The Mysterious “Meir”: Rav Kook’s Missing Student

Bezalel Naor

The Mysterious “Meir”: Rav Kook’s Missing Student

Missing Mayer 

Rav Kook’s Missing Student[1]

Click here to read the article as a PDF file

Recent years have seen a breakthrough regarding the elusive identity of “Monsieur Chouchani,” the mysterious vagabond who in the capacity of mentor, exerted such an incredibly profound effect upon the Nobel-laureate novelist Elie Wiesel as well as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in the post-war, post-Holocaust years in France. I am referring to the identification of Chouchani as none other than Hillel Pearlman, an early student of Rav Kook in his short-lived Jaffa Yeshivah.[2]

Pivotal to the identification (which we shall not enter into here) is a letter that Rav Kook penned from exile in St. Gallen, Switzerland to two students of the Yeshivah. We offer the letter in English translation:

With the help of God

6 Tishri 5676 [i.e., 1915]

A good conclusion[3] to my beloved soul-friends, each man according to his blessing,[4] the dear “groom,” the Rabbi, sharp and encyclopedic, crowned with rare qualities and character traits, our teacher Rabbi Hillel, may his light shine; and the dear “groom,” exceptional in Torah and awe of heaven, modest and crowned with rare character traits, Mr. Meir, may his light shine.

Peace! Peace! Blessing with abundant love.

My dear friends, for too, too long I delayed the response to your dear letter. In your goodness you will give me the benefit of the doubt. Only as a result of the preoccupation brought on by the pain of exile and the heart’s longing produced by the general situation (God have mercy), were things put off.

Many thanks to you, our dear Mr. Meir, for your detailed letter, whereby you deigned in your goodness to write to us in detail the state of our family members in the Holy Land, especially the state of the girls, may they live.[5] May the Lord repay your kindness and gladden your soul with every manner of happiness and success, and may we together rejoice in the joy of the Land of Delight upon the holy soil, when the Lord will grant salvation to His world, His land and His inheritance, speedily, speedily, soon.

And you, my beloved Mr. Hillel, all power to you for your dear words, upright words pronounced with proper feeling and the longing of a pure heart. We are standing opposite a great and powerful vision previously unknown in human history. There is no doubt that changes of great value are hidden in the depths of this world vision. There is also no doubt that the hand of Israel through the spirit, the voice of Jacob,[6] must be revealed here. Far be it from us to treat as false all the deeds and events, the longing for general life, that we experienced the past years. As much as they are mixed with impurities; as much as they failed to assume their proper form, their living description, their true life—we see in them in the final analysis, correspondence to the holy vision, unmistakable signs that things are happening according to a higher plan. The hand of the Lord holds them, to pave a way for His people, weary from its multitudinous troubles, and also for His world, crouching under the weight of confused life.

It is certainly difficulty at this time to trace which is the way of the process, but in this respect we may be certain: The terrible wandering of such great and essential portions of our nation residing in Eastern Europe, where the spiritual life of Israel is concentrated, and the necessity of rebuilding physically and spiritually new communities, educational institutions and Torah academies—will bring numerous new results, certainly for good. From those new winds that have been blowing in our world for the past half-century and more, something is to be derived, if we can purify them, erecting them upon foundations of purity and holiness. The opinions and longing for spiritual and physical building of Israel; the mighty desire of building the Land and the Nation, despite external and internal obstacles; the visions tucked away in the hearts of numerous thinkers to uplift the horn of Israel and its spirit, to bind together the strength of life with the sanctity of the soul, the talent of understanding with the depth of faith, immediate implementation with longing for salvation—all these are things that will bear fruit, and the Master of Wars, blessed be He, will grow from all of them His salvation.[7]

One thing we know for certain, that we are invited to great projects: philosophic projects; literary and publicistic projects; practical and social projects; projects at the interior of eternal life and projects of temporal and secular life; projects that remain within the border of Israel; and projects that overflow and touch the streams of life of the world at large and their many relations with the world of Israel, which was, is, and will be a blessing to all the families of earth,[8] as the word of the Lord to our ancestor [Abraham] in antiquity.

My beloved, I request that you write to us whatever is [happening] to you, your situation in detail, whether in spiritual or material matters; whatever you imagine might interest us, whether of private or public affairs. For all I will be exceedingly grateful to you, with God’s help.

I am your fast friend, looking for your happiness and success, and your return together with all our scattered people to the holy soil in happiness and success. May the Lord bless you with all good and extend to you peace and blessing and a good conclusion, as is your wish and the wish of one who seeks your peace and good all the days, longing for the salvation of the Lord,

Abraham Isaac Ha[Kohen] K[ook][9]

In order to understand the contents of the letter, the better to grasp the identities of its two recipients, we must first acquaint ourselves with the circumstances in which it was written.

For one decade, from 1904 to 1914, Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook served as Rabbi of the port city of Jaffa (precursor to Tel-Aviv). During those years in Jaffa he taught a select group of students in a yeshivah of his own making. (This yeshivah is not to be confused with the famous Yeshivah Merkaz Harav founded by Rav Kook in Jerusalem in the early 1920s.) In summer of 1914, Rav Kook set sail for Europe to attend the Knessiyah Gedolah or World Congress of the recently organized Agudath Israel movement. Due to the outbreak of World War One (on Tish’ah be-Av of that year), the conference was cancelled. Unable to return to Jaffa, Rav Kook remained stranded in Europe for the duration of the War, first in St. Gallen, Switzerland, where his needs were provided for by a sympathetic Mr. Abraham Kimhi, and later in London, where Rav Kook served as Rabbi of the Mahzikei Hadat synagogue in London’s East End.[10]

Much concerning the Jaffa yeshivah remains shrouded in mystery. No archive remains of this short-lived institution.[11] Thus we are pretty much left in the dark as to the curriculum,[12] enrollment, and even location. Fortunately, significant headway has been made in this direction in the recent article by Moshe Nahmani of the Yeshivat Hesder of Ramat Gan, “She’areha Ne’ulim—Yeshivat Harav Kuk be-Yaffo” (“Closed Gates—The Yeshivah of Rabbi Kook in Jaffa”).[13] Through painstaking research, the author was able to put together a list of students. Researchers had no difficulty identifying the “Hillel” of the letter as Hillel Pearlman. It was merely a case of “connecting the dots.”[14] But Nahmani was baffled by the “Meir” who is one of two co-addressees in our letter.[15]

I believe that I have solved the mystery of the missing Meir. In 1977, I was a visitor to the home of Rabbi Mayer Goldberg of Oakland, California. Rabbi Goldberg was a successful businessman (at that time in real estate) and a Jewish philanthropist, especially supportive of yeshivot or rabbinical academies. Rabbi Goldberg revealed to me that he had studied under Rabbi Kook in Jaffa.[16] He then went on to share with me a teaching of Rav Kook that I have since repeated on many an occasion. He said that before being exposed to Rav Kook’s teaching, the term “yir’at shamayim” (“fear of heaven”) had only a restrictive, narrowing connotation. Rav Kook explained the term in a totally different light. By the term “yir’at shamayim,” Rav Kook conveyed to his young listeners the vastness, the enormity, the infinitude of the universe.

