn in deeply by the characters, the books and pages that make up his story. They are filled with mystery and pathos – for the reader and writer alike.
I often find myself spending more time in the footnotes of Naor’s writings than in the main body of the text. It is in his footnotes where the true Naor comes out to play, to open the trapdoor of intrigue into the lives and complexities of his cast. One feels distinctly, reading a Naorian footnote, as if one has just stumbled upon a fresh draft of private notes recorded behind-doors on the conversations of Kafka, Spinoza and Heschel, James, Buber and Herrera. Their freshness still palpable and exciting. This collection of essays, from the past decade and a half of Naor’s scholarly and popular output, has been anticipated by those readers like myself who were left on chair’s edge since the last volume of collected essays From A Kabbalist’s Diary came to light in 2005. We’ll have to forgive Bezalel for the near twenty years of anticipation for the sequel, because it was worth it.
This latest edition, not of a cold dry book born to collect dust among our growing collection of respectably bound spines adorning our shelves, but a collection of living-breathing-entrancing words, plumbing Biblical, Midrashic, Talmudic, Theological, Philosophical, Maimonidean, Kabbalistic, Hassidic, Kookian, Messianic insight.
There is no doubt that this book is autobiographical, not just of one individual, the singular Bezalel Naor, but of all of us who are navigating worlds. All of us homo mysticus drawn to the mysterium tremendum, who are torn between the new and the old, the word and world, the particular and the universal, and yet find in moments of equanimity, the harmony of all of the above.
This story is told through the guises and masks of many faces, Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik, the Rebbes of Chabad, Gur, Peshischa, Izbitz, Kopust and Koktz, Rambam, Saadia, Akiva and Moses. All faces of the same human: You. It is a story where kabbalistic concepts, mystical exegesis, biblical hermeneutics, sefirotic emanations and the intricate structure of mystical ritual activity, restoring balance to a fragile cosmos and sanity to our fragile psyches, come alive.
For Bezalel, as for his predecessors, spirituality is the by-product of using the tools of modern culture to guide the historical, earthly process of redemption. Jewish mysticism in the hands of this encyclopaedic genius “enriches rather than impoverishes, invigorates rather than vitiates our existence.”
Bezalel put his soul into this book, ana nafshi k’tavit yahavit, creating a sacred work, saturated with souls of our sacred past-made-present, the Ramak, the Ari, the saintly Gra and his disciples, the Besht and his holy students, Rav Kook, the Nazir, Rav Harlap and the mysterious Monsieur Chouchani. These are the souls that dance on the pages, between the words, beneath the lines and
inside the seams.
A primary character in the book, as in all of Rav Bezalel Naor’s work, is the towering genius, the poet, philosopher and prophet, the man of true kindness, chesed, the chosid, Rav Abraham
Yitzchak Kook, whose name appears nine hundred and sixty four times in this six hundred and eighty page long book. (That’s 1.4 times per page on average). Yet, when we write history, particularly about that which is close to our heart, we inevitably write about our own heart, about ourselves. I find it safe to assume that these words written about Rav Kook are again autobiographical. And should they sound true to you, should they speak to the vibration of your soul, let them.
The quest of this manuscript is poetic in nature although written in prose. It a quest for the lost dimensions of Judaism. The mythic, the aggadic, the mystical, the meaningful. It is the articulation of a thirst for the soul of the Torah, nishmata de’oraita. A hope for the rebirth, the resurrection, the renaissance of the prophetic, the lived, the biblical, the real. No longer satisfied by rote ritual, by rehearsed formalities, by empty words. It is an amulet cast into the tempest of the soul, parched and raging for the Dionysian, dying for the flowing, authentic and spontaneous waters of true, intimate experience of the Living God.
Allow it to touch your soul, and you will feel it blossom a thousand crimsons sunsets on fire with the infinite.
As a young man the author traipsed about Switzerland, West and East, from Berkeley, California with its broad, global perspective, to Jerusalem, Israel to seek out a teacher of the Kabbalah, an esoteric particularistic discipline. Navigating worlds. Where does one find teachers as these, guides for integrating the most expansive spiritual realizations – the best of secular discoveries, science, literature and philosophy – with the treasures of the ancient tradition?
“The history of the human race may be compared to a giant field through which the mighty winds of unification and atomization blow back and forth,” writes Bezalel. In our telling of history, we write it, we shape it. We, the inheritors of history, choose what story we wish to tell of it, and that story in turn shapes us. We become the stories we tell.
Zevi Slavin is an Australian native and has studied and taught at both religious and academic institutions in Australia, North America, South Africa and Israel. He’s currently living in a cabin in the woods near Jerusalem, reading and writing, and creating content via Seekers of Unity, a YouTube channel and podcast dedicated to a collaborative, comparative, interdisciplinary exploration of mysticism.
Originally published in The Jewish Press on Friday, March 26th, 2021.