On Gershom Scholem, Conspiracy Theories and Rabbinical Court Controversies

Marvin Antelman, an American rabbi and conspiracy theorist, was one of the many strange figures who wrote letters to Gershom Scholem, the distinguished scholar of Jewish mysticism. Scholem, however, was not impressed...

Gershom Scholem loved to write in his books. He wrote many types of comments; bibliographical, content, cross references, etc. Occasionally he also took swipes at other authors by pointing out flaws in their research. These comments usually appeared on or across from the title page. On one book he wrote “a waste of nice paper”, on another “woe is to the teacher that this [author] is called his student.”

In one particular volume, Scholem wrote “Nonsense based on me!!!​”. These words were scribbled on the inside cover of “To Eliminate the Opiate: The Frightening Inside Story of Communist and Conspiratorial Group Efforts to Destroy Jews, Judaism and Israel“, by Rabbi Marvin S. Antelman, published in New York – Tel Aviv in 1974.

Nonsense based on me!!!​” – Gershom Scholem’s words scribbled on a copy of “To Eliminate the Opiate” by Marvin Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge


In his work Antelman (who also held a PhD in chemistry) painted a detailed conspiracy theory incorporating the Jewish Enlightenment, Reform Judaism and Communism, tracing their origins back to the false messianic movement of Shabbtai Zvi, his Polish successor Jacob Frank, the Illuminati movement and Jacobin Society.

The false messiah, Shabbtai Zvi


Here is where Scholem, the preeminent scholar of the Sabbatean movement enters our story. Antelman references him regarding the possible influence of the Sabbatean movement on the development of the Jewish Enlightenment and Reform movements but goes well beyond Scholem’s noting of a possible cultural influence –  Antelman lunges into a full-fledged conspiracy theory, so complex as to be beyond the scope of this article.

Antelman attempted to chart out his conspiracy theory…From “To Eliminate the Opiate” by Marvin Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel


Interestingly, Antelman’s book got him into hot water with the rabbinic establishment in his home town of Boston, where he was summoned by the local rabbinic court to defend the book. It wasn’t Antelman’s outlandish claims concerning the Reform movement and the Sabbatean roots of Communism that raised the ire of the Boston rabbis, however. What really got them upset was Antelman’s decision to take sides in a fierce 18th century controversy, by claiming that the famous sage Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz was a Sabbatean (a position also shared by Scholem). Antelman wrote back at length defending his position based upon prior rabbinical authority (Rabbi Yaacov Emden and others) and refused to submit to the authority of the Bet Din of the Massachusetts Council of Rabbis unless they met various conditions, including being able to call scholarly witnesses (Gershom Scholem?) to testify on his behalf.  He also mentions that he had at one time served as the New England Coordinator for the JDL [Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League]. It is also telling that whereas Antelman titles the subject of his letter “Reply to your summons…to answer heresy charges”, the word “heresy” appears nowhere on the actual summons that he received from the rabbinic court. . He later turned to a rabbinic court in Los Angeles which vindicated him of the charges.

…you are hereby summoned to appear before a Beth Din...” The Massachusetts Council of Rabbis’ letter to Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge


Antelman sent the rabbinic court correspondence to Scholem, along with a personal letter. Scholem kept these letters together with the book in his collection.

One of Antelman’s letters to Scholem, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge


In the 1990s Antelman published a Hebrew book on R. Yonatan Eibeschutz (Bechor Satan) detailing his prior claims, and here as well he relied heavily on Scholem’s research. In this book he published a copy of the letter from the Los Angeles Bet Din exonerating him of the heresy charges leveled in Boston.

Bechor Satan, Antelman’s book detailing his theories on Eibeschutz


This letter explicitly mentions “Professor Gershom Shalom” [Scholem] as the authority upon whom Antelman based his research regarding R. Eibeschutz. The Los Angeles rabbinic court even threw its support behind Antelman’s strange theories, claiming in the letter that he was “enlightening the Jewish reader in the danger of Reform, Conservative and Jewish Communists”. It is interesting to point out that though Scholem’s work was cited as a source by both Antelman and his friends in California, Scholem himself was hardly a typical example of Jewish orthodoxy.

The Los Angeles rabbinic court’s letter defending Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge


Antelman eventually went on to serve as “Chief Justice” of the “Supreme Rabbinical Court of America” that he founded. Among the more dramatic acts of the court was the excommunication of American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976.

The Excommunication of Henry Kissinger” by Marvin Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

In his later years he was active in finding solutions for women who had difficulties receiving an halachic divorce. Antelman eventually made Aliyah and spent his last years in the Israeli city of Rehovot.