Reading Moshe Nachmani’s article concerning Rav Kook’s yeshivah in Jaffa, and his bafflement as to the full identity of the student named simply “Meir,” I recalled my meeting with Rabbi Mayer Goldberg. I resolved that during my forthcoming visit to the East Bay area (as it has come to be known) I would meet with the late Rabbi’s children to learn from them more details of their father’s involvement with Rav Kook. What emerged from our discussion (conducted on February 14, 2013) is the following reconstruction of events.

Mayer Vevrick was born circa 1890 “near Kiev.”[17] At some time before World War One, Mayer boarded a ship from Odessa to Jaffa. In the words of his daughter Rachel Landes:

Once he arrived in Jaffa, he sought out the yeshiva of Rabbi Kook. Rabbi Avraham Kook was a world renowned scholar and it was there my father headed to study further. He became a “hasid,” a follower of the Rabbi, and thoroughly enjoyed his studies there. He lived in Rabbi Kook’s home.[18] He studied Talmud…with Rashi and the commentaries, for many hours a day with the other young men. These were the happiest days of his life, with uninterrupted Torah study, and the joy of learning with Rabbi Kook. Mayer adopted [Rabbi] Kook’s philosophy and was guided by it for the rest of his life.[19]

In World War One, Mayer left Jaffa for Egypt. There he was held by the British in an internment camp. Eventually, with some ingenuity, he was able to book passage on a boat to the United States.[20] Initially he resided on the East Coast. In Boston, he received a ketav semikha (writ of ordination) from Rabbi [Joseph M.] Jacobson. The semikha was written by Rabbi Jacobson on the spot in recognition of Mayer’s knowledge of Torah.[21] Later, Rabbi Mayer relocated to the West Coast, first to Washington State and finally to California.[22]

What becomes apparent from the letter of Rav Kook is that Meir remained in Jaffa after Rav Kook’s departure for Europe (followed almost immediately by the outbreak of World War One), and thus was in a position to give the Rav an update on the welfare of his daughters left behind in Jaffa. What also becomes apparent, is that in the Fall of 1915, Meir and his companion Hillel were no longer in the Land of Israel but somewhere else, for in his concluding remarks Rav Kook expresses the wish that they return to the Holy Land. This is consistent with Rabbi Goldberg’s biography, whereby he (along with countless other Jews of Erets Israel) was forced to flee the Holy Land at that time.[23] This also coincides with the reconstructed biography of Hillel (Pearlman). Both students of Rav Kook, Hillel (Pearlman) and Meir (Goldberg) ended up in the United States in World War One. Whereas we are being told that Hillel (Pearlman) later left the United States for Europe and North Africa, reinventing himself as the mysterious “Monsieur Chouchani,” Mayer Goldberg remained in the United States.

Rabbi Mayer Goldberg passed away on September 25, 1992, a centenarian.[24] Shortly before his passing, Rabbi Goldberg had published in Jerusalem a collection of kabbalistic insights (culled from his marginalia in the books of his library), entitled Margaliyot shel Torah (Pearls of Torah). Much of the material in the book is attributed to the kabbalistic work Yalkut Reubeni.[25] My attention was riveted to an unattributed piece, which would appear to originate with Rabbi Mayer Goldberg himself:

In Exodus 2:12 we read that Moses slew the Egyptian (who was beating a Hebrew) and buried him in the sand. The Hebrew words are: “Vayyakh et ha-mitsri vayitmenehu ba-hol.”


Rabbi Goldberg observes that the word “ha-mitsri” (“the Egyptian”) has the same numerical value (gematria) as the word “Moshe” (“Moses”). In other words, Moses slew himself! The Rabbi then goes on to explain that what is truly conveyed by the verse, is that Moses slew the opinions of Egypt. Moses, growing up in the house of Pharaoh, had imbibed secular knowledge stripped of Godliness. So in other words, on a deeper level, what Moses was actually slaying was himself, or a part of himself that was thoroughly Egyptian in outlook. He then buried that secular learning devoid of Godliness “in the sand.” Here the Rabbi plays on the word “hol,”which may have another meaning beside “sand”: the secular. This is to say, Moses buried that tainted learning in the secular realm.[26]

©2013 by Bezalel Naor

[1] The writer wishes to express his gratitude to Eve Gordon-Ramek and Robert H. Warwick, children of the late Rabbi Mayer Goldberg, for their invaluable contribution to the preparation of this article.

[2] Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, former Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who was present at the time of Chouchani’s death in Uruguay, was so convinced of the identification that he named his son “Hillel” after his revered master. See Moshe Nahmani, “Mi Kan Hillel,” Mussaf Shabbat, Makor Rishon, 3 Ellul, 5771 [2.9.2011]; Yair Sheleg, “Goodbye, Mr. Chouchani,” Haaretz, Sept. 26, 2003; Solomon Malka, Monsieur Chouchani: L’énigme d’un maitre du XXème siècle (Paris, 1994). Recently, a website has been devoted exclusively  to Chouchani. At we are told that a film is being produced of the life of Mr. Shushani!

I have two anecdotes to contribute to the growing literature on Chouchani, the first heard from Prof. Andre Neher (1914-1988), the second from Rabbi Uziel Milevsky (former Chief Rabbi of Mexico).

