Mystical Israel

Medieval kabbalah offers various approaches to the Land of Israel.

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Accordingly, Nahmanides' view of the kab­balistic significance of the land focused on the theurgic effect of religious observance there. As he enveloped his teachings in enig­matic language, this theurgic action may be explained in two ways: harmony in the world of the sefirot is achieved by proper observ­ance of the commandments, which possess authentic meaning in the Holy Land alone, or the commandments are also understood as instruments through which the divine ema­nation (shefa)--which exists in its most su­preme manifestations in the Holy Land--is brought down to earth.

Thus, Nahmanides evolved a special magical-astral theory, ac­cording to which divine emanation in itself is uniform but of dual significance: In its su­preme aspect it is the theosophical emana­tion, emitted and brought down from the world of the sefirot; in its lowly aspect it is an astral emanation, which can be captured by magical-astral means, such as sacrifices or expiation (as in the case of the "scape­goat").

In this connection, it should be noted that Nahmanides had considerable esteem for magic, viewed as "an ancient and true sci­ence" the Jews had possessed but lost in exile. In his view, astral magic was the basis for all other forms of magic. A similar magi­cal-astral conception had evolved in North African kabbalah as well, as represented by Judah b. Nissim ibn Malkah. Thus the Land of Israel was of supreme significance for Nahmanides, whether from a theosophical standpoint or an astrological one. It was there that the attraction of emanation is the most efficient and massive. This view of the cen­trality of the Holy Land in theosophical and .theurgic lore pervaded the writings of Nahmanides' circle in the late 14th and early 14th centuries, as represented by such thinkers as Solomon b. Adret and Bahya b. Asher.

Abraham Abulafia

A third approach is represented by the circle of Abraham Abulafia, the creator of ecstatic kabbalah, active in the mid-13th and 14th centuries. Members of this circle were active in the Land of Israel, such as the author of the book Shaarei Tzedek (Gates of Righteousness) and Isaac of Acre. Abulafia and Isaac considered the land of Israel and its cities symbols of the individ­ual's soul or of the inner processes taking place in the soul, which lead to communion and conjunction with the deity.

Isaac of Acre writes (Ozar Hayyim, MS. Moscow 775, fol. 94a):

"The secret of foreign lands and the land of Israel… is not a land of earthly soil, but it is the souls that reside in a lump of earth…

And even though it [the soul] is in a foreign land, the Divine Presence (Hebrew, Shekhinah) rests upon it, and that is surely the land of Israel."

In this sense, Abulafia's group took a view close to that of the philosophical allegory, which transplanted the real existence of the land of Israel to an ultimate personal level. The implications of this ap­proach in counteracting the thrust of mes­sianism are obvious, in direct opposition to the school of Nahmanides.

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Dov Schwartz

Dov Schwartz is a professor in the philosophy department at Bar Ilan University.