Early Kabbalah and the Hasidei Ashkenaz

Jewish mysticism takes hold

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In the following article, the author refers to the relationship between kabbalah and Gnosticism, an early Christian theology. This relationship played a key role in the scholarship of Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism. It should be noted, however, that recent scholarship has questioned the Gnostic influence on Jewish mysticism. The following is reprinted with permission from Essential Judaism, published by Simon & Schuster.

Late in the Gaonic period (c. 10th century), compilations of the teachings of the Heikhalot and Merkavah literature were published. It was from the study of these texts, and the transitional Sefer Yetzirah, that the next wave of Jewish mysticism emerged. Again, two schools grew up alongside one another, emerging in the second half of the twelfth century in Western Europe.

Actually, to call kabbalah  (lit. “tradition,” but implying something that has been handed down orally) and the Hasidei Ashkenaz (roughly, “the Pious Ones of Germany”) “schools of thought” might be a bit mis­leading. In reality, each was composed of a group of solitary but like-minded scholars, working independently of one another (often unaware of each other’s existence), but arriving at similar conclusions. The first movement to be called kabbalah, the term most closely associated with Jewish mysticism today, arose primarily in northern Spain and southern France, mainly Provence. The primary thinkers of this group included the unknown author of the Sefer Ha-Bahir, Abraham ben David of Posquieres and his son, Isaac the Blind, and the lyun (Contemplation) cir­cle, which produced numerous neo-Platonic mystical texts.

The Ashkenazi school consisted largely of the members of one Ger­man Jewish family, the Kalonymus family, centered in Worms and Spier. The central figures in this group were Samuel ben Kalonymus He-Hasid (the Pious), his son Judah He-Hasid, and Judah’s disciple, Eleazar ben Judah of Worms. The Hasidei Ashkenaz collected and col­lated much of the pre-existing Jewish mystical literature. Were it not for their efforts, we would probably not have most of the Heikhalot and Merkavah texts that are extant today.

Undoubtedly influenced by the tragic persecution the Jews had undergone with the advent of the Crusades in the eleventh century, the Hasidei Ashkenaz took an unusually dark view of human behavior. Typical of their theories of sin and punishment is the position taken by Judah He-Hasid in his “Book of Angels,” in which he wrote that every person will be punished by God not only for his own wrongdoing, but for sins caused by ideas implanted in his mind by angels of God. Judah’s explanation for this seeming injustice is that each of us has a basic moral nature and that the angels merely fulfill that nature.

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George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.