Stars that Shine by Their Own Light

By :  JTS Alumni Posted On Jun 8, 2018 | Speaking of Text: The Jewish Bookshelf

By Dr. Aryeh Wineman, JTS Alumnus (RS ’59)

Letters of Light: Passages from Ma’or va-shemesh by Aryeh Wineman (Pickwick Publications, 2015)

Letters of Light consists of over ninety excerpts translated from Ma’or va-shemesh, a classic Hasidic collection of homilies on the Torah-readings of the year composed by Kalonymus Kalman Epstein of Krakow, who died just short of two centuries ago. While written in a world very different from our own, the work, in some respects, remarkably addresses our own time and the quest for greater depth and spirituality that we witness in many quarters today.

In addition to the innovative quality of the preacher’s interpretation of the Torah-text, Ma’or va-shemesh points to a profound innerness Epstein claimed to find in the Torah as it speaks to the deepest level of a person’s psyche. This remarkable preacher and commentator was attuned to the overtones and allusions in the Torah-text. He viewed its more conventional reading as a garment covering the Torah’s deeper character and considered the Torah’s very letters as reflecting a light that transcends the more limited meaning of the words they comprise.

The teacher and preacher (and community organizer) in Krakow viewed the role both of community and of the individual in a way that might well speak to our contemporary reality. He recognized, for example, that a thousand people can pray together in a huge hall and yet the prayer of each person is different. The homilist’s ear perceived the uniqueness of every person and the consequential uniqueness of each person’s conception of God, which reflects the deepest aspect of the self. He envisioned a true community within which each member is like a star “that shines by its own light.”

His is a voice from the past that, in some significant respects, resonates with our own, recognizing and accommodating the demands both of community and of our own soulfulness.