The Thirteen Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence and Belief


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In this classic work of Jewish mystical thought, world-renowned scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explores the major questions asked by modern Jews about the nature of existence in Gods universe. The title The Thirteen Petalled Rose, taken from the opening lines of the seminal work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, refers to the collective souls of the Jewish people, which scholars have likened to the fullness of a rose and its petals. This expanded edition of The Thirteen Petalled Rose features a new preface and two new chapters ...

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Aug 19, 2020

Rabbi Steinsaltz' Rose

The great scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz died in Jerusalem on August 7, 2020, age 83. A person of formidable intellect and learning, Steinsaltz is best-known for his translation and commentary on the long, difficult Jewish text, the Talmud, a project which occupied him for 45 years. When I learned of Steinsaltz' death, I was moved to revisit his short book, "The Thirteen Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence and Belief" which I read long ago during a time when I was interested in Jewish mysticism and which had retained a prominent place on my bookshelf. The book was first published in 1980 and reissued in a slightly expanded edition in 2006. I read the original version.

"The Thirteen Petalled Rose" offers a beautiful, committed discussion of the breadth of Jewish belief from the standpoint of Jewish mysticism or Kaballah. The most important work of Jewish mysticism is known as the Zohar. Steinsaltz plunges immediately into the heady spiritual and metaphysical world of Jewish mysticism in his opening chapter "Worlds" which begins: "The physical world in which we live, the objectively observed universe around us, is only a part of an inconceivably vast system of worlds. Most of these worlds are spiritual in their essence; they are of a different order from our known world."

Steinsaltz proceeds to describe these worlds and their interactions with our physical world, known roughly as the "world of action". He follows this difficult discussion with a related metaphysical, mystical discussion of Divine Manifestation or emanations and with a discussion of the human soul, its place in the world, and the purpose of human life. The reader finds himself immediately and deeply in the world of the Jewish mystic.

The following chapters of the book become somewhat narrower in focus in applying the teachings of Jewish mysticism. Steinsaltz discusses the nature of holiness, the Torah, the nature of human good, and the nature of repentance. These chapters include much that is specific to traditional Judaism but much as well that will have a broader spiritual appeal, including an appeal to spiritually inclined non-Jewish readers. The final chapter of the book "Mitzvot" is the one most closely concerned with Jewish law as it examines subjects including Jewish prayers and holidays, dietary rules, and principles governing sexual conduct.

During much of the book, particularly the more mystically-oriented sections, Steinsaltz speaks in his own voice with a minimum of citation to sources. His discourse is effective in its obviously deep sincerity and in its wisdom.

The book is overtly traditionalist in character. Many Jews are not traditionalist or Orthodox, and many of the Orthodox are not mystics. And of course there are many non-Orthodox forms of Judaism including some in which mysticism makes a broad appeal. I am far from being a practicing Jew and was still deeply moved by this book on my rereading after many years.

In the years following my first reading of the book, I went on to study Neoplatonism idealistic philosophy, Buddhism, the works of the German mystic Meister Eckhart, and some other forms of both mysticism and Judaism. Readers inclined to a spiritually oriented philosophy would gain a great deal from reading Steinsaltz. His book is a form of spiritual idealism which concludes that "every human being is a part of the single soul that is the spirit of the entire universe." Then too, Steinsaltz sees every individual person as unique with his or her own role to play in furthering the Divine plan. The book emphasizes that every person carries within a divine spark (which Meister Eckhart called a "funkelin") and had to work to find his or her own way to God. In addition to the opening chapters on mysticism, the chapters of the book which best bring this out include "The Way of Choice: An Answer to Ethics" and "The Search for Oneself". In the latter chapter, Steinsaltz emphasizes that the search for oneself requires looking without rather than within. He writes:

"The seeker is caught in a paradox. He is dismayed to learn that the resolution of the search for the self is not to be found by going into the self, that the center of the soul is to be found not in the soul but outside of it, that the center of gravity of existence is outside of existence."

"A person my therefore stray as far as possible, infinitely far, from God, and there he can find the source of his deepest self, the point of the meaning of his soul. He orients himself on the map of his world and is startled and pained to learn that he is not necessarily its center. But recognizing that he is part of a larger existence that does go to the heart of the world, he can begin to take the path to this existence."

I was glad to remember Rabbi Steinsaltz' life by rereading "The Thirteen Petalled Rose", I am not an observant Jew, but much in his book and in his thinking is valuable to me.

Robin Friedman

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