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6. Jewish mysticism

This section deals with the special nature and characteristics of Jewish mysticism, the main lines of its development, and its role in present-day religion and culture.


i) The Judaic context.

The term mysticism applies whenever a person is convinced that it is possible to establish direct contact, apart from sense perception and intellectual apprehension, with the divine--a reality undefinable by pure logic and believed to be the ultimate ground of being. Since mysticism springs from an aspiration to join and grasp that which falls outside ordinary experience, it is not easily restricted within precise limits. The boundary line that separates mysticism from metaphysics and cosmology (doctrines on the basic nature or structure of being and the world), from theosophies (systems of thought claiming special insights or revelation into the divine nature), and various forms of occultism (the study and control of supernatural powers), and from theurgy (the art of compelling or persuading divine powers) and even magic, often of the lowest kind, is not clear.

If mysticism is defined as the search for direct contact with the divine, however, it seems to be incompatible with Judaism. In its classical and normative form, Judaism appears as faith in a sole God who created the universe and who chose to reveal himself to a selected group by means of a rule of life he imposed on it-- Torah ("Guidance" or "Teachings," incorrectly rendered as "Law"). The earthly destiny of the chosen nation, as well as the eternal salvation of the individual, in traditional Judaic beliefs, depends upon the observance of this rule of life, through which any relationship to God must take place. The fact is, however, that in the religious history of Judaism the quest for God goes beyond this relationship mediated by Torah, without ever dispensing with it (since that would take the seeker outside of Judaism) or pretending to reach the depths of the mystery of the divine, or still less to end in an ontological identification with it (where God and man are the same in nature and being). (see also Index: monotheism)

ii) Three types of Jewish mysticism.

Three types of mysticism may be discerned in the history of Judaism: the ecstatic, the contemplative, and the esoteric. Though they are distinct types, in practice there are frequent overlappings and mixtures between them.

The first type is characterized by the quest for God--or, more precisely, for access to a supernatural realm, which is itself still infinitely remote from the inaccessible deity--by means of ecstatic experiences; this method is sometimes tainted by theurgy. The second follows the way of metaphysical meditation pushed to the limit, always bearing in its formulations the imprint of the cultural surroundings of the respective thinkers, who are exposed to influences from outside Judaism; this was the case with Philo of Alexandria (c. 15 BCE-after 40 CE) and a few of the Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, who drew their inspiration from Greco-Arabic Neoplatonism and sometimes also from Muslim mysticism.

The third type of mysticism claims an esoteric knowledge (hereafter called esoterism) that explores the divine life itself and its relationship to the extradivine level (the natural, finite realm) of being, a relationship that is subject to the "law of correspondences." From this perspective, the extradivine is a symbol of the divine; that is, a reality that reveals another, superior reality, whence reciprocal action of the one on the other (which corresponds to it) exists. This form of mysticism, akin to gnosis--the secret knowledge claimed by Gnosticism, a Hellenistic religiophilosophical movement--but purged, or almost purged, of the dualism that characterizes the latter, is what is commonly known as Kabbala (literally "tradition"). By extension, this term is also used to designate technical methods, used for highly diverse ends, ranging from the conditioning of the aspirant to ecstatic experiences to magical manipulations of a frankly superstitious character. If the concept of spiritual energy acting on matter and at a distance originally underlay these practices, it finally became unrecognizable and all that remained was a collection of "tricks of the trade." (see also Index: esotericism)

The favour with which the doctrine of correspondences was regarded by ancient and medieval science, as well as the tendency in the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to reconcile the results of rational reflection with the data of revelation, had the result of turning speculation on the origin and order of the universe toward mysticism.

It must also be noted that the quest for God implies the search for solutions to problems that go beyond those of religion in the narrow sense and that arise even when there is no interest in the relationship between man and supernatural powers. Man ponders the problems of his origins, his destiny, his happiness, his suffering--questions that arise outside of religion, as well as within nonmystical forms of religious life; the presence or absence of religious institutions or dogmas is of little importance when it comes to these questions. They were all formulated within nonmystical Judaism and served as the basis and framework for the setting and solution of problems in the various forms of Jewish mysticism. This mysticism, especially in its "Kabbalistic" form, brought about profound transformations in the concepts of the world, God and "last things" (resurrection, last judgment, messianic kingdom, etc.) set forth in biblical and rabbinical Judaism. Nevertheless, Jewish mysticism's own set of problems about the origins of the universe and of man, of evil and sin, of the meaning of history, of the afterlife and the end of time is rooted in the very ground of Judaism and cannot be conceived outside of an exegesis of revealed Scripture and rabbinical tradition.


A study of the main lines of Jewish mysticism, following its actual historical development, reveals that during a very long period, from its origins in the 1st century CE to the middle of the 12th century, only the first two of the three types outlined above existed. It was not until the second half of the 12th century that esoterism became clearly discernible; from then on it continued to develop in various forms up to very recent times.

i) Early stages to the 6th century CE.

The centuries that followed the return from the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE witnessed the growth and intensification of reflection on the intermediary beings between man and God, of meditation on the divine appearances whose special place of occurrence had formerly been the most sacred part of the Jerusalem Temple, of speculation on the coming into being and organization of the universe and on the creation of man. None of these themes was absent from the Bible, which was held to be divinely revealed, but each had become the object of a constant ideological readjustment that also involved the infiltration of concepts from outside and reaction against them. The speculative taste of Jewish thinkers between the 2nd century BCE and the 1st century CE took them in many different directions: angelology (doctrine about angels) and its counterpart demonology (doctrine about devils); mythical geography and uranography, description of the heavens; speculation on the divine manifestations--which had as background the Jerusalem Temple worship and the visions of the moving "Throne" (the "Chariot," Merkava) in the prophecy of Ezekiel; on the double origin of man, a being formed of the earth but also the "image of God"; on the end of time; on resurrection (a concept that appeared only toward the end of the biblical period); and on rewards and punishments in the afterlife.