  • My dear friend Andre (Asher Dov) Neher z”l had been a distinguished professor of Jewish studies at the University of Strasburg. I knew him in his last years after his retirement to Jerusalem. Neher told me that in his youth, his father had hired Chouchani to teach him Talmud. At their initial meeting it was decided that they would study Tractate Beitsah. Chouchani said to the young Neher: “In the next hour I can either teach you the first folio of the Tractate, or sum up for you the entire Tractate!”
  • Similarly, in the final phase of Chouchani’s career (in Montevideo, Uruguay), Rabbi Aaron Milevsky (1904-1986), Chief Rabbi of Uruguay, hired Chouchani to tutor his young son Uzi in Talmud. Chouchani rewarded Uzi’s diligence by allowing him to quiz him on any entry in the dictionary. Uzi asked Chouchani for the Latin name of some obscure butterfly, which Chouchani was able to supply without hesitation! (Heard from Rabbi Nachum Lansky of Baltimore, shelit”a, quoting Rabbi Uziel Milevsky z”l.)


At the onset of this article I wish to clarify one point. Should the identification of Hillel Pearlman with “Monsieur Chouchani” one day prove incorrect, that would in no way affect the positive identification of Rav Kook’s addressee “Meir” as Rabbi Mayer Goldberg of Oakland, California. The identification of the mysterious “Meir” as Rabbi Meir Goldberg is in no way contingent upon the identification of Hillel Pearlman as “Chouchani,” but rather stands on its own merits.

[3] Traditional blessing for the New Year uttered between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

[4] Cf. Genesis 49:28.

[5] While Rav Kook and his Rebbetzin (as well as their only son Tsevi Yehudah) were together in Europe, their daughters were left behind in Jaffa, and Rav Kook was most anxious as to their welfare. The family would not be reunited until after World War One, when Rav Kook returned from European exile to the Holy Land.

[6] Genesis 27:22.

[7] Allusion to the conclusion of the Yotser prayer recited in the morning service: “ba’al milhamot, zore’a tsedakot, matsmi’ah yeshu’ot” (“Master of wars, Planter of righteousness, Grower of salvations”). A year into World War One, Rav Kook already envisioned that the outcome of the War would be a shifting of the center of Jewish life from Eastern Europe elsewhere, as well as the further advancement of the building of the Holy Land.

[8] Genesis 12:3.

[9] Igrot ha-Rayah, Vol. III (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1965), Letter 740 (pp. 2-3).

[10] Mr. Jacob Rosenheim, organizer of the Knessiyah Gedolah, subsequently penned a letter of apology to Rav Kook, for by extending the invitation to him to attend the conference, Rosenheim had indirectly brought about Rav Kook’s misfortune.

[11] Moshe Nahmani posits that it existed for 6-7 years from 1909/10-1915.

[12] We do know that one subject on the curriculum, namely Kuzari by Rabbi Judah Halevi, aroused the ire of the Jerusalem zealot Rabbi Isaiah Orenstein. See my translation of Orot (Spring Valley, NY: Orot, 2004), p. 236, n. 169.

[13] Available on the website, dated 4/17/2012 or 25 Nissan, 5772.

According to Moshe Nahmani, the true reason that so little is known of this earlier yeshivah of Rav Kook is that Rav Kook himself suppressed publicity concerning its inner life, for fear that should word of the curriculum leak out, the yeshivah would come under attack from the ever vigilant rabbis of Jerusalem. (In fact, Rav Kook’s teaching of Kuzari to the students was sharply criticized by the zealous Rabbi Isaiah Orenstein of Jerusalem.) Nahmani believes that Rav Kook was dispensing the arcane wisdom of Kabbalah to the students—sufficient grounds for keeping publicity away from the yeshivah. (But the Kabbalah may not have been the standard Kabbalah as taught in Jerusalem. We know that one of the instructors in the yeshivah was Shem Tov Geffen (1856-1927), an autodidactic genius who fused the study of Kabbalah together with mathematics and physics.) Of course, this is speculation on Nahmani’s part. What is factual, is that Rav Kook taught in Jaffa the Kuzari of Rabbi Judah Halevi and Maimonides’ Eight Chapters (Maimonides’ introduction to his commentary to Tractate Avot or Ethics of the Fathers)—which in themselves represented a departure from the standard curriculum of the contemporary yeshivot.

[14] In one day, 26 Iyyar, 5675, Rav Kook sent two letters from St. Gallen to America (Igrot ha-Rayah, Vol. II, Letters 733-734). The first letter is addressed to Rabbi Meir Berlin asking that he lend assistance to Rav Kook’s student, newly arrived immigrant Hillel Pearlman. The second letter is addressed to Hillel Pearlman himself, expressing pain that he too was exiled from the Holy Land, and offering encouragement, as well as the practical suggestion that he establish contact with Rabbi Meir Berlin, and with Rav Kook’s staunch friend Dr. Moshe Seidel, who might be in a position to help. In a postscript Rav Kook, noting that Hillel Perlman had spent some time in the house after Rav Kook’s own absence, asks for details concerning the welfare of the two Kook daughters left behind in Jaffa, Batyah Miriam and Esther Yael. Logic dictates that our Hillel is Hillel Pearlman of the earlier letters. What eventually became of Hillel Perlman and whether he in fact “morphed“ into “Monsieur Chouchani” remains something of a mystery. See Moshe Nahmani, “Mi Kan Hillel?”

[15] “She’areha Ne’ulim—Yeshivat Harav Kuk be-Yaffo,” Part II, note 51. So too in Nahmani’s earlier article “Mi Kan Hillel?”

[16] He told this writer that before arriving in Jaffa from his native Russia, he had studied under the “Gadol of Minsk.”


According to the memoir of Rabbi Goldberg’s daughter, Rachel Landes, “My Father, Mayer Goldberg” (October 15, 2009), her father grew up in Krementchug, Ukraine. She also writes that at one point in his career, her father studied in a Yeshivah Gedolah under Rabbi Zimmerman. Though Landes does not specify that the Yeshivah was located in Krementchug (to the contrary she writes that the Yeshivah was in Kiev), one ventures a guess that this Yeshivah of Rabbi Zimmerman was actually that of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Halevi Zimmerman, Rabbi of Krementchug. The latter was the father-in-law of Rabbi Baruch Baer Leibowitz (famed student of Rabbi Hayyim Halevi Soloveitchik, known as “Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk,” and himself Rosh Yeshivah of Knesset Beit Yitzhak, first located in Slabodka, and between the two World Wars in Kamenetz) and grandfather of Rabbi Dr. Aharon Chaim Halevi Zimmerman (1915-1995), Rosh Yeshivah of Beit ha-Midrash le-Torah (Hebrew Theological College) in Skokie, Illinois. (Rabbi Dr. Zimmerman’s father, Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Halevi Zimmerman was the son of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Halevi Zimmerman of Krementchug.) But again, this is mere conjecture on my part.

