Tuesday, March 06, 2007


The German Cabala

The esoteric doctrines of the Talmud, the mysticism of the period of the Geonim, and Arabic Neo-platonic philosophy are...the three chief constituents of the Cabala proper as it is found in the thirteenth century.

In Germany it appeared in two cultural centers simultaneously.

Eleazar of Worms, a student of Judah the Pious, is its most important exponent. Abraham Abulafia was its final representative 500 years after it sprang up.

Christian and Jewish Mysticism

Like the Christian mystics...who symbolized the close connection between the soul and God by the figure of marriage, the Jewish mystics described the highest degree of love of man for God in sensuous forms in terms taken from marital life.

The mystics accorded primary place to prayer, while the study of the Law was of primary importance to the Talmudists.

It was the chief task of the practical Cabala to produce this ecstatic mysticism, already met with among the Merkabah-travelers of the time of the Talmud and the Geonim; hence, this mental state was especially favored and fostered by the Germans. Alphabetical and numeral mysticism constitutes the greater part of Eleazar's works, and is to be regarded simply as means to an end; namely, to reach a state of ecstasy by the proper employment of the names of God and of angels, "a state in which every wall is removed from the spiritual eye" (according to Moses of Tachau.)

An opposing movement arose in Spain aiming to replace speculative Cabala by a prophetic visionary one.

Abraham Abulafia denied the doctrines of emanations and the Sefirot, and, going back to the German mystics, asserted that the true Cabala consisted in letter and number mysticism.

Joseph Gikatilla is included in the German school of concrete letter symbolism, while the mystical Provencal-Spanish Jews pursue the abstract speculative Cabala. The movements finally combine in the Zoharistic books.

The Cabala in Provence

It may ...be assumed that the speculative philosophy of Provence, like German mysticism, originated in Babylon: Neoplatonism, reaching there its highest development in the eighth and ninth centuries, could not but influence Jewish thought....the Cabala took up the mystic elements of Neoplatonism. The Cabala, however, is not a genuine product of the Provencal Jews; for just those circles in which it is found were averse to the study of philosophy. The essential portions of the Cabala must, on the contrary, have been carried to Provence from Babylon; being known only to a small circle until Aristotelianism began to prevail, when the adherents of the speculative Cabala were forced to make their doctrine public.

The Treatise on Emanation

The doctrines of Metatron, and of angelology especially, are identical with those of the Geonim, and the idea of the Sefirot is presented so simply and unphilosophically that one is hardly justified in assuming that it was influenced directly by any philosophical system.

The Zohar Literature

The Zohar is both the complete guide of the different cabalistic theories and the canonical book of the cabalists. After the Zohar, which must be dated about the beginning of the fourteenth century, and which received its present shape largely from the hand of Moses de Leon, a period of pause ensued in the development of the Cabala, which lasted for more than two centuries and a half.

Luria's Cabala

The modern cabalistic school begins theoretically as well as practically with Isaac Luria (1533-72)....The theoretical doctrines of Luria's Cabala were later on taken up by the Hasidim and organized into a system. Luria's influence was first evident in certain mystical and fanciful religious exercises, by means of which, he held, one could become master of the terrestrial world. The writing of amulets, conjuration of devils, mystic jugglery with numbers and letters, increased as the influence of this school spread....A large cabalistic school was founded in the sixteenth century in Italy, where even to-day scattered disciples of the Cabala may be met. Herrera...tried to spread the Cabala among Christians by his "introduction," written in Spanish.

The article lists a number of attacks by various scholars including Samuel David Luzzatto who "attacked the Cabala with the weapons of modern criticism. But in the East, Luria's Cabala remained undisturbed."

In the Orient

Following in the Luria school, Shabbethai Zebi appeared about 1665.

Shabbethaism induced many scholars to study the speculative Cabala more thoroughly; and, indeed, the Shabbethaian Nehemia Hyyun showed in his heretical cabalistic works a more thorough acquaintance with the Cabala than his opponents, the great Talmudists, who were zealous followers of the Cabala without comprehending its speculative side. Shabbethaism, however, did not in the least compromise the Cabala in the eyes of the Oriental Jews, the majority of whom even to-day esteem it holy and believe in it.