The literary crystallization of all this ferment was accomplished in writings, such as the book of Enoch, of which Pharisaic (rabbinical) Judaism--which became the normative Jewish tradition after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE)--retained almost nothing and even the vestiges of which it tended to obliterate in its own writings; the Talmud and the Midrash (rabbinical legal and interpretative literature) touched these themes only with great reserve, often unwillingly and more often in a spirit of negative polemic. (see also Index: Pharisee, Jerusalem, Temple of)

As early as the 1st century CE, and probably even before the national calamity of 70, there were certainly sages or teachers recognized by the religious community for whom meditation on the Scriptures--especially the creation narrative, the public revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Merkava vision of Ezekiel, the Song of Solomon--and reflection on the end of time, resurrection, and the afterlife were not only a matter of exegesis and of attaching new ideas to texts recognized to be of divine origin but also a matter of inner experience. It was, however, probably in other circles that speculation on the invisible world was engaged in and where the search for the means of penetrating it was carried out. It is undeniable that there exists a certain continuity between the apocalyptic visions (i.e., of the cataclysmic advent of God's Kingdom) and documents of certain sects (Dead Sea Scrolls) and the writings, preserved in Hebrew, of the "explorers of the supernatural world" (Yorde Merkava). The latter comprise ecstatic hymns, descriptions of the "dwellings" (hekhalot) located between the visible world and the ever-inaccessible divinity, whose transcendence is paradoxically expressed by anthropomorphic descriptions consisting of inordinate hyperboles (Shi'ur qoma, "Divine Dimensions"). In addition, a few documents have been preserved that attest to the existence of methods and practices having to do with the initiation of carefully chosen persons who were made to undergo tests and ordeals in accordance with psychosomatic criteria borrowed from physiognomy (art of determining character from physical, especially facial, traits). Some theurgic efficacy was attributed to these practices, and there was some contamination from Egyptian, Hellenistic, or Mesopotamian magic. (A curious document in this respect, rich in pagan material, is the Sefer ha-razim, the "Treatise on Mysteries," which was discovered in 1963.) (see also Index: Essene)

In this extrarational domain, there are many similarities between concepts reflected in unquestionably Jewish texts and the documents of contemporary non-Jewish esoterism, to the point that it becomes difficult, sometimes impossible, to distinguish the giver from the receiver. Two facts are certain however. On the one hand Gnosticism never ceases to exploit in its own way biblical themes (such as the tale of creation and speculation on angels and demons) that have passed through Judaism, whatever their original source may have been; on the other hand, though Jewish esoterism may borrow this or that motif from ancient gnosis or syncretism (fusion of various faiths) and may even raise to a very high rank in the hierarchy of being a supernatural entity such as the angel Metatron, also known as "little Adonai" (i.e., little Lord or God), it still remains inflexibly monotheistic and rejects the Gnostic concept of a bad or simply inferior demiurge who is responsible for the creation and governing of the visible world. Finally, it is noteworthy that during the centuries that separate the Talmudic period (2nd to 5th centuries AD) from the full resurgence of Jewish esoterism in the middle of the 12th century, the texts that have been preserved progressively lose their density and affective authenticity and become reduced to the level of literary exercises that are more grandiloquent than substantial.

1. Sefer Yetzira.

In the ancient esoteric literature of Judaism, a special place must be given to the Sefer Yetzira ("Book of Creation"), which deals with cosmogony and cosmology (the origin and order of the universe). Creation, it affirms with a clearly anti-Gnostic insistence, is the work of the God of Israel and took place on two different levels: the ideal, immaterial level and the concrete level. This was done according to a complex process that brings in the 10 numbers (sefirotsingular sefira) of decimal notation and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The 10 numbers are not to be taken merely as arithmetical symbols: they are cosmological factors, the first of which is the spirit of God--with all the ambiguities that this term ruah has in Hebrew--while the nine others seem to be the archetypes of the three elements (air, water, fire) and the spatial dimensions (up, down, and the four cardinal points). After having been manipulated either in their graphic representation or in combination, the letters of the alphabet, which are considered to be adequate transcriptions of the sounds of the language, are in turn instruments of creation. (see also Index: creation myth, Hebrew language)

The basic idea of all this speculation is that speech (that is, language composed of words, which are in turn composed of letters/sounds) is not only a means of communication but also an operational agent destined to produce being--it has an ontological value. This value, however, does not extend to every form of language; it belongs to the Hebrew language alone.

The universe that is produced by means of the sefirot and the letters is constituted according to the law of correspondences between the astral world, the seasons that mark the rhythm of time, and man in his psychosomatic structure.

The "Book of Creation" certainly does not proceed entirely from biblical data and rabbinical reflection upon them; certain Greek influences are discernible, even in the vocabulary. What is important, however, is its influence on later Jewish thought, down to the present time: philosophers and esoterists have vied with one another in commentating it, pulling it in their own direction, and adjusting it to their respective ideologies. Even more important is the fact that Kabbala (see below The making of the Kabbala) borrowed a great part of its terminology from it (sefira, among others), naturally making semantic adaptations as required.

The speculation traced above developed during the first six centuries of the Common Era, both in Palestine and in Babylonia (later called Iraq); Babylonian Judaism had its own social and ideological characteristics, which put it in opposition to Palestinian Judaism in various aspects, including esoterism as well as other manifestations of the life of the spirit. The joint doctrinal influence of the two centres was to spread during the period from the mid-8th to 11th century among the Jews established in North Africa and Europe; mystical doctrines also filtered in, but very little is known about the circumstances and means of their penetration.

ii) The Arabic-Islamic influence (7th-13th century).

Arabic-Islamic culture provided another important influence in Jewish mystical development. A considerable part of Jewry, which had fallen under Muslim domination in the 7th and 8th centuries, participated in the new Arabic-Islamic civilization; the Jews of Asia, Africa, and Spain soon adopted Arabic, the prevailing language of culture and communication. By way of Arabic-language culture, elements of Greek philosophy and Islamic mysticism penetrated Judaism and contributed to the deepening of certain theological concepts that were Jewish in origin but had become the common property of the three religions of the Book: affirming the divine unity, purging all anthropomorphism from the idea of God, and approaching the divine by progressing on a spiritual path that leads through an ascetic discipline (both physical and intellectual) to a detachment from this world and a freeing of the soul from all that distracts it from God. Greek philosophy and Islamic mysticism, moreover, raised very serious questions that threatened many traditional beliefs, such as the creation of the world, the providential action of God, miracles, eschatology (doctrines about the resurrection of the body, rewards, and especially material punishments in the hereafter). Even in the Christian West, where cultural contacts between the majority society and the Jewish minority were far from reaching the breadth and intensity of the Judeo-Arab relations, Jewish intellectuals were unable to remain totally impervious to the incursions of the surrounding civilization. Moreover, at the beginning of the 12th century, if not earlier, European Judaism received part of the intellectual Arabic and Judeo-Arabic heritage through translations or adaptations into Hebrew, its only cultural language.

iii) The making of the Kabbala (c. 1150-1250).