[17] According to Rachel Landes’ memoir, her father was born in Krementchug. In his Application for a Certificate of Arrival and Preliminary Form for Petition for Naturalization (1940), Mayer writes that he was born in “[illegible] near Kiev.” Mayer adopted the surname “Goldberg” in the United States.

[18] The fact that Meir (or Mayer) resided in the Kook home would explain how he was able to supply Rav Kook with information concerning the Rav’s daughters. Nahmani noted that Rav Kook had earlier asked Hillel Perlman for details concerning the girls, the assumption being that Hillel Perlman had resided in the Rav’s home (though that is not explicitly stated in Rav Kook’s letter to Hillel Pearlman). See Moshe Nahmani, “Mi Kan Hillel?”

[19] Rachel Landes, “My Father, Mayer Goldberg” (2009), p. 2.

[20] According to Mayer Warwick Goldberg’s Application for a Certificate of Arrival and Preliminary Form for Petition for Naturalization (1940), he booked passage on a Greek steamship from Alexandria, Egypt to New York under the assumed name “Othniel Kaplan” in Spring of 1915 or 1916. Writing twenty-five years after the fact, Mayer could no longer recall the precise date, whether the arrival in New York had taken place in Spring of 1915 or Spring of 1916. We are in a position now to aid his memory. We know from Rav Kook’s letters to Rabbi Meir Berlin and to Hillel Pearlman, both datelined “St. Gallen, 26 Iyyar 5675,” that as of Spring 1915, Hillel Perlman was in America. In order for Rav Kook’s letter of 6 Tishri, 5676 to be addressed jointly to Hillel and Meir, Meir too would have had to reside in America by Fall of 1915. That could only be so if Meir (or Mayer) arrived in New York in Spring of 1915—not 1916!

[21] The fact that Rav Kook does not address Meir by the title “Harav” in the salutation (as he does Hillel) indicates that Meir was not yet an ordained rabbi in the Fall of 1915.

[22] According to information supplied in his 1940 Application for…Naturalization, Mayer resided in New York City and Brooklyn from 1916 to 1917; in New Haven and Colchester, Connecticut from 1917 to 1919; in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington from 1919 to 1922; in San Francisco from 1922 to 1930; and in Oakland from 1930 to 1940.

[23] To quote from Rachel Landes’ memoir (p. 2): “…World War I broke out. The Turks, who were in control of Palestine, sided with Germany, and Russia was on the side of the Allies. My father, being from Russia, found himself classified as an enemy alien. The Turks began to round up all foreign nationals. It became clear that my father could not stay there.”

[24] At the 24th Annual Banquet of the Hebrew Academy of San Francisco, held on Sunday, December 6, 1992, a moving tribute was paid to the recently departed Rabbi Mayer Goldberg.

[25] Yalkut Reubeni (Wilmersdorf, 1681), by Reuben Hoshke HaKohen (Sofer) of Prague (died 1673), is a kabbalistic collection on the Pentateuch.

[26] Rabbi Mayer Goldberg, Margaliyot shel Torah (Jerusalem, 5750), p. 112. The Hebrew original reads:

ויך – 36 כמנין ל”ו כריתות [משנה, כריתות א, א], משה כרת את המצרי, כרת את החיצונים, ויטמינם בחולין. המצרי שהרג משה – הדעות של מצרים שמשה למד, חיצוניות בלי אלוהות –הרג וטמן בחולין, כי מש”ה בגימטריא המצר”י.

Vayyigash: The Psychology of the “Yitsra de-Sin’at Hinam” Part 1

Bezalel Naor

Parashat Vayyigash

The Psychology of the “Yitsra de-Sin’at Hinam

Part 1

We read in this week’s Torah portion of the rapprochement between feuding brothers, specifically Joseph and Judah. This theme is reflected in the Haftarah, the reading from the Prophets, which is designed to act as a mirror image of the Pentateuchal reading.[1]

By the time of the Prophet Ezekiel, the nation of Israel had been divided into two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel (or Joseph) in the North, and the Kingdom of Judah in the South. Ezekiel is commanded by God to perform a symbolic act (referred to in Nahmanidean terminology as a “po’al dimyoni”). He is to take two sticks. Upon one he is to write: “For Judah.” Upon the other he must write: “For Joseph.” He is then to bind the two sticks together as one. This is to symbolize that the Lord will reunite Joseph and Judah.

When the children of your people will say to you, Will you not tell us what these are to you? Speak to them,

Thus said the Lord, Behold I am taking the Tree of Joseph…and the tribes of Israel, his companions, and

placing them together with the Tree of Judah, and I shall make them into one tree, and they shall be one in

my hand.[2]

The brothers’ sin of selling Joseph into slavery was so grievous that one of the great teachers of Torah who perished in the Holocaust, Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman (Rosh Yeshivah of Baranovich), opined that the blood libels brought against the Jews throughout the centuries were divine retribution for the nation’s collective guilt in having sold the righteous Joseph!

Unfortunately, the Satan of sin’at hinam (literally, “free hatred”), senseless hatred and infighting between members of our own people, still dances among us. How does one eradicate this bane?

The Talmud tells us that the First Temple was destroyed on account of the three cardinal sins rampant during the First Temple era: idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. The Second Temple on the other hand, was destroyed due to the sin of sin’at hinam, internal hatred of Jew for Jew.[3]

Rav Kook is famous for having said that the corrective to sin’at hinam (“free hatred”) is ahavat hinam (“free love”). Just as the Temple was destroyed on account of senseless hatred, so it will be rebuilt by the power of senseless love that one Jew has for another.

Rabbi Kook had a dear friend, a fellow Lithuanian kabbalist by the name of Rabbi Pinhas Hakohen Lintop (Rabbi of Birzh or Birzai, Lithuania). Rabbi Lintop had a different idea how we might solve the ongoing problem of sin’at hinam.