Today Reb Yakov Leib HaKohain carries on the Sabbatean tradition at his Donmeh West Neo-Sabbatian Collective of the Internet.

Gershom Scholem devotes a chapter in his book MAJOR TRENDS IN JEWISH MYSTICISM to Zevi. After explaining that Zevi was a manic depressive (p. 290), quoting Abraham Laniado of Aleppo, he writes:

"Since 1648, the holy spirit and a great 'illumination' had come over [Zevi]; it was his practice to pronounce the name of God in accordance with its letters and to commit various strange acts, because it seemed to him that to act in this way was right for many reasons and for purposes of acts in Tikkun which he proposed to carry out. But those who saw him did not understand these matters and he was like a fool in their eyes. And frequently our teachers in the holy land punished him for his wicked actions which were far removed from common-sense, so that he was compelled to part company with other people and to wander into the desert...And sometimes he was overcome by a great depression, but at other times he saw something of the glory of the Shekinah. Often, too, God tried him with great temptations, and he overcame them all" Laniado even asserts that when the "illumination" had passed from him, "he was like a normal man and regretted the strange things he had done, for he no longer understood their reason as he had understood it when he committed them." (ibid, p.292)

But his truly original characteristic is without any doubt to be found in the peculiarity of his mania: the commission of antinomian acts which in his state of exaltation he appears to have regarded as sacramental actions....this and nothing else is the true heritage of Sabbatai Zevi: the quasi-sacramental character of antinomian actions, which here always take the form of a ritual, remained a shibboleth of the movement, not least in its more radical offshoots. In his "normal" state, the Sabbatian is anything but an antinomian. The performance of such acts is a rite, a festive action of an individual or a whole group, something out of the ordinary, greatly disturbing and born from the deep stirring of emotional forces. (ibid. p. 293-4)

Were it not for the fact that the raw material of this Kabbalistic doctrine is actually to be found in the Zohar and in the Lurianic writings, one would be tempted to postulate an intrinsic, though to us obscure, connection between the first Sabbatian myth and that of the ancient Gnostical school known as Ophites or as Naassenes who placed the mystical symbolism of the serpent in the center of their Gnosis. (ibid. p. 298)

I regard it as important to follow the course of this movement, if only because the part which Sabbatianism played in the spiritual development of Jewry during the generations that followed, is generally underrated. Sabbatianism represents the first serious revolt in Judaism since the Middle Ages; it was the first case of mystical ideas leading directly to the disintegration of the orthodox Judaism of "the believers." Its heretical mysticism produced an outburst of more or less veiled nihilistic tendencies among some of its followers. Finally it encouraged a mood of religious anarchism on a mystical basis... (ibid. p. 299)

Since no one speaks for Judaism, this movement can still be classified among the varieties of Judaism. It has adherents up to the present day as the Donmeh West website demonstrates. Scholem writes:

It was the influence of these elements which had not openly cut themselves off from rabbinical Judaism, which after the French Revolution, became important in fostering the movement towards reform, liberalism and "enlightenment" in many Jewish circles.

Around 1850, a consciousness of this link between Sabbatianism and reform was still alive in some quarters. In circles close to the moderate reform movement, a very remarkable and undoubtedly authentic tradition had it that Aron Chorin, the first pioneer of reformed Jewry in Hungary was in his youth a member of the Sabbatian group in Prague....

Of his
[Jonas Wehle, spiritual leader of the Prague mystics around 1800] extensive writings, an extremely interesting commentary to the Talmudic Aggadoth is extant in manuscript from which it is clear that his particular pantheon had room for Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant side by side with Sabbatai Zevi and Isaac Luria. And as late as 1864, his nephew, writing in New York, lengthily praises in his testament his Sabbatian and Frankist ancestory as the standard-bearers of the "true Jewish faith," i.e. of a deeper spiritual understanding of Judaism. (ibid. p. 304)

Zevi ultimately converted to Islam under pressure.

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