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Cambridge Interfaith Programme


A musical journey in modern Jewish mystical thought

Rabbi Dr Reuven Leigh, Affiliated Lecturer, Faculty of Divinity

Modernity has been described as ‘the bridging of the tension between the transcendental and the mundane order’, and the movement away from static dualisms towards a dialectic of transcendence and immanence (Eisenstadt, Comparative Civilizations & Multiple Modernities, 252.) On these terms, the mystical philosophy of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady represents a significant moment in Jewish modernity.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745–1812) was one of the foremost rabbinic figures of his time who left an enduring legacy in the fields of Jewish law and philosophy. He synthesized mystical, rational, and ethical currents of Jewish thought arousing sharp opposition from his contemporaries and leading to his arrest by Czar Paul I. On the 19/20th of the Jewish lunar month of Kislev 1798 (28/29 November 1798) he was released from prison and this day is marked annually as a celebration of his ideas.

In addition to his intellectual pursuits, he considered music to be a fundamental medium to communicate his scholarly ideas. Rabbi Shneur Zalman proposed an extreme form of unity between the Divine and the world which went beyond any assumed binary between the sacred and the mundane, and which embraced the profundity in all of existence. To communicate these ideas, he composed ten songs (which are called niggunim in Hasidic tradition). This year’s 19/20 Kislev, corresponds to 2/3 December in the Gregorian calendar, and to mark the date this lecture will explore Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s ten compositions.

The lecture will offer an opportunity to examine the extent to which Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s philosophy was expressed in his compositions and through a deeper understanding of Rabbi Shneur Zalman as a composer, the lecture will also allow us to consider the role of musical expression in Jewish intellectual life more broadly.


This event at Peterhouse is organised jointly by the speaker and Dr Vanessa Paloma Elbaz (Music), a member of the Cambridge Interfaith Research Forum.

Sunday, 3 December, 2023 - 14:00
Contact name: 
Dr Vanessa Paloma Elbaz
Contact email: 
Event location: 
The Brewhouse, Peterhouse

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