Manual Jewish Mystical Leaders and Leadership in the 13th Century

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  • Maimonides, Abraham.
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Upon the latter's demise, though still a mere youth of eighteen, Abraham was elected to the esteemed position of nagid , leader of Egyptian Jewry. He was the first to occupy this office in his family, where, largely on account of Maimonides' aura, it became hereditary for almost two centuries. Despite the temporal and spiritual turmoil of the period, he proved to be an able administrator, a charismatic teacher, and an influential scholar.

Though hampered by his pastoral responsibilities, Maimonides' literary activity produced notable works in four main areas: Of the first category, a fair part responded to the halakhic and philosophical detractors of his father's works. His masterful Milhamot ha-shem Wars of the Lord , written after , was singularly directed against the criticism of the rabbis of Provence and contributed towards the consolidation of his own prestige. As head of the Rabbinical Court in Cairo, he was consulted on legal matters from as far afield as Yemen and Provence and has left a sizeable collection of responsa.

As a thinker and moralist, Abraham upheld his father's elitist philosophical system, of which he considered himself the interpreter and continuator. Nonetheless, his mature views diverged widely from those of Moses Maimonides. The latter had considered knowledge of God to be the ultimate human aim, but his son stressed ethical perfection. Indeed, his markedly ascetic mysticism earned him the epithet by which he is often referred to in later literature, Abraham he-hasid "the Pious".

Written in a lively and attractive Arabic, this monumental compendium of jurisprudence and ethics is not extant in toto, but substantial manuscripts survive in Genizah collections. It circulated widely, reaching Provence, and was read at least into the seventeenth century.

Jewish Mystical Leaders and Leadership in the 13th Century (Paperback)

Notable is the obligation of the novice to take as his guide an experienced teacher who has traversed all the stages of the path in order to initiate him into the intricacies of mystical discipline before bestowing on him his mantle, as Elijah did on Elisha. Abraham championed a pietistic circle whose adepts were dissatisfied with formal religion. Partly inspired by Abraham ar-Rabia d. Using to the utmost his prerogative as nagid , he endeavored to enforce on the larger community these far-reaching measures, which included such Islamic-influenced practices as ablution of the feet before prayer, standing in rows during prayer, kneeling and bowing, and raising the hands in supplication.

Calling themselves "the disciples of the prophets," the Jewish pietists confidently awaited the imminent renewal of prophecy in Israel. The need to transgress the boundaries between esoteric and exoteric, the need to reveal what was for centuries considered secret and the preserve of an initiated elite, the move from the private to the public sphere must be considered as a translation or application of aspects of the mystical teachings to everyday life.

Clearly, the degrees of what was revealed and what remained concealed are different from Kabbalist to Kabbalist, but the emphasise is on the potential of Kabbalistic teachings to address the existential issues at hand. The sociological significance of the texts has to be taken into account, as clearly, the need for written texts goes hand in hand with the growing interest in the Kabbalistic approach to Judaism, and demonstrates the impossibility of restricting the doctrines to an intellectual elite.

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The theosophy is vital and invigorating and therefore has enormous social and political implications in providing a radically new, but purportedly conservative outlook on Jewish life. However, the importance of the texts is also in what they do not reveal: Thus the texts perform two main functions: Nahmanides was one of the leading Rabbinical authorities in the mid-thirteenth century.

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He was the Jewish spokesman at the Barcelona disputation of , played a major role in what is referred to as the Maimonidean controversy, and was a respected Talmudist, legalist and commentator. However, his worldview and theological outlook was that of a Kabbalist, and therefore, in this context, it would be informative to see whether his use of Kabbalah is exoteric. A general statement of intent is expressed in the introduction to his commentary on the Torah, which seems to stress the esoteric aspects of these teachings.

He states clearly that the hints at the Kabbalistic secrets in his writing will only be understood by initiates who receive the teachings from a Kabbalah master; they cannot be understood from a reading of the text alone. Regarding this secret esoteric meaning of the creation, he writes: This would seem to suggest that for Nahmanides, there are exoteric Kabbalistic teachings which can be used for the benefit of the whole community, and there are the esoteric Kabbalistic practices which are the preserve of an elite and which entail a level of understanding fit only for initiates, and it is the latter which cannot be determined from reading the text alone.

The exoteric potential of Kabbalah becomes clear when we see how it is being used to formulate answers and meet the needs of the community. The theosophy based on the ten sefirot provide answers against the claims of judaised Aristotelianism and Averroism, in particular in demonstrating the immanent presence of the divine. In a fascinating chapter in his History of the Jews in Christian Spain , published in , Baer contextualises the emergence of Kabbalah, seeing its adherents as pushers for social reform referring among others to Jonah Gerondi and Todros ben Joseph Abulafia of Toledo.

