Early Kabbalah and the Hasidei Ashkenaz

Jewish mysticism takes hold

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.