It was in these circumstances that, starting around 1150, manifestations of markedly theosophic ideologies appeared in the south of present-day France (in the regions of Provence-Languedoc-Roussillon). Two types can be distinguished at the outset, which are very different as to their manner of appearance, their form, and their content.

1. Sefer ha-bahir.

The first type is represented in fragmentary, poorly written, and badly assembled texts that began to circulate in Provence-Languedoc during the third quarter of the 12th century. Their inspiration, however, leaves no doubt as to the community of their origin. They were in the form of a Midrash; that is, an interpretation of Scripture with the help of a particular interpretative method, full of sayings attributed to ancient rabbinical authorities. This whole body of texts, probably imported from the Near East (Syria-Palestine-Iraq), is known as the "Midrash of Rabbi Nehunya ben Haqana" (from the name of a 2nd-century rabbi) or Sefer ha-bahir, "Book of Brightness" (from a characteristic word of the first verse of Scripture to be elucidated in the work). The authorities cited are all inauthentic (as was often the case in late works), and the content of this Midrash, even its nonmystical content, is entirely Gnostic; a Gnosticism that tries nevertheless to escape any ontological dualism (and, as a matter of fact, succeeds).

Its object is to present the origin of things and the course of history centred naturally on that of the chosen people, with the vicissitudes caused in turn by obedience to God and by sin, as bound and conditioned by the manifestation of divine powers. These "powers" are not "attributes" derived and defined by philosophical abstraction, although that is one of the terms used to designate it: they are hypostases (essences or substances). They are inseparable from God, but each one is clothed in its own personality, each operates in its own manner, in the leaning toward severity or mercy, in dynamic correspondence with the behaviour of man, especially of the Jew, in the visible world. They are ranked in a hierarchical order, which is not yet as fixed as it became starting with the second generation of Kabbalists in Languedoc and Catalonia (see below The school of Gerona [Catalonia]). The rich nomenclature used to designate the "powers" exploits the resources of both the Bible and rabbinical tradition, of the "Book of Creation," of some ritual observances, and also of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the signs that can be added to them to indicate the vowels. All of this combines to give a symbolical rendering of the myth, cosmology, sacred history, and eschatology through which an anonymous group of theosophists attempt to formulate their doctrine: a Gnostic myth, except for the adjustments that eliminate the radical depreciation of the visible world.

Thus, according to the Sefer ha-bahir, the universe is the manifestation of the hierarchically organized divine powers, and the one that is at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder has special charge of the visible world. This entity is highly complex. Undoubtedly there are survivals of Gnostic speculation on Sophia ("Wisdom"), who is involved, sometimes to her misfortune, in the material world. This power is also the divine "Presence" (Shekhina) of rabbinical theology but profoundly transformed: it has become a hypostasis; by a bold innovation, moreover, it is characterized as a feminine being and thus finds itself, while remaining an aspect of the divinity, in the position of a daughter or a wife, who owns nothing herself and receives all from the father or the husband. It is also identified with the "Community of Israel," another radical innovation, but facilitated by ancient speculation based on the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon, which represents the relationship of God to the chosen nation in terms of the marriage bond. Thus a theosophical equality is established between the whole of the people chosen by God, constituted into a kind of mystical body, and an aspect of the divinity, whence the solidarity and linked destiny of the latter and the human group in question. As a matter of fact, a comparable relationship between the "Presence" and Israel was not totally foreign to ancient rabbinical theology. In this light, the obedience or disobedience of Israel to its particular vocation is a determining factor of cosmic harmony or disruption and extends to the inner life of the divinity. This is the essential and definitive contribution of the Sefer ha-bahir to Jewish theosophy. In the same document may be seen the resurgence of a notion fought against by the older theologians--that of metensomatosis, the reincarnation into several successive bodies of a soul that has not attained the required perfection in a previous existence.

2. School of Isaac the Blind.

Parallel to the appearance of the Sefer ha-bahir but independent of it, another theosophic tendency unfolded in Languedoc, the second type referred to above. The two movements would take only about thirty years to converge, to constitute what may conveniently, though not quite precisely, be called classical Kabbala. The second school flourished in Languedoc during the last quarter of the 12th century and crossed the Pyrenees into Spain in the first years of the 13th century.

The most eminent spokesman of this school was Isaac ben Abraham, known as Isaac the Blind. For this theosophist, among whose extant works there is in particular a very obscure commentary of the "Book of Creation," the general vision of the universe proceeds, to use the words of Gershom G. Scholem (the eminent 20th-century Kabbala scholar), from the link he discovers between the hierarchical orders of the created world and the roots of all beings implanted in the world of the sefirot. One can already see a Neoplatonic influence in the reflections of Isaac; e.g., the proceeding of things from the One and the corresponding return to the heart of the primordial undifferentiatedness, which is the fullness of being and at the same time every conceivable being. This return is not merely eschatological and cosmic but is in some way realized in the life of prayer of the contemplative mystic privileged to have supernatural inspirations, "appearances" of the prophet Elijah, by means of concentration, of orientation of action and thought (kawwana), and of "adhesion" (devequt), being-with-God, though not, indeed, a transforming union by which the human personality blends completely into the deity or becomes one with it.

The synthesis of the themes of the Bahir and the cosmology of the "Book of Creation," accomplished by Isaac or by others in the doctrinal environment inspired by his teachings, is and remains the foundation of Kabbala whatever enrichment, adjustments, even changes of orientation and sometimes radical modifications the composite may have undergone subsequently.

iv) The 10 sefirot.

