The idea that the exile of the Jewish people from their homeland was symbolic of the condition of the universe as a whole has lately been revived in Zionist thought (see Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s review of Ben Halpern’s The American Jew elsewhere in this issue). Gershom Scholem, one of the greatest living Jewish scholars, here traces the source of that idea to the Lurianic Cabbala, a mystical philosophy that came into being in the 16th century to explain the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. The present article was translated from the Hebrew by Moses Hadas.
The 19th century, and 19th-century Judaism, have bequeathed to the modern mind a complex of ideas about Messianism that have led to distortions and counterfeits from which it is by no means easy to free ourselves. We have been taught that the Messianic idea is part and parcel of the idea of the progress of the human race in the universe, that redemption is achieved by man’s unassisted and continuous progress, leading to the ultimate liberation of all the goodness and nobility hidden within him. This, in essence, is the content which the Messianic ideal acquired under the combined dominance of religious and political liberalism—the result of an attempt to adapt the Messianic conceptions of the prophets and of Jewish religious tradition to the ideals of the French Revolution.
Traditionally, however, the Messianic ideal in Judaism was not so cheerful; the coming of the Messiah was supposed to shake the foundations of the world. In the view of the prophets and Aggadists, redemption would only follow upon a universal revolutionary disturbance, unparalleled disasters in which history would be dislodged and destroyed. The 19th-century view is blind to this catastrophic aspect. It looks only to progress toward infinite perfection. In probing into the roots of this new conception of the Messianic ideal as man’s infinite progress and perfectibility, we find, surprisingly, that they stem from the Cabbala.1
When we study the Messianic ideal we simultaneously study the nature of the Diaspora, the Galut. The medieval Jew thought of redemption as a state that would be brought about by the reversal of all that had produced Galut. The Messianic ideal of the prophets of the Bible and other classical Jewish sources provided no precedent for this view. Both prophets and Aggadists conceived of redemption as a new state of the world wholly unrelated to anything that had gone before, not the product of a purifying development of the preceding state. Hence for them the world unredeemed and the world in process of redemption were separated by an abyss. History was not a development toward any goal. History would reach its terminus, and the new state that ensued would be the result of a totally new manifestation of the Divine. In the prophets this stage is called the “Day of the Lord,” which is wholly unlike other days: it can only arrive after the old structure has been razed. Accordingly, upon the advent of the “Day of the Lord” all that man has built up in history will be destroyed.
Classical Jewish tradition is fond of emphasizing the catastrophic strain in redemption. If we look at the tenth chapter of the tractate Sanhedrin, where the Talmudists discuss the question of redemption at length, we see that to them it means a colossal uprooting, destruction, revolution, disaster, with nothing of development or progress about it. “The Son of David [the Messiah] will come only in a generation wholly guilty or a generation wholly innocent”—a condition beyond the realm of human possibility. Or “the Son of David will not come until the kingdom is subverted to heresy.” These hopes for redemption always show a very strong nationalistic bent. Liberation of Israel is the essence, but it will march in step with the liberation of the whole world.
It is well known that the whole broad area of Messianic expectations which appear in the Aggadic tradition and in midrashim was not deemed worthy of systematic treatment by the great Jewish philosophers and theologians of the Middle Ages (with the sole exception of Saadiah Gaon in the 10th century). Thus popular imagination and the religious impulse were left free to dream their own dreams and think their own thoughts, without encountering the opposition of the enlightened part of the community. A whole popular literature grew up in the Middle Ages which prophesied the final apocalyptic war that would bring history to an end, and vividly pictured redemption as the crowning event in the national and communal saga. In this way, Messianic expectation, looked down upon by the intellectual aristocracy, struck roots among the masses of the people, diverting their minds from efforts to solve the problems of the present to the Utopian realm of the “Day of the Lord.”
The early Cabbalists—from the 12th century until the expulsion from Spain in 1492—had little to add to the popular myth of redemption, for their faces were turned not to the End of Days but to the primal days of creation. They hoped for a particular and mystical redemption for each individual, to be achieved by escaping from the turbulence, perplexity, chaos, and storms of the actual course of history to the beginnings of history.
These early Cabbalists assigned special importance to such questions as: What is the nature of creation? and: Whence have we come? For they believed that to know the “ladder of ascent,” or more precisely, the ladder of descent, the order of rungs which link all creatures downward from the source of creation, from God, “the root of all roots,” down to our own straitened existence—to know the secret of our beginnings, whence the imperfections of this distorted and dark world in which we are stranded, with all the storms and perturbations and afflictions within it—to know all this would teach us the way back to “our inward home.” Just as we have descended, just as every creature descends by its particular path, so is it able also to ascend, and this ascent aims at a return to the origin of creation and not to its end. Here, then, we have a view of redemption in which the foundations of the world are not moved by great Messianic disturbances. Instead, the world itself is rejected by ascent upon the rungs of the ladder which rises to the heavenly mansions in the bosom of God. The Cabbalist who was prepared to follow this path of inwardness would be liberated and redeemed by the fact that he himself in the depths of his own soul would seek a way of return to God, to the source whence he was hewn.
The masterpiece of Spanish Cabbalism is the Zohar, which was written in the last quarter of the 13th century in Castile, the central part of Spain. In this book Cabbala and Messianism are not yet dovetailed into a genuinely organic whole. On the subject of redemption we find utterances that give expression in new form and with the addition of interesting details, but without essential change, to the prophecies of the end recorded in the popular apocalyptic literature referred to above.
The Zohar follows Talmudic Aggadah in seeing redemption not as the product of inward progress in the historical world, but as a supernatural miracle involving the gradual illumination of the world by the light of the Messiah. It begins with an initial gleam and ends with full revelation: the light of the Messiah.
At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, shall set Israel upright and bring them up out of Galut He will open to them a small and scant window of light, and then He will open another that is larger, until He will open to them the portals on high to the four directions of the universe. So shall it be with all that the Holy One, blessed be He, does for Israel and for the righteous among them, so shall it be and not at a single instant, for neither does healing come to a sick man at a single instant, but gradually, until he is made strong.
The Gentiles (who are designated Esau or Edom), however, will suffer the opposite fate. They received their light in this world at a single stroke, but it will depart from them gradually until Israel shall grow strong and destroy them. And when the spirit of uncleanliness shall pass from the world and the Divine light shall shine upon Israel without let or hindrance, all things will return to their proper order—to the state of perfection which prevailed in the Garden of Eden before Adam sinned. The worlds will all be joined one to another and nothing will separate Creator from creature. All will rise upward by ascents of the spirit, and creatures will be purified until they behold the Shechinah “eye to eye.”
In the latest section of the Zohar, this prophecy is supplemented by another foretelling the liberation of Israel from all the limitations which the yoke of the Torah has laid upon her in Galut. The author expresses his vision in the imagery of the tree of life and the tree of knowledge (from which death depends). Since Adam sinned, the world has been governed not by the tree of life (as it properly should be) but by the tree of knowledge. The tree of life is entirely and exclusively holy, with no admixture of evil, no adulteration or impurity or death or limitation. The tree of knowledge, on the other hand, contains both good and evil, purity and impurity, virtue and vice, and therefore under its rule, there are things forbidden and things permitted, things fit for consumption and things unfit, the clean and the unclean. In an unredeemed world the Torah is revealed in positive and negative commandments and all that these imply, but in the redeemed future uncleanliness and unfitness and death will be abolished. In an unredeemed world the Torah must be interpreted in manifold ways—literal, allegorical, mystical; but in the redeemed future it will be revealed in the pure spirituality of the tree of life, without the “clothing” it put on after Adam sinned. It will be wholly inward, entirely holy.
In this conception, redemption becomes a spiritual revolution which will uncover the mystic meaning, the “true interpretation,” of the Torah. Thus a mystic Utopia takes the place of the national and secular Utopia of the early writers. But the author of these latest sections bestows special emphasis on the opposition between the Torah of the Galut and the Torah of the redemption without indicating any transition between them. The two states of the world were still separated by a chasm which history could never bridge.
The efforts of the Spanish Cabbalists had been bent upon a new understanding of Judaism. They re-examined Jewish life, the life of the commandments, the world of the Halachah, no less than of the Aggadah, delving into the mystery of the Torah, of man’s works in this world, of his relation to God. In these matters their convictions had no vital connection with the theme of redemption. But on the heels of the expulsion from Spain, the Cabbala underwent a pronounced shift which was of momentous consequences for Jewish history generally, even more than for Cabbala itself. Just as the Cabbala of the 13th century sought to interpret Judaism in a way that would enable a 13th- or 14th-century man to be a Jew according to the religious conceptions of that period, so after the expulsion from Spain the Cabbala sought to provide an answer for questions which arose from an event which had uprooted one of the principal branches of Judaism.
But the attempt to reinterpret the nature of the universe and of Judaism in the light of this experience was not made in the years immediately following the catastrophe of 1492. The Cabbalists, like their fellow Jews in general, believed that complete redemption was around the corner. In the expulsion from Spain they saw the beginnings of the “travail of the Messiah”—the beginnings of those disasters and frightful afflictions which would terminate history and usher in the redemption. There was no need for new religious concepts and principles; the end had already come. At any hour, any moment, the gates of redemption might swing open, and men’s hearts must now be awakened to meet the future. For the span of one generation, during the forty years after the Spanish expulsion, we find a deep Messianic excitement and tension almost as intense as before the eruption of the Sabbatean movement. Traditional principles remained untouched; the teaching of the early Cabbala continued without basic change; the important thing now was propaganda, the dissemination of the apocalyptic message.
The master propagandist of this acute Messianism in the generation after the Spanish expulsion was Abraham ben Eliezer ha-Levi, a rabbi from Spain who lived in Jerusalem and was one of the great Cabbalists of his day. On the basis of all Hebrew literature, from the book of Daniel to the Zohar and the writings of the medieval sages, he proved that the travails of redemption had already begun in 1492 and would end in full glory in 1531. We have other such ingenious books dating from the same period. The teaching of one of them, Kaf ha-K’toret (“Spoon of Incense”), an anonymous commentary on the book of Psalms (which is extant only in manuscripts), runs like this:
According to the words of the sages the Torah has seventy aspects, and there are seventy aspects to each and every verse; in truth, therefore, the aspects are infinite. In each generation one of these aspects is revealed, and so in our generation the aspect which the Torah reveals to us concerns matters of redemption. Each and every verse can be understood and explained in reference to redemption.
According to this author, every single verse in the Book of Psalms refers to the imminent redemption, and he declares that all the lyrics in the Psalms are battle songs of the final apocalyptic war. That a devout Jew should consider the Psalms as battle hymns is evidence of the depth of the new feelings which had seized the Jews upon the expulsion. But the implication is still that the notions of Galut and redemption do not require new interpretation.
The redemption, however, did not come, only disaster and travail, and all these powerful expectations were frustrated. And in the measure that hope was disappointed in the external world, the spiritual effects of the Spanish expulsion sought expression in the deeper reaches of the soul. The weight of the event gradually sank, as it were, from the outer strata of man to the deeper strata in the soul, to more fertile strata out of which are formed new visions and new symbols. The prophecy of the imminent end waned, and men began to think the matter out anew. Only then did there begin a movement which involved setting up a new religious climate around the ideas of Galut and redemption.
What now took place can be defined as the merging of two hitherto disparate forces—the Messianic theme and Cabbala—into a unified whole. In other words, the Messianic theme became a productive element in the speculations of the mystics themselves. They began to seek explanations for the expulsion from Spain: What had happened? What brought on the affliction and suffering? What is the nature of this gloomy world of Galut? They sought an answer to such questions in terms of their basic mystical outlook, which regarded all external being as the sign and symbol of the inward being that speaks through it. And by connecting the notions of Galut and redemption with the central question of the essence of the universe, they managed to elaborate a system which transformed the exile of the people of Israel into an exile of the whole world, and the redemption of their people into a universal, cosmic redemption.
The result was that the Cabbala succeeded in establishing its predominance over the broad masses of the Jewish people. This is a phenomenon which has always puzzled scholars. How did a movement so highly mystical, individual, and aristocratic as the Cabbala become a social and historical force, a dynamic power in history? At least part of the explanation is that the 16th-century Cabbala found in the expulsion itself a way of answering the most urgent question confronting the Jews of that period: the nature of Galut and the nature of redemption.
This answer was formulated during the span of a single generation, from 1540 to 1580, by a small, albeit very intense, congregation of saints, devotees, priests, and reformers in the little Palestinian town of Safed. Since the question of Galut and redemption was everywhere troublesome in the same measure, and since the various Jewish communities throughout the world were still more or less homogeneous, it was possible for the definitive answer given at Safed to be accepted as relevant in all parts of the Galut.
Of the many systems formulated in Safed, the one which was most highly respected and which achieved authoritative status, both among mystics and the masses of the people, was the Cabbala of Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (1534-1572), later called the Ari (“the Lion”).
The Ari’s basic conceptions are pictorial in character and work upon the imagination, and though their original formulation was quite simple, they lent themselves to extremely subtle and profound interpretation. The Galut the Ari’s Cabbala saw as a terrible and pitiless state permeating and embittering all of Jewish life, but Galut was also the condition of the universe as a whole, even of the deity. This is an extremely bold idea, and when the Lurianic Cabbalists came to speak of it, they shuddered at their own audacity, hedging it with such deprecatory expressions as “one might suppose,” “as it were,” “to stun the ear.” Nevertheless, the idea was developed through the three central conceptions which shape the Lurianic system—limitation, destruction, reparation.
According to the Ari and his school, the universe was created by an action of which the ancients generally were ignorant. God did not reveal Himself overtly in creation, but confined and concealed Himself, and by so doing enabled the world to be revealed. Then came the second act, the fashioning of the universal “emanations,” the creations of the worlds, the revelation of the Divine as mankind’s deity, as the Creator, as the God of Israel.
The original phase of concealment carries many implications. There is voluntary restraint and limitation, something related to the quality of harshness and rigidity in God, for all concentration and limitation imply the functioning of this quality. There is ruthlessness toward Himself, for He exiled Himself from boundless infinity to a more concentrated infinity. There is a profound inward Galut, not the Galut of one of the creatures but of God Himself, who limited Himself and thereby made place for the universe. This is the Lurianic concept of limitation or concentration, tsimtsum, which supplanted the simpler idea of creation held by the Spanish Cabbalists.
To the question of how the world came into being the Spanish Cabbalists had proffered their doctrine of emanations. From the abundance of His being, from the treasure laid up within Himself, God “emanated” the sephirot, those divine luminaries, those modes and stages through which He manifests Himself externally. His resplendent light emanates from stage to stage, and the light spreads to ever wider spheres and becomes light ever more thickened. Through the descent of the lights from their infinite source all the worlds were emanated and created; our world is but the last and outward shell of the layers of Divine glory. The process of creation is thus something like progressive revelation.
In the system of the Ari, the notion of concentration supplies a greater complexity. In order for a thing other than God to come into being, God must necessarily retreat within Himself. Only afterward does He emit beams of light into the vacuum of limitation and build our world. Moreover, at each stage there is need for both the force of limitation and the force of emanation. Without limitation everything would revert to the Divine, and without emanation nothing would come into being. Nothing that exists can be uniform, everything has this basic Janus character—the limiting force and the emanating force, retreat and propagation. Only the concurrence of the two disparate motifs can produce being.
The concept of limitation seems paradoxical, but it has vitality; it expresses the notion of a living God—a God thought of as a living organism. But let us consider the continuation of this process.
God was revealed in His potencies and His various attributes (justice, mercy, etc., etc.). By these powers through which He willed to effect creation He formed “vessels” destined to serve the manifestation of His own being. (It is a binding rule that whatever wishes to act or manifest itself requires garbs and vessels, for without them it would revert to infinity which has no differentiation and no stages.) The Divine light entered these vessels in order to take forms appropriate to their function in creation, but the vessels could not contain the light and thus were broken. This is the phase which the Cabbalists call the “breaking of the vessels.” And what was the consequence of the shattering of the vessels? The light was dispersed. Much of it returned to its source; some portions, or “sparks,” fell downward and were scattered, some rose upward.
This “breaking” introduces a dramatic aspect into the process of creation, and it can explain the Galut. Henceforth nothing is perfect. The divine light which should have subsisted in specific forms and in places appointed for it from the beginning is no longer in its proper place because the vessels were broken, and thereafter all things went awry. There is nothing that was not damaged by the breaking. Nothing is in the place appointed for it; everything is either below or above, but not where it should be. In other words, all being is in Galut.
And this is not all. Into the deep abyss of the forces of evil, the forces of darkness and impurity which the Cabbalists call “shells” or “offscourings,” there fell, as a result of the breaking of the vessels, forces of holiness, sparks of Divine light. Hence there is a Galut of the Divine itself, of the “sparks of the Shechinah”: “These sparks of holiness are bound in fetters of steel in the depths of the shells, and yearningly aspire to rise to their source but cannot avail to do so until they have support”—so says Rabbi Chaim Vital, a disciple of Luria.
Here we have a cosmic picture of Galut, not the Galut of the people of Israel alone, but the Galut of the Shechinah at the very inception of its being. All that befalls in the world is only an expression of this primal and fundamental Galut. All existence, including, “as it were,” God, subsists in Galut. Such is the state of creation after the breaking of the vessels.
Next comes reparation, the third juncture in the great process: the breaking can be healed. The primal flaw must be mended so that all things can return to their proper place, to their original posture. Man and God are partners in this enterprise. After the original breaking God began the process of reparation, but He left its completion to man. If Adam had not sinned the world would have entered the Messianic state on the first Sabbath after creation, with no historical process whatever. Adam’s sin returned the universe, which had almost been amended, to its former broken state. What happened at the breaking of the vessels happened again. Again the worlds fell. Adam—who at first was a cosmic, spiritual, supernal being, a soul which contained all souls—fell from his station, whereupon the Divine light in his soul was dispersed. Henceforward even the light of the soul would be imprisoned in a dungeon with the sparks of the Shechinah under a single doom. All being was again scattered in Galut. In all the expanse of creation there is imperfection, flaw, Galut.
The Galut of Israel is only the expression—compelling, concrete, and extremely cruel—of this phase of the world before reparation and redemption. The predicament of Israel, then, is not a historical accident but inherent in the world’s being, and it is in Israel’s power to repair the universal flaw. By amending themselves, the Jewish people can also amend the world, in its visible and invisible aspects alike. How can this be done? Through the Torah and the commandments. These are the secret remedies which by their spiritual action move things to their ordained station, free the imprisoned Divine light and raise it to its proper level, liberate the sparks of Shechinah from the domination of the “offscourings,” complete the figure of the Creator to the full measure of His stature, which is now wanting in perfection, “as it were,” because of the Galut of the Shechinah. Through the “discernment” of good and evil, a decisive boundary is fixed between the areas of the holy and the unclean which became mixed up at the original breaking and then again when Adam sinned. Galut, then, is a mission for emendation and clarification. The children of Israel “lift up the sparks” not only from the places trodden by their feet in their Galut, but also, by their deeds, from the cosmos itself.
Every man amends his own soul, and by the process of transmigration that of his neighbor. This is a crucial item in the doctrine of the “selection” of goodness from its exile in the spheres of evil. Belief in transmigration spread as a popular belief only upon the heels of the movement which emanated from Safed from the middle of the 16th century onward. The causes are easy to understand. In the system of the new Cabbalists, transmigration was not an appendage but an inextricable basic element. Transmigration, too, symbolized the state of the unamended world, the confusion of the orders of creation which was consequent upon Adam’s sin. Just as bodies are in Galut, so also there is inward Galut for souls. And “Galut of souls” is transmigration. Isaiah Horovitz, one of the great Cabbalists of this school writes: “In the blessing ‘Sound Thou a great shofar for our liberation’ we pray for the ingathering of the souls scattered to the four corners of the earth in their transmigrations . . . and also in ‘Gather Thou our scattered from amongst the nations’; these apply to the ingathering of the Galut of souls which have been dispersed.” Every living being is subject to the law of transmigration from form to form. There is no being, not even the lowliest, which may not serve as a prison for the sparks of the “banished souls” seeking restoration from their Galut.
In this system, redemption is synonymous with emendation or restoration. After we have fulfilled our duty and the emendation is completed, and all things occupy their appropriate places in the universal scheme, then redemption will come of itself. Redemption merely signifies the perfect state, a flawless and harmonious world in which everything occupies its proper place. Hence the Messianic ideal, the ideal of redemption, receives a totally new aspect. We all work, or are at least expected to work, for the amendment of the world and the “selection” of good and evil. This provides an ideology for the commandments and the life of Halachah—an ideology which connects traditional Judaism with the hidden forces operating in the world at large. A man who observes a commandment is no longer merely observing a commandment: his act has a universal significance, he is amending something.
This conception of redemption is no longer catastrophic: when duty has been fulfilled the son of David, the Messiah, will come of himself, for his appearance at the End of Days is only a symbol for the completion of a process, a testimony that the world has in fact been amended. Thus it becomes possible to avoid the “travails of the Messiah.” The transition from the state of imperfection to the state of perfection (which may still be very difficult) will nevertheless take place without revolution and disaster and great affliction.
Here, for the first time, we have an organic connection between the state of redemption and the state preceding it. Redemption now appears not as the opposite of all that came before, but as the logical consequence of the historical process. We are all involved in one Messianic venture, and we all are called up to do our part.
The Messiah himself will not bring the redemption; rather he symbolizes the advent of redemption, the completion of the task of emendation. It is therefore not surprising that little importance is given to the human personality of the Messiah in Lurianic literature, for these Cabbalists had no special need of a personal Messiah. But like all mystics, they were at once conservatives and radicals. Since tradition spoke of a personal Messiah they accepted him while revolutionizing the content of the traditional idea.
We have, then, a complete array of conceptions in the new Cabbala which show an inner logic. Galut and redemption are not historical manifestations peculiar to Israel, but manifestations of all being, up to and including the mystery of Divinity itself. The Messiah here becomes the entire people of Israel rather than an individual redeemer: the people of Israel as a whole prepares itself to amend the primal flaw. Redemption is a consequence of antecedents and not of revolution, and though the redemption of Israel in the national and secular sense remained a very real ideal, it was widened and deepened by making it the symbol of the redemption of the whole world, the restoration of the universe to the state it was to have attained when the Creator planned its creation.
The new Cabbala had a very important function in restoring to the Jew his sense of responsibility and his dignity. He could now look upon his state, whether in Galut or in the Messianic hope, as the symbol of a profound mystery which reached as high as God, and he could relate the fundamental experiences of his life to all cosmic being and its integration. He saw no contradiction between the nationalist and secular aspect of redemption, and its mystic and universalist aspect. In the conviction of the Cabbalists the former served to adumbrate and symbolize the latter. The anguish of the historical experience of Galut was not blurred by this new interpretation; on the contrary, it may be said to have been emphasized and sharpened. But now there was added a conviction that the secret of Israel’s anguish was rooted in the hidden sources of the vital sustenance of all creation.
1 Cabbala is, of course, Hebrew mysticism, but it should not be thought of as a single system or doctrine; it is rather a religious movement which, in the long span of its development from the 12th century, when it first appeared in southern France, down to our own times, has embraced numerous and diverse systems. It possesses no permanent unity of content, though we may speak of a certain dynamic unity of permanent function, a unity rather in questions posed than in answers given.