The author thanks Rabbis Elli Fischer and Daniel Yolkut for help with this research.


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Saving a 400 Year-Old Manuscript

A 16th-century Yemeni manuscript containing a wonderful illustration of a menorah is being restored in our Conservation and Restoration Department. Come have a look behind the scenes

They are considered “the surgeons” of the National Library, true masters of their craft. Every day, the workers of our Department of Conservation and Restoration literally put the past back together again, piece by piece. The rare items you see in the National Library’s various exhibits and archival displays are impressive and beautiful, but we do not usually receive them in that condition. Most of these items sustain severe damage over the centuries, often reaching our archives in poor condition; torn, broken, rumpled, their pieces stuck to one another, and dirty.

Recently, the department received a Yemeni manuscript, written in the year 1595, of a work known as Al-Wajiz al-Mughni (The Brief and the Sufficient”). The manuscript, written in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, contains a comprehensive midrash on the Torah portions as well as a series of beautiful illustrations, including an impressive menorah, a family tree displaying the sons of Jacob and even a sketch of the ephod and the choshen (the ceremonial breastplate worn by the High Priest). The manuscript arrived in a fragile state: Its cover and pages were torn. Its seam had been poorly sewn, resulting in damage to the pages, with holes and cracks appearing in the parchment. The ink had begun to decay and to eat away at the paper.

Marcela Szekely, the director of the Conservation and Restoration Department, described the challenges the staff was faced with: “The manuscript was very dirty when it reached the department. The seam was sewn very close to the text, the proximity causing some of the pages to tear over time. We had to take the seam apart to understand that we weren’t dealing with double-page leaves but rather with a pile of single pages sewn together, page-to-page.”

And so, the staff set to work: Haim Shushan, a book conservator at the department, documented the state of the item before it was treated, as is common practice with all the items that are handled. First, he disassembled the book’s cover from its body. Then he cleaned the pages and removed the layers of dirt which had accumulated over the centuries, composed mostly of dust, various materials that had stuck to the pages over time, hair and wax stains, along with different types of leaves and grains. We asked Haim what the worst kind of dirt he encountered in his work was; he immediately answered, “Human DNA – beard hair”.

Haim then began to restore the pages. He decided to get rid of the old seam which had damaged the item, and employed a technique for creating new leaves (double-page sheets) using Japanese paper (washi): The single pages were rearranged as leaves, with two pages for each leaf. A thick layer of Japanese paper was glued between the pages, fastening them firmly together while allowing flexibility when viewing the manuscript. Haim placed the leaves on top of each other until he could finally sew them all together into a single mass, a whole book.

Two pages form a leaf, glued together with Japanese paper produced from different plants

On closer inspection of the manuscript, one notices additional, irritating cases of damage. Sections of pages were torn out and replaced with patches of newspaper fragments or notebook paper, with the text being rewritten; the ink had begun to decay, with holes appearing in some of the pages, which could threaten the state of the item as a whole. Haim had to handle all these issues.

It was decided that the old patches would also be preserved, as they served to complete the text and represented evidence of historical techniques. To fix the newer holes, Haim created new patches himself. “The type of ink used in this manuscript is extremely difficult to work with,” he said, explaining the production process: “When wasps lay eggs in a tree, it causes the tree to produce a black liquid which covers the eggs. In the past, these black beads were collected and ground into ink, its chemical composition high in acid.” That is why certain parts of the book were consumed.

The holes were also covered with Japanese paper in an extremely delicate process. First, Haim sketched the outline of each hole on the back side of the page, enabling him to produce a piece of Japanese paper identical to the missing piece. After making sure the size was right, he applied special glue to the paper and flattened the two layers into one. This process prevents further decay and damage to the pages and their content.

Preparing a new patch. The ink damage (the dark spots) can be seen clearly


Fitting the new patch to the page:


Gluing the new patch to the page:


Flattening the patch onto the leaf, creating a single layer:

And there you have it. Once the book is rebound, the new cover will safeguard the item and preserve it, so that you – the general public and the many researchers who visit the National Library – can study it and familiarize yourself with the customs of the ancient Yemenite-Jewish community. The art of conserving such manuscripts is highly complex and delicate, requiring skill and expertise. The workers at the National Library’s Department of Conservation and Restoration are responsible for saving these extremely rare items – for us and for generations to come – because the future begins with the preservation of the past.


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Shedding New Light on Rabbi Reines

Manuscripts belonging to Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines, one of the founding fathers of religious Zionism, have been donated to the National Library

A postcard featuring an image of Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (center, seated) and other members of the Mizrachi, Verlag Zion, Vienna, 1902

In its early days, the Zionist movement was not popular among traditionally religious Jews. Most rabbis either opposed Zionism or ignored it. Not so Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (1839-1915), who gave the new movement his wholehearted support. We know Rabbi Reines’ views from his published works, but for a hundred years his many manuscripts have been hidden from the public eye and practically forgotten. Recently the manuscripts were donated to the National Library of Israel, where they were digitized and put online. The manuscripts show a new dimension of Rabbi Reines’ relationship with Zionism and with its founder, Theodor Herzl.

A poster featuring a photograph of Rabbi Reines, printed by the Mizrachi’s Eretz Yisrael fund, apparently in 1940

Rabbi Reines brought together the sacred and the profane in many areas of his life. He founded a yeshiva that combined traditional Talmudic study with secular subjects, an innovation at the time. His scholarship combined traditional Talmudic genius with broad interests including mathematics, philosophy, and logic. So he was perfectly cut out to initiate close cooperation between traditional Judaism and secular Zionism.

Rabbi Reines first got involved in the Zionist movement in 1899, when he participated and spoke at the Third Zionist Congress in Basel. In the coming years he continued to participate in Zionist Congresses. He met Herzl and corresponded with him until Herzl’s death in 1904. In 1902 Rabbi Reines founded the Mizrachi movement, a religious faction within the Zionist movement founded with Herzl’s support.

That same year, Rabbi Reines published Or Chadash Al Zion (A New Light Shines on Zion), a religious defense of Zionism. He sent a copy of the book to Herzl, along with a letter that has been preserved in the Zionist Archive and printed in Sinai 3, page 340:

I am honored to present you with my book, Or Chadash Al Zion (A New Light Shines on Zion), which I dedicate to your great and exalted name. As I publish this book which speaks of the Zionist movement, I see a personal obligation to present it as a gift to the one who founded this movement and gives his life to it.

Upon Herzl’s untimely death, Jews around the world mourned his passing, Rabbi Reines among them. But the newly discovered Reines manuscripts show us that years later, Rabbi Reines was still speaking of Herzl and even made the unusual decision to lecture in honor of Herzl in his yeshiva.

From Rabbi Reines’ Yalkut Arachim, the National Library collections

The lectures of Rabbi Reines from the years 1908-1911 are collected in a manuscript titled Yalkut Arachim (A collection of entries). Rabbi Reines wrote a heading above each lecture with the date or occasion on which he delivered it. Most of the headings are typical occasions for lectures that come up in the life of a Rosh Yeshiva, like “opening lecture for the students at the Yeshiva”, or “Shabbat Hagadol” (the Sabbath before Passover when rabbis typically deliver special lectures), but two surprising dates appear:  “Sunday, 20 Tammuz 5668, the anniversary of the passing of the head of Zionism, of Herzl,” and above another lecture, “What I decided to speak about today, Wednesday, 20 Tammuz 5670, the anniversary of the (passing of) Herzl, peace be upon him.”

The first of these lectures is given the title “the participation of the living with the dead”, and in it Rabbi Reines examines the topic of immortality and life after death. Surprisingly, Rabbi Reines presents a fairly secular view of life after death: “When we see that even after his death, his achievements are recognized, that it a sign of his immortality.” Later in the lecture, Rabbi Reines adds that “those whose help is recognized even after their death have been made to be like God.” The last words of the speech are: “All signs of mourning are signs of immortality.”

From Rabbi Reines’ Yalkut Arachim, the National Library collections

We now know that Rabbi Reines’ connection to Herzl went far beyond political cooperation. Reines truly admired Herzl, seeing him as a figure who was larger than life and practically superhuman. Could it be that Rabbi Reines’ final sentence about signs of mourning is not only a general statement, but also a reference to himself, as he continues to mourn the loss of Herzl even years after his passing?


Find more of Rabbi Reines’ manuscripts, here.


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Ben-Gurion: Prayer is Self-Deception

Israel's first Prime Minister reveals: I do not envy soldiers who pray. A unique glimpse into David Ben-Gurion's inner philosophy

Not one thing about the journey undertaken by the members of the early Zionist movement was clear-cut, simple or predictable. To create a reality that exceeded imagination, Zionism needed creative minds; the young movement found what it sought in figures of the stature of Pinsker, Herzl and Ahad Ha’am. Even after these individuals had passed on, the movement’s members continued to grow and establish Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state that could serve as a spiritual center and “a light unto the nations”, as described by Ahad Ha’am.