It is also in this environment that the nomenclature of the 10 sefirot became more or less fixed; it is important to remember this, whatever variant terminologies and even divergent concepts as to the nature of these entities may exist elsewhere--e.g., as internal powers of the divine organism (Gnostic point of view), as hierarchically ordered intermediaries between the infinite and the finite (Neoplatonic concept), or simply as instruments of the divine activity, neither partaking of the divine substance nor being outside it.

The classical list of the sefirot is:

1. keter 'ElyonThe Supreme Crown (its identity or nonidentity with the Infinite, En Sof, the unknowable deity, remains problematical)

2. hokhmaWisdom, the location of primordial ideas in God

3. binaIntelligence, the organizing principle of the universe

4. hesedLove, the attribute of goodness

5. gevuraMight, the attribute of severity

6. tif'eretBeauty, the mediating principle between the preceding two

7. netzahEternity

8. hodMajesty

9. yesodFoundation of all the powers active in God

10. malkhutKingship, identified with the Shekhina ("Presence")

1. The School of Gerona (Catalonia).

The double current of the gnosticizing theosophy of the Sefer ha-bahir and the contemplative mysticism of the masters of Languedoc became one in the elaborations it was subject to at the hands of the Kabbalists in Catalonia, where the Jewish community of Gerona was, during the first half of the 13th century, a veritable seat of esoterism. These elaborations followed the same overall lines, though they were at the same time highly diversified, depending on the personal inclinations of each writer. To the school of Gerona belong, among others, masters such as Ezra ben Solomon, Azriel of Gerona, Jacob ben Sheshet, Moses ben Nahman (or Nahmanides, c. 1195-1270, the famous Talmudist, biblical commentator, and mystical philosopher); their influence on the subsequent course of Jewish mysticism is of fundamental importance. None of them has left a complete synthesis of his theosophy; they expressed themselves, with more or less reserve, by means of commentaries, sermons, polemic or apologetic treatises or, at the most, brief summaries for the noninitiated. It is not impossible, however, to discover through these texts their vision of the world and compare it with the views of the Jewish thinkers who attempted to harmonize the biblical-rabbinical tradition with Greco-Arab philosophy, whether of Neoplatonic or Aristotelian inspiration.

At the base of the Kabbalistic view of the world there is an option of faith: it is by a voluntary decision that the unknowable deity--who is "nothing" or "nothingness" (nonfinite) because he is a fullness of being totally inaccessible to any human cogitation--set into motion the process that leads to the visible world. This concept radically separates Kabbala from the determinism from which the philosophy of the period could not, without internal contradictions, free the principle of being. In addition it offers a solution consistent with faith to the problem, highly embarrassing for the philosophers, of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing): the paradoxical reinterpretation of the concept of the "nothing" eliminates the original matter coeternal with God and solves the opposition between divine transcendence (remoteness from the world) and immanence (presence in the world); issuing from the unfathomable depth of the deity and called to return to it, the world, visible as well as invisible, is radically separated from God, who is at the same time constantly present. The correspondence between the sefirot, which are modes of the divine manifestation, and all the degrees of being gives meaning to the structure of the world and to the history of humanity centred on the revelation especially given to the chosen people, a revelation that is a rule of life for this people and, consequently, the criterion of merit and sin, or good and evil. Thus, from the top to the bottom of the ladder, there are but corresponding realities that control one another; contrary to the opinion of the philosophers, evil is also a reality since it is the rupture of the universal harmony. It is also the consequence of this rupture, in the form of punishment, but it is repairable. From this perspective, scrupulous observance of the Torah, the revealed Law (both in the written text and the oral tradition), is the essential factor for the very maintenance of the universe. From that point on, the "rational" motivation of the commandments, which raises insurmountable difficulties for the theologians of philosophical orientation, is in the eyes of the Kabbalists but a false problem; the real problem is the fundamental nature of the Torah. Kabbala brings more than one solution to it, whereas philosophy is not even able to raise the question.

It follows from this general concept that the Jewish faith, with its implications--the conviction of holding the undiluted truth, the faithful preservation of ritual practices, and the eschatological expectation--is safeguarded from all the doubts that either philosophical speculation or the rival religious doctrines of Christianity and Islam could evoke in the minds of Jewish believers. Considered from this point of view, Kabbala, already at the stage it had reached at Gerona, turns out to have been a significant factor in the survival of Judaism, which was exposed everywhere in medieval society to the perils that the history of the period reveals.

Besides the Gerona school and the doctrinal descendants of Isaac the Blind in Languedoc, there was another school of Jewish esoterism in southern Europe during the first half of the 13th century. This school--whose followers preferred to remain anonymous and therefore published their writings, such as the Sefer ha-'iyyun ("Book of Speculation"), either without giving any author's name or by attributing them to fictitious authorities--directed its speculation both to the highest levels of the divine world, where it discerned further aspects beyond the 10 sefirot and attempted to give an idea of them by resorting to the symbolism of light, and to the primordial causes and the archetypes contained in the deity or directly issued from it. The sometimes striking similarity between these speculations and those of John Scotus Erigena, a notable 9th-century Christian philosopher, seems to indicate not only a typological kinship of themes between this Kabbalistic current and Latin-language Christian Neoplatonism but also a concrete influence of the latter upon the former. The same may be true about Isaac the Blind and the school of Gerona, but certain knowledge is lacking. (see also Index: Christianity)

2. Sefer ha-temuna.

Still another current manifested itself at the same period; it found its literary expression in the Sefer ha-temuna ("Book of the Image") of unknown authorship. This very obscure document claims to explain the figures of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In fact, the speculation of this treatise bears on two themes that were not foreign to the school of Gerona, but it develops them in a personal manner that decisively influenced the future of Jewish theosophy. On the one hand, it deals with a theory of different cycles through which the world must travel from the time of its emergence to its reabsorption into the primordial unity and, on the other hand, with various readings that correspond to these cycles in the divine manifestation that is constituted by the revealed Scriptures. In other words, the reading, thus the interpretation, and consequently the message of the Torah vary according to the cycles of existence; the passage to a cycle other than that under whose governance humanity is presently living could thus entail the modification, even the abrogation, of the rule of life to which the chosen people are presently subject, an explosive notion that opened the way to an overthrow of the traditional values of Judaism.

v) Medieval German (Ashkenazic) Hasidism.

