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Yoser Bereshith

“In its initial stage of development in the circle of the Rabad, the doctrine of kawwanah differed in at least one important and instructive point from the form in which it was to become familiar to his successors. As soon as the kabbalists grasped the fundamental difference between the Emanator and the emanated, between the hidden God, subsequently to be called by them ‘en-sof, and the attributes or sefiroth by which he manifested himself and through which he acts, they immediately emphasized the thesis that there can be no kawwanoth addressed directly to ‘en-sof.

The nature of the hidden God excludes any such possibility. If we could meet him in kawwanah he would no longer be that hidden God, whose concealment and transcendence cannot be sufficiently emphasized. It would therefore only be logical for the kabbalists to argue that kawwanah could be related only to his middoth, the being and reality of which affect us, whereas kawwanah directed toward ‘en-sof is impossible.

When the kabbalists’ propaganda in favor of mystical prayer reached wider circles, this thesis, with its far from innocent implications, must have incensed a good number of people. In the circle of the Rabad, however, we still find kawwanoth directed without the least scruple toward the “Cause of causes,” which is but a philosophical expression for the Lord of the attributes and of the other causes that depend upon him.

We find here certain prayers directed to the Creator of the world, yoser bereshith, but also others in which the kawwanah is addressed directly to the Cause of causes. The difference between the latter and the Creator of the world has already been discussed previously. Kawwanoth of this kind had already disappeared by the time of Rabad’s son.

It is precisely this difference in the conception of the kawwanah that proves the genuineness of these traditions, which at least partially contradict the communis opinio of later generations. One may suppose that the doctrine of the kawwanah initially represented a sort of compromise between different tendencies.

Some of the oldest kabbalists still considered the direct orientation toward the Cause of causes to be possible, although the pleroma of middoth, potencies or forms whose nature was not yet speculatively defined, already absorbed their interest. Their gnostic way of seeing things likewise penetrated their prayer mysticism, without being able to overcome it entirely.

In sum, we can in fact say that this oldest Kabbalah was nourished by two sources: the elaboration of ancient traditional literary sources that served as a kind of raw material and the illuminations experienced by certain individuals for whom “at the beginning a door was opened to the science of the Kabbalah.”

These illuminations no longer occur, as in the time of the Merkabah mystics, by way of an ecstatic ascent to the divine Throne. The transmission of celestial mysteries concerning cosmogony and the Merkabah no longer takes place, either, in the ways indicated in the Hekhaloth literature.

The difference is considerable. Instead of rapture and ecstasy we now have meditation, absorption in oneself, and the pious, inward communion, debhequth, with the divine. The doctrine of the mystical kawwanah in prayer is about to supplant the doctrine of the ascent of the soul. The objective elements, so to speak, of the Hekhaloth literature (that is, the descriptions of the world of the Merkabah) serve as the foundation for a reinterpretation that conceives of everything that had existed there in terms of mystical symbols.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 246-7.

Revelation of Elijah

“Already in the case of the first Spanish kabbalists, among the disciples of Isaac the Blind, the magical elements in their doctrine of the kawwanah occasionally come to the fore, as we have seen. Similar elements are discernible in the “mysteries of the prayer” of the German Hasidim, in that he who prays must think of the various names of angels as they relate—in respect to the mysticism of words and numbers—to the words of the traditional prayer. But in the earliest kabbalist circles, as far as our information extends, this magical element is missing; at least it does not manifest itself openly.

The teaching of the mystical kawwanah in prayer corresponds perfectly, it seems to me, to the objective and psychological conditions surrounding a doctrine born into an exclusive circle of men who possess the gift of meditation. With it, a new layer is added to the old gnostic elements that were contained in the tradition of the Bahir, elements that these men continued to develop in greater detail.

The creation of this doctrine bears the seal of the vita contemplativa. No element of the old Kabbalah better corresponds to the tradition of a revelation of Elijah, and we may regard this tradition as testimony that in this circle something really new had burst forth from the depths. An indication, if not an absolute proof, of this connection may be found in the fact that the remarks concerning the revelation Elijah is supposed to have vouchsafed to Isaac the Blind or his teachers are found precisely in texts in which the kawwanoth of prayer were collected by the Spanish kabbalists at the end of the thirteenth century.

