Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Pillar of Prayer, the Pit of Failure

The Pillar of Prayer: Teachings of Contemplative Guidance in Prayer, Sacred Study, and the Spiritual Life of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his Circle, seems like such a fine idea for a book; Rabbi Menachem Kallus has culled, from a wide range of sources, sayings and paraphrases from Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.  The idea is to focus on prayer, and the topics are divided by type: distracting thoughts in prayer, Messianic prayer, preparation for prayer.  

This book is not for beginners in this topic, as the passages here provided are often complex theological and psychological insights; Kallus provides lengthy annotations for anyone who wishes to dive in to further explication of the passages.  Problem is, the explications are almost as hard to understand as the passages.

Part of the problem is not Kallus’ fault at all.  A book like this tries to present, in writing and translation, concepts and ideas that are inherently difficult to grasp.  They should be explained by a very qualified teacher and in the original languages.  There is no simplicity here.  This book gives the sense that Jewish mysticism is JUST an arcane system of interlocking symbols and their meanings which are closed to most people.  It is not.

In this sense, the book fails.  Mysticism, cleaving to God, should not be complex to explain (it is, however, difficult to DO).  Kallus and those like him err in trying to present too much for the sake of total inclusion and in the process lose many readers along the way.

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