"Shalom/Salaam" Review by Jewish Rennaissance Magazine

Jewish Rennaissance
Agi Erdos
London, England, April 2011
Jewish Renaissance

What an interesting choice of subject. Although Thomas Block is not the first to claim that Sufism, a mystical tradition within Islam, has been a formative influence on the development of Jewish mysticism from the

earliest days through Chasidism to contemporary practice, no one before him has dedicated an entire book, accessible to the general public, to the subject. Some of the greatest scholars have explored this Sufi influence, reflected in Jewish mystical ideas, spiritual practices and liturgical texts. However, the topic has remained obscure and marginalised until now.

Block was driven to write his book by the conviction that, in response to the political conflict in the Middle East today, as well as the common misconception that Jews and Muslims “were long-time enemies”, a book highlighting the rich spiritual relationship between the two traditions was urgently needed. Block, who calls himself “a Jew interested in [his] own spiritual roots”, devoted more than ten years of his life to researching this subject. The result is a thorough, detailed, though at places tedious account of the interaction between Sufi and Jewish mysticism throughout history.

The Sufi-Jewish ‚mystical fraternity’ begins with medieval scholars such as Maimonides’ descendants in Egypt, and Spanish thinkers including Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Abraham Abulafia. It continues in the development of kabbalah, and later in Chasidism. Much of the thought of the above-mentioned scholars and trends was deeply

influenced by the central Sufi concepts of equanimity, the annihilation of the ego or the emptying of oneself in order to know God. Kabbalistic and Chasidic practices such as the combination of Hebrew letters as a form of meditation, hitbodedut (secluding oneself) or devekut (clinging to God), also bear the mark of Sufism. Numerous Jewish hymns, some of which are in our siddur, for example, ‚Adon Olam’ or parts of the Yom Kippur service, contain Sufi ideas.

Although Block acknowledges that the influence was mutual between the two traditions, the book one-sidedly focuses on the penetration of Sufi elements into the Jewish mystical tradition. It would have been a more balanced account — and the book’s main message would not have been in any way overshadowed — had he placed more emphasis on the aspect of cross-insemination between the two cultures.

Unfortunately Block doesn’t look at any primary sources in the original Arabic or Hebrew but relies exclusively on secondary literature. Even though this does not diminish the validity of the point he is making, it certainly makes his argument less convincing. Nevertheless, the book fills an important gap and draws our attention to an interesting historical relationship that was little known before.