No other specific doctrine among the kabbalists expressly relates to this revelation and this, perhaps, provides us with a key to our problem. A notion analogous to that of gilluy ‘Eliyahu can be found in Sufi mysticism in the accounts of revelations of Khidr (the Muslim metamorphosis of Elijah). Reports or testimonies concerning such revelations exist with regard to Muhi al-din ibn Arabi (1165-1240) of Andalusia, who shortly before 1200 —the time of Rabad and Isaac the Blind—was still wandering about in Spain (cf. G. Husaini, The Pantheism of Ibn Arabi, 28.).”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 245-6.

Living Prayer is an Encounter

“It is difficult to determine to what extent this kawwanah also contained, from the outset, a magical element of action whose goal was to force the divine middoth, toward which the intention of the mediation was directed, to emanate something of their power upon the person who prays.

The oldest of these kawwanoth to have been preserved, those of Jacob the Nazirite and the Rabad, are undoubtedly instructions relating to mystical mediations in the sense explained here, and nothing in them indicates the pursuit of another, magical aim. But let us not be deceived on this point: the differences between these domains are sometimes extremely subtle and the transition from the realm of pure contemplation to that of magic can take place in a completely unexpected manner.

Sometimes it simply depends upon the forms of expression employed in the prayer. In the abstract, we can easily imagine that, by the manner in which he expressed the sense of his prayer, the person who prayed hoped to draw to himself a power from above or, in other words, to attain a position in which his prayer would be heard. This kind of prayer may well be called magical.

We might contrast it with another, pure form of prayer in which the person who prays rises spiritually from degree to degree and strives to become contemplatively absorbed in the domain of the highest middoth or of the divine Thought itself; such a prayer may be said to contain a mystical kawwanah. In terms of abstract definitions of this kind, the kawwanoth of the oldest kabbalists certainly incline toward mysticism. But I strongly doubt whether in the concrete act of prayer performed with kawwanah, the distinction can be maintained.

The living prayer is indeed, as Yehudah Halevi formulated it in one of his poems, an encounter: “As I went towards you, I found you on the road towards me.”

It is entirely possible that here, too, the two elements come together. Only in extreme cases does the encounter of the human and the divine will assume an unequivocally clear form that is entirely magical or altogether free of magical elements. The history of the doctrine of the kawwanah among the kabbalists may serve as a typical example of the various possibilities latent in every mystical doctrine of prayer.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 244-5.

Inner Intention of Mystical Meditation

“This brings us back to the question of the actual content of the “revelations of Elijah” as they were disclosed to these mystics of Narbonne, Posquières, and Lunel. Are we to suppose that it merely concerned religious exaltation or revelations of mysteries of diverse kinds, explanations of one thing or another, visions connected with the Merkabah, such as could be deduced, for example, from the description contained in the document under discussion? In that case there would be nothing really new; the experience would merely add more information to a framework whose basic outline was already known beforehand to the praying ascetic.

Or should we perhaps see in these revelations a genuinely new phenomenon that was added to the kabbalistic tradition of the Bahir and lent it a specific character? Since we possess no reliable documents on this subject, it is difficult to answer this question with any certainty. Nevertheless, I would be inclined to interpret our reports in the sense of the second possibility. What was really new in the Kabbalah of the circle of the Provençal scholars and perushim, I would venture to guess, was their doctrine of the mystical meditations at prayer.

It was indeed apparent at the end of the last chapter that here and there texts concerning the mystical meaning of prayer or of specific prayers are already found in the Bahir and that, for example, a verse that plays as important a role in the liturgy as the Qedushah (Isa. 6:3) was there correlated with the aeons or sefiroth. But in the Bahir we are dealing with commentaries, not with instructions for meditations intended to accompany recitation of the verse at the very moment of prayer.

What is a new step and what surpasses this position is the linking of the individual words of the main prayers with specific sefiroth. This development gave rise, among the kabbalists, to the doctrine of kawwanah, which occupies such a major position in the history of the Kabbalah.

In his recitation—for according to talmudic prescription the prayers must be uttered aloud not only thought—he who prays must concentrate his soul upon one or several divine middoth. In this sense the kawwanah represents only a practical application of the doctrine of the existence of the sefiroth or aeons in the world of the Godhead. The prayer is a symbolic reiteration of processes that occur in the pleroma of the deity.