If, perhaps, Baer put too much emphasise on the reforming aspects and the Kabbalists as the representatives of the down trodden and lower classes as against the rationalist Jewish elite, without doubt, a good number of the Kabbalists were concerned with eschatological matters and apocalyptic scenarios. Again, this is not surprising when seen in the broader political and social context, and again, the Kabbalistic methodology for the reading of the Biblical text provided desperately needed support and answers for a community waiting for redemption whilst living amongst those who claimed that the world had already been redeemed.

More interesting in this context is Abraham Abulafia c. This becomes even more fascinating when seen within a broader historical context as it becomes apparent that Abulafia had integrated and adapted teachings of the late 12th century Calabrian abbot, Joachim of Fiore, mediated by the Spiritual Franciscans of southern Italy and Sicily. Kabbalistic theosophy also provides a rational for the performance of the commandments and teaches how to live an upright and moral life.

In other words, there is an emphasise on the immanence of the divine and the close connection between the Jew and God. In this context, the writing of Ezra of Gerona, one of the Kabbalists criticised by Isaac the Blind in his letter cited earlier, is particularly pertinent.

His commentary on the Song of Songs was written in the build up to the year AD, AM according to the Hebrew reckoning, the start of the sixth millenium when according to Rabbinic tradition, the final redemption would occur. There is an intimate connection in the commentary between the coming redemption and the revealing of the secret teachings emanating from the sefirah of Hochma wisdom concealed in the book hidden for many generations, and the expectation of the coming redemption is caught up with the performance of the commandments.

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And in the continuation: This places the whole of Jewish life into an easily comprehended framework, which puts the responsibility for the well-being of the divine into the hands of each and every Jew, and also emphasises the intimate connection between the commandments, the sefirotic world and the expected redemption. The extent of Kabbalistic exotericism can be seen in the works of Ramon Llull ca.

As someone far less interested in authoritative texts than in open dialogue, albeit on his own terms, with his Jewish and Muslim contemporaries, he was able to appropriate Kabbalistic ideas and use them as stepping stones for demonstrating the inherent truth of the Christian articles of faith. He was able to show how the existence of sefirot in the Godhead must imply a Trinitarian structure within each of them, and for the entire divine being, otherwise there would have, at a moment in time, had to be change in God for creation to have taken place. He implied that the Kabbalists had almost comprehended the real essence of the divine, but needed to go one little step further to realise the inherent truth of Christianity.

It is impossible to speak about the Kabbalists as if they were one monolithic group. There were different groups of Kabbalists with divergent traditions and teachings, each propagating their own world-views. However, their appearance on the historical stage can only be understood in the greater historical context, as a Jewish minority in a Christian world bordering and still influenced by Islamic thought, attempting to find the balance between esotericism and exotericism.

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The travails of the times are the catalyst for members of these different schools for re-interpreting inherited traditions in light of rapidly changing social and political contexts, and adapting them to the needs of the their communities. The Kabbalists try to use the power of revealing what was secret to force political, social and religious change, and by doing so, create a platform for communal reform and deliverance from exile.

Yet, it is to be hoped that at this moment in history when the dangers of all encompassing beliefs and ideologies are all apparent, we are able to examine the past without writing solely from the perspective of this or that ideology or belief. A translation of part of the letter is to be found in Scholem's Origins of the Kabbalah , Princeton pp.

My translation and interpretation differ somewhat from Scholem's in both the aforementioned places. For different evaluations of this letter, see G. Shapira, Philadelphia and Jerusalem p. For the discerning, it is clear that Scholem was also guilty of the same thing he accused the adherents of the Wissenschaft of, namely, scientific research with a political agenda. As he writes in the continuation of the chapter: Scholem, Kabbalah , Jerusalem Scholem in Davar , 9 th Tammuz p.

Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah , pp. The Mystical Messiah , Princeton p. Myers, Reinventing the Jewish Past: In another essay, Scholem wrote: Scholem stopped his research in the nineteenth century and with the revival of Zionism felt that there was no authentic Jewish mysticism in the 20 th century. New Perspectives , pp. However, Idel is inward looking, prefering to locate a Jewish source for a particular idea, even if this means leaping a thousand years rather than looking at the broader contemporary context.

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Wolfson, Through a Speculum that Shines: If there is a Christian influence, it is from the fifteenth century onwards. Idel, Messianic Mystics , Yale pp. Stock, The Implications of Literacy: The place of the text in the spread of heresy has been discussed by R. Hudson eds , Heresy and Literacy, , Cambridge pp.

Chavel, 2 vols, Jerusalem vol. Wolfson, 'By Way of Truth: Stroumsa, Secrecy and Concealment: This article is particularly difficult to understand as it does not read very well — one has to be an initiate! Gershoni eds , Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Vajda, Jerusalem pp. See Ma'amar Yikavu ha-Mayim , ed. Myers explains, Baer was very critical of rationalism and the apologetic tendencies of the Wissenschaft which were deeply connected with the enlightenment.