Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Sin, Safed and Lurianic Kabbalah.

Lawrence Fine’s Physician of the Soul Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship is a sociological analysis of Isaac Luria (1534-72), the central figure of sixteenth century Kabbalah, and the circle that surrounded him. Fine is not particularly interested in the theology of Luria per se, that ground having already been thoroughly covered by Gershom Scholem. Instead Fine approaches Luria from the perspective of Luria’s distinct practices. Fine is less interested in Luria theology of exile and redemption than the sort of rituals that Luria and his followers engaged in order to bring about redemption. This sort of prax based approach is important when dealing with the Jewish History. Judaism is a highly prax based religion; everything has to make itself relevant in terms of ritual practice, halacha. Any discussion of Judaism that remains solely in the theoretical realm of theology is missing something. Fine is following Moshe Idel’s criticism of Scholem’ treatment of Kabbalah, as primarily a theology and as something separate from rabbinic Judaism. Fine’s treatment of Luria keeps him within the framework of rabbinic Judaism and of halacha.

What I found most interesting about this book was Fine’s discussion of the penances that Luria proscribed for various sins. Figuring prominently within the list of sins, we have from his student, Hayyim Vital, are drinking gentile wine, committing sins which require one of the four types of capital punishment, sexual relations with a menstruant, relations with an animal, sleeping with gentile women, