Imagining A Jew

Mainstreaming Mysticism

Medieval mystics were not quite the same as the earlier giants from whom they adopted much of their ideas. The adopted became adapted until modern qaballa formed around a conventional standard.

Azriel

An early 13th century philosopher, in spite of Spanish opposition to philosophy; he tried to explain Qabbala in neoplatonic philosophical terms so that non-believers who required metaphysical proofs can convince themselves of the truth. This was controversial for mequbalim, who saw no need to publicise anything at all. He sought to explain Qabbala concisely by using philosophical dialectics and ignoring the traditional form of midrashic transmission. This was similar to the efforts of those rabbis who transmitted halakha concisely without using abstruse Talmudic constructs.

Ibn Latif

A mystical philosopher who combined neoplatonic philosophy with Qabbala. He was not satisfied with mystical trends and devised his own scheme which was deeply philosophical on one hand and entirely mystical on the other. He stressed that Torah can be interpreted in many ways and taught shmitot, the 7000 year cycle of destiny. He did not have disciples but did influence individuals such as Abrabanel in the Middle Ages and Rav Quq, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, in the modern age.

The line of modern Qabbala is often begun with Yitzhak Luria. It is his system which was used by the Hasidim gathered around the Baal Shem Tov. Modern Qabbala actually begins with Yosef Karo. We’ll begin our explorations with Yaqov Bérav, who ordained Karo and several other known mystics.

Yaqov Bérav

Opposed by powerful halakhic authorities, Bérav reinvigorated ordination by establishing a movement in Tzfat to re-establish smikha as it existed in Israel during the Tannaim. He was able to ordain several students, among whom was Yosef Karo. Karo and his colleagues were practising mystics; they began to ordain others. In this way we can consider Karo to presume both modern halakha and modern Qabbala.

Shlomo Ben Moshe Halévi Alqabetz

A colleague of Yosef Karo, a mystic, poet, and teacher. He wrote the hymn Lekha Dodi sung on Friday evenings in the Qabbalat Shabbat service. It was his practice to gather students and pray at the gravesides of tzadiqim. This practice remains current. He innovated a custom with Yosef Karo of staying up all night on the festival of Shavuot because the magid visited Karo when they were studying Torah. This custom is called Tiqun Lél Shavuot and remains widespread even in mainstream congregations. His best-known student was Moshe Cordevero.

Moshe Cordevero

He also learned with Yosef Karo. His published work, much like Karo’s Bet Yosef, is a systematic study of the traditions which precede it. The main problem Cordevero considers is how God relates to the creation through the sfirot, a problem which is based on the opposing considerations proposed by Zohar and a related work, Tiquné Zohar. Cordevero’s answer to the problem made a study of the sfirot essential to modern Qabbala. His system was developed further by Yitzhak Luria, known also as the Ari Haqodesh.

The Ari Haqodesh

The Ari evolved a system of Qabbala which competed with, and then overcame, previous systems. The Ari left very little in writing other than Shabbat zemirot and some scattered commentary on Zohar. His Qabbala presumed various scientific theories of phsyics by as much as 400 years. In essence, the Ari suggests that physical creation is the result of God’s Complete withdrawl from space – tzimtzum. This process in turn created shattered fragments – shvirat hakélim. There is a human obligation to gather as many of these shards as possible – tiqun Qabbala became an accessible (but not revealed) method of Jewish spirituality His spiritual legacy was primarily assured by Haim Vital.

Haim Vital

The Ari’s spiritual heir, but he compeition – Yaqov Abulafia, a rabbi of Damascus. In Tzfat, Vital circulated the Ari’s method orally to a select group of students. This group ceased when he served as a rabbi and rosh yeshiva in Yerushalayim. Vital spent the final 20 years of his life in Damascus, where a group of adepts gathered around him. A prolific writer, Vital presents and explains the Ari’s system in Étz Chaim, an eight part work; in Étz Ha’daat, he explains Torah in light of Cordevero’s teachings.

Vital’s halakhic responsa and Talmudic novellae are known. He contributed nothing original to Qabbala but served primarily as transmitter of the Ari’s Qabbala. His son, Shmuél, with Yaqov Tzemah and Avraham Azulai, especially promoted meditation, prayer, miqva, tiqun hatzot, and tshuva.

It is with Haim Vital that Qabbala reached the form it now has for Jews His speculative traditions, which he transmitted faithfully in the Ari’s name, formed the basis of two movements which swept through Judaism: The heresies of Shabbti Tzvi and Yaqov Frank, and the Hasidut of the Baal Shem Tov and his group. We will not dwell on the heresies but to say that they prepared fertile ground for the Hasidim who gathered around the Baal Shem Tov. It is with the Hasidim that we continue in Times on Fire.