Once upon a time, goes an old Hasidic tale, the great Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was walking down the street when he ran into a fellow Jew. It was one of Judaism’s fast days, and yet there was Levi Yitzchak’s acquaintance, enjoying a hearty meal. “My son,” said the rabbi softly, “surely you’ve forgotten that today is a fast day?” But the man shook his head and smiled. “No,” he said, “I haven’t forgotten at all.” Levi Yitzchak hesitated for a moment. “I see,” he said, “and I assume that you’ve a weak heart and that you worry that fasting for a day may be detrimental to your health.” That, the acquaintance quickly assured the rabbi, was far from the case: “My heart is strong,” he said, “and I’m in excellent health.” Hearing these words, Levi Yitzchak didn’t shout. He didn’t rebuke his friend, or even storm away. Instead, beaming with joy, he looked heavenward. “Master of the Universe!” he said loudly. “Look how righteous are your people! This Jew here, even though he’s transgressing by failing to fast, is so good at heart he refuses to lie about it!”
Despite being born in 1740 and passing away in 1809, Levi Yitzchak is precisely the rabbi whose wisdom we need right now, as his brand of confident, joyous, and compassionate faith is in such short supply. Thankfully, a new and elucidated translation by Mitchell Silk of Yitzchak’s seminal book Kedushas Levi has just been published.
To understand why the book is so relevant, it helps to know a little bit about Levi Yitzchak’s life. He was born in a small Ukrainian town to a father who was the sixteenth generation in his family to serve as rabbi and to a mother who herself also came from a long and illustrious rabbinic lineage. And he was so diligent in his studies and so brilliant that, as a very young boy, he was pronounced an iluy, a prodigy, which quickly earned him the privilege of marrying into one of his town’s most well-regarded families.
It should have been all wine and roses for such a promising young couple. But God, as the old Jewish proverb goes, laughs while men make plans, and history soon treated the two to a rude awakening. A new struggle was tearing the Jewish community asunder: the war between the Hasidim and the Misnagdim. The latter—the name literally means “those who oppose”—represented the old school leaders of eastern Europe’s Jewish communities, who held that religious Jewish life ought to be dedicated to studying the Torah, a pursuit best suited to cerebral and mirthless men who spent days and nights cooped up in the yeshiva, learning. This struck some as needlessly joyless. Wasn’t God present in the forest clearing as much as in the house of study? And didn’t a song in his praise please him as much as an hour spent reading Deuteronomy? These were the questions posed by rabbis who, in the eighteenth century, founded the Hasidic movement, which stressed mysticism, devotion, and a direct and immediate relationship with the Creator.
The more spontaneous and less cerebral Hasidic approach struck the community’s old guard as borderline sacrilegious, so when young Levi Yitzchak, who was sympathetic to the Hasidim, took his first job as rabbi in the town of Ritchval, he knew he had to tread lightly. He learned just how lightly during the festival of Sukkot in 1765, when his angry congregants, threatening physical violence, drove him out of town. Holding his lulav and etrog—the ceremonial palm frond and citron Jews bless during the holiday—he fled on foot, walking ten miles to the nearest town and taking shelter with a friend. He found another job in Zhelichov, Poland, but things were hardly better there: True to the Hasidic spirit, Levi Yitzchak spent much of his time not with the wealthy and the well-educated but with the town’s poorest folks, setting up small groups and teaching them the foundations of Jewish thought. He was summarily fired.
Another man might’ve gotten the message, changed his tune, played synagogue politics, and conformed to expectations. Many of us believers in modern-day America, punished for our views by institutions and elites that find them abhorrent, can relate. Which is why what Levi Yitzchak did next should inspire us: He took another job, this one in Pinsk, and when the same harassment recurred, he challenged the head of the Misnagdim to a debate. Whether he won or lost is immaterial. When he returned home, he found his wife and children in the street, weeping and telling him that his detractors had broken into their home, forced them out, fired him, and stripped him of his earnings.
Hasidic thought, the illuminating introduction to the new translation explains, “elegantly applies a basic physical reality to personal challenges by relating that the brightness of light emanating from joy is proportionately as bright as the darkness of the tribulation that precedes it.” Levi Yitzchak believed this idea with all his might, which is why he picked up and moved yet again. His next stop, the Ukrainian town of Berditchev, showered him with all the light for which he’d hoped. There, he found not only peace but the inspiration to develop his unique theology, one that stresses mercy and compassion and earned him the nickname sanegoram shel Yisrael, or “the Jewish people’s defense attorney.”
Rather than devote his energy, as had so many of his peers, to quibbling with his partisan foes, Levi Yitzchak invested his considerable emotional and intellectual resources in producing a body of work that continues to inspire Jews and non-Jews alike even today, centuries after his death. Open the new translation, for example, and you’ll find gems like this one: Reading a seemingly purely informative line in the Book of Numbers explaining the role the Levites will play in the future Temple, Levi Yitzchak homes in on one single word—“given.” The Levites, he elaborates, are given by the community to God to serve him; they are the people’s gift.
Imagine, he continues, in a language so clear and compelling that even the least biblically fluent among us can understand, giving a gift to a lowly minister. Being relatively unimportant in the king’s court, the minister would cherish the gift; he doesn’t have much else.
Now, he continues, imagine giving a gift to the king himself. Having pretty much everything he can desire, the king won’t care at all about whatever it is you bring him. What he does care about is the gift-giver’s desire, his intention to please his sovereign. This, Levi Yitzchak explains, is how we ought to approach our relationship with God. Don’t worry about being wholly righteous or perfect or blameless. Pick one small good deed and do it with all your heart, and God will love you the more for it.
That’s always wise advice, but it’s ever more pressing in times like ours. So many have been stripped of their religious imagination by a culture that mocks faith and by schools that abhor religion; yet they are awkwardly groping their way back into the eternal fold of the truth. We can offer these clueless seekers few better guides than Kedushas Levi, an evocative commentary on the Torah thick with profound insights for heartbroken people like us.
And we have Mitchell Silk to thank for all this goodness. Silk—who served as assistant secretary of the treasury for international markets in the Trump administration—spent decades of his life and considerable resources making sure the final published product will make Levi Yitzchak’s work as approachable, and as moving, in modern English as it has been for readers in Hebrew throughout the generations.
Anyone, Jewish or otherwise, looking for a touch of inspiration, and for a remarkably soulful entry into the Book of Books, would do well to consult Kedushas Levi. The author’s spirit comes to life on the page.
“God,” Levi Yitzchak reportedly once prayed out loud, “all I want is for you to be like the simplest Jew. When the simplest Jew drops his tefillin [small leather boxes containing scrolls with Torah verses], he picks them right up and gives them a little kiss to show how much he cares for them. We’ve all fallen, God. Now pick us up and kiss us.”
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.
Image by Luxerta licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.