Title: Shomer Emunim: The Introduction to Kabbalah (by Rabbi Yosef Ergas)
By Avinoam Fraenkel
Urim Publications, 1080 pages
“Why translate a sefer on Kabbalah into English?” is a common question posed when people see Rabbi Avinoam Fraenkel’s translation of Shomer Emunim: The Introduction to Kabbalah. He has already addressed this question at length in a blog post (at seforimblog.com), but I would like to address one point on which he touches.
Someone close to me is a member of the Off-the-Derech-In-the-Closet society. A few years ago he asked me to join an online group that discussed and debated certain issues and it quickly became clear to me that many of the questions about fundamentals of Yiddishkeit that were being posed could easily be answered from the perspective of Kabbalah and Chassidus. However, when I shared these answers, they were immediately rejected as I was presenting a perspective of Judaism that was not the one the discussion participants were rejecting. To keep them in the fold of Torah would require defending Judaism from within the framework in which they had been raised, not to suggest an alternative framework which was not the Yiddishkeit they knew. And while some conceded to me that if these ideas had been presented to them years before, it may have prevented them from abandoning their emunah, at this point they had no desire to have their belief rekindled.
I believe that exposure to many of the concepts of Kabbalah would quell the questions of many of our youngsters and quench their thirst for something more spiritual. These matters are not, generally, being taught in yeshivos and girls’ schools, and for those who are wondering or seeking, there are slim pickings. The seforim that are in Hebrew are often beyond the capacity of your average teenager to understand, and those that are in English are, for the most part, distortions of Kabbalah. There is no shoel u’mashiv in the bais medrash to whom one can pose questions about Kabbalah, and most would probably fear that if they were to publicize their explorations of Kabbalah they would be reprimanded.
It doesn’t get easier when you are older. I began to study Kabbalah in my forties and for years I sought a clear and comprehensive introductory work; it doesn’t exist in any language. Rabbi Fraenkel has performed a great service with his Kabbalah Overview that follows his translation of Shomer Emunim. In it, he takes the reader step-by-step through the basic concepts of Kabbalah, and then some. The footnotes of the Overview contain a wealth of references to a wide variety of classic sifrei Kabbalah and are, alone, well worth the price of admission. I would strongly urge him to translate the Overview, as well as the notes on the Shomer Emunim itself, into Hebrew for those who are not familiar with English. One example of a clear and excellent introduction is his discussion about the different kelipot which I found to be the most straightforward discussion of the topic that I have ever seen. His repeated emphasis that different spiritual worlds and sefirot are not changes within reality but changes in perspective is a fundamental concept that cannot be overstated.
The Shomer Emunim itself is known as one of the classic works on Kabbalah and utilizes the dialogue method to present a dialogue between a skeptic towards Kabbalah and a knowledgeable friend. Within the dialogue topics such as the authenticity of Kabbalah and the need to study Kabbalah, as well as numerous concepts, are explained.
Translations of any sort, even if they are not of sifrei Kabbalah, are fraught with challenges. The impossibility of combining fidelity to the original with comprehensibility in the translation is well documented. It appears to me that generally speaking the translator chose clarity over fidelity, a choice with which I would agree. Inevitably, in reading through the translation I came upon places where I questioned the choice of translation, and this reminded me that we must always keep in mind that a translation is, by definition, an interpretation. For this reason, I would strongly encourage any readers who are familiar with Hebrew text to be glancing at both the original and translation to understand for themselves which elements of the translation are literally what the author wrote, what is interpretation, and what may possibly be understood differently. This is probably a good idea when reading any translation in which one has familiarity with both the source language as well as the translation.
In one instance that the author offered a long footnote as to why he chose to translate a particular word very differently from its actual meaning, I felt that his change blunted the point of the Shomer Emunim. In a few other instances I felt that the translation was incorrect; however, in no case did I discern that any translation choice with which I would disagree changed the meaning of the text in a substantial way.
As I have studied Kabbalah for a number of years it is unclear to me if the clarity that I found in the translation and Kabbalah Overview was a factor of my own knowledge, or if it would be similarly clear to a relative beginner. That said, considering how much distorted Kabbalah material is available in English, it is a breath of fresh air to see such a tour de force that has the potential to open the eyes of many and offer some refreshment to frustrated souls seeking something more.