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The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Nine


By Shlomo Phillips © 1989
(most recent update February 23, 2015)

Renewed Jewish Mysticism: Zohar and Kabbalah

The Jews of galut (or exile) manifested remarkable spiritual achievements throughout the Christian era. For instance fifteenth century Jewish mystic Elias del Medigo (Elijah mi-Qandia ben Moshe del Medigo) and his disciple Picus de Mirandula (Giovanni Pico della Mirandola) were quite influential in the development of Jewish Theosophy.

In 1485 the De Substantia Orbis was released (note 6) . These treatises foreshadowed Western knowledge of the great Aramaic Kabbalistic work known as the Zohar (literally, Book of "Splendor" or "Radiance"). The Zohar first appeared in Spain in the 13th century. It was published by a Jewish writer named Moses de Leon but he did not claim to be its author. De Leon ascribed the work to Shimon bar Yochai (aka "Rashbi"), the famed rabbi of the 2nd century. Most Jewish authorities (including Gershom Scholem) accept this version of the Zohar's authorship.

Rashbi lived during the 2nd century CE Roman persecution of Judea. According to Jewish tradition he hid in a cave for thirteen years studying the Torah. Prophet Elijah, who is often said to visit people with messages from HaShem, told him to write the Zohar. Kabbalists generally believe the Zohar and its teachings are part of the concealed Oral Torah and consider it holy writ. No other non-Talmudic writing has achieved such an exalted position as the Zohar (Z 7). These exciting developments marked the return and restoration of the ancient Jewish mystical traditions that had been forgotten by our people.

According to other sources Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Picus de Mirandula) actually authored the Zohar toward the end of the thirteenth century (HK 563). Pico della Mirandola was raised in the Christian Church and chosen as a papal protonotary (or principal clerk of a court, a scribe) at the young age of ten. When he was thirteen his mother unexpectedly died and he backed away from the Church, turning his attention to more mystical topics. The claim of his authorship appears to be another attempt by certain Christians to usurp another Jewish creation. Gershom Scholem and the vast majority of scholars agree that it was Rabbi Moses de Leon, not Pico della Mirandola, who published Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's Book of Splendor. Within Orthodox Judaism this is traditional view and is doubtless the correct one in my opinion.

Kabbalah is a powerful revelation (some would say a restoration of what was revealed at Sinai) for the Jewish people and our spirituality. Many of its practitioners see Kabbalah as the means through which the Jewish people will complete the tikkun olam or reparation of the world. This, they say, will usher in HaMashiach (i.e. the Messiah). Some place great urgency on this noting that the global Redemption may be accomplished in a less desirable way if the Jewish people do not properly arise. I discuss the other option here.

In the early days of this restoration the students of Kabbalah guarded these teachings, carefully preserving their mysteries for those who were worthy and spiritually prepared to enter its mystic depths. For this reason only mature (over 40 years old) and spiritually prepared Jewish men were taught its inner truths. As time past more and more Jews were invited to study and apply Kabbalah and many of the restrictions were ignored. The potential dangers inherent in this knowledge are not generally given the needed emphasis in my opinion.

Non-Jews became increasingly attracted to Kabbalah as well. Many Christians and Occidental Occultists delved deeply into its mysteries. Not knowing Torah and lacking that solid foundation they inevitably altered the teachings to fit their own doctrines. Separating the Kabbalistic 'wheat from the chaff' became ever more difficult and today there are many versions of this knowledge, each claiming to reveal the truth.

Cornelius Agrippa of Nettersheim was a Christian mystic of the fifteenth century. He prepared the first known methodology of Kabbalistic practice. His three books, entitled De Occulta Philosophia are still regarded as standard textbooks on the subject for non-Jews (HK 452). I am not recommending this book, just noting its importance in the field.

The teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov, the Zohar, the birth and development of Kabbalah, the spread and hesitant acceptance of Hasidism and other forms of Jewish mysticism made significant contributions to Jewish thought. These developments however are largely unknown to non-Jews.

The Jewish Kabbalists inadvertently influenced Christianity in fundamental ways. In part as a result of the popularity of Kabbalah many Christians began learning Hebrew and Aramaic and studying the Torah. Becoming more acquainted with Torah some of these Christians left the Church and became Noahides. Many also began seeking to discover the historic and claimed mystical teachings of Y'shua (Jesus) from its doctrines thanks in large to Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. This has led to several sects and cabals. Without rabbinic support and still steeped in essential Church dogma however little real progress was achieved by the Christian mystics.

While these development had a profound impact on Judaism and those left Christianity, their impact on the overall state of the American religious experience was minimal bit noteworthy.

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