Written by: Rabbi Pinchas Taylor (Mosaica Press, 2020)
Reviewed by: Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
This intriguing and well-sourced book is quite an impressive resource for anyone looking to know more about the Jewish point of view on various supernatural phenomena. It is comprised of sixteen chapters that touch on such esoteric topics as dreams, reincarnation, astrology, aliens, magic, and the afterlife. Rabbi Taylor is not out to prove the veracity of New Age ideas or paranormal curiosities, but rather to show in an intelligent way how those phenomena are treated in traditional Jewish sources.
Rabbi Taylor does this by drawing from a wellspring of wide-ranging Jewish sources. Needless to say, he cites the pertinent sources in important Jewish works like the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrashim, and the various Rishonim. Of course, as you would expect, this book heavily cites from the Zohar and from the writings of the Arizal’s prime student, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543–1620). But the author also brings ideas from some less-known Kabbalists, such as Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Del Medigo (1591–1655), Rabbi Menashe ben Israel (1604–1657), Rabbi Yosef Ergas (1685–1730), and Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz (1765–1821). Rabbi Taylor even shows his familiarity with ideas from various contemporary rabbinic figures including Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, and other controversial Jewish scholars like Gershon Scholem, Alan Brill, and Shmuly Yanklowitz.
As a Chabad Rabbi (he has a shul in Florida), Rabbi Taylor’s insights put a special emphasis on the Chabad-Lubavitch tradition, elaborating on the relevant teachings of the various Rebbes spanning from the Baal Shem Tov to the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994). Rabbi Taylor touches on other Hassidic schools of thought, as well, sharing with us several insights from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772–1810) and Rabbi Tzaddok HaKohen of Lublin (1823–1900). He also draws on the Lithuanian (“Misnagid”) tradition in citing from Rav Dessler, Rav Kook, and the Brisker Rav, as well as the Sephardic tradition, personified by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1835–1909) and his student Rabbi Yehuda Fatiya (1859–1942).
Before seguing to what the Jewish sources have to say on each topic, Rabbi Taylor usually opens his discussions with a fascinating collection of popular and academic sources about the phenomena he describes. Some of these accounts are peppered with powerful anecdotes (like his chapters on near death experiences and on reincarnation). In other cases, the author provides the reader with some of the requisite scientific background needed to proper analyze the topics into which he delves.
For example, his discussions about dreams provide many insights into psychology and questions about consciousness, while his chapter on astrology is loaded with information about astronomy and cosmology as well. In fact, this book is not just about supernatural phenomena, but is also a study on how the great rabbinic scholars throughout the generations have approached science and scientific inquiry (e.g., see the elaborate footnote documenting how the different rabbis weighed in on Copernicus’ theory of heliocentrism).
The author discusses these various Jewish esoteric traditions in a comprehensive and sophisticated way. For the sake of intellectual honesty, he even brings differing so-called “rationalist,” or Maimonidean, positions that reject the existence of demons, the influence of astrological energies, and the efficacy of magic. Rabbi Taylor outlines the reasons why one might be skeptical about some of these phenomena and cites scholarly literature that tries to address the issues that skeptics have raised.
Throughout this fascinating book, Rabbi Taylor teaches us about the occult and the mystical. He provides relevant historical tidbits that make his discussions come alive. His ability to research and explain to us everything there is to know about such creatures as the Golem, extraterrestrial aliens, angels, ghosts, and evil spirits is very thorough and quite remarkable. He also explores the significance of such geographical anomalies as Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle, while considering the possibility of a physical location for the Garden of Eden.
From a theological perspective, Rabbi Taylor’s book is quite inspiring and enlightening as well. When discussing things like the soul, the astral self, and ESP, Rabbi Taylor reminds us that there is more to existence than that which can be perceived by our five senses. Moreover, he makes a point of stressing man’s free will and the responsibilities that comes with it (and showing how this does not conflict with, say, the belief in astrology). He teaches us how the misuse of magic for selfish purpose is the hallmark of the dark arts, while the true mystic only harnesses the power of holiness for selfless goals.
Despite the ostensibly speculative — and thus, controversial — nature of such a study, Rabbi Taylor does not push the envelope in endorsing fringe ideas or conspiracy theories. His book boasts impressive rabbinic approbations from many prominent mainstream Roshei Yeshiva, Rabbanim, and Dayanim. Amongst those are letters from Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Breitowitz, Rabbi Zev Leff, and Rabbi Yechezkel Weinfeld. That alone should rouse you to get your hands on this wonderfully-captivating book; plus, you get to learn about all sorts of mysterious and marvelous things.