Hence it no longer resembles the old magical prayers that also, as we have seen, filtered through into the circles of the Hasidim and the first kabbalists. There too the person who prays pronounces magical words or holy names, largely incomprehensible nomina barbara that make up part of the text of the prayer itself. The kawwanah, on the other hand, represents a process that takes place exclusively within the domain of thought. It is most remarkable indeed that kabbalistic usage is, in this respect, very similar to that of the scholastics for whom intentio does not mean ”intention” in our usual sense but rather the energy or tension of the act of cognition. (The etymology would be derived from the tension of the bow when directing the arrow.)

The kawwanah of meditation is the tension with which the consciousness (of a person performing a prayer or another ritual act) is directed to the world or object before him. Nothing is pronounced but the words of the statutory prayers, as they had been fixed of old, but the mystical meditation mentally accompanies the current of words and links them to the inner intention of the person who is praying.

Among the German Hasidim the beginnings of such a process seem to be inherent in the prayer itself; among the kabbalists of Provence these initial stages led to a comprehensive discipline of contemplation concerned with man’s communication with God.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 242-4.

Conversing with Moses and Metatron

“From a somewhat earlier period, around 1200, comes the Hebrew protocol, recorded in Rouen, of the appearance of a prophet of the same type, R. Shemuel ha-Nabi, who conversed, in the presence of witnesses, with Moses and the angel Metatron as well as with the tosafist masters Rabbenu Tam and R. Elias of Paris, and who communicated mystical revelations dealing with talmudic matters.

Similar revelations concerning talmudic and halakhic questions likewise occurred in the Languedoc, in the neighborhood of the Rabad and the same generation. Even if we regard as metaphorical rather than strictly mystical the expressions employed by Rabad (see pp. 205-6) with regard to the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in his school, the occurrence of such revelations is conclusively proven by the curious case of Jacob of Marvège (today in the Department of Lozère), who flourished around 1200.

He sought the answers to halakhic problems through “dream questions,” she’eloth halom, that is, through a visionary procedure. Alongside figures of this kind there also appeared pure mystics whose illuminations were of an inward kind that resulted, when the occasion warranted it, in esoteric doctrines.

How did these revelations come about? Did they appear spontaneously, without preparation, to mystically inclined souls, or were they the result of specific acts and rituals that required a certain preparation? Is it possible that a theurgic element also played a role? There is no unequivocal answer to these questions. We do, however, possess certain testimonies suggesting that in this Provençal circle such revelations were linked, at least in part, to a specific ritual and that they were even tied to a particular day.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 239-40.

Two Angels at the Feast of Tabernacles

“The relatively simple content of that tradition also corresponds to Jacob’s other angelological statements, with which we have already become acquainted on page 208. Jacob is said to have received from a certain R. Nehorai in Jerusalem the tradition that the ritual of libations of water and wine on the Feast of Tabernacles was practiced in the Temple of Jerusalem because “at this ritual two angels were present, whose function it was to bring the fruits to ripeness and to lend them flavor.”

One of these angels is certainly Gabriel, whose function (according to B. Sanhedrin 95b) is to cause the fruit to ripen. The other is probably Michael. Water and wine seem to symbolize the qualities of Grace (water) and Sternness (wine), much as in the Book Bahir. Whether this symbolism came from the Orient—together with the angelological tradition —or whether it belongs exclusively to the Provençal stratum of the Bahir cannot be established with certainty.

We know nothing else about this R. Nehorai, and the doctrine of the sefiroth is implied in no other twelfth-century text that can definitely be said to have been composed in the Orient. This pilgrimage of “Rabbenu Jacob Hasid,” which I see no reason to doubt, must have taken place at the earliest not long after the conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin, after 1187; before that, under the rule of the Crusaders, access to the city was generally forbidden to Jews.

It cannot be fixed at a date prior to the time Jacob the Nazirite commenced his esoteric studies; it was on the contrary, occasioned by those studies. According to the preceding argument, we have in fact every reason to suppose that such studies were already in vogue before 1187 in the circle of Posquières and of Lunel.

