The Other Preacher From the Galilee

By Allan Nadler

Published March 19, 2004, issue of March 19, 2004.
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Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos:

Isaac Luria and his Kabbalistic Fellowship

By Lawrence Fine

Stanford University Press, 504 pages, $25.95.

* * *

He was a charismatic preacher from the Galilee whose teachings challenged the regnant Jewish doctrines of his day and undermined rabbinical authority. He communed with the spirits of the living and the dead, performing miracles and restoring the lost souls of those who accepted his revolutionary teachings. An ascetic, messianic figure, he endured great, largely self-inflicted, suffering during his lifetime, for the sake of Redemption. To his despairing disciples he promised, at the hour of his death: “If you are deserving, I shall come back to you.” And now, his dramatic story — lovingly re-created from the primary sources of old — is available for all to behold.

No, I am not referring to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” but to a stunning new biography of the 16th-century kabbalist of the Galilee, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), revered in traditional Jewish circles by his acronym, the “Ari.” There already exists a wealth of traditional commentary, as well as much modern critical scholarship, on the bold mystical teachings of the Ari. And Luria’s central kabbalistic doctrine — tikkun, or cosmic reparation — has been appropriated by postmodern Jews in all kinds of original ways, from synagogue programs feeding the homeless to the name of a liberal Jewish magazine. Still, precious little is known about the man behind the famous school of thought known as “Lurianic Kabbalah.”

While a vigorous debate continues among contemporary scholars of the Kabbalah about the centrality that Gershom Scholem assigned to Lurianism for an understanding of the entire subsequent history of Jewish mysticism, the Ari’s life and times have not been subjected to anything approaching adequate critical examination. It is true that many scholarly tomes are dedicated to explicating the Lurianic creation myths — including such powerful notions as the primordial divine “birth-contractions” (tsimtsum), the catastrophic breaking of the cosmic vessels (shevirat ha-kelim) and the resulting religious imperative of tikkun. And much has been written about the complex relationship between Lurianic Kabbalah and the later chasidic versions of Jewish mysticism. Yet we know next to nothing about the originator of it all.

Lawrence Fine’s new book, “Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship,” will dramatically change all of that. Anyone genuinely interested in understanding Lurianic teachings and subsequent developments in Jewish mysticism must now take this book into account, as it richly provides the missing historical and biographical data sorely needed to contextualize Luria’s esoteric teachings. Writing Luria’s biography is no small task, since the extant, worshipful hagiographies by his disciples are historically unreliable. But Fine, a professor of Jewish studies at Mount Holyoke College, has overcome the many obstacles, largely through his diligent, scholarly reconstruction of the world in which Luria lived.

In the book’s early chapters, Fine takes the reader on an exploration of the 16th-century Jewish communities of Ottoman-ruled Egypt and the Galilee. Compensating skillfully for the dearth of direct references to Luria, Fine paints a vivid picture of his social, economic and even geographic circumstances. Along the way, he offers the best portrait yet written of the famous fellowship of kabbalists that congregated around the Galilean town of Safed during the 16th century, and whose undisputed leader Luria became shortly after his arrival from Egypt in 1570.

Among the many striking features of Luria’s kabbalistic fellowship, perhaps none is more surprising than its deep obsession with human sexuality. Thanks to the recent work of scholars of Jewish mysticism, Eliot Wolfson in particular, we now know a great deal about the sexual symbolism than permeates much of the theoretical kabbalistic literature. Fine animates these theosophical conceptions by illustrating how they were integrated into the actual lives of the Jewish mystics of the Galilee. The connections that he uncovers between male sexual orgasm, the moment of death and messianic redemption in Lurianic doctrine, for example, are among the author’s many original insights.

The results of Fine’s diligent probing of Luria’s mysterious world will, however, sometimes prove more disconcerting than inspiring to postmodern kabbalists. Many of today’s devotees of Jewish mysticism tend to cherry-pick only the most attractive customs of the earlier mystics, ignoring the larger social realities in which they were conceived and practiced. In a period when “gender-studies” dominates academic writing, much has been made of the Jewish mystics’ “sexualization” of God, in particular the concept of Shekhina (the feminine aspect of the Divine Presence). Evocative liturgical creations, such as the famous Sabbath-eve hymn, “Lecha Dodiwritten by Luria’s Safed colleague, Rabbi Solomon Alkabets — lend themselves to whimsical feminist interpretations. But the fact remains that real women played almost no role at all in Luria’s sexually ascetic society. As Fine notes:

Aside from an occasional remark here and there, the huge corpus of Lurianic texts pays virtually no attention to women as subjects or agents in their own right…. it does not appear as if the crucial role that women played in the kabbalistic scheme of things translated into a significant regard for women as individuals with a point of view of their own.”

