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.

The Hasidei Ashkenaz were fascinated by demonology and what we would call the “supernatural.” They believed in the existence of witchcraft and in astrology. But they considered such things to be part of the natural order, part of a world governed by God. There is no con­cept of Satan as the fount of all evil, and their studies of vampires and werewolves (yes, vampires and werewolves) were merely a way of gain­ing another insight into the workings of Adonai (God).

Inevitably, one must ask how Jewish mysticism managed to get from Palestine and Babylonia to the south of France and the Rhine Valley. The answer, and not for the last time, is that it followed a trail of terror and Jewish blood. Jewish-Islamic relations in Palestine and Babylonia were fairly cordial in the early years of Islam, so cordial that Jewish mystics were exposed to and freely adapted meditation techniques from the Sufis, but when it became apparent to Mohammed and his followers that the Jews had no interest in converting to this new faith, a degree of friction ensued. With the rise of the fanatical Almohade movement, friction became outright persecution.

The Almohade invaded Spain in 1145 determined to turn back the Christians’ attempt at reconquest and to enforce intellectual conformity in Muslim controlled communities. With the increasingly violent battles between Muslim and Christian monarchs for control of the Iberian Peninsula, the Jews would find themselves forced to flee back and forth between Spain, North Africa, and France. Once again, the tragedies of the here-and-now spurred an intense interest in the World-to-Come.

Sefer Yetzirah had provided a new framework for the exploration of the nature of the Almighty. The ten sefirot  (emanations) that were invoked by the anonymous author of that volume became transformed by the mystics of Provence and Gerona from a series of mathematical and linguistic permutations into a more complex set of attributes, powers, and energy flows. It is in another anonymous work, Sefer Ha-Bahir (The Book of Brightness), written sometime in the second half of the twelfth century, that this new version of the sefirot is first proposed under the rubric Ma ’amarot (Sayings), an echo of Pirke Avot’s (Ethics of the Fathers) description of the Creation

Sefer Ha-Bahir is the earliest known work of kabbalah. What separates the kabbalists from the previous mystics is their radical shift in focus. No longer are Jewish mystics concerned with riding the Chariot or exploring the Chambers. The goal of mysticism has changed from trying to ascend to heaven to something entirely different. Rather than seek the immediacy of the visionary experience, the kabbalists wanted to understand the sacred texts, to see meaning behind the words, to explore the nature of God rather than to pay a house call. The focus of Jewish mysticism would now be on the hermeneutical, that very Jewish activity of decoding sacred texts.

Sefir Ha-Bahir itself is a short, rather disorganized collection of midrashim (rabbinic exegesis), ethical sayings, and dialogues, attributed variously to a somewhat mysterious figure named Rabbi Nekhunya ben Ha-Kanah and to other sages, albeit fairly obscure ones whose names are drawn from later midrash collections. Historians of Jewish mysticism believe that the book is a mutilated version of a longer text, with passages that end abruptly, occasionally in mid-sentence. Its actual provenance is a subject of con­siderable speculation, although it is now generally believed that Sefer Ha-Bahir was compiled by some of the Provence kabbalists.

One of the most significant aspects of this strange book is the echoes it evokes of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a group of early Christian sects that believed that the Creation and all that followed it were the result of a duality—in other words, that the Almighty was both Good and Evil. This belief system, which bordered on the notion of two Gods, was rejected by other Christians and the Gnostics were denounced as heretics.

But the Gnostic doctrine of “aeons,” specific powers and emanations of God, found a new shape in kabbalah, in an interpretation that fit more comfortably with Judaism’s insistence on monotheism. Never­theless, the simple concept of a unified, omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) Deity had been dealt a blow of sorts. Kabbalists offered a God whose unity consisted of a series of complex harmonies between oppositions, exchanges of Divine energy among attributes or emanations, body parts, and even genders.

But something else set the kabbalists apart from their Jewish prede­cessors. While such mystics as Rabbi Isaac the Blind firmly believed that their work was not intended for the masses (indeed, Isaac specifically forbade his students to spread the word of what they were doing), they also saw it as part of a continuum of Jewish practice. For example, Isaac utilized the names of the ten sefirot as a meditation to help instill proper kavanah (concentration or intention) during prayer. Prominent kabbalists in Spain could number the brilliant Nachmanides as one of their circle; surely a scholar of Talmud and Torah of his stature would not be dabbling in texts that didn’t have some connection to the sacred. Indeed Nachmanides incorporated kabbalistic allusions into his commentary on the Torah, admittedly in highly cryptic form. By these definitions, the mystical discipline (or dis­ciplines) of kabbalah was not outside the mainstream of Judaism.

From ESSENTIAL JUDAISM by George Robinson.  Copyright (c) 2000 by George Robinson.  Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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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.