Joseph Karo—Lawyer and Mystic. By R. J. Z. Werblowsky. Oxford University Press. 63s.
Rabbi Joseph Karo is known to history chiefly as the author of the Shulchan Aruch and the gigantic work of legal synthesis, the Beth Joseph, upon which it is based. He also kept a diary (published under the name Maggid Mesharim) for a period of 50 years in which he jotted down the communications he claims to have received, in the form of automatic speech, from a celestial mentor—a Maggid. Nineteenth-century rationalistic historians like Graetz used the Maggid Mesharim as a stick with which to bear the Shulchan Aruch, patronizingly noting that all the work of an author afflicted with such droll fancies was bound to be tainted. A judge ought to be the sort of person who asks: “What is a Maggid?” not the person who actually has one. Others sought to defend Karo by denying the existence of this particular skeleton in his cupboard.
Dr. Werblowsky, with great skill, demonstrates the authenticity of the Maggid Mesharim as Karo’s work. The psychological problem this poses is, of course, acute. Werblowsky’s solution is that Karo’s unconscious mind summoned forth the Maggid as compensation for the rigours of the famous legalist’s life. Karo, it must be remembered, was not only the author of the Beth Joseph. He was also a member of the mystic circle in sixteenth-century Safed whose conduct was shaped by the demands of a severe asceticism. The efforts required to fulfil both rôles were well-nigh superhuman. His heavenly mentor provided Karo with the confirmation he needed that his work was supremely worth while. The approval of Heaven through the Maggid, even through the latter’s chidings and reproofs, helped Karo to attain the psychological equilibrium needed for his ambitious intellectual and spiritual endeavours.
This is a splendid book, full of rich insights. The title is, however, rather misleading. The work is devoted entirely to a brilliant elucidation of the Maggid problem. Karo’s halachic work is only touched on where it concerns this problem, so that the reader who expects to find a discussion of Karo’s legal methods and principles will be disappointed. Although the book bears all the marks of accuracy one associates with the Clarendon Press, there are a few minor slips, e.g., Shir’s name is Rapoport, not Rappaport, there is a printer’s error on page 9, and on page 102 the word after Binah should be Tiphereth, not , not Yesod.
Werblowsky is right in refusing to explain the Maggid phenomenon on the basis of William James’s idea that the extravagances of the saints are due to simplemindedness, since Karo’s was an intellect of the first order. But unless I have misunderstood James he would never gave suggested that his explanation applies to the manifestations of the unconscious, only to the conscious extravagances of the saints, their mortification of the flesh and the like. These are minor matters. No student of mysticism and psychology can afford to neglect this fascinating volume.