Kabbalah Comes of Age: Rabbi Lieberman Continues Lecture Series on the History of the Kabbalists at Maayon Yisroel


By Rabbi Harold Rabinowitz.

Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, noted historian and Dean of YULA Girls High School on Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles, delivered the second and third of a series of three lectures at Maayon Yisroel Chassidic Center, 140 N. La Brea Ave., in Hancock Park, on “The History of the Kabbalists” to enthusiastic audiences, on successive Wednesday evenings, December 18 and 25 (Tevet 15 and 22). The subjects of the two lectures were: The special place the Zohar occupies in Kabbalistic literature and in the hearts of the Jewish People, and the coming of age of Kabbalistic thought in the works of such greats as Nachmanides; and (in the final lecture) the outpouring of spiritual insight and Kabbalistic genius that took place in medieval Safed.

Lecture II: Rabbi Lieberman began by noting a distinction between the way the Talmud presents the answer to a question, the resolution to a problem—it uses the formula over and over again, Tah shema—“Come and hear”; while the Zohar uses the formula, Tah chazi—“Come and see.” Both the Zohar and the Sefer HaBahir, the early Kabbalistic masterpiece discussed in the previous lecture, have the meaning of illumination in the meaning of their very titles. While hearing entails deciphering finite words and confined argument, the insights of Kabbalah are flashes of illumination that challenge the finite mind by their very infinity. In a sense, the illumination of the Zohar is the paradoxical “dark light”—the flash of creative light that lay at the heart of all creation, but what we finite mortals can derive from that flash, however inspiring, must always be limited.

The Chassidic master, Rav Pinchas of Koretz, said that it was only by reading and delving into the Zohar, only through its inspiring teachings, was he able to maintain his faith in a dark world. The Zohar works on a multiplicity of levels and it contains many different types of explanations. For example, it offers many explanations of the reason that lie behind some of the precepts of the Torah (Ta’amei HaMitzvot); it contains stories about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his students; it explains the inner meanings of the text of the Torah. But, Rabbi Shimon bar Yachai warns (says the Zohar), let no one think that these are simply folktales of our people and homilies of the Biblical text; anyone could create stories as charming and as inspirational. The stories and poetic passages that fill the Zohar are the “garments” of the Torah—the words that allow the supernal secrets of the Torah to be perceived and allow we mortals to be influenced. But such is the nature of the relationship between the Torah and the created world—the Torah is the “garment” of the world—that which allows the finite mortals to perceive and comprehend (the the extent to which they can) the world Hashem created.

In the 1600s, some Kabbalists were so intoxicated with the power of the Zohar to illuminate the inner meanings of the Torah and the secrets of the supernal worlds, that they abandoned the performance of Mitzvot and devoted themselves exclusively to the study of the Zohar. It took a specific responsum of the Maharit (Rabbi Yosef Trani, the great Talmudist who lived in Greece in the late 16th-early 17th century) to make clear that this was a corruption of the intent and teachings of the Zohar.

Rabbi Lieberman then traced the development of a strain of Kabbalists who promoted the Kabbalistic approach to Torah as a counterpoint to the highly rationalistic approach of Maimonides—beginning with the great commentator on the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Daud, the Provencal Sage (known as “the Ravad”) whose comments on Maimonides are traditionally printed as glosses alongside the text of Maimonides. Together, they constitute in many cases the full spectrum of proper rabbinic approaches to the Halakha, the Law.

In one especially dramatic instance, when Maimonides presents a rule regarding when one of the four species used in the performance of the Mitzvah of Lulav is rendered unfit, which he bases on a very rational approach to the law, the Ravad in his gloss says that, “in our Beit Midrash (hall of study) the Holy Spirit (ru’ach ha-kodesh) instructed us that the flaw [which Maimonides ruled does not disqualify the plant] in fact does render it unfit for use to fulfill the Mitzvah of Luav.” For, the Ravad said in many places, Torah knowledge is not purely a matter of logic and reason; it is sometimes communicated to the pious soul and the spiritually devout from “on High.” As the Psalmist puts it (25:14): Sod Hashem l’yerei-av—The secrets of G-d’s [Torah thoughts are sometimes bequeathed] to those who fear Him.”

This respect for the Kabbalistic approach was carried on by the Ravad’s progeny, beginning with his son, Rabbi Yitzchak Sagi Nahor (“of abundant light”— actually a euphemism to denote that he had been born blind), who urged the Kabbalists of Gerona, Spain, to treat Kabbalistic writings and teachings with great care, because they could lead the unwary, the impious and the unprepared far astray. Rabbi Lieberman then pointed out the two great themes that are emphasized in the writings of this family of Kabbalists, and culminated in the work of the great 13th-century Talmudic Sage and Biblical commentator, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nacmanides, or the Ramban.