Many readers will be particularly fascinated by Fine’s account of the terribly unforgiving attitudes toward homosexuality prevalent in Lurianic circles. According to Luria’s most important disciple, Rabbi Hayyim Vital, Luria had instructed three of his followers how to practice the tikkun, or specific spiritual correction, for having sinned by engaging in homosexual intercourse. This remedy is not for the weak, as it requires 233 days of fasting, 161 of which are to be accompanied by what is known as tikkun gilgul sheleg — immersing oneself naked in the snow and rolling, front and back, nine times. The specific numbers here are all derived from exact kabbalistic calculations largely based on gematria, the technique that assigns numerical, mystically charged meanings to the letters of sacred Hebrew texts. In one of the book’s most shocking passages, Vital also testifies that the eminent kabbalist Rabbi Israel Najara, author of the most popular of the Sabbath zmirot (table hymns), “Ya Ribon Olam,” would engage in homosexual behavior when drunk.

Despite some charming Lurianic customs that continue to attract New Age spiritual seekers — like conducting Kabbalat Shabbat services in a lush field while facing the setting Friday-afternoon sun — despite an enthusiastic sense of God’s presence in their world, a deep and morbid fear of worldly pleasure dominated this fellowship. This posture of what is known in Christian theology as contemptus mundi (hatred for the material world) but is less familiar to normative Judaism, was accompanied by various self-mortifications that will cause many readers to recoil. Take, for example, the following account of the pietistic rites of Rabbi Abraham Berukhim, an elder among the Safed kabbalists, cited by Fine:

This pious one would go out into the markets and the streets, calling for repentance. He would gather groups of penitents, lead them to the Ashkenazi synagogue and say to them: “Do as you see me do.” Then he would crawl into a sack, ordering them to drag him the entire length of the synagogue in order to mortify his flesh and humiliate his spirit. After that he enjoined them to throw stones at him, each weighing a pound and a half, which they would do. A bed covered with nettles which burn the flesh like fire would be prepared for him and he would remove his clothing, throw himself naked upon the thorns and roll around until he was covered with blisters….

As its title suggests, much of this book deals in great detail with Luria’s career as a charismatic spiritual physician. Fine documents many bizarre, supernatural practices — for instance, the art of reading human foreheads (metoposcopy) and bodily shadows, “hearing” holy messages from animals, plants and even inanimate objects, and communing with the dead while lying face down and spread out upon their graves. An entire chapter is devoted to the redemptive role of the latter practice, known as yihudim, or unifications with the souls of the dead. This rite, coming perilously close to the necromancy explicitly prohibited by the Torah, is rooted in a belief in the reincarnation and resurrection of the souls of the righteous that was widespread in Safed. Luria fancied himself not only a doctor of the soul, but a messianic healer of the cosmos, and much of his kabbalistic system is about how to practice halachic rituals in such a way as to hasten the final redemption. Fine’s detailed chapters on each of these theoretical subjects are as rewarding as the biographical narrative that precedes them.

Fine’s great achievement is that he does not allow his personal identification with Luria’s fellowship to interfere with his exposure of all its facets, including those that many will certainly find unattractive. Fine starts out with a confession that his attraction to the Safed mystics originated with his own youthful participation in the neochasidic chavura movement. And he ends the book observing that “a good many contemporary Jews will continue to drink from Luria’s well, inspired by the dream that collective human effort can mend a broken world.” Yet his enthusiastic presentation remains sober, balanced and critical throughout.

Despite its weighty academic content, this book is written in a manner that will render it easily accessible to a broad readership of nonspecialists. And scholars will find many treasures, most of which Fine wisely consigned to the endnotes. All of which makes this book among the finest works of recent Judaic scholarship.

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