A Visit To Elijah

I read this book, “Becoming Elijah: Prophet of Transformation” (2022) in preparation for Passover. As the book points out, most Jews know Elijah primarily through experiences of the seder, in which the door is opened and a cup of wine offered to Elijah, usually near the conclusion of the service. The book discusses in detail that ritual and other rituals in Jewish life in which Elijah partakes. The book includes a telling story about Elijah and the seder told by a Hasidic Rebbe. At a seder, the Rebbe’s disciples were disappointed when Elijah failed to appear when the door was opened. When they told the Rebbe, the Rebbe said “Fools! Do you think Elijah the prophet enters through the door? He enters through the heart.” (p. 134)

Daniel Matt, the author of “Becoming Elijah” is a renowned scholar of Jewish mysticism, who has translated and annotated a celebrated nine-volume work, “The Zohar: Pritzker Edition”. His book, is part of a series called “Jewish Lives” described as a “prizewinning series of interpretive biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity”. “Becoming Elijah” received the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Book Prize for 2022.

Matt explores this legendary Jewish prophet through a variety of voices and sources. The book is both a history of Elijah and a reflection about him, which invites the reader to think further about Elijah’s continued significance. The book is short but needs slow reading because of the many references and quotations from Jewish and other sources. It includes detailed footnotes together with a lengthy bibliography.

Matt begins with a study of Elijah in the biblical Book of Kings which shows the prophet as a miracle worker, a zealot, a rebuker of kings and as an uncompromising voice for the existence of the Jewish God and of no other gods. He calls the Israelites from idolatry to repentance and worship of God. Elijah is carried to heaven in a chariot and perhaps never died. In the Jewish commentaries and in the Talmud, Elijah gradually changes character as compassion takes precedence over zealotry. Elijah becomes a teacher and appears to sages and other sincere seekers explaining the texts and the religious life.

Matt then explores Elijah in the Jewish mystical texts which have formed the heart of his scholarly work. He discusses how Elijah appears in Jewish Kabbalism and, in particular, in the Zohar. He develops the concept of “Gillui Eliyahu” or Elijah as a mystical figure, more an angel than a human being, who both was faithful to the tradition and also took it in new directions with a focus on internalized spirituality. The Kabbalistic Elijah is the key to this volume. Subsequent chapters explore Elijah’s influence in Christianity and Islam, especially in the mystical traditions of these daughters of Judaism. Matt then explores the role Elijah plays in Jewish ritual, including the Passover, circumcision, and the Havdalah prayer recited at the conclusion of Sabbath.

The book’s final chapter “Becoming Elijah” takes the book out of the realm of historical summary and invites the reader to consider Elijah for oneself and to participate in the continuing growth and understanding of Elijah’s mission. Matt notes that in the Bible, Elijah tended to see everything “in terms of black and white” where in later developments Elijah “realizes that conflicting views can sometimes be equally true.” Elijah works to “reveal the unity within the contradictions of tradition.” (p. 150) Matt sees the significance of Elijah in individual seeking and in helping the downtrodden and neglected. He writes:

“Elijah provides a human face for the transcendent, inviting seekers to learn the unknown. Over the ages, what sages and mystics discovered, he authenticated for them and their circles by his very presence, by his stature as vigilant defender of the faith and guarantor of tradition. If what they absorbed through Elijah seemed startlingly new, he validated it as simultaneoulsy ancient, thereby revitalizing Judaism. Especially in Kabbalah, gillui Eliyyahu (an epiphany of Elijah) signals a shift in religious understanding.” (p. 154)

It was valuable for me to be reminded of Jewish mysticism and the spritual search through Elijah as developed in Matt’s book. I may not have received Elijah, but perhaps I was able to visit him through this book. The book helped me understand the upcoming Passover holiday. It may help readers explore the nature of spiritual search.

Robin Friedman