The first theme—the subject of extensive commentaries by Rabbi Yitzchak Sagi Nahor and his two sons, great sages and Kabbalists in their own right, on the Kaddish prayer—is the sanctity and hidden, mystical qualities contained in the Divine names, which not-coincidentally is the very subject of the Kaddish prayer. The great power that the Kaddish has of ameliorating the fate of souls who leave this earth and must sojourn in the Heavenly realms derives from the mystical power and secrets contained within the Names of G-d.

Nachmanides went a step further when he posited (in his Introduction to his commentary on the Pentateuch) that the entire Torah was to be viewed in toto as a cryptological collection of the names of G-d—and only of the names of G-d. It might be necessary to re-space the letters so that words end in the middle of their conventional form—and it might also require letter substitutions (known as “Atbash”), or even gematria, in which meanings and new wordages are derived from the numerical equivalents of words—but in Nachmanides’ view, the entire Torah was a collection of the names of G-d laid out in an uninterrupted sequence. For this reason, Nachmanides says, a single letter missing from the text of a sefer torah is enough to disqualify it as a legitimate (kosher) Torah Scroll, because perforce missing any letter would be the deletion of a letter from a name of G-d.

The second theme is particularly espoused by Nachmanides, who was forced to leave Spain in 1263 when he defended his faith too successfully in a forced debate he was compelled to participate in by King James of Aragon. The accolades and reward the King bestowed on Nachmanides for so excellently defending his faith did not sit well with the Pope, Rabbi Lieberman recounted, and Nachmanides was forced to leave Spain and resettle in Israel. While in Israel, Nachmanides made the most of his being there, investigating several aspects of the land of Israel relevant to interpretation of the Bible and Halakhah.

It may have been his personal experience of the sanctity of the land of Israel, or it may have been born much earlier, but the second theme found its full flower in him when he spoke of the Holiness of Israel; when he taught that being in Eretz Yisrael gave a Jew a closer connection to G-d; and finally when he (unlike other Poskim) counted living in the Land of Israel, even during a time of Galut (exile and diaspora) and with no Beit Hamikdash, one of the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments) of the Torah.

The culmination of this period was reached by Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, the 13th-century Spanish Kabbalist who extended the work of Nachmanides and other Sephardic Kabbalistic rabbis and masters in two ways: one which represented “good news” for the place of Kabbalah in Jewish life and learning; and a second that represented “bad news” for the enterprise of Kabbalah.

The good news was that Abulafia successfully promoted the notion that the teaching of the Zohar and of Kabbalah in general must become more widely known and more endemic to Jewish learning and ideology. In the twenty years of his writing activity, years during which he also traveled a great deal, Abulafia wrote prodigiously—the thirty volumes of his that survive represent, by all accounts, a small portion of his total output—and his works were widely read and were influential in many quarters of Jewish European society. His style was most compelling and his erudition was deep, so that his commentaries were widely read and appreciated, even if some rabbinic authorities looked askance at (and in some cases banned) some of his “prophetic” writings regarding the end of days.

In an episode that seems to many the stuff movies are made of, Abulafia undertook a highly publicized pilgrimage to Rome for the purpose of converting the Pope, Pope Nicholas III, announcing that he would accomplish this on Erev Rosh Hashana, the day before the Jewish New Year of 1280. Hearing of this, the Pope ordered his guards to seize the impudent Jew and burn him at the stake the moment he arrived in Rome. But Abulafia was not on his way to Rome; his destination was the Pope’s summer palace in nearby Suriano. As Abulafia entered that city’s gate, he learned that the Pope had died mysteriously of a stroke the night before.

Expecting a new Pope to be chosen soon, Abulafia went to Rome, where he was imprisoned by Franciscan monks until he was released after several weeks under circumstances that remain a mystery to this day. Much of Abulafia’s last years are clouded in uncertainty—he either claimed to be a Messiah, or some over-zealous disciples of his made such claims—and we are not even certain of how, when and where he met his end. But much of the work of Abulafia that has survived contains esoteric formulas and calculations involving different iterations and calculations involving the names of G-d—and in this lies much of the “bad news” that came as a result of Abulafia (even if unintentional): The manipulation of formulas to derive “insights” from the Names of Hashem could be easily imitated, giving rise to a long literary tradition—which unfortunately is widely practiced in our own day—in which works have only the superficial form of Kabbalistic discourse, but are devoid of real substance or insight. In spite of this undesired legacy of Abulafia, he remains one of the giants of Kabbalistic thinking of the Medieval period, and a harbinger of the heights Kabbalah would reach in its new 16th-century center, a small remote hill-top town in the north of Israel known in Hebrew as Tzefat, or in English: Safed.

Audios of all three of Rabbi Lieberman’s lectures are available on the Maayon Yisroel website.