Harry Freedman Books

kabbalah


Scandal, Secrecy and the Soul: A History of Kabbalah


Publication: January 2019


Kabbalah was never meant to be fashionable. Its earliest exponents; deeply mystical, other-worldly Jews, studying in closed, secretive groups, in twelfth century Provence would have been amazed, and probably horrified, to hear how far and wide their doctrine has spread and how universal it has become.

The recent interest in Kabbalah emerged out of the hippy movement's fascination with mysticism and meditation in the 1960s. It became particularly popular with the advent of New Age spirituality in the late 20th century, when it was feted as a powerful technique for personal development. This was not Kabbalah as it had been practised in the 12th century. But Kabbalah has always evolved, changed, and bifurcated into different strands. The 20th century was by no means the first time that Kabbalah had broken away from its early, exclusively Jewish confines.

This book tells the story of Kabbalah's origins, its development and spread, up to the present day. Our story begins in the first centuries of the Common Era with a group of Jewish mystics whose curiosity about the nature of heaven inspired them to embark on mystical voyages of discovery to the heavenly palaces.

Subsequent chapters trace the evolution of this mysticism, as it entered Christian Europe and Muslim Spain. It was not yet known as Kabbalah; the name did not emerge until the 12th century shortly before the appearance of the Zohar, its most enigmatic text. Allegedly composed by Shimon bar Yohai, a 2nd century rabbi in the Land of Israel, kabbalists believe that the Zohar lay concealed for over a thousand years until it surfaced in the Castille region of Spain in the 13th century. Historians believe no such thing.

One of Kabbalah's distinguishing features is that its techniques can be applied in many different contexts. Christian Cabala is a case in point. Conceived at the high point of the Renaissance, in Lorenzo de' Medici's Florence, Christian Cabala became allied to magic, alchemy and Hermeticism occult. Kabbalah contributed to the Scientific Revolution and played a central part in the 19th century occult revival.

At the same time as Christian Cabala was beginning to forge new paths, Jewish mystical fraternities in the Northern Israel city of Safed were pushing at classical Kabbalah's boundaries. Their work reached its peak in the thought of Isaac Luria, who developed the doctrine of heavenly exile, a necessary act, essential for the creation of the world.

The approach of modernity did nothing to lessen Kabbalah's appeal to the dreams and fantasies of the masses, nor to diminish its disruptive potential. A messianic crisis rooted in Kabbalah rocked the Jewish world in the seventeenth century. Its repercussions could be felt across Europe, they still reverberate today. A hundred years later Kabbalah was instrumental in creating Hasidism, the most vibrant, yet antimodern of all Jewish religious movements.

Kabbalah became fashionable in the late twentieth century. The Kabbalah Centre, famous in its heyday for its celebrity devotees, developed what has been called Kabbalah-lite, formulating mystical remedies and personal development techniques designed to respond to the stresses and traumas of modern life. Buffeted by accusations of sexual offences and financial misdemeanours, its short history has been rocky. But it has nevertheless won as much praise as condemnation.

Today, Kabbalah exists in many incarnations, and is taught from many perspectives; its story is far from over. I have tried in this book, to provide a flavour of its history