By Laina Sara Miller
A Sephardic law and ethics professor from Bar-Ilan University came to this university last Monday to discuss his discovery and translation of an 18th-century story about a Rabbi and a Sheikh, transcribed by Rabbi Yitzchak Farhi of Jerusalem in his 19th-century text, “Sweeter than Honey.”
Dr. Zvi Zohar was also in the area to speak at the 12th Annual Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa Conference.
“Professor Zohar contacted me. I thought it was a good opportunity,” said Dr. Hayim Lapin, the Robert H. Smith Professor of Jewish Studies and History and director of the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Program and Center for Jewish Studies. He organized this event.
Zohar’s lecture revolved around a story attributed to the lifetime of Rabbi Moshe ben Mordechai Galante, the chief rabbi of Damascus from 1781-1806. In this story, Galante meets and befriends a local Sheikh.
According to the story, Galante wanted to learn how to mystically know if a sick person would live or die, something that the Sheikh was said to be capable of doing. Galante traded his own knowledge of secular wisdom to the Sheikh for the process of learning how the Sheikh gained this mystical knowledge, only to discover that the Sheikh’s secret is the name of God in the form of the Tetragrammaton.
The tale ends with Galante bewailing how far Jews have fallen from properly serving God that only a non-Jew in this generation can respond to the name of God with enough awe to be gifted with mystical knowledge.
The focus of Zohar’s talk was the origin of the story: is this story merely a religious lesson about the awe due to God, and even the name of God? Or is it a true story reshaped into the familiar framework of a fable?
The discussion in the room grew amiably contentious, as some guests argued in favor of this tale as merely a fable, while others leaned more heavily on the idea of this story as history.
Dr. Shay Hazkani, an assistant professor of Jewish Studies at this university, said the importance of this story lies in its context. Focusing on the binary of ‘true or fable’ is unnecessary.
The story “tells us about their interactions. Whether it is real or made up doesn’t matter,” Hazkani said.
No matter which side of the discussion, however, the overall response to the talk was positive.
One happy guest was Mary Steele, a 72-year-old member of the Golden Identification Card Program from Silver Spring. While not Jewish, Steele said that she enjoyed attending this talk and others like it.
“I’ve learned so much just by auditing the classes,” Steele said, referencing the Jewish Studies and Religious Studies courses offered at this university.
Zohar’s talk flowed from eastern Jewish history, to mysticism and to the sometimes highly-structured ways that Jews and Muslims interacted in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Near East.
The question of the historicity of the story related was fiercely argued, including the question of who the “Sheikh” in the story might have been. The mysticism associated with the Sheikh in the story led Zohar to assert that the Sheikh was likely a Sufi Sheikh, as listed on the flyer advertising the event, but Zohar also acknowledged that the Sheikh is never described as “Sufi” in the story’s text.
Further information about the story and Zohar’s research into the story can be found here.