Becom­ing Eli­jah: Prophet of Transformation

Daniel C. Matt

  • Review
By – April 11, 2022

In Becom­ing Eli­jah, Daniel C. Matt stark­ly con­trasts Eli­jah, the zeal­ous prophet described in the Bible, with the ver­sion of him that fre­quent­ly appears on earth in rab­binic and Jew­ish mys­ti­cal and folk lit­er­a­ture. One could claim that there is a pro­found dis­con­nect between the bib­li­cal Eli­jah, who showed no kind­ness to peo­ples and kings when he felt that they were act­ing improp­er­ly and unjust­ly, and the rab­binic and leg­endary fig­ure who appears unex­pect­ed­ly in order to par­tic­i­pate in cir­cum­ci­sions, announce the com­ing of the Mes­si­ah, and par­tic­i­pate in the week­ly Hav­dalah ser­vice. Matt suc­cess­ful­ly demon­strates that the two char­ac­ters are actu­al­ly of the same cloth.

Among the key asso­ci­a­tions that he points out between the bib­li­cal and rab­binic pro­jec­tions of Eli­jah is the bib­li­cal descrip­tion of the prophet’s unique recall to heav­en on a fiery char­i­ot, fuel­ing spec­u­la­tion that Eli­jah nev­er died and there­by allow­ing him to con­tin­ue to par­tic­i­pate in Jew­ish his­to­ry by means of shape-shift­ing” into the per­son­ae of a horse­man, an Arab, a Per­sian, a slave, a roy­al min­is­ter of a gen­tile ruler,” or even as the source of an idea that sud­den­ly pops into someone’s head. A sec­ond such source are the last two vers­es in the bib­li­cal book of Malachi, when Eli­jah is asso­ci­at­ed with the end of days. Matt’s dis­cus­sion of Elijah’s sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences when com­pared to Moses, Jon­ah, and Phineas, as well as the ref­er­ences to the role Eli­jah plays in Judaism’s sis­ter reli­gions, Chis­tian­i­ty and Islam, are deeply enlight­en­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly when read in tan­dem with the copi­ous end­notes that serve as the lit­er­ary anchor of the book’s discussions.

Daniel Matt is the trans­la­tor of the prize-win­ning The Zohar: The Pritzk­er Edi­tion, and the chap­ter enti­tled Inspir­ing the Mys­tics: Eli­jah in the Kab­bal­ah” is ency­clo­pe­dic and infor­ma­tive. Matt dis­cuss­es at length both Gilui Eliyahu” (the rev­e­la­tion of Eli­jah) as well as Bechi­nat Eliyahu” (an aspect of Eli­jah,) from the per­spec­tive of mys­ti­cal and Chas­sidic thought. The author also presents pros and cons regard­ing whether Eli­jah not only became an angel fol­low­ing his sojourn on earth but actu­al­ly already may have been one, pri­or to his descent and inter­ac­tions with the wid­ow of Zarephath, King Ahab, and Queen Jezebel.

Matt writes at the con­clu­sion of his book, Over the cen­turies, he (Eli­jah) has tamed his fanati­cism but nev­er lost his pas­sion, which he chan­nels into mend­ing him­self, his peo­ple and the world.” This is a high­ly rec­om­mend­ed read.

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions