The nature of Lurianic thought
The characteristic feature of Luria's theoretical and meditative system is his recasting of the previous, static hierarchy of unfolding Divine levels, into a dynamic cosmic spiritual drama of exile and redemption. Through this, essentially there became two historical versions of the theoretical-theosophical tradition in Kabbalah:
- Medieval Kabbalah and the Zohar as it was initially understood (sometimes called "Classical/Zoharic" Kabbalah), which received its systemisation by Moshe Cordovero immediately prior to Luria in the Early-Modern period
- Lurianic Kabbalah, the basis of modern Jewish mysticism, though Luria and subsequent Kabbalists see Lurianism as no more than an explanation of the true meaning of the Zohar
The mystical doctrines of Kabbalah appeared in esoteric circles in 12th century Southern France (Provence-Languedoc), spreading to 13th century Northern Spain (Catalonia and other regions). Mystical development culminated with the Zohar's dissemination from 1305, the main text of Kabbalah. Medieval Kabbalah incorporated motifs described as "Neoplatonic" (linearly descending realms between the Infinite and the finite), "Gnostic" (in the sense of various powers manifesting from the singular Godhead, rather than plural gods) and "Mystical" (in contrast to rational, such as Judaism's first doctrines of reincarnation). Subsequent commentary on the Zohar attempted to provide a conceptual framework in which its highly symbolic imagery, loosely associated ideas, and seemingly contradictory teachings could be unified, understood, and organised systematically. Meir ben Ezekiel ibn Gabbai (born 1480) was a precursor in this, but Moshe Cordovero's (1522–1570) encyclopedic works influentially systemised the scheme of Medieval Kabbalah, though they did not explain some important classic beliefs such as reincarnation. The Medieval-Cordoverian scheme describes in detail a linear, hierarchical process where finite Creation evolves ("Hishtalshelut") sequentially from God's Infinite Being. The sephirot (Divine attributes) in Kabbalah, act as discrete, autonomous forces in the functional unfolding of each level of Creation from potential to actual. The welfare of the Upper Divine Realm, where the sephirot are manifest supremely, is mutually bound up with the welfare of the Lower Human Realm. The acts of Man, at the end of the chain, affect harmony between the sephirot in the higher spiritual Worlds. Mitzvot (Jewish observances) and virtuous deeds bring unity Above, allowing unity between God and the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) Below, opening the Flow of Divine vitality throughout Creation. Sin and selfish deeds introduce disruption and separation throughout Creation. Evil, caused through human deeds, is a misdirected overflow Below of unchecked Gevurah (Severity) on High.
synagogue in Safed. The 1538 Safed attempt by Jacob Berab
to restore traditional Semikhah
(Rabbinic organisation), reelected the community's Messianic focus. Karo, author of the normative Shulkhan Arukh
(Code of Law) was one appointed
The 16th century renaissance of Kabbalah in the Galilean community of Safed, which included Joseph Karo, Moshe Alshich, Cordovero, Luria and others, was shaped by their particular spiritual and historical outlook. After the 1492 Expulsion from Spain they felt a personal urgency and responsibility on behalf of the Jewish people to hasten Messianic redemption. This involved a stress on close kinship and ascetic practices, and the development of rituals with a communal-messianic focus. The new developments of Cordovero and Luria in systemising previous Kabbalah, sought mystical dissemination beyond the close scholarly circles to which Kabbalah had previously been restricted. They held that wide publication of these teachings, and meditative practices based on them, would hasten redemption for the whole Jewish people.
Where the messianic aim remained only peripheral in the linear scheme of Cordovero, the more comprehensive theoretical scheme and meditative practices of Luria explained messianism as its central dynamic, incorporating the full diversity of previous Kabbalistic concepts as outcomes of its processes. Luria conceptualises the Spiritual Worlds through their inner dimension of Divine exile and redemption. The Lurianic mythos brought deeper Kabbalistic notions to the fore: theodicy (primordial origin of evil) and exile of the Shekhinah (Divine Presence), eschatological redemption, the cosmic role of each individual and the historical affairs of Israel, symbolism of sexuality in the supernal Divine manifestations, and the unconscious dynamics in the soul. Luria gave esoteric theosophical articulations to the most fundamental and theologically daring questions of existence.
Religious Kabbalists see the deeper comprehensiveness of Lurianic theory being due to its description and exploration of aspects of Divinity, rooted in the Ein Sof, that transcend the revealed, rationally apprehended mysticism described by Cordovero. The system of Medieval Kabbalah becomes incorporated as part of its wider dynamic. Where Cordovero described the Sefirot (Divine attributes) and the Four spiritual Realms, preceded by Adam Kadmon, unfolding sequentially out of the Ein Sof, Luria probed the supra-rational origin of these Five Worlds within the Infinite. This revealed new doctrines of Primordial Tzimtzum (contraction) and the Shevira (shattering) and reconfiguration of the sephirot. In Kabbalah, what preceded more deeply in origins, is also reflected within the inner dimensions of subsequent Creation, so that Luria was able to explain messianism, Divine aspects, and reincarnation, Kabbalistic beliefs that remained unsystemised beforehand.
Cordovero and Medieval attempts at Kabbalistic systemisation, influenced by Medieval Jewish philosophy, approach Kabbalistic theory through the rationally conceived paradigm of "Hishtalshelut" (sequential "Evolution" of spiritual levels between the Infinite and the Finite - the vessels/external frames of each spiritual World). Luria systemises Kabbalah as a dynamic process of "Hitlabshut" ("Enclothement" of higher souls within lower vessels - the inner/soul dimensions of each spiritual World). This sees inner dimensions within any level of Creation, whose origin transcends the level in which they are enclothed. The spiritual paradigm of Creation is transformed into a dynamical interactional process in Divinity. Divine manifestations enclothe within each other, and are subject to exile and redemption:
The concept of hitlabshut ("enclothement") implies a radical shift of focus in considering the nature of Creation. According to this perspective, the chief dynamic of Creation is not evolutionary, but rather interactional. Higher strata of reality are constantly enclothing themselves within lower strata, like the soul within a body, thereby infusing every element of Creation with an inner force that transcends its own position within the universal hierarchy. Hitlabshut is very much a "biological" dynamic, accounting for the life-force which resides within Creation; hishtalshelut, on the other hand, is a "physical" one, concerned with the condensed-energy of "matter" (spiritual vessels) rather than the life-force of the soul.
Due to this deeper, more internal paradigm, the new doctrines Luria introduced explain Kabbalistic teachings and passages in the Zohar that remained superficially understood and externally described before. Seemingly unrelated concepts become unified as part of a comprehensive, deeper picture. Kabbalistic systemisers before Luria, culminating with Cordovero, were influenced by Maimonides' philosophical Guide, in their quest to decipher the Zohar intellectually, and unify esoteric wisdom with Jewish philosophy. In Kabbalah this embodies the Neshama (Understanding) mental level of the soul. The teachings of Luria challenge the soul to go beyond mental limitations. Though presented in intellectual terms, it remains a revealed, supra-rational doctrine, giving a sense of being beyond intellectual grasp. This corresponds to the soul level of Haya (Wisdom insight), described as "touching/not-touching" apprehension.
In the academic study of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem saw Lurianism as a historically located response to the trauma of Spanish exile, a fully expressed mythologising of Judaism, and a uniquely paradoxically messianic mysticism, as mysticism phenomenologically usually involves withdrawal from community. In more recent academia, Moshe Idel has challenged Scholem's historical influence in Lurianism, seeing it instead as an evolving development within the inherent factors of Jewish mysticism by itself. In his monograph Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship, Stanford University Press, 2003, Lawrence Fine explores the world of Isaac Luria from the point of view of the lived experience of Luria and his disciples.