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SIDIC Periodical V - 1972/2
Mysticism: Jewish and Christian (Pages 04 - 21)

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Spiritual and Esoteric Movements in Judaism
Kurt Hruby


The vitality of a religious system is measured by its followers' ability to react from within against the dangers which threaten it,, by recourse to its own spiritual patrimony. Judaism has always been menaced by a serious danger inherent to its own structure and vocation. Witness to the one true God in a pagan world, Israel needed a barrier to separate it from an environment which constantly perverted the people of God and withdrew it from its mission.

This barrier, this « hedge » as the masters of the Mishna were to call it later, consists in the commands of the Torah imposed on Israel by its divine election. Although the primary objective of these commands is the moral perfection of the individual, this spiritual end is linked to a whole system of exterior practices, to a rigid structure of observances, which, while legitimate and necessary, runs the risk of giving Judaism a narrow, formalistic character that a superficial apologetic would attribute to it.

Throughout its history Israel has always had to struggle for a balanced position between two extremes: on the one hand an extremist legalism running the risk of deterioration into lifeless observance and, on the other hand, a spirituality more or less divorced from material application, and, in the long run, depriving the people of God of its specific religious qualities and thus of its raison d'ętre.

Examination of the diverse phases of Jewish history always reveals this fundamental antagonism between the two conceptions, with greater or lesser intensity according to periods and according to circumstances: one which could be called materialistic (if this word had not taken on a completely different connotation in present-day language), putting the accent essentially on practice, on the material accomplishment of the precepts of the Torah, without overdue anxiety for their spiritual value; and the other, spiritual, which considers only the moral finality of the commands, seeing in their material observance a simple necessity of our human, carnal condition.

Half way between these two trends the movements which tend to reconcile, to balance these two positions, are to be found, assigning to each the place to which it belongs. Up to the present, eighteenth century Hassidism is the last spiritual reaction against a too exclusively formalist practice, and, as such, the last historical movement witnessing to spiritual vitality in Judaism.

Remote preparation: Biblical Times

The first task of the Torah, the Law of Moses, the base of Israel's existence as am ha-behirah (« people of divine election »), was to establish the whole plan of this existence, and its chief concern was the material execution of the precepts. However, it constantly insists on their moral and spiritual scope. It must not be forgotten that such maxims as « You shall love your neighbor as yourself » (Lev 19, 18), and « You shall have one law for the sojourner and for the native » (Lev 24, 22), belong to the heritage of Mosaic legislation. They are found, therefore, at the outset of a religious evolution in which the spiritual and moral content of the commands was to stand out with ever greater clarity.

The Prophets

The first great reaction in Israel's history to an idea of the Torah in which legalistic elements exercised too great a predominance, came at the time of the prophets. The sometimes severe tone of the inspired men of Israel, when attacking the hardened legalism into which a great number of the people had fallen, is explained both by historical circumstances and by their own vision.

However, it is an exaggeration to speak of a « religion of the prophets » in opposition to a « legalistic religion » as represented by the Torah of Moses. The prophets, for whom the divinely revealed character of the Torah is indisputable, make no attempt to impugn it. Rather they attack those who are satisfied with a mere external fulfillment of the precepts, forgetting that this fulfillment, no matter how necessary, can only be a means, and never an end in itself. It is in this way that certain passages must be understood, which, at first sight seem to be aimed at some legal observances (cf. for example, Hos 14,6; 6,6; Mich 6, 7f).

The prophets always emphasize the intention which should inspire the accomplishment of a divine precept, rather than its material execution; man's moral conduct rather than legal conformity. Their teaching is an incontestable sign of great progress in Israel's religious ideology. In addition the major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezechiel abandon the purely national perspective, limited to Israel, to include the whole of humanity in their vision. In this perspective, Israel's role is precisely to be the witness, among the idolatrous nations, of the revelation of the one true God; in fact what God is seeking is the recognition of his sovereign domination over all the people of the earth.

« I will then give the peoples lips that are clean, so that they may invoke the name of the Lord and serve him under the same yoke », says the prophet Zephaniah about the messianic era. And DeuteroZechariah in a similar vision of God's universal kingship as the fulfillment and crowning of the history of Israel says: « And the Lord will be king of the whole world. When that day comes the Lord will be unique and his name unique » (14,9).

The Sects

At the times of the Maccabees, Israel's very existence was threatened from outside. The attraction of Greek ideology and cultural development threatened to result in the total break-up of the traditional structure. It was the opposition of the priestly family of Hasmoneans, as fierce as courageous, which saved the people from what would perhaps have been a slow, but inevitable, ruin.

The natural reaction to these tendencies, after the definitive victory of the Maccabees, was a religious and national return to its own source, indicated by a stricter observance of the norms of Israel's life, that is to say, the Torah. We now witness an extremely powerful legalistic trend by which the institutional character of the people was to be ever more clearly delineated.

Since the discovery of the manuscripts in the Judean desert, so much has been written on the structure and spirituality of Jewish sects that it seems to be quite unnecessary to add anything here. One thing is certain: all these sects were opposition movements to the leading class and its too narrow religious concepts.

In this sense, the sects, whatever their name and specific character, are the spiritual heirs of the prophets of Israel. They look upon themselves as « the remnant » that God will save, and among whom the true spirit of God will be manifested. Again, it is through the intermediary of this « remnant » that the divine promises to Israel will be accomplished, because it is in their midst that the Kingdom of God will first be fulfilled.

Thanks to various authors, principally Philo and Flavius Josephus, the Essenes were the best known sect until the discovery of the above documents. According to Philo their life was based on three major principles: love of God, love of good works, and love of neighbor.

For the sake of a closer approach to their ideal, they cut themselves off from what they considered to be the clamor and futile preoccupations of the world, and put themselves in unison with nature. It was by this contact with creation unmarred by sinful man's intervention, that they sought to draw closer to God, without any intermediary. This spiritual attitude led them to reject sacrificial worship, and, it was through this rejection that they cut themselves off from traditional Judaism, in which the bloody sacrifices of Mosaic institution were considered a sine qua non condition of any contact between man and the divine world.

Heirs to the inspiration of the prophets, these sects went further than their spiritual masters and ended by living on the fringe of official Judaism, which alternately persecuted or tolerated them.

Reaction of the Doctors

While the sects were placing themselves outside the community, which they considered impure, another reaction was beginning to be felt within the community itself, against the encroachment of a legalism which threatened to suffocate it. Its representatives were certain doctors of the Law who anxiously watched the increasing ascendancy of external rites and practices on the religious and spiritual life of Israel. These practices, it is true, had been instituted and augmented with the sole aim to safeguard the integrity of the religious heritage, but there was a risk of this heritage being completely submerged in a multitude of merely external acts.

Such was the reaction of the famous Hillel, a doctor who lived at the beginning of the Christian era, who considered it his principal duty to render legal observances less burdensome. To attain this, he tirelessly promoted the absolute superiority of moral precepts.

Tradition attributes to him a series of famous maxims. The two examples which follow are characteristic both of his personality and his thinking. « Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, » he was accustomed to say, « in this commandment are contained all the teachings of the Torah, all the rest is only commentary » (Shabbath, 31a). And again: « Thou shalt love peace, and go in search of it; you must love men and try to initiate them into the Torah » (Aboth, 11,33). The judgment of Jewish Tradition on Hillel was: « All his acts were for the glory of God » (Besah 16a).

The opposite of Hillel's teaching is to be found in that of his contemporary Shammai, who stood for a most rigid legalism. These two doctors, Hillel and Shammai, gave their name to two schools which adopted their ideas: one, spiritualist, called « Bet Hillel », and the other rigorist, called « Bet Shammai ». Viewed purely from a historic angle, apart from any strictly theological context and solely from the Jewish point of view, the mission and teaching of Jesus falls within the spirituality of the school of Hillel.

Hillel and his disciples had succeeded in combining the fundamental importance of the spiritual with the obligation of legal observance; however, some of his successors were less happy in this respect. We will quote here only R. Elisha ben Avuyah (about 135), a doctor of whom one of his disciples, the famous R. Meir, was to say later that in his time no master compared with him for his explanation of the Law (Erubin 13a), but, that he pushed his opposition to legalism to the extent of publicly transgressing Mosaic prescriptions. This attitude drew down on him the Sanhedrin's anathema. Not only did they denounce his teaching, but they went so far as trying to wipe out his name from the memory of his contemporaries. Thus, when traditional literature speaks of Rabbi Elishah, he is always referred to as Aher (« another »), that is to say an antagonist to official doctrine.

The Haggadah

The spirit of Hillel lived on mainly in haggadah, edifying spiritual homilies on biblical texts. Next to hagaddah comes halakhah the legal interpretation of the same texts. It is in haggadah that the spirit of the prophets of Israel comes to life once more. Its words are outpourings from the heart giving fresh life to the spirit. It is in haggadah that the soul of the Jewish people is expressed; there the Jew seeks consolation in distress, and courage under trial.

We will quote only one sentence which is very characteristic of the spirit of haggadah, and the attitude of its most famous representatives, confronted with a rapidly developing legalism which aspired to absolute religious supremacy. Tradition ascribes this sentence to R. Simlai, one of the great haggadists: « Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses, David reduced them to eleven, Isaiah to six, Micah to three, and Amos to one, < Strive to come to the knowledge of God, and live by it > » (Makkot, 23b).

However, halakhah and haggadah are equally necessary to Israel's life. Instead of being incompatible, as would appear to superficial consideration, the two movements complement one another so well, that, finally, they were placed side by side in the Mishna and the Gemarah, in which the whole of the oral tradition is codified.

Esoteric Tradition

This brief historical survey has shown that throughout the centuries there have always been people in Judaism, or currents of thought, pre-occupied by the need for spiritual renewal to counteract an over developed legalism. We have also pointed out that at certain times, there was absolute antagonism between the two great trends, spiritual and legal. However, this general survey would be incomplete if a third trend were left unmentioned: the esoteric trend, which has had great influence on the whole spiritual life of the Jewish people.

The base of Israel's life is the Torah, the divinely revealed Law. The aim of this revelation, which emanated from God, the summit of all perfection, is to communicate to creatures a reflection of the Creator's supreme perfection. The means God used for this are the commandments, the misvot.
Now, among these misvot, there is a relatively high number of prescriptions, which at first sight would seem astonishingly materialistic, or, at least, intrinsically linked to merely external practices.

This apparent dichotomy between the moral elevation of the precepts and their very down-to-earth aspect, has always pre-occupied the finest minds, who were disconcerted by what seemed to them a kind of diminution of divine perfection. How, then, were the high spiritual demands of the Torah to be reconciled with all the rites, observances and ceremonies that it imposed?
The solution to this problem was the fruit of long reflection and deep penetration into the very spirit of divine Revelation. The commandments of the Torah, say the representatives of this current, are nothing but the outer covering of divine mysteries, which are hidden in each word, indeed in each letter of the sacred text. The practice of the commandments is necessary, but it is not the principal factor. Man's first duty is to penetrate the hidden meaning of the teachings of the Torah, and thus raise himself above this imperfect and sinful world, into the higher spheres of the Presence of God.


When Jewish mysticism or esoterism are mentioned, one thinks immediately of the Kabbala. In its present usage this term denotes all that more or less touches the esoteric tradition of Judaism. However, this was not always the case.

At the time of the Talmud, the word gabbalah (from the root qabbel « to receive through tradition »), indicated Tradition. By this was meant all those sections of Jewish literature which are not Torah in its strict sense, even the prophetic books and hagiographies of the Bible. However, even then, this term was already being applied more especially to oral tradition, the torah she-be'al peh, as opposed to the written Torah, the torah she-bi-ketay.

It was not until very much later that the expression gabbalah came to be applied exclusively to the esoteric tradition. This tradition was referred to in ancient rabbinic literature by a number of different expressions, for example raze torah (« mysteries of the Torah ») for its totality, ma'asseh bereshit and ma'sseh merkabah for some of its sections. From the time of the Geonim, we come across the yorde merkabah, mystics whose principal object of contemplation and speculation was the chariot of the Lord, the merkabah described in Ez 1.

At the time of the Geonim we hear of persons initiated more intimately into the esoteric tradition who were known as ba'ale hasod (« masters of the divine secret »), or anshe emunah (« men of faith »).

Before the term gabbalah became universally used, the mystical was also called hokhmah penimit (« interior science »), that is secret, and its adepts were the maskilim, a word borrowed from Dan 12,10, or dorshe reshumot (« those who scrutinize the hidden meaning of the Scriptures »); these two terms are synonymous with « gnostics ». Another expression used for those initiated into the secret science is yod'e hen, from Ecd 9,11, hen being interpreted as an abbreviation of hokmah nisteret, (« secret science »). In many of the writings of the Middle Ages the Kabbalists are called ba'ale ha'avodah, that is to say, those who possess the key to the true worship of God.

General Character of the Kabbalah

Although the Kabbalah has become the focal point of all the mystical movements in Judaism, as they have developed and been defined since the time of the Second Temple, it is not, however, pure mysticism, in the sense of the renunciation of all rational elements, in order to aspire to immediate union between man and God, obtained through total abandonment of all individuality.

On the other hand, in common with all mystical movements, it aims at a knowledge of the world beyond what can be acquired through reason alone, but only by means of contemplation, even interior illumination.

This illumination, for the Kabbalist, is identified with a first revelation bearing on the great mysteries of the Torah; one tradition considered this revelation anterior to that of Sinai. In other religious systems the mystical is often distinguished by its freedom from any historical limitations, which it tends to go beyond by virtue of its wider horizons. Jewish esoteric doctrine, however, is particular in that it remains closely linked to the great historical revelation of Sinai; in one way or another it also forms part of what is already expressed in the term kabbalah, « tradition ». This rootedness in the great tradition of Israel, however, did not, impede the Kabbalah from assimilating many elements of Greek mysticism and, partly also, from Christian mysticism.

Historically speaking, the Kabbalah is clearly subjected to the laws of evolution. Such a conception, however, is contrary to the traditional position. According to this latter, the mystical heritage comes from a primitive revelation made by God to Adam, the unchanged content of which was transmitted from generation to generation by succeeding initiates. The details added during the centuries, according to this thesis, were due to direct heavenly intervention.

The esoteric tradition, therefore, according to this theory is a partial anticipation of the revelation on Sinai. Many people, however, place it next to the torah she-bi-ketav and the torah shebe'al peh, considering it simply an integral part of the revelation made to Moses on Sinai. The verb abbel (« to receive through tradition »), is, moreover, the word employed by the Mishna (Aboth I, 1) to describe the progressive stages in the oral tradition of the Torah. Following the method used in the Mishna, the masters of the Kabbalah wanted to establish a « genealogy » for the esoteric tradition, but there are manifest lacunae, stamped by the arbitrary, in their system.

Originally what we now call by the generic term « Kabbalah » was a secret doctrine, a kind of gnosis mingled with elements of occultism. It was not a purely mystical doctrine, but contained also many elements of cosmology, angelology and magic.

Systemizing this heritage, with its rather heteroclite structure only took place much later, when the great « initiates » of the Middle Ages had come into contact with diverse philosophical movements. It was only then that the Kabbalah became the « mystical theology » of Judaism. At this period, too, an attempt was made to divide the material of the Kabbalah into categories. This is what is meant by the kabbalah 'iyyunit, or the theoretic and speculative Kabbalah, as opposed to the kabbalah ma'asit or shimushit, the practical or theurgic Kabbalah.

The interpenetration of ideas in the Kabbalah, however, was too great for a clear division to be made. It has, therefore, always retained its heteroclite character of esoteric knowledge, acquired through initiation and transmitted from generation to generation.

In spite of the speculation, often sterile, which it generated, the Kabbalah has always been a reservoir of spiritual strength in Judaism. It had several re-awakenings in the course of history, always at times when Rabbinism, too straitened within the limitations of the halakhot, showed itself powerless to adapt to new circumstances, or to respond to concrete religious needs.

This spiritual power was felt, chiefly on an intimate interior level, manifested in a religious deepening and an ever greater penetration into the ideas revealed in the Torah. In this way, the Torah, which legalists considered as belonging strictly to Israel, and whose significance had been exhausted by the complex precepts it had established, became increasingly transformed into a universal law. Whoever, through esoteric illumination, grasped the deep and hidden meaning of the commandments, became an important moving factor in this work of cosmic creation, which had come forth from a free act of the divine will.

Historical Evolution of the Kabbalah

There is no doubt whatever that the roots of esoteric tradition in Judaism are very ancient. Many passages in the Bible seem to go back to this tradition, and have served as a kind of chart for Jewish mystical currents throughout the centuries. The best known of these biblical passages is the vision of the merkabah, the chariot of the Lord in Ez 1. But even here, it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish, with any measure of exactitude, between what is simply a spiritual tendency and what is really an esoteric influence.

Such an interpenetration of elements can be noticed also in the sects already mentioned. The literature discovered a few years ago in the Judean desert can throw new lights on this also.

Philo of Alexandria tried to interpret the Jewish religion in the light of hellenistic mysticism. This latter was special in that man sought through ecstasy to lose himself in the divinity, and to merge into it. In his treatise De Vita Contemplativa, which some critics considered to be a forgery by Christians, Philo speaks of the Therepeutes, a Jewish sect organized into a veritable religious order, whose members were distinguished above all by their mystical conception of the Torah, which they looked upon as a living organism.

It is in Judeo-Alexandrian milieux that we must also seek the origins of the mysticism of Wisdom, which, based on Prov 8,22, sees in the personification of divine Wisdom, the means that God uses whenever he acts in the world. Wisdom has been identified in certain milieux; with the Torah itself, it became known as the Divine Word, and this conception gave rise to the mysticism of Logos, which is found both in Philo and in Palestinian Judaism.

We know that the Essenes also possessed esoteric writings especially books on angelology and magic. Jewish esoterism was to take its definitive form, and become organized into a distinct spiritual movement, under mystical and theosophic influences felt in Palestine itself, and particularly in Egypt. This development took place about the beginning of the Christian era. It is, moreover, undeniable, that the currents of which we are speaking were strongly affected by the syncretism into which the decadent hellenistic world was sinking.

Documents of Rabbinic Literature

A number of documents in rabbinical literature make it clear that many mystical currents existed in Judaism at this period. Many apocryphal and pseudo-epigraphical writings, patricularly the Ethiopian and Slavonic versions of the Book of Enoch, the Testaments of the Patriarchs and several apocalypses, reflect this same influence.

The Mishnah treatise Hagigah contains many mystical elements. There we find indications of two distinct branches of esoteric teaching, the ma'asseh merkavah (speculation on the chariot of Ezechiel), and the ma'asseh bereshit (speculation on the work of creation). The text points out that it is forbidden to discuss these doctrines in public before the non-initiated. Famous masters of the Mishna period, such as R. Johanan ben Zakkai and his disciples, were favorite subjects of speculation. The section of the treatise Hagigah in which a case is made for these movements, reproduces a tradition dating from the first Christian century.

Later, the attitude of the doctors was to change, probably under the influence of opposing gnoses and their hold over certain Jewish milieux. The second part of the treatise Hagigah, with its solemn challenge to all gnostic speculation, is an indication of this. The text says: « Whoever speculates on the following four subjects, it would be better that" he had never come into the world: to know what is above [the visible world], what is beneath, what was before [the creation] and what will come afterwards [the final conflagration of the world] ». But the warning seem to have gone unheeded, because, all subsequent literature is full of this kind of reflection.

However, there could still be no question of an esoteric system. There was juxtaposition of extremely heteroclite elements, arising from the most diverse influences: biblical, the astral concepts of the Babylonians, hellenistic reflection tainted with platonism bordering on gnosticism.

From the Writing of the Talmud to the Eleventh Century

At the time the Talmud was written, the center of esoteric tradition, as well as of Jewish learning and spirituality, was no longer in Palestine, but in Babylon. The period of the Yorde Merkabah, the powerful movement which left many traces in synagogal liturgy, was beginning to dawn. There are several treatises extant, as well as a number of hymns in which the ideas of this mystical school are expressed.

Other treatises of the same period took their inspiration from the ma'asseh bereshit, the work of creation, and therefore, are more cosmogonic in character. Many ideas dear to the Yorde Merkabah have been conserved and developed in these treatises.

All these writings were produced between the first and second century, either in Palestine or in Babylon. Subsequently modified several times, they lost their significance as veritable manuals of magic that they had had at the beginning, It was also at this period that people must have begun to use the Bible for magic ends.

Kabbalists of the later Middle Ages recount that they had discovered a tradition which claimed that the whole Bible was only one immense collection of shemot, divine names. In this perspective the essence of esoteric teaching and initiation consisted in the science of using these names for magic ands.

All this literature is, moreover, simply a « judaised » version of a late and decadent gnosticism. On a purely theological level, it has little of interest to offer, because it never touches the basic problems of true esoteric tradition.

The Sefer Yezirah

There is, however, one striking exception to this general investigation. Between the second and fourth centuries a short treatise was produced, probably in Palestine, called Sefer Yezirah, (« Book of Creation »), an original systemization of cosmogony and cosmology in the light of monotheistic mysticism, which, however, was influenced by neopythagorism and gnosticism. The great religious authorities of the Middle Ages, among others Rashi 1, saw in the Sefer Yezirah, the prototype of ancient mystical discipline.

Some speculations proper to the period of the Geonim had been adopted and preserved by anti-rabbinic sects which, at one time, had much influence in Babylon and Persia. However, it is rather difficult to say with any exactitude what exactly were the traditions preserved by these sects, or how they reached Spain, where they were to reappear in the twelfth century.

German Hassidism and the Sete:. Hassidism

It would be interesting to reconstruct the stages through which Middle East movements of Jewish mysticism gradually made their way into Europe. From the middle of the eleventh century, rather sporadic traces can be found in Spain, France and Italy.

Towards 1100, Jewish mysticism made its appearance in Germany through the intermediary of the Kalonymides family, who had left Italy for Mayence. The first representative of this mysticism to enjoy the freedom of the Rhineland and communities beyond, was Rabbi Samuel ben Kalonymos, (about 1150) Its popularity was to reach its climax in the person of Samuel's sons, Rabbi Judah he-Hassid. of Ratisbonne (died 1217), and the son of this latter, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms (died 1238). This movement, which was to influence the religious life of German communities far into the sixteenth century, was called « Hassidism » by its contemporaries. This term, however, was not unknown to Jewish tradition; it had already been attributed to the adepts of a religious movement in the time of Maccabees. In the books of the Maccabees and Flavius Josephus, the Assideans are mentioned on many occasions. The Talmud called them the Hassidim ha-rishonim (« the first devotees »), or anshe ma'asseh (« men of action ») [cf. Ber. V, 11. They were outstanding for their scrupulous accomplishment of all the prescriptions of the Torah, and by the delicacy of their relations with others. Although little by little the hassidim ha-rishonim gave way to new religious movements, such as the Pharisees and the Essenes, their exemplary conduct was long remembered. When the Talmud praises someone's piety and charity, it always confers the title he-hassid, (« the devout »).

On the spiritual level, German Hassidism wanted, above all, to attain a more intense, more interior religious life. To achieve this end, it employed various means dear to the mystics of all ages: works of penance, ecstatic prayer, etc. In the ascetic domain it was very similar to Christian movements of the same epoch.

Mysticism in Spain

Towards 1200 a fully developed kabbalistic system is to be found almost everywhere. An important center at this time was Provence, but Spain was soon to be the real center of the Kabbalah.

What might be called the « prehistory » of the Kabbalah, that is to say, the mystical currents and the search for systemization before the period of full edosion, has left its mark on the Sefer ha-Bahir, published in Provence in the twelfth century, which contains the most heterogenous elements imaginable. It was from this time, that is to say, when the ancient esoteric heritage was confronted by the great philosophical movements of the Middle Ages, that the Kabbalah was referred to in the true meaning of the word.

Many Jewish philosophers cherished mystical ideas. Those who had a great influence, sometimes a decisive influence, on the subsequent development of the Kabbalah, were above all Sa'adiah Gaon 1 and, later, neo-platonists such as Solomon ibn Gabirol, Abraham ben Hiyyah, Bahya ibn Pakudah, Yehudah ha-Levi and Abradam ibn Ezra. The works of these authors were assiduously studied by thirteenth century kabbalists.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, Gerona was the most important center for the Kabbalah in Spain. Thanks to the great masters who lived and taught there, mystical literature has been enriched by a number of basic works. Moses ban Nahman, called RaMBaN or Nahmanides, Jacob be Sheshet, etc., to quote only well-known names, contributed towards making Gerona the real citadel of Jewish esoterism.

The great master of ecstatic Kabbalism was Abraham Abulafia of Barcelona, who drew up a system of mystical contemplation in which theory and practice were equally presented. The aim of this method was what the author called « prophetic illumination ».

In the middle of the thirteenth century the neo-platonic trends which were gaining ground in the Kabbalah were counterbalanced by gnostic influences introduced from the provinces. This reaction is principally connected with two brothers, Jacob and Isaac ben Jacob ha-Kohen, and their disciple, Moses ben Solomon of Burgos.

The Zohar

The chief event in the history of the Kabbalah at this period, however, was the « discovery » of the Sefer ha-Zohar, (Book of the Splendor [divine]).

This book, which was to become the absolute bible of the kabbalists, made its appearance in Spain at the end of the thirteenth century. Moses ben Shemtov de. Leon, a kabbalist of Guadalajara, was the first to make this work known on any scale. He passed it off as the work of Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai, a tannait of the period following the revolt of Bar Kochba.

Discovering the true authorship of the Zohar caused much ink to flow in the centuries following its appearance. Orthodox kabbalists have always defended the true tannaltic origin of their great charter, while others, and among them contemporaries of Moses de Leon, considered this work to be a forgery propagated by its first and most ardent proponent.

As often happens in similar cases, the truth about the Zohar seems to lie somewhere between the two assertions. Besides obviously early elements, which, at least, as traditions, could very well
go back to the time of the Tannaites, there are passages, which by their anachronisms betray their later authorship.

The Zohar was written in Aramaic dialect very close to rabbinic Aramaic. Its style is that of a free discourse, and the whole is characterized by an almost total absence of any systematic arrangement of ideas.

The structure of the Zohar completely lacks any homogeneity; it is an anthology. The Zohar strictly so called, that is to say, the section of the book which has given its name to the whole, is presented in the form a commentary on the Torah, and follows the order of the Sabbath pericopes. To this central theme are linked other writings.

The Main Lines of Kabbalistic Doctrine

Before continuing this survey of the development of esoteric movements in Judaism, it would not be inopportune to give here a very summary description of the main lines of kabbalistic doctrine, as presented in the Zohar.

In spite of the great variety of inspiration in the different elements which constitute the Kabbalah, and the almost total absence of logic in the ideas developed in the principle writings of the esoteric tradition, there are sufficient common threads to allow us to speak of a kabbalist system, quite apart from any artificial systemization, such as would be established from the thirteenth century onwards.

In its basic inspiration, the Kabbalah is distinct from the rest of Jewish theology, mainly in that it admits to a multiplicity of powers in the disclosure of the divine being. In the host of shemot (divine names), the Kabbalah sees the source of the many ways that God has chosen in the course of history, to manifest and reveal himself to mankind. On the other hand, the Kabbalah tends to concretize these powers, which are so many principles of divine action expressed either in the divine name, or in the sefirotic system.

Apart from this concept, the Kabbalah firmly maintains the principle of fundamental, supreme, divine unity, transcendant, but, at the same time, spiritually immanent in the world. In professing the doctrine of divine immanence in the created world, however, the Kabbalah fearlessly contradicts the very principles of monotheism.

The Ultimate Principle

If God is immanent in his creation, the ultimate principle of divine being is, however, relegated by the Kabbalah to inaccessible regions. This principle transcends all attributes, all variations and all multiplicity. Like Spinoza's « substance » it can never be circumscribed by anything whatever. We can only possess it very imperfectly from afar, through stammering speech, by simple pronouns, such as mi? (who?), or again in a basic affirmation, ayin (nothingness), exhausting all efforts of human expression. By. analogy Greek philosophies of nature, the name En Sof (the endless) is given to this ultimate principle, but with a very different meaning to the Greek.

The Work of Creation

In this concept Philo's doctrine of Logos is nothing but a logical consequence; creation obviously cannot be presented as the work of the ultimate divine principle. It is due to the intervention of another principle which, in turn, was the first principle called into existence by divine intervention. Kabbalistic literature gives this principle different names, for example Adam Qadmon (« first man »), ze'r an pin (« the impatient one »), etc.

This principle is not called into existence by a creative act, of which the En Sof is incapable by virtue of his nature, but is the product of an emanation, of a direct and immediate passage of substance from the divine first principle. This process is called asilut (emanation). As in the neo-platonic system, different degrees of principles are inserted between Adam Qadmon and our material world.