According to the Talmud, at the very onset of the Second Temple, a Great Assembly was convened to abolish the yitsra de-‘avodah zarah, the drive for idolatry. The Men of the Great Assembly knew that it would be pointless to erect a Second Temple as long as the compulsion for idolatry was yet intact. As long as Jews were yet drawn to idolatry, it was a foregone conclusion that this new temple would suffer the same fate as its predecessor. So the Anshei Knesset ha-Gedolah (the Men of the Great Assembly) came together and through their power of prayer, abolished the entire phenomenon of idolatry.[4]

Rabbi Lintop reasoned that what is required in our own day—so that we may rebuild the Temple—is to once again convene a Knesset ha-Gedolah, a Great Assembly, this time to abolish the yitsra de-sin’at hinam, the driving compulsion for senseless, irrational hatred so rampant among us.

In fact, Rabbi Lintop hoped that the Knessiyah ha-Gedolah of the World Agudath Israel movement, convened in Vienna in the month of Ellul, 5683 (1923), would be the golden opportunity for doing away with infighting, once and for all. To this end, he wrote an address to that great congress, in which he outlined his plan. He requested of Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzenski of Vilna, the acknowledged leader of the generation, that he read the address from the podium!

Needless to say, Rabbi Lintop was sorely disappointed when the Knessiyah ha-Gedolah, despite its truly remarkable achievement in unifying disparate elements of the Jewish People—hasidim and mitnagdim, Hirschians from Frankfurt and Mussarites from Slabodka, et cetera—failed to live up to the potential that the visionary expected of it

Perhaps the saddest commentary on the failure of the Knessiyah Gedolah was the fact that at the convention itself, abuse was heaped upon Rav Kook of Jerusalem, Rabbi Lintop’s dearest friend and soul “brother.” For that reason, the saintly Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen (author Hafets Hayyim), felt forced to walk out of the convention in demonstrative protest, locking himself away in his hotel room, awaiting his return to Radin.

We need to discuss the psychology (and perhaps also the neurology) of the “yitsra de-‘avodah zarah” and the “yitsra de-sin’at hinam” (to adopt Rabbi Lintop’s felicitous term) …

(To be continued)

[1] See Maimonides, MT, Hil. Tefillah 13:3.

[2] Ezekiel 37:18-19.

[3] TB, Yoma 9b.

[4] TB, Yoma 69b; Sanhedrin 64a.

Parashat Vayehi

Bezalel Naor

Father Jacob: A Godly Being?

There is something extremely puzzling in this week’s Torah portion. Father Jacob commands his son Joseph not to bury him in Egypt but rather together with his fathers (in the Cave of Machpelah). Commenting on the words “Do not bury me in Egypt” (Genesis 47:29), Rashi writes: “So that the Egyptians don’t make me into an idolatry” (Genesis Rabbah). One wonders why the Egyptians would be so inclined to idolatrize Jacob. After all, Jacob (unlike his son Joseph) was not a ruler of Egypt. Usually, only kings of Egypt would be deified after their death.

Earlier, Rashi provided a non-literal interpretation of the Rabbis to the verse in Genesis 33:20: “He erected there an altar and called it El, God of Israel.” Although as Rashi points out, the simple explanation of the verse is that Jacob gave the altar the name “El, God of Israel,” the Rabbis turned it around to mean that the God of Israel called Jacob “El” (TB, Megillah 18a).
Perhaps it was for this reason that Jacob feared being idolatrized, because there truly was something especially godly about him, to the point that God had bestowed upon him the appellation “El”!

Parashat Shemot

 “L’Exil de la Parole

“Exile of the Word”

Bezalel Naor

Parashat Shemot

Shovavim Tat

We begin this week a special period in the Kabbalistic calendar known as “Shovavim Tat.” This is an acronym for the Torah portions that we will be reading during this time span: Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshalah, Yitro, Mishpatim, Terumah, Tetsaveh.

The meaning of the Hebrew word “shovavim” is “naughty,” as in “Return naughty children” (“Shuvu banim shovavim”) (Jeremiah 3:14). According to the Kabbalists of old, this is an especially propitious time to return human seed scattered by nocturnal emission.

But this “tikkun” or fixing of souls may be taken to more abstract levels. In the heyday of the East-European Hasidic movement founded by Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, the great Hasidic “maggidim” or preachers would wander from town to town during this period to gather in the human elements that had been dispersed, bringing lost souls back to their divine source.

Perhaps in our own day the work of the “tsaddik” devoted to the cause of gathering in the dispersed souls may be made easier by the Internet. No longer must the righteous trudge through the deep snow to reach his destination. His work may now be carried out in Cyberspace.

Exile of the Word

According to the Zohar, speech was in exile in Egypt. The French Jewish thinker Andre Neher adopted this theme from the Zohar as the title of one of his studies, L’Exil de la parole, translated into English as Exile of the Word.

Developing this idea, Rabbi Isaac Luria punned that the deliverance from Egypt, Pesah (Passover) is actually two words: Peh sah (“talking mouth”). The redemption consists in the liberation of the word.

Whereas the Torah itself discusses only the speech impediment of Moses, who by his own admission was a stutterer and stammerer (kevad peh u-khevad lashon),[1] our great thinkers portray the existential condition of the Children of Israel in Egypt as one of collective muteness. Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik of Boston once remarked that the expressions the Torah employs to describe the Children of Israel’s reaction to the oppression of slavery (ze’akah, shav’ah, na’akah)[2] evoke the anguished outcry, the moaning and groaning of a wounded animal; nothing even approaching the eloquence of prayer. One might go so far as to say that their response is “preverbal.” (Rabbi Soloveitchik was preceded in this observation by Rabbi Abraham Tsevi Margaliyot, eminent disciple of the Hasidic Rabbi Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin.)[3]

One muses aloud that this is perhaps the symbolism of the Lithuanian custom of eating eggs at the Seder table on the night of the 15th of Nissan. Eggs have no “mouth.” They symbolize muteness. For this reason, traditionally they are eaten by mourners. As a result of the loss of a loved one, the mourner is plunged into a state of muteness. The eggs would come to remind us of the exile of the word in Egypt.

