In the late summer of 1587, Moses Cordovero’s treatise Or Ne’erav (“The Pleasant Light”) was published in Venice. It was a book with several aims. First of all, it was written as a justification for the study of Kabbalah. As well, it contained detailed instructions for beginners on how to commence their Kabbalistic studies. Finally, it constituted an epitome of Cordovero’s great systematic theology of Kabbalah entitled Pardes Rimmonim (“The Pomegranate Orchard”), which as yet remained in manuscript. Taken as a whole, Or Ne’erav was clearly meant to serve as an elementary text for beginners in Kabbalah. It was also obviously intended as a means toward the popularization of a Judaic world-view which, at least at its inception, had been conceived as an esoteric interpretation of Torah, not meant for the ordinary person.
Historians of Judaism have long seen the sixteenth century as a pivotal period in the development of Kabbalah. The position maintained by Gershom Scholem, that prior to the sixteenth century Kabbalah belonged to relatively small groups of masters and their disciples, who had little desire to propagate their ideas among the masses, has recently been challenged. However, Scholem’s emphasis on the centrality for Kabbalah of the sixteenth century, “with its programme of bringing its doctrines home to the community,” retains its essential validity whether or not one also agrees that this program had as its ultimate purpose “preparing [the community] for the coming of the messiah.” In particular, Scholem’s point that the ethical (musar) literature of Judaism prior to the sixteenth century shows little trace of Kabbalistic influence, whereas from the sixteenth century onward such works openly reflect the ethos of Kabbalah, is well taken. The reservations expressed by Moshe Idel on important parts of Scholem’s presentation of sixteenth-century Kabbalah have left this point unchallenged.
Despite this recognition, the details of the change that was brought about in the position of Kabbalah in the sixteenth century among the broad masses of Jews have been relatively ignored by scholarship. This is at least in part because the concentration of most scholars of Kabbalah on what might be called the academic aspects of Kabbalistic thought has led to a situation in which the popularization of Kabbalah in the sixteenth century has been relatively ignored. This book, which offers an annotated English translation of the treatise Or Ne’erav, seeks to shed light on the process by which the Kabbalah was to become the possession of every literate Jew.
The Hebrew term kabbalah refers to a body of knowledge “received” through a chain of transmission believed by rabbinic Jews to extend all the way back to the divine revelation at Sinai. Rabbinic Judaism, the dominant interpretation of Judaism in the medieval and early modern era, assumed as an essential belief that this body of knowledge, called torah (“teaching”), encompassed two divisions — one written, the other oral. The written Torah consisted of the Pentateuch, while the oral Torah contained an authoritative interpretation of the laws and the narrative in the written Torah. Rabbinic Jews further believed that the oral Torah, which had been transmitted in unwritten form from master to disciple for well over a millennium, had begun to be reduced to writing in the form of the Mishnah, which was edited by Rabbi Judah the Patriarch in the second century C.E. The process was continued by the editing of other collections of rabbinic traditions, including the Tosefta, the Gemara in its Palestinian and Babylonian recensions, and numerous collections of midrashim.
The fact that these collections of traditions, designed to be transmitted orally, had been reduced to writing was of concern to rabbinic Jews. Their major conclusion was that the oral traditions had been written down in response to extraordinary circumstances endangering the survival of the oral Torah in its original form of transmission. Maimonides, in the introduction to his code of Judaic law, the Mishneh Torah, states the issue clearly:
Why did our teacher [Rabbi Judah] the Patriarch [write down the Mishnah] and not leave matters as they were? [It was] because he observed that the number of disciples was diminishing, fresh calamities were continually occurring, the wicked kingdom [of Rome] was extending its domain and increasing in power, and Israelites were wandering and emigrating to distant countries. Therefore he composed a work to serve as a handbook for all, the contents of which could be rapidly studied and not be forgotten.
It should not be thought, however, that the process of writing down the oral Torah meant that the oral Torah had ceased to exist. Indeed for most Jews there remained within the realm of Torah room for aspects of the Torah which had not been “published.” These continued to be the exclusive province of oral transmission, or, if written, were written in such a way as to be virtually unintelligible and hence in need of oral reinforcement and explanation. Thus the Mishnah, in tractate Ḥagigah, refers to several aspects of Torah, including the sexual taboos ‘arayot), the Account of Creation, and the Account of the Chariot, which were not to be expounded publicly. The Torah, in other words, still held back certain secrets for oral transmission from master to disciple.