It is in this sense that Kabbalah speaks of four worlds of creation, envisaging rather the creative forces which are at work than their effects. These four worlds are the following: 1) that of the asilut, the world of emanation; 2) the beriyyah spiritual world of essences; 3) the yezirah, the world of formas; and 4) the assiyyah, the world of physical efficiency which embraces all earthly activity.

With this doctrine, the Kabbalah made its own the haggadic concept of earlier worlds, symbolized by the « kings of Edom » who gradually disappeared until balance was restored by the appearance of the present world, of which man is the center.

The Sefirot

In another connection, the divine principle, which, in descending degrees of intensity of being, came down into this world through phases of creation, represented by the ten sefirot, which are ten degrees of intensity of being. According to some concepts, the sefirot taken together constitute the Adam Qadmon. According to other kabbalistic authors, the sefirot are summed up in kavod, the divine glory. In their purest state, the sefirot constitute the content of the world of the asilut. At lower levels the sefirot are seen as linked together, the lower always being included in the higher. The same principle also governs the doctrine of the ten heavenly spheres.

The En Sof, which of its very nature cannot be linked to any ordinary system, remains outside the realm of sefirot. The only relation between the En Sof and the sefirotic system lies in its being, as it were, its distant crowning. It is in this sense that keter (the crown) is sometimes considered the first of the sefirot.

On the other hand all the vital and spiritual powers incarnate in the sefirot, are concentrated in the sixth sefirah, called tiferet (magnificence). They then descend to the tenth sefirah, called malkhut (kingdom), which is the starting point for all the beneficent action of the sefirotic world and its influence on the world of human beings.

The sefirotic world is divided into several systems, according to the influence and relations between the sefirot. The most important and, the most interesting for us, ;is that in which the three higher sefirot constitute a supreme trinity, a concept which resembles both the Christian Trinity and that of. Plotinus and Hegel. The functions of the three principles which are united in a trinity and their mutual relations are the element of knowing the elements of the known and the principle of knowledge. The remaining seven sefirot are found within the effects of the elements of primary wisdom, which exists in a concentrated form in the supreme trinity.

The Zohar often uses the image of relations between the sexes to describe the vital relation's between the spiritual powers incarnate in the sefirot and to explain the beneficent effects of their influence on the lower world. According to this concept the destiny of the world is ruled by two principles, one male, called « Father » or « King », the other female, called « Mother », « Matron » Shekinah.

Characteristics of Lurianic Doctrine

Here we must take a look at some of the doctrinal characteristics of Isaac Luria's system, about which more later.

Lurianic Kabbalah presents an original theory to gulf the abyss which separates the world of eternal spiritual principles from the created world: the theory of zinzum, or concentration. The characteristic trait of this doctrine is the postulation of a first negation within the eminently positive first eternal principle. By this negation is laid the principle of limitation which alone renders possible the existence of what is specifically and individually different.

As an entity, this negative element constitutes what the sources of esoteric tradition call sitra ahra (the other side), that is to say, the world of evil. In Luria's thinking, evil comes from the « rupture of the receptacles » of the sefirot, brought about by the sureminent strength of the divine influx (shef a), which makes them explode. Thus, positive being is in a way, limited, and another world appears, that of the kelipot (covering). This world, which has only a semblance of reality, although this does not prevent it from being effective, is the contrary of the sefirotic world. It is the world of demonical beings, the shedim.

Man and His Role in the Universe

Half way between these two poles comes man, who is the center of creation, and whose body structure reflects that of Adam Qadmon. It is because he is endowed with a rational soul that man is precisely human, that is to say spiritually and morally responsible for his acts.

The first man was a being of celestial purity. His role with regard to the rest of nature, was one of domination. In him the whole of humanity composed an undivided unity, source and principle of the souls of all succeeding generations.

Through original sin, man was made subject to weakness, to the dispersion of his powers, to the darkening of his intelligence; in short to all the catastrophes described in the Bible. Redressing this state began. only with the Patriarchs, in whom particularly powerful sefirotic forces were incarnate. The practical way of setting humanity spiritually to rights was detailed in the Revelation made to Moses and its most perfect expression lies in Israel's way of worship. From this time, the destiny of the world and mankind has lain in God's alliance with man; the object of this Alliance being the reconciliation of this sinful world with God, and the final outcome the messianic era.

What is man's place within this system? In terms of the fundamental principle of absolute correspondence between the inferior and superior worlds, there is not only a descending, but also an ascending movement in the spiritual influences and their effects. In addition, the first impulse in the form of desire, prayer or kavannah (intention), must come from below, so that the floods of grace which rise in the superior spheres may descend upon the world of mankind.

Just as man's position is central to the order of the worlds, the Messiah occupies an analogous position in the work of salvation taken in its totality, and is, as it were, the divine guarantee for the utterly perfect life of the future world.

The Nature of Souls and Metempsychosis

The Kabbalah not only attributes immortality to the soul, but teaches also the doctrine of gilgul, the transmigration of those souls which did not reach supreme perfection during their earthly existence.

Gilgul, however, does not affect the higher part of the soul. According to kabbalistic doctrine, the soul is divided into three parts: nefesh, the inferior part, seat of man's feelings and inclinations, closely linked to his earthly nature; ruah and meshamah, superior parts, which, after death, are raised into more perfect regions of existence. Sometimes reincarnation comes about in abnormal conditions. The result ds then the cohabitation of several souls in one body.

The Angelic World

While the Kabalah pays little attention to visible nature other than human, it is very interested in the intermediary beings who people the firmament, that is the sefirotic regions between the superior celestial spheres and the inferior spheres of this world. These beings are none other than angels.

The functions of the angelic world are many. Some angels are allied to the four elements (fire, water, air and earth), others receive man's sacrifices and prayers to carry them before the throne of God; others again are appointed as guardian angels, to watch over the destiny either of a nation or of a person.