The one Hebrew who stands out as an exception to the mute scenario of Egypt is: Shelomit bat Divri. Rashi interprets her name in the following manner:

Shelomit—For she would chatter, “Shalom to you! Shalom to you!” She would chatter on, extending greeting to all. Bat Divri—She was (overly) talkative, speaking with everyone…

(Rashi, Numbers 24:11)

Rashi goes on to explain that Shelomit’s behavior led to her undoing, whereby she bore a son to an Egyptian. (This Egyptian man was none other than the Egyptian overseer slain by Moses in our Parashat Shemot.)[4] But short of committing adultery, her talkativeness alone was inappropriate behavior in that state of “exile of the word.” Just as it is improper in a house of mourning (beit ha-‘evel) to extend the greeting of “Shalom,” so in Egypt the greeting of “Shalom” was certainly out of character.

[1] Exodus 4:10. Interesting is Onkelos’ Aramaic version of “kevad lashon”: “’amik lishan” (literally, “deep of tongue”). Might this be an allusion to the Rabbinic tradition that Moses had a very deep voice? See Rashi to Exodus 2:6, s.v. ve-hineh na’ar bokheh: “His voice like that of a lad.” While yet an infant, Moses possessed the voice of a pubescent boy.

[2] Exodus 2:23-24.

[3] See Rabbi Abraham Tsevi Margaliyot, Keren ‘Orah, Va’era.

[4] See Rashi Exodus 2:11 and Leviticus 24:10.

Parashat Va’Era: Messages from G-d


Parashat Va’Era

Messages From G-d

Bezalel Naor

Parashat Va’Era

The Torah Portion begins with a statement of God to Moses to the effect that in the past, God was revealed to the forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by the name “El Shaddai,” but not by the name YHWH (which only in Moses’ time is the mode of divine revelation).
Some of the kabbalists point out an incredible insight: The numerical value of the name “El Shaddai” (345) is exactly the numerical value of “Moshe” (345).
What this gematria or numerical equivalence conveys is that the level of spiritual attainment that the fathers had to strive for, was for Moses a given. It was not something that Moses had to struggle to reach, it was his birthright, so to speak.
The American Jewish community (as well as many other Jewish communities around the globe) have witnessed such a religious progression. Whereas the previous generation had to struggle for such basic observance as kashrut, Shabbat, etc.–all of this has been  handed to us on a gold platter. Today, observance of the dietary laws, for example, is made easy for us. There is an abundance of kosher food. Not much “mesirut nefesh” (self-sacrifice) is required to adhere to the kosher diet.
By the same token, there are spiritual levels that we are struggling to attain, which hopefully by our children’s generation will be a given. Amen!

Freedom Movements

Rabbi Jacob of Izbica (pronounced “Izhbitsa”) writes:
How do we know that we may make use of the “bat kol” (heavenly voice)? For it says, “Your ears will hear a word from behind you” [Isaiah 30:21] (Talmud Bavli, end Tractate Megillah).
The explanation of this is that when the Children of Israel are free men, then the Word proceeds to Israel in a direct fashion, and from them it spreads to the entire world. However in exile, they [i.e., the Children of Israel] hear it only from behind them. When God wishes to send a new influx to Israel, the nations sense this beforehand, and they bond together…and create a tumult…and Israel understand through them which light, which new influx of energy God is busy opening now. So it is now. He who desires to understand the tumult…understands from this that God is busy opening for them a new light that they may be free men. And since Israel do not have an explicit ilumination, just that they figure out on their own based on the opposite’s behavior, it is dubbed a “bat kol” (heavenly voice). And this is what the verse means by “Your ears will hear a word from behind you.” Namely, from the nations, who are referred to as “ahorayim” (the rear). For the desire and quest of the Children of Israel to be free men is the opposite of the nations…
(Rabbi Jacob of Izhbitsa and Radzyn, Beit Ya’akov, end Va’Era)
Over a year ago, I quoted this striking passage from the Izhbitser Rebbe in regard to what was being termed at that time “The Arab Spring.” Today, the civil war in Syria continues, taking a terrible toll of human lives (at last estimate 60,000 dead).
From these upheavals in the surrounding nations, the People of Israel hear a “bat kol” (heavenly voice), an echo of our own quest for freedom and independence, which as the Izhbitser Rebbe goes on to explain in that very passage, is in reality, the quest for greater ability to serve our Creator!

Parashat Bo: The Enigmatic Existence of Evil

Parashat Bo

The Enigmatic Existence of Evil

Bo el Par’oh / Come to Pharaoh

Bezalel Naor

The Torah portion begins with the words “Vayyomer YHWH el Moshe, Bo el Par’oh” (“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh’”).[1] Moses is commanded by God to appear before Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh send free the People of Israel. The obvious question arises. Would it not be more correct syntactically to command Lekh el Par’oh” (“Go to Pharaoh”), rather than Bo el Par’oh” (“Come to Pharaoh”)?

The Rebbe of Kotsk, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Morgenstern (1787-1859), one of our boldest and most daring thinkers, replied that one must not forget who is speaking: God. So the statement is formulated from God’s perspective. From God’s perspective, it is perfectly correct to say “Come to Pharaoh” because God is found right there in the very midst of Pharaoh!

This is an extremely powerful, even brutal realization that goes to the very heart of the problem of evil. All philosophic systems must ultimately come to terms with the problem of evil. If God is good, then how does evil arise in this universe? The Persian religion of Zoroastrianism was conveniently able to posit two opposite forces at work in the world: Ahura Mazda (or Hormazd, Hormoz),[2] the god of good and light, versus Ahriman, the god of evil and darkness. However, the ancient Israelite prophet Isaiah railed against this dualistic perception of reality, upholding a strict monotheism, a single deity who “yotser ‘or u-bore hoshekh, ‘oseh shalom u-bore ra’, ani YHWH ‘oseh kol eleh” (“forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates evil; I am the Lord Who does all this”).[3]

With this sharp, epigrammatic koan of the Kotsker Rebbe, there is driven home to us in the most forceful manner that Pharaoh, the very symbol of evil, has no existence independent of God. Ultimately, the evil in the world is authored by God. Judaism could not afford the dualism of the Persian prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra). In the simple, yet eloquent words of the Prophet Isaiah: “bore ra’” (“[The Lord] creates evil”).