The period from c. 1150 to 1250, which witnessed the establishment of Kabbala in the south of France and in Spain, is no less important for the shaping of Jewish mysticism in the other branch of European Judaism, in northern France (and England) and in the Rhine and Danube regions of Germany. Unlike medieval Kabbala, which was to experience a broad and varied development starting in the second half of the 13th century, the movement designated somewhat summarily as German (or Ashkenazic, from a biblical place-name conventionally used to designate Germany) Hasidism (Pietism), would hardly survive as a living and independent current beyond the second quarter of the 13th century. There was undoubtedly within Franco-German Judaism a certain continuity of mystical tradition, based on the Sefer Yetzira and the Hekhalot (see above Sefer Yetzira); certain elements of theurgy and magic of Babylonian origin had perhaps also reached it through Italy; and it would seem that the gnosticizing current crystallized in the Sefer ha-bahir did not pass without leaving traces in Germany. The intellectual atmosphere of Franco-German Judaism, however, differed greatly from that reigning in Spain or even Provence-Languedoc; it was characterized by an almost exclusively Talmudic culture, less intellectual contact with the non-Jewish environment than in the countries of Muslim civilization, and a very limited knowledge of the Jewish theology in Arabic of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. This situation would change only in the last third of the 12th century; until then, the "philosophical" equipment of the Franco-German Jewish scholar consisted essentially of a Hebrew paraphrase, dating perhaps from the 11th century, of the treatise Beliefs and Opinions by Sa'adia ben Joseph (the great 9th-10th-century Babylonian Jewish scholar and philosopher), and the commentary on the "Book of Creation," written directly in Hebrew (in 946) by the Italian Jew Shabbetai Donnolo. Even when the cultural influence of Spanish Judaism came to be felt more strongly in France-England and Germany, the speculative Kabbala noted above hardly penetrated there. Thinkers within Franco-German Judaism who inclined toward theological speculation had their own problems, which resulted in a mysticism strongly imbued with asceticism, a type of mysticism toward which the general situation of the Jews in those regions contributed, as, especially after the First Crusade, they were severely afflicted by bloody persecutions. The main speculative problem was that of the relationship between God in his pure transcendence and total unity and his manifestations in creation, as well as in revelation and communication with inspired men. Reflection on this problem led to the elaboration of various supernatural hierarchies between the inaccessible God and the created universe or the recipient of divine communication; data on angels taken from the Bible and rabbinical and mystical tradition, as well as speculation on the Shekhina, were used as material for these hierarchies and also gave a peculiar coloration to liturgical practice. The latter was marked, moreover, by a concern for spiritual concentration by means of fixing the attention on the words and even the letters of the synagogue prayers. Whatever the historical interest of these speculations, they had no great repercussions on the subsequent course of Jewish esoterism; the only exceptions are the mysticism of prayer and demonology, which was sometimes influenced by the beliefs of the Christian environment and fully developed in Hasidic circles. On the other hand, the ascetic morality of the movement, which found its literary expression in the work of Eleazar ben Judah of Worms (c. 1160-1238) and in the two recensions of the "Book of the Pious" (Sefer hasidim), was to mark Jewish spirituality, esoteric or not, from then on. (see also Index: "Sefer Yetzira," )

vi) The making of the Zohar (c. 1260-1492).

Once the actually marginal episode of German Hasidism was finished, almost all of the creative activity in Jewish mysticism was to be situated or would originate in Spain, up to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.

After the flowering of the schools described above came to an end, around the year 1260, two other currents appeared. The first, in its own manner, resumed relations with Gnosticism in that it placed the problem of evil at the centre of its reflection. The texts that reflect this tendency do not maintain evil in a state of dependence on the "attribute of judgment" within the structure of the sefirot set up by the previous Kabbalists but locate it outside the divinity, constructing a parallel system of "left-hand sefirot," with a corresponding development of an exuberant demonology. The second movement, whose main representative was the 13th-century visionary-adventurer Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia, found its justification in inner experiences considered "prophetic" and encouraged by training methods akin to those of Yoga, the Byzantine Hesychasts (mystical, quietist monks), and the Muslim Sufis (mystics); moreover, an important place was given to speculations on the letters and vocalic signs of the Hebrew script. Unlike the protagonists of other mystical schools of Spain that until then had not sought to spread their ideas outside the circle of initiates, Abulafia applied himself in various places to propaganda and exhibitions that disaffected and worried the leaders of Judaism and caused their initiator to be pursued even by the non-Jewish authorities. The numerous writings that he left were later to stimulate a few minds among the Kabbalists.

The work of Moses ben Shem Tov de León, in the last quarter of the 13th century, marked one of the most important turning points in the development of Jewish mysticism. Moses de León was born in the middle of the 13th century and died in 1305; he was the author of several esoteric works, which he signed with his own name. But at the same time, in order to better spread his ideas and to more effectively combat philosophy, which he considered a mortal danger to the Jewish faith, he turned to the composition of pseudepigrapha (writings ascribed to other authors, usually in past ages) in the form of Midrashim (plural of Midrash) on the Pentateuch, the Song of Solomon, Book of Ruth, and Lamentations, in which Talmudic authorities appeared, of whom only the names were even partially authentic, a procedure already used by the Sefer ha-bahir (see above Sefer ha-bahir); in its most finished version (for there were several of them), the plot of the tales centred around Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, a doctor of the 2nd century, about whom the Talmud already related some curious anecdotes, most of them semilegendary. Moses de León thus produced, over a period of about 30 years, first a work entitled Midrash ha-ne'elam ("The Mystical Midrash") whose method was largely allegorical and whose tongue was mainly Hebrew, and then a larger work, the Sefer ha-zohar ("Book of Splendour"), or more briefly the Zohar, whose content is theosophic and which was written in artificial Aramaic. The book culminates in a long speech in which Simeon ben Yohai, on the day of his death, supposedly exposes the quintessence of his mystical doctrine. The literary hoax of Moses de León was not immediately accepted as authentic by all the esoterists and still less by scholars outside the theosophic movement; it took half a century or more for the Zohar and imitations of it to be recognized as authoritative ancient works, and even then it was not without some reluctance. The nearly contemporary imitations of the Zohar that were incorporated into it or appended to it were sometimes of a markedly different ideological orientation: the Ra'ya Mehemana ("Faithful Shepherd"--that is to say, Moses, who is the central figure of this composition, the particular subject of which is the interpretation and theosophic justification of the precepts of the Torah); and the Tiqqune Zohar, elaborations in the same vein bearing upon the first word of the book of Genesis (Bereshit, "In the beginning"). Although critics were never fully silenced and the authenticity of the Zohar was already questioned in the 15th century, the myth created by Moses de León and his imitators became a spiritual reality for the majority of believing Jews; it still retains this character among "Orthodox" Jews. The Zohar, believed to be based on supernatural revelations and reinterpreted in diverse ways, would serve as support and reference for all the Jewish theosophies in the centuries ahead.

As to doctrine, the Zohar and its appendixes develop, amplify, and exaggerate speculation and tendencies that already existed, rather than offering any radical innovation. All of the ideas had already been accepted for a long time in Jewish theosophy: the springing forth of being from the depth of the divine "nothing"; the solidarity of the world of the sefirot (complicated by the introduction of four ontological levels at each one of which the schema of the 10 sefirot is reproduced) with the visible world; the indispensable contribution of man (that is, of the Jew) who observes the biblical and rabbinical precepts in their slightest details, to universal harmony--these emphases remain the main lines of the Zohar. But all these themes (the speculations of the Sefer ha-Temuna, mentioned above, on the cosmic cycles and the "Prophetic Kabbala" of Abulafia being tacitly set aside) were largely organized and enhanced by the use, or rather the unscrupulous appropriation, of materials taken from rabbinical tradition and ancient esoterism as well as from more recent theological and philosophical currents of thought, despite the lack of esteem that the writers of the Zoharic corpus felt and sought to make others feel toward works created by gentiles.

The method of symbolic representation used by the writings of the Zoharic corpus was supported by a system of interpretation that made use of the originally Christian concept of the fourfold meaning of Scripture: literal, moral, allegorical (philosophical), and mystical. The symbolism thus set up boldly made use of an exuberant anthropomorphic and even erotic imagery whose function was to convey the manifestation of the levels of the sefirotto each other and to the extradivine world. The myth of the primordial man (Adam Qadmon), a virtually divine being, reappeared here under a new form, and it was to remain in the subsequent development of Kabbala.

The Zohar thus claims to provide a complete explanation of the world, man, history, and the situation of the Jew; on a higher level, to justify the biblical revelation and rabbinical tradition, down to the slightest detail, including the messianic expectation; and thereby to neutralize philosophy. But, while setting itself up as the defender of the traditional religion regulated by the Talmud and its commentaries, in a sense it places itself above tradition, by proclaiming boisterously the incomparable value of the theosophic teaching of "Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai" and the superiority of the esoteric doctrine over the Talmudic studies, which were open to all and which, along with the observance of the precepts, were, according to common opinion, supposed to constitute the basic justification of the life of the Jew. There is in this attitude--more accentuated in the Ra'ya Mehemana (see above) than in the Zohar proper--a revolutionary potentiality, a possible threat to the primacy of practice and study of Torah; the future would show that this danger was not completely unreal.

vii) The Lurianic Kabbala.

After the establishment of the Zoharic corpus, no major changes took place in Jewish esoterism until the middle of the 16th century, when in Safed (in Upper Galilee, Palestine; present-day Zefat, Israel) a religious centre of extreme importance for Judaism was established, which was mainly inspired by teachers coming from families expelled from Spain. Until the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1492) and during the two generations that followed it, the Kabbalistic literary output had certainly been abundant, in Spain till the expulsion as well as in Italy and the Middle East; but it was primarily a matter of systematizing or even popularizing the Zohar or of extending the speculation already developed in the 13th century; there were also some attempts at reconciling philosophy and Kabbala. It should be noted that even the traditionalist theologians adopted a careful and rather reserved attitude toward Kabbala.

The tragedy for Judaism of the expulsion from Spain and of the forced conversions to Christianity that preceded it by a century, and which would become even more extensive in Portugal shortly afterward, deeply marked the victims. These events, accentuating the already existing pessimism in response to the situation of the Jewish people dispersed among the nations, intensified the messianic expectation. This expectation does not seem to have been unrelated to the beginnings of the printed transmission of Kabbala--the first two printed editions of the Zohar date from 1558. All these factors, joined with certain internal developments of speculative Kabbala in the 15th century, prepared the ground for the new theosophy inaugurated by the teaching of Isaac ben Solomon Luria, who was born in Jerusalem in 1534, educated in Egypt, and died in Safed in 1572; although his teaching is traditionally associated with Safed, he spent only the last three years of his life there. Luria wrote very little; his doctrine has been transmitted, amplified, and probably somewhat distorted through the works of his disciples, of which the main one was Hayyim Vital (1543-1620), who wrote 'Etz Hayyim ("Tree of Life"), the standard presentation of Lurianic Kabbala.

The theosophy of Luria, whose novelty was proclaimed by its creator and perfectly realized by the esoterists who held to the Zoharistic Kabbala (organized and codified precisely in Safed, during the lifetime of Luria, by Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, 1522-70), is of extreme complexity in its details, although basically it is but one more attempt to reconcile divine transcendence with immanence and to bring a solution to the problem of evil, which the believer in the divine unity can recognize neither as a power existing independently of God nor as an integral part of him.

The theosophic vision of Luria is expressed in a vast mythical construct, which is typologically akin to certain Gnostic and Manichaean (3rd-century dualistic) systems but which strives at all costs to avoid dualism. The essential elements of this myth are as follows: the withdrawal (tzimtzum) executed by the divine light, which originally filled all things, in order to make room for the extradivine; the sinking, as a result of a catastrophic event that occurred during this process, of luminous particles into matter (qelippot, "shells," a term already used in Kabbala to designate the evil powers); whence the necessity of saving these particles and returning them to their origin, by means of "repair" or "restoration" (tiqqun). This must be the work of the Jew who not only lives in complete conformity to the religious duties imposed on him by tradition but who also dedicates himself, in the framework of a strict asceticism, to a contemplative life founded on mystical prayer and the directed meditation (kawwana) of the liturgy, which is supposed to further the harmony (yihud, "unification") of the innumerable attributes within the divine life. The successive reincarnations of the soul, a constant theme of Kabbala that Lurianism developed and made more complex, are also invested with an important function in the work of "repair." In short, Lurianism proclaims the absolute requirement of an intense mystical life with, as its negative side, an unceasing struggle against the powers of evil. Thus it presents a myth that symbolizes the origin of the world, its fall, and its redemption; it gives meaning to the existence and to the hopes of the Jew, not merely exhorting him to a patient surrender to God but moving him to a redeeming activism, which is the measure of his sanctity. Obviously, such requirements make the ideal of Lurianism possible only for a small elite; ultimately, it is realizable only through the exceptional personage of the "just"--the ideal holy Jew described above. (see also Index: Gnosticism)

viii) Shabbetaianism.

During the 60 years that followed the death of the founder, the Kabbala linked to the name of Luria and overlaid with accretions from the other mysticisms of Safed spread through the Jewish Diaspora and deeply permeated its spiritual life, liturgy, and devotional practices. It emphasized the necessity of "repair" of a world in which the uneasiness of the Jew kept growing, for in spite of certain favourable factors--the relative tolerance of the Ottoman Empire and the peaceable establishment of an important Marrano (Iberian Jewish, or Sefardic) community in Amsterdam--there was no overall solution to the problem of the "conversos" (converts) who had remained in the Iberian Peninsula. The other half of the Jewish people, the Ashkenazim, also experienced a serious crisis: its most prosperous and dynamic section, the Jewish population of Poland, was sorely tried, almost totally ruined, and in large part forced to move back toward the west because of the massacres and the destruction that took place during the Cossack uprising of 1648. These ideological and historical data may provide the necessary context for understanding the astonishing though short-lived success of Rabbi Shabbetai Tzevi of Smyrna (1626-76), who proclaimed himself messiah in 1665. The "Messiah" was forcibly converted to Islam in 1666 and ended his life in exile 10 years later, but despite his failure he had faithful followers. A sect was thus born and survived largely thanks to the activity of Nathan of Gaza (c. 1644-90), an unwearying propagandist for the "Messiah," who justified the actions of Shabbetai Tzevi, which were contrary to the Law, and his final apostasy by theories that were based on the Lurian theory of "repair": it had to be understood as the descent of the just into the abyss of the "shells" in order to liberate from it the captive particles of divine light. The Shabbetaian crisis lasted nearly a century, some of its aftereffects even longer. It led to the formation of sects whose members were externally converted to Islam--e.g., the Dönme (Turkish, "apostates") of Salonika, whose descendants still live in Turkey--or to Roman Catholicism--e.g., the Polish supporters of Jacob Frank (1726-91), the self-proclaimed Messiah and Catholic convert. In Bohemia-Moravia, however, the Frankists outwardly remained Jews. This crisis did not discredit Kabbala, but it led the spiritual authorities of Judaism to watch over and severely curtail its spread and to exercise rigorous ideological control, by concrete acts of censorship and repression, over anyone, even a person of tested piety and recognized knowledge, who was suspected of Shabbetaian sympathies or of messianic pretensions.

ix) Modern Hasidism.

Though it is true that the messianic movement centred around Shabbetai Tzevi could only produce disillusionment and that if it had not been contained it could have led Judaism to its ruin, yet it answered not only the theosophic aspirations of a small number of visionary scholars but also an affective need of the Jewish masses that was left unsatisfied by the dry intellectualism of the Talmudists and the economic and social oppression of the ruling classes (both Jewish and non-Jewish). This was the case especially in Poland, which before the partition of the Polish kingdom (1772-95) included Lithuanian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian territories. It was there that the so-called Hasidic movement, in no way connected with medieval German Hasidism, originated around the middle of the 18th century--a movement in which the Lurian Kabbala, theoretically maintained as the basis of speculation, underwent adjustments and transformations that continue to the present day.

If modern Hasidism may be regarded as a mass movement, having a minimum of organization, using the methods of propaganda and preaching, and forming groups of acknowledged members, then the legend is credible that traces it back to a single founder, Israel ben Eliezer, known as Ba'al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name; that is, a possessor--he was not the only one of his kind--of the secret of the ineffable name of God, which bestows an infallible power to heal and perform other miraculous operations). This man was born about 1700 and died in 1760 in southern Poland. Though relatively untrained according to the norms of the rabbinical Judaism of his time, he was a spiritual personage of exceptional quality and was able to win to his ideas not only the common people but also many representatives of the intellectual elite. The mist of legend that surrounds him is too dense for it to be possible to reconstruct entirely his personal doctrine, which he probably never systematized. Drawing his inspiration from the methods of the itinerant preachers whose activity was becoming more intense in 18th-century eastern European Judaism, he delivered his teaching in the form of homiletic interpretations of sacred texts, having recourse to fables and parables borrowed from daily life and from folklore; this method remained constant in Hasidism, but it is undeniably an exaggeration and even an error in perspective to consider, as did Martin Buber (see below Modern Jewish mysticism), that the tale and the anecdote are the most authentic expression of the doctrine and the spirituality of Hasidism. It is indeed in the doctrinal works, most of them expressed in the form of sermons on the weekly sections of the Pentateuch and other liturgical lessons, that the thought of the Hasidic "rabbis" is expressed. It is very diversified thought, for there are as many bodies of doctrine in Hasidism as there were creative spirits during the first three generations of the movement. It is, nevertheless, possible to point to a few traits that are fundamental and common to Hasidism as a whole.