After the state was established and the vision that was conceived through words and actions became a reality, manifested in everyday life, the leaders of this movement which evolved into a state continued to challenge the philosophers and theorists. Now they turned to the intellectuals who gathered in the newly-established universities and presented them with problems and questions raised by this rebirth of Jewish sovereign life.

David Ben-Gurion, a statesman with an avid interest in philosophy, made a point of constantly engaging in dialogue with academics and specialists from different areas of expertise. He conducted comprehensive correspondences with inventors, scholars and scientists, observed their opinions on various issues and clarified his own views on those same topics. The National Library collections include many letters sent and received by Ben-Gurion; among them is a letter he sent to the Israeli philosopher and academic Professor Samuel Hugo Bergman, as well as Bergman’s reply.


 The first page of Ben-Gurion’s letter (Hebrew). Click on the image to enlarge

In 1960, Israel’s first Prime Minister contacted Professor Bergman to share his thoughts about a recent personal experience. Ben-Gurion opened his letter to Bergman with a philosophical-theological analysis of the biblical verse: “In the image of God He created him” (Genesis 1:27). Was man truly created in the image of God? Ben-Gurion thought otherwise. Though he rejected atheism and denied the assumption that “the world consists of materials and atoms blindly put together, and that there is no logic, reason or rule to the cosmos,” he also regarded any personification of God as “different forms of idolatry.”

The inability to understand the universe and how it works brings man to “compare the ‘mysterious infinity’ (an expression from the Kabbalah that perhaps describes best the unknowable divine essence) to man – this is but naive haughtiness, an arrogant pretense of a small creature towards its ‘creator.'” Ben-Gurion wrote the word ‘creator’ in quotation marks, a way of pronouncing man’s inability to articulate the meaning of infinity or capture it through logic.

At the end of his letter, Ben-Gurion describes the experience that brought about the thoughts he shared with Bergman: “And it may seem strange that I write this immediately following Yom Kippur, after joining a company of paratroopers holding the Yom Kippur prayer service in one of the shacks here [in Sde Boker, Ben-Gurion’s desert home]. All evening yesterday and nearly the entire day today, until ma’ariv [the evening prayer]. I listened to the prayers and contemplated them. I could feel the devotion of the few people who believed in what they were saying; I felt respect and fondness for them – but I did not envy them.” Ben-Gurion argued that prayer is not a dialogue between man and his creator, claiming that “it may feel pleasant – yet it is not reality, but self-deception.”

One month later, on November 11th, Bergman sent his reply, apologizing for the delay. He addressed the Prime Minister by his name (“Mr. Ben-Gurion”) omitting his title but adding “the highly respected.” Bergman responded dismissively to the idea that Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai: “Although I must say my view of the Torah is closer to that of those who have pure faith than to those who see the Torah as no more than a purely secular book and do not see the fundamental, vast difference between the Torah and secular literature.”


Bergman’s full reply to Ben-Gurion. Click on the image to enlarge

Bergman claimed, “it is a fundamental fact that there are holy texts; texts that were written with inspiration from above.” According to Bergman, these holy texts also include the New Testament, the Quran and the Indian Vedas. The fact that these texts are holy does not eliminate the necessity to “examine the books applying historical-scientific means of criticism”. At the same time, Bergman acknowledged the existence of higher worlds, “and these holy texts are the most important channels through which the higher worlds impact man’s development.”

The creation of the world, according to Bergman, just like the creation of man in God’s image, is one of those facts that are true “in a divine, metaphysical or symbolic manner, if you will.” Bergman agreed with Ben-Gurion that God cannot be comprehended through logic, and therefore one must “stand before Him in reverence and awe.”

At the end of his letter, Bergman addressed the question that had been troubling the ‘Old Man’ (as the Prime Minister was commonly known) – the question of the essence of prayer. He wrote as follows: “The question whether or not prayer is a dialogue is not one that can be answered, in my opinion, through theoretical arguments. Theoretically, to all appearances, you are of course right that the person praying is speaking to themselves. Yet whether that is the whole picture, an onlooker cannot say. It is a matter of experience. I am an empiricist and therefore believe the reports of the greatest prayers of all religions and nations. He who says it is but ‘self-deception’ is like someone who observes two lovers, and insists that there love is but self-deception. ‘Objectively’, outwardly, he is right. And yet, ‘love is strong as death.'”

The full transcript of Ben-Gurion’s letter prepared by S.H. Bergman. Click the image to enlarge it.


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