The notion that the Torah still had secrets to reveal became an extremely useful concept when, in the medieval period, Judaism — as well as Islam and Christianity — came into serious intellectual contact with the heritage of the science and philosophy of the ancient Greco-Roman world. For Jews, one of the major shifts which ensued from this contact was the necessity of dealing with the numerous passages in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature which presented God in anthropomorphic terms. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the idea that the anthropomorphic passages in the Bible might be understood literally, while still sincerely believed by many Jews, had become severely problematic for Maimonides and others who took seriously the philosophical proofs for the incorporeality of God. Thus Maimonides equated with atheists, polytheists, and idolaters those who believed in one God but held that God possessed a body and an image.
In order to deal with the implications of the seeming contradictions between the literal sense of the Bible and the findings of science, Maimonides and other medieval Jewish rationalists were compelled to assert that the Torah spoke “in human language” concerning the deity and, therefore, that the words of the Torah, insofar as they indicated things which were “scientifically” impossible — such as attributing human bodily parts or emotions to God — were not to be taken literally but, rather, interpreted metaphorically.
The need to maintain a nonliteral interpretation of the Torah was widely felt among medieval Jewish intellectuals. However, the rationalist interpretations of Maimonides and others were not as widely accepted. In the first place, rationalistic philosophy was a discipline which was demonstrably non-Jewish in origin. Despite attempts to give it a Judaic pedigree, the knowledge that philosophy was a foreign importation doubtless tended to lessen its acceptance. Secondly, and far more importantly, philosophy was hard pressed to explain the difference between the remote God of the philosophers, who had no interest in things that were not eternal, such as human beings, and the Biblical God, who played an active role in humankind’s affairs and most particularly in those of His people, Israel. Furthermore, Jewish philosophers often found it hard to explain satisfactorily the details of the legislation in the Torah. Maimonides’ historical explanations of such things as the prohibition of mingling linen and woolen threads (sha’atnez) may have satisfied some, but doubtless left others wondering whether such formulations did not tend to relativize the Torah’s commandments and potentially threaten the continued observance of Torah law.
In contrast with this, Kabbalah offered its adherents a means whereby the Torah in its entirety could be satisfactorily explained in a nonliteralist manner. The details of the commandments no less than their general principles could be understood by referring to Kabbalistic doctrines. Moreover, care was taken to present the ideas of Kabbalah in such a way as to ensure that they would appear to be entirely intrinsic to the rabbinic tradition. Thus the first major Kabbalistic work, Sefer ha-Bahir, as well as Kabbalah’s major thirteenth-century exposition, the Zohar, presented themselves as Midrashic expositions of the Torah — in other words, as works in a classical genre.
God, in His most fundamental reality, is unknown to man and, in principle, unknowable. The only thing known about God in this fundamental reality is His existence. Kabbalists called the God of this fundamental reality Eyn Sof, meaning “without limit,” or even ‘Ayin (“nothingness”), signifying that from the perspective of mankind, there was “nothing” that one could know about Him.
Eyn Sof initiated a process which the Kabbalists called Aẓilut (“emanation”), which eventuated in a system of ten sefirot. The sefirot, taken as a whole, represented God as experienced by human beings. The following is a somewhat simplified depiction of the process. The first sefirah to be emanated, called Keter (“crown”), marked the transition point between Eyn Sof and the sefirotic system. The next two sefirot, Ḥokhmah (“wisdom”) and Binah (“understanding”), represented a male and a female principle, respectively. Ḥokhmah and Binah, in union, produced the seven other sefirot, Gedulah (“greatness”) or Raḥamim (“mercy”), Gevurah (“might”), Tiferet (“glory”), Neẓaḥ (“triumph”), Hod (“splendor”), Yesod (“foundation”), and Malkhut (“kingdom”). The three upper sefirot, Keter, Ḥokhmah, and Binah, were considered relatively less accessible to the human mind than the lower seven, which were taken to represent the sometimes diametrically opposed qualities attributed to God in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic literature. Thus God the Merciful was seen as represented by the sefirah Gedulah. God’s attribute of stern justice was embodied in the sefirah Gevurah. Tiferet was the synthesis between mercy and justice.