Early Kabbalah and the Hasidei Ashkenaz

Jewish mysticism takes hold

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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.