Kabbalah and Hasidism

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religious manThe kabbalah of the Zohar is a form of theosophic kabbalah, as it aims at initiating change within God. The kabbalah of Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291), on the other hand, is internally directed. It aims at affecting change within the mystic himself. Abulafia used chanting, meditation, and music to help him achieve this mystical experience. Like the theosophic kabbalists, Abulafia used the Torah to reach his mystical goals, but instead of interpreting the text of the Torah, he deconstructed its words and meditated on its letters. Abulafia aimed at achieving nothing less than prophecy, and he believed that this could be attained by taking apart Hebrew words and reorganizing them as divine names.

After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the center of Jewish mysticism moved to the Palestinian city of Safed. There, Moses Cordevero (1522-1570) wrote a definitive commentary on the Zohar, and other important mystics, like the great halakhist Joseph Caro (1488-1575), taught and wrote. Isaac Luria (1534-1572) was the greatest of the Safed kabbalists. His most important theological innovation was his theory of creation. According to Luria, the creation of the world was a complicated, delicate activity that required a transformation of the divine being. Before the world was created, God occupied every inch of the universe. In order to make room for a world, God needed to contract, a process Luria called tzimtzum. After this contraction, God directed divine light into vessels, but the vessels couldn’t contain the light, and they broke, letting evil and imperfection into the world. The purpose of human history is tikkun, fixing the broken vessels. This is achieved by fulfilling the commandments of the Torah.

Hasidism emerged in the middle of the 18th century. The movement is traced to Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760)—usually translated as “Master of the Good Name”—an itinerant teacher and healer who taught that everyone, even the uneducated masses, can have personal interaction with the divine. The ultimate value of Hasidism is devekut, attachment to God.

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