Later legends of the Spanish kabbalists related the visit of the old kabbalist of Lunel to the Orient to the interest in the Kabbalah allegedly displayed by Maimonides toward the end of his life. Our R. Jacob is supposed to have gone to Egypt, where he initiated Maimonides in the esoteric science. This legend, whose origin around 1300 I have examined elsewhere, has no historical value. Even the writings of Abraham, the son of Maimonides, whose penchant for mystical religiosity is quite obvious, draw their inspiration from Sufi sources and do not evince the slightest familiarity with kabbalistic ideas, as has already been mentioned on page 12.

Our discussion of the groups of Jewish ascetics in France devoting themselves to a contemplative life gives added urgency to the question of a possible relationship between the emergence of the Kabbalah and Catharism in the middle of the twelfth century. The only scholar who, to my knowledge, has raised the problem—albeit in a rather aphoristic style—was Moses Gaster in his programmatic The Origin of the Kabbalah (Ramsgate, 1894). It is doubtful, however, whether such a relationship can be deduced with certainty from an analysis of the oldest kabbalistic traditions.

The information regarding the beliefs of Cathar groups or individuals contained in Cathar sources or in the acts of the Inquisition reveal few if any elements parallel to kabbalistic doctrine. There is, no doubt, a general similarity in the fundamental assumption common to both groups regarding the reality of a separate higher world belonging entirely to God himself and in which there occur certain dramatic events that have their counterpart in the lower world.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 233-4.

Men with Mystical Tendencies

“The similarities between this phenomenon and Christian monasticism on the one hand and the condition of the perfecti or bonshommes among the Cathars on the other, are especially striking, despite the clear divergences resulting from the different attitudes of Judaism and Christianity toward celibacy. The Nazirites are not simply hasidim in the well-defined sense of the Book of the Pious and German Hasidism.

But it is evident that we are dealing with a parallel stratum in the Jewish communities, many of whose members undoubtedly also inclined toward the more radical demands of German Hasidism. At the end of his halakhic work Rabad himself picked out of his talmudic material precisely that definition of hasiduth that most closely approximated the mentality of the German Hasidim.

R. Ezra of Gerona, in his commentary on the aggadoth, also calls Jacob the Nazirite by the name Jacob the Hasid. What is important for us is the existence of a stratum with society that by its very definition and vocation had the leisure for a contemplative life. It goes without saying that such a stratum could give rise to men with mystical tendencies.

Members of this group are also mentioned in the earliest kabbalistic sources after Jacob the Nazirite as representatives of a mystical tradition; the names may as well be those of historical personalities as of fictitious figures appearing in pseudepigraphic documents. Indeed, it is precisely the fictitious character of these names of perushim and nezirim that seems so characteristic of the mood prevailing in these kabbalistic circles.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 229-31.

Echoes of the Nezirim

“In this generation in France and especially in its southern part we hear with increasing frequency of scholars called by the epithet ha-parush, the ascetic, or ha-nazir, the Nazirite. The exact definition of these terms is provided by a regulation that was undoubtedly composed in this region at the beginning of the thirteenth century, or at best a short time earlier. There it is said that …

“ … one should appoint scholars whose vocation it is to occupy themselves incessantly with the Torah, so that the community might fulfill the duty of the study of the Torah, and in order that the reign of heaven sustain no loss. Perushim [literally: those who are separated, detached] is the name given to scholars who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the Torah; they are called in the language of the Mishnah perushim and in the language of the Bible nezirim—and this detachment [from worldly affairs] leads to purity.”

From this definition it is evident that this institution in France has nothing in common with the ascetic movement of the “Mourners of Zion,” ‘abele siyon, that several centuries earlier had been widespread in the Near East, and above all in Palestine. The traveler Benjamin of Tudela still found remnants of it in Jerusalem in the twelfth century.

The origin of the perushim is, rather, connected with the religious enthusiasm that gripped France in the twelfth century, finding expression in the Jewish milieu as well as in the surrounding Christian world, including the reform movements and their religious heresies.

Naturally, the very choice of words already reflects the spirit of asceticism that characterized the period. These perushim took upon themselves the “yoke of the Torah” and completely detached their thoughts from the affairs of this world. They did not engage in commerce and sought to attain purity.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 229.

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