In theory, it remains rooted in the Lurianic Kabbala--and nothing essential separates it at this point from its most implacable adversaries in the traditional Judaism of eastern Europe. What is unique to it is to have made of devequt, "being-with-God," an object of aspiration and even a constant duty for all Jews and in all circumstances of life, even those seemingly most profane; in other words, it demands a total spiritualization of Jewish existence. This requirement entails a reevaluation, less new in its principle than in its concrete application, of the speculative concepts of Kabbala: the emphasis is placed on the inner life of the believer, and it is at this level that the supercosmic drama is played (a drama whose stage was, according to bookish theosophy, in the universe of the sefirot); according to several teachers, the same emphasis on inwardness holds for messianic redemption. At the same time, Hasidism transforms into social reality a requirement that was also part of the Lurian doctrine of "repair," though it was unfortunately distorted by Shabbetaianism: Hasidism puts at the centre of the religious life and organization of the group, as an indispensible guide and unquestioned authority, the inspired leader, endowed with supernatural powers--the "just" (tzaddiq), the "miracle-working rabbi" (Wunder-rebbe). Hasidism thus produced, wherever it triumphed, an undeniable spiritual renewal; the reverse of the medal was the cult of personality, competition between "dynasties" of "rabbis," obstinacy in maintaining the Hasidic community apart from the surrounding society, with all the social and economic consequences that this will to isolation entailed and for which it would be false to lay all the blame on the environment, despite its definite hostility toward the Jews.

From its very beginnings, Hasidism was to encounter strong resistance on the part of the official Judaism of the period, which had been sensitized to the anarchism of the Shabbetaians and was at the same time solicitous for the prerogatives of the established community leaders and rabbis, the vigilant guardians over the traditional laws and their application, who were confined to the formal study of the Talmud and its commentaries. The behaviour of the followers of Hasidism, though irreproachable in its strict, even rigorous observance of ritual rules, displayed several traits that were distasteful to its adversaries (besides the unconditional submission to the tzaddiq, who often doubled as the rabbi of the official congregation): desertion of the general communal synagogues, meetings in small conventicles, modifications of the liturgy, casual dress during prayer, and preference given to mystical meditation rather than to the dialectical study of the Talmud, which requires instead serious intellectual concentration. Nevertheless, the conflict between the Hasidim and the "Opponents" (Mitnaggedim) did not finally degenerate into a schism; after three generations, a kind of tacit compromise was established between the two tendencies--Hasidic and Talmudic--without the consciousness of differences ever being erased. The compromise was rather to the advantage of Hasidism, but not without a few concessions on its part, notably on the question of education.

The strong organization of the Hasidic groups allowed them to survive the dislocation of eastern European Judaism as a result of the events of World War II, but its vital centres are today in the United States rather than in Palestine, in part because of economic reasons, in part because of the more or less reserved, and at sometimes frankly hostile, attitude of the Hasidic "rabbis" toward political Zionism and the State of Israel. The best known of the U.S.-based groups is the very active Lubavitchers (after Lyubavichi, Russia, seat of a famous school of Hasidism), whose headquarters are in the Crown Heights district of Brooklyn, New York.


The role played by Kabbala and Hasidism in the thought and spirituality of contemporary Judaism is far from being insignificant, though its importance is not as great as in former times. Of course, there is hardly any really living Kabbalistic and Hasidic literature, but the personal thought of religious writers such as Abraham Isaac Kook (c. 1865-1935), spiritual leader, mystic, and chief rabbi of Palestine, continues to exercise a marked influence. Furthermore, the renewal of religious thought in "westernized" Jewish circles between the two wars received a powerful impulse from the philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965), whose work is in part devoted to the propagation of Hasidic ideology as he understood it. "Neo-Orthodoxy," founded in Germany by Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88), was quite indifferent to mysticism at the outset, but it too came to be influenced by it, especially after the rediscovery of living Judaism in Poland during World War I by Western Jewish thinkers. Also significant is the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72), a Polish Jewish writer of distinguished Hasidic background and double culture--traditional and Western--who emigrated to the United States.

Jewish mysticism also has exercised some influence on thought outside the Jewish community. Kabbala, distorted and deflected from its own intentions, transcended the frontiers of Judaism and helped nourish and stimulate certain currents of thought in Christian society, from the Renaissance to the present: "Christian Kabbala," born in the 15th century under the impetus of Jewish converts from Spain and Italy, claimed to find in the Kabbalistic documents, touched up if necessary or even forged, arguments for the truths of the Christian faith. Thus a certain number of Christian Humanist scholars became interested in Jewish mysticism and several of them acquired a fairly extensive knowledge of it on the basis of authentic texts. Among them were Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) and Gilles of Viterbo (Egidio da Viterbo; c. 1465-1532) in Italy, and Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), who was responsible for writing one of the principal expositions of Kabbala in a language accessible to the learned non-Jewish public (De arte Cabbalistica, 1517), in Germany, while the visionary Guillaume Postel (1510-81) was attracting disciples in France. The occult philosophy of the 16th century, the "natural philosophy" of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the occult and theosophic theories that are cultivated even today and that have coloured the ideology of Freemasonry--all of these focus and continue to make borrowings from Kabbala, though they rarely grasp its spirit and meaning. The same is true of most of the books on Kabbala put out by publishers of occult and theosophic literature today. (see also Index: Christianity)

The rigorous scholarly study of Jewish mysticism is a very recent phenomenon. The state of mind and the tendencies of the founders of the "science of Judaism" (the scholarly study of Jewish religion, literature, history, etc.) in Germany during the first half of the 19th century were too permeated with rationalism to be favourable to scholarly investigation of a movement judged to be obscurantist and retrograde. Granting some valuable earlier works, research on a large scale and application of the proved methods of philology and history of religions began only with the work of Gershom G. Scholem, who was professor of Kabbala at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem from 1923 to 1965, and has been continued by his disciples, both direct and indirect. This research touched all of the areas of Jewish mysticism that are briefly described in this article; however, the gaps in knowledge remain serious in every area. Critical editions of mystical texts are few in number; unpublished documents are cataloged in a very incomplete manner; and only a few monographs on writers and particular themes exist, though these are indispensable preliminaries to a detailed and thorough synthesis. It is to be hoped that the one outlined by Scholem in 1941, in his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, though of exceptional value in its time, will be taken up again and completed. (G.V.)



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