Some angels have important functions entrusted to them, as, for instance, Metatron, who is appointed to watch over spiritual welfare of the Beri'ah. Others form groups on which devolves special tasks, as we read, for instance in the vision of E2iechiel. Characteristic of the angelic world is a ceaseless, well-ordered movement intent on an objective.


Opposed to the angels are the « beings from the other side » who incriminate and seduce the human race, who sow discord and provoke calamity and disaster. Their entire existence consists in wandering endlessly from place to place, without plan or aim.

The Mysticism of Numbers

One of the most original concepts of the Kabbalah is undoubtedly the creative force of articulated sounds. The origin of this idea, according to the ancient doctrine of Logos, lies in the primitive Word. The phonetic specificity of sounds, which have their beginning in the divine names, is the expression by the active power, of different stages in the work of creation.
The sounds are condensed into the letters, otiot, sounds whose form and specific combination into words contain profound secrets. This is more especially the case when their numeric value is taken into account. The mysticism of numbers has always played an important role in the Kabbalah of all ages, and was to experience a real renaissance from the stimulus of Isaac Luria.

The Esoteric Movement After the 'Discovery' of the Zohar

After this digression, let us now return to the historic development of the kabbalistic movement. Among the great masters of the Kabbalah in the period immediately following the apparition of the Zohar, we must mention Joseph Gikatilla who, by his work of systemization, was instrumental in the Kabbalah being accorded an important place in rabbinic studies.

The great theologian and mystic of this period, however, was Isaac ibn Latif. Taking his inspiration from philosophical ideas and terminology, he drew up a very original and rather independent system of mystical theology. His principle work Sha'ar ha-Shamayim (the Gates of Heaven) was considered a mystical pendant to the Guide of Maimonides 3.

Deeper Study of Kabbalistic Thought

The fifteenth century was a period of deeper study, the direct consequence of which, for the Kabbalah, was rich literary productivity. In 1291 Bahyah ben Asher of Saragossa, published his commentary on the Pentateuch, in which he followed the lines of mystical exegesis inaugurated by Nahmanides. Since then, this kind of exegesis has been fully accepted in Jewish tradition. One of Bahyah's disciples, Shemtov ibn Gaon, author of explanatory notes on the mystical sections of Nahmanides' commentary, was the first kabbalist to settle in Safed in Palestine (about 1325).

It is not possible within the limits of this study to give further details on this period which was a veritable golden age for Jewish esoterism. The literary work which best summarizes kabbalistic movements before the appearance of the Zohar, is the Maarekheth ha Elohuth (Treatise of the Divinity), by an unknown author of the school of Ben Adret, who also walked in the footsteps of Nahmanides. Among these kabbalistic treatises inspired by the Zohar, the commentary on the Pentateuch by Menahem of Recanati, the first representative of the new movement in Italy, must be mentioned.

The most curious works to appear at the end of the fourteenth century were two anonymous treatises, Peliah and Kanah, anthologies of early kabbalist literature. These treatises were especially critical of halakhah, legal decisions. This criticism, which was frequently harsh, wanted to establish, that, contrary to all claims, the Torah had not two meanings, one literal, and the other mystical, but one only: the mystical meaning. For the first time in the religious history of Judaism, we are here confronted with a movement which was going to turn all religious conception in the direction of a purely kabbalistic world, a complete and radical negation of all that remains outside this notion.

In Abulafia's train, ecstatic Kabbalah, would also continue to attract followers, but its influence was limited to a small circle of initiates. This, however, prepared the ground for the great renaissance of Jewish esoterism, of which Safed would be the focal point.

The Influence of the Collapse of Spanish Judaism

While the fifteenth century was mainly a period of stagnation for kabbalistic thought, the situation was to change radically through the great catastrophe in Spanish Judaism: the expulsion of Jews from Spain tin 1492.

In spite of the fervor which kabbalistic studies had engendered, they had never reached beyond the circles of initiates. Now the kabbalistic currents were to leave the shadows and become a real religious movement, seeking to make its imprint on the whole life of Israel.

The grievous events through which Spanish Judaism was to pass, introduced into kabbalistic speculation, a new element which, until then had only a very secondary role in the system. This element was the apocalyptic role. The aim of the apocalyptic Kabbalah is tikkun (reparation), through mystical means for the tares inherent in creation caused by sin.

In so far as tikkun was the interest of individuals only, speculations were limited to a return to cosmogonic principles. Tikkun, according to the great masters of the period, would result in the complete collapse of the forces of Evil, the ruin of historic order compromised by sin, briefly, to nothing less than precoursor signs, at first negative, heralding messianic redemption, all of which was the fervent desire of the Jewish masses.

Through this trend, the Kabbalah influenced not only the Judaism of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuri es the period of its absolute and incontested domination, but the following periods also, even after the definitive breakdown of messianic expectation, embodied in the person of Shabbatai Sevi, the false Messiah. This current was to affect, often unwittingly, the religious reactions of practising Jews, right up to the contemporary period. The movement which was to come from Safed, where the kabbalistic renewal was seen at its finest and most tangible, was the last great religious current to affect the whole of Judaism. Hassidism, which was a continuation of the mysticism of Safed was later to be limited to part of East European Jewry.

The School of Safed

In the first half of the sixteenth century, Safed became the meeting place of a number of mystics, who were not only to renew the theology of the Kabbalah entirely, but were also to inaugurate a new form of life, uniquely based on esoteric teaching. Even the greatest halakhists of the period such as Joseph Karo, author of the Shulhan Arukh, were completely won over to the apocalyptic ideas dear to the adepts of this trend.

The first master who attempted to establish a system of mystical theology in accordance with the new orientation of kabbalistic thought, was Moses Cordovero (1522-1570). His speculative doctrine, which is rather different from the ancient Kabbalah, was constructively developed between the dates of publication of his principle works, Pardess Rimmonim in 1548, and the Elima Rabbati in 1567.