In our daily morning prayer established by the Sages who postdated Isaiah, Isaiah’s stark, shocking statement has been emended to read: “Barukh ata YHWH, Eloheinu, melekh ha-‘olam, yotser ‘or u-bore hoshekh, ‘oseh shalom u-bore et ha-kol (“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates the all”).

Rav Kook explains the difference between the Prophet Isaiah’s formula and that instituted by the Sages in our prayer. Isaiah was describing the “facts on the ground,” so to speak. One cannot deny the facticity of evil in our world. Unfortunately, the world abounds in evil.

The Prophet described the reality of our plane of existence. The Sages understood that on a higher level of reality (referred to as “the All”), the seemingly discrete, disparate, disjoint elements bond together in a simple unicity:

The prophecy, which is intended to inculcate a moral lesson in opposition to philosophies that would undermine monotheism, is stated in terms of human perception: “creates darkness,” “creates evil”… But we in our prayer, inasmuch as it our objective to tell the truth of the honor of the Lord, are correct in saying “creates the all.”… But in order “to mention the attribute of day by night, and the attribute of night by day,”[4] i.e., the principle of the singularity of divine rule throughout all the opposite manners in which existence is governed—both general and specific—we mention too that which is our common perception: “creates darkness.”

However, since the purpose of the blessing is also to bless the Lord for His lovingkindness—“‘olam hesed yibaneh” (“the world is established with lovingkindness”)[5]—it is worthy to conclude the blessing with the acknowledgment of the truth, that the Lord created no evil, and there is in existence no absolute evil, and the perceived evil is joined to the totality to perfect the good, so that evil is subsumed under the term “the All.”[6]

According to Rav Kook, the relation of the text of the prayer to that of the prophecy is exactly the reverse of what we have generally been led to believe. Most of us assume that Isaiah spoke truth itself and that the Rabbis in formulating the prayer “toned down,” ameliorated or even censored that truth, substituting a euphemism “all” for Isaiah’s unflinching “evil.” Comes Rav Kook and tells us the exact opposite. The ultimate truth is that formulated by the Sages, the Men of the Great Assembly: In reality there is no evil. Once evil has been grasped as part of the totality of existence, it disappears from our vision. It was the Prophet Isaiah, who for the purposes of moral exhortation in combatting philosophies that would deny pure monotheism, overstated the case for evil, couching reality in terms convenient to the common perception of man.

Although Rav Kook chalks the difference of the prophecy and the prayer to their varying objectives—moral exhortation versus singing the praises of God, Who is ultimately a loving God—one is tempted to explain the difference in terms of the prophet’s and sage’s differing perceptions of reality. When confronted with the problem of evil, the purview of the Prophet is circumscribed; the Sages’ grasp of reality is more comprehensive. At this point, one might invoke the famous maxim: “Hakham ’adif mi-navi.” (“The sage is superior to the prophet.”)[7] Based on their theodicy, the Men of the Great Assembly actually surpassed the Prophets.[8]

[1] Exodus 10:1.

[2] See TB, Gittin 11a and Tosafot ad locum, s.v. Hormin; TB, Sanhedrin 39a and Tosafot ad loc., s.v. Hormiz.

[3] Isaiah 45:7. The passage occurs within the context of a prophecy to Cyrus, King of Persia.

[4] TB, Berakhot 11b.

[5] Psalms 89:3. See also Genesis Rabbah 8:5: “Lovingkindness says, ‘He [i.e., Adam] should be created.’” It should be noted however that the words “asher amar ‘olam yibaneh” (“which said the world should be created”) are lacking in the original of ‘Eyn Ayah, and would therefore appear to be a gloss of Rabbi Tsevi Yehudah Hakohen Kook to his father’s work. (See next note.) The present writer hopes one day to deal with this and other issues concerning the composition of Rav Kook’s commentary to the Prayer Book.

[6] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Siddur ‘Olat Re’iyah, Vol. I,  p. 239; idem, ‘Eyn Ayah (Filber ed.), Berakhot, Chap. I, par. 160. The text of ‘Olat Re’iyah differs from that of ‘Eyn Ayah (Rav Kook’s commentary to ‘Eyn Ya’akov). Rav Kook’s son, Rabbi Tsevi Yehudah Hakohen Kook (1892-1981) adapted the section from ‘Eyn Ayah to the Siddur.

[7] TB, Bava Batra 12b.

[8] See Yer. Berakhot 7:3; TB, Yoma 69b; Rabbi Isaac Hutner, Pahad Yitshak—Hannukah, Ma’amar  8.

Rabbi Isaac Hutner was a disciple of Rav Kook during Rabbi Hutner’s early years in Jerusalem. (However, Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik once communicated to this writer in private conversation that he felt it an inexactitude to use the term “talmid” [disciple] to describe Rabbi Hutner’s relation to Rav Kook. Rabbi Hutner was the private teacher of Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik during the latter’s youth in Warsaw.)

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei

File:Stiftshuette Modell Timnapark.jpg

Bezalel Naor

The Tabernacle: A Virtual Erets Israel


A major portion of the book of Exodus is taken up by a painstakingly detailed description of the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) in the desert. The magnificent architecture has come to be associated with the name of Bezalel, the chief craftsman or artisan, the mastermind in charge of the design, lo, the “brains” of the operation. (The famous Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem, founded by Boris Schatz, was appropriately enough named after this extremely talented Biblical figure.)

Yet the question remains: Why should the Torah lavish so much attention upon the layout of this prototypical temple? Moses is not Frank Lloyd Wright. Whatever the Torah of Moses is (and that is open to some debate), it is not a manual of architecture.

I believe that a solution to this vexatious problem may lie in the famous words of Nahmanides’ Introduction to the Book of Exodus:

The text completed the Book of Genesis, which is the book of the creation of the world and the creation of all the creatures, and the events of the Patriarchs, which are sort of the creation for their seed, for all their events are illustrations, alluding to all that will befall them in the future. And after having completed the creation, the text commenced another book concerning the deeds that proceed from those allusions. The Book of Exodus is focused upon the first exile that was explicitly decreed, and upon the redemption from it. Therefore it begins with the names of those who descended to Egypt, and their number, though that had been written earlier [in the Book of Genesis], for their descent there is the beginning of the exile, from whence it commenced. Now the exile is not terminated until the day of their return to their place and to the level of their forefathers. When they went out of Egypt, though they emerged from the house of bondage, they would yet be considered exiles, for they were in a foreign land, straying in the desert. When they arrived at Mount Sinai, and made the Tabernacle, whereby the Holy One, blessed be He, restored his divine presence to their midst, then they returned to the level of their forefathers, upon whose tents rested the divine mystery, they [i.e., the forefathers] being the Chariot [of God]. And then they were considered redeemed (ve-‘az neheshavu ge’ulim) . Therefore this book concludes with the completion of the Tabernacle and the glory of the Lord filling it perpetually.[1]

The sentence that I have seen fit to italicize is a bold statement indeed. It would be a bold statement coming from any Jew, but all the more so from the pen of Nahmanides! Many years ago, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevezh in B’nei Berak, the great Torah sage Rabbi El’azar Menahem Man Shach aroused the ire of many when he somewhat minimized the importance of the State of Israel by stating the rather obvious fact that the Jewish People experienced nationhood before ever arriving in the Land. He did not invoke Ramban or Nahmanides cited above. Nahmanides’ statement is perhaps even more daring than that of the Ponevezh Rosh Yeshivah: “And then they were considered redeemed!” Not having stepped foot on the holy soil of the Land of Israel, the People were already reckoned redeemed by virtue of the fact that they had regained their former spiritual height, inasmuch as the divine presence permeated the Tabernacle.

This statement, which seems to call into question the absolute necessity of dwelling in the Land, is all the more surprising having been uttered by none other than Nahmanides. Anyone at all familiar with Nahmanides, knows that among all the Rishonim or medieval giants, he stands out in his declaration of the centrality of the Land of Israel to Judaism. It is Nahmanides who writes at great length in his commentary to the Pentateuch that essentially the performance of the commandments (all the commandments, not just mitsvot ha-teluyot ba-arets, such as the various agricultural laws) pivots on the Land of Israel. He cites the Sifre (‘Ekev) to the effect that in performing commandments outside the Land, we are merely going through the motions, so that these observances not be forgotten.[2] It is also Nahmanides who (in his glosses to Maimonides’ Book of the Commandments) counts dwelling in the Land of Israel as a positive commandment, trailing off on the note that “dwelling in the Land of Israel is equal to all the commandments.”[3] Yet it is this same Nahmanides who issues our curious statement: “And then they were considered redeemed (ve-‘az nehshavu ge’ulim).”

I believe that it is because Nahmanides views the Land of Israel to be central to Judaism, that he is forced to conclude that the Tabernacle is, in so many words, a virtual Erets Israel. (In Hebrew, this logic is formulated as “ve-hi ha-notenet.”) Nahmanides would have been struck by a glaring omission from the Five Books of Moses: the Land of Israel. When the Five Books conclude, the People are yet outside the Land. Conceptually this is unthinkable. The solution? The Tabernacle in the desert constitutes a virtual Land of Israel. And this may be the solution to our original conundrum.

The Talmud states: “Had Israel not sinned, they would have been given only the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Joshua, because it [i.e., the latter] is the value of the Land of Israel (‘erkah shel erets yisrael).”[4] All the remaining books of the Bible, the Prophets and Writings (Nevi’im u-Ketuvim) are non-essential. The Five Books of Moses and the Book of Joshua are of the essence. But within the very Five Books of Moses there resides a virtual Book of Joshua that, short of actual entry into the Land of Israel, assumes the value of the Land of Israel (‘erkah shel erets yisrael), namely the portion of the Book of Exodus devoted to the work of the Tabernacle. And just as the Book of Joshua will detail ever so lovingly the geography of the Land of Israel, so our section of the Torah will sumptuously, lavishly detail the contours of this Land before the Land: the Mishkan or Tabernacle in the Wilderness.

[1] A reference to Exodus 40:34-35.

[2] See Nahmanides, Leviticus 18:25 (Chavel ed., pp. 109-112).

[3] See Positive Commandment #4 According to the Opinion of Nahmanides.

[4] TB, Nedarim 22b.

The Genius


Eliyahu Stern, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). pp. xiv, 322.
ISBN 978-0-300-17930-9
March 3, 2013

Have you read the new book by Eliyahu Stern, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)? In a lengthy endnote on pp. 196-198 (note 19), Stern polemicizes against your reading of the Vilna Gaon’s interpretation of “sefer ve-sefer ve-sippur” (Sefer Yetsirah 1:1). Stern refers to your essay “From Sealed Book to Open Text: Time, Memory, and Narrativity in Kabbalistic Hermeneutics,” Interpreting Judaism in a Postmodern Age, ed. Steven Kepnes (New York: New York University Press, 1996), pp. 145-178, especially footnote 14.

Not wishing to rely on memory alone, I consulted the beginning of the Bi’ur ha-GRA le-Sifra di-Tseni’uta:

Sifra–A book (sefer) is the revelation of the thought, for the thought is closed within man and is revealed only by his speech or by his writing. And so En Sof was revealed, and created the world for [the purpose of] revelation and to make Himself known, as it says in the Zohar, and so the tikkunim that are explained in the continuation [of Sifra di-Tseni’uta] also [come about] through these two things, as it says in Sefer Yetsirah(The Book of Creation), “and [He] created His world with book, book and narrative (sefer ve-sefer ve-sippur). The matter of the two books and [single] narrative is due to the fact that in speech, at one stroke his thought is revealed, whereas in a book it takes two times: once when he writes and his thought is revealed in the world, but the book is yet closed; and a second time when the book is read and then revealed. But in speech, both are included at one time. (Elijah of Vilna, Bi’ur ha-GRA le-Sifra di-Tseni’uta, ed. Bezalel Naor [Jerusalem, 1997], 1a)
Elliot, your understanding of the passage is sound. On the other hand, Stern’s translation of the first term “sefer”(which he is forced to revocalize “sefar”) as “mathematics,” would appear to be without foundation. As for the revocalization from sefer to sefar, Stern has drawn on Yosef Avivi, whom he cites. (See Yosef Avivi, Kabbalat ha-GRA [Jerusalem: Kerem Eliyahu, 1993], pp. 32-35.) Yet even Avivi did not have the audacity to inject into the Gaon’s commentary the concept of “mathematics.” This mathematicization of Elijah’s worldview awaited Leibniz.
Best regards,