Starting from a systematic interpretation of the Zohar (often enough fidelity to the basic document was merely a formality), Cordovero developed the thesis of a dialectic within the process of emanation. His originality consisted mainly in that he sought to give process a causal determination. In addition, Cordovero established a formal mystical principle which presides over the emanation of the divinity. This divinity, again according to Cordovero's thesis, operates like a real organism in Revelation.

Cordovero's disciples, among whom the most important were Abraham Galante, Eleazar Asqari, Samuel Gallico and Abraham Azulai (died 1643), continued to walk in their master's footsteps. Even Cordovero's own master, Solomon Alkabez, adopted his doctrine.

So at Safed we find the formation of special circles whose aim was the practical application of mystical teaching in daily life. Rapidly, the new current spread to other countries, principally to Italy. It gave a strong impetus to a rich literature, which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became increasingly popular. The first book of this series, the great moral treatise of the Safed milieux, is the Reshit Hokmah by Elijah da Vidas, also one of Cordovero's disciples.

Isaac Luria

We come now to the most important and the most striking personality of the whole of sixteenth century kabbalistic renaissance, who was to give his own distinctive seal to the whole of this trend: Rabbi Isaac ben Solomon (1534-1572), commonly called « Saint Ari »; surname ari an abbreviation of the ha-elohi Rabbi Yishaq, « the divine Rabbi Isaac ». He was also given the name of ha-Ashkenazi, because his parents came originally from Germany; he himself was born in Jerusalem.

It can be said without exaggeration that after the « discovery » of the Zohar, Ari's doctrine was the second major event in the history of the Kabbalah. His system, strongly influenced by the ancient discipline of hokmah ha-seruf (the wisdom of purification), which has more than one trait in common with Hindu Yoga, is entirely based on meditation.

In his thesis on the origin of the world, in which, from the start, he combined strange elements borrowed from the mysticism of letters and numbers, after a time, Luria refused any censorship by reason. It is the most radical stand of mysticism developed into a system proper to the gnostic reaction. While philosophic tendencies had carried weight with Cordovero, gnosticism in Luria's system gained its greatest victory in the history of the Kabbalah. However, it is curious that Luria's greatest disciple, Hayyim Vital Calabrese (died in 1620), who left to posterity a systematic description of his master's doctrine, suppressed an essential and very original part — that of the malbush of the primitive Torah, a movement of expression within the En Sof.

To sum up briefly other major and novel elements in Luria's system, we find the doctrine of the origin of creation by zimzum, by the restriction of the divinity; and that of double rhythm in the process which keeps the world in equilibrium, i.e., hitpashtut and histaqlut, egressus and regressus, a concept opposed to the early kabbalistic thesis of emanation. To this is added the thesis of the five parzufim, personified configurations of divine forces in so far as they are basic unities of the parzufim, the sefirot lose their originality, and are downgraded to simple principles of structure.

To these teachings, which overthrow the whole system of the early Kabbalah, is added an entirely new terminology and very original symbolism. In Luria's system the mythological conception of the development of the world, based on gnostic elements, also bears a very special seal. This thesis starts from primitive's man's downfall, considered as a necessity and connected to the theory of the progressive reintegration of light which had fallen into matter. It is in collaborating with this reintegration that the principle task of mysticism lies.

Besides the cosmogonic drama, Lurianic mysticism brings the psychological drama of original sin into evidence, structurally as complicated as the former, and the thesis of the final reintegration of the soul, which had been condemned to wander through the world.

The element of contemplation is expressed essentially in a new mysticism of prayer, which was soon to become the center of the whole of Luria's system, and gradually absorbed all the other disciplines of the Kabbalah.

Far more than previous systems of the Kabbalah, Luria's doctrine was centered on a messianic perpective whose interior tension was to become increasingly perceptible, until it « exploded » in the person of Shabbatai Sevi.

Epigones of Luria

In their turn, Ari's ideas rapidly spread and developed, partially through efforts to combine them with earler systems.

Thus Shabbatai Sheftel Horowitz, was to try in his treatise entitled Shefa'tal, published in 1612, to connect Luria's system to Cordovero's. Abraham Herrera mingled neo-platonic speculations with it. His book Puerto del Cielo (Sha'ar ha-Shamayim) is important for its general history of philosophy and was to be much studied by Christian authors throughout the eighteenth century.

Popular superstition and mystical speculation united now to make use of Saint Ari's teaching. Many new religious usages resulted which were codified towards 1600 in the Seder ha-Yom of Moses ben Mahir. This book is at the base of all the hanhagot and tikkunim which sprang up at this period.

All the religious manifestations of the Lurianic system were to be resumed and preserved in two important treatises, which are more characteristic than all the others, of the spiritual physiognomy of Judaism under the almost exclusive domination of the Kabbalah. These two treatises are the Shne luhot ha-brit, abridged to SHeLAH, of Isaiah Horwitz (died in 1630), diffused more especially among the Ashkenazim, and the anonymous treative Hemdath Yamin, which was to enjoy the favor of Sephardic milieux. It is in line of this development traced out by Luria and his epigones that seventeenth century Hassidism belongs.

The editors would like to express their gratitude to the publishers Desclev de Brouwer of Paris, for their kind permission to reprint excerpts form Fr. Hruby's essay which originally appeared in 1965 in La mystique et les mystiques (A. Ravier, editor).

2. Rashi, short for Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, (1040-1105), whose knowledge of rabbinic tradition was encyclopedic, wrote a commentary on the Bible and Talmud which has never been surpassed by any other work of this kind.

3. Sa'adiah ben Joseph al-Fayyumi (822-942), president of the Academy of Sura, was the first Jewish author who wanted to give a philosophic structure to the revealed faith (cf. his chief work Sefer Emunot we-De'ot [Beliefs and Opinions], inspired by kalArn of Moslem theology).

3 Maimonides (1135-1204), the greatest Jewish religious philosopher of the Middle Ages, in his Guide for the Perplexed explained the principles of faith in the light of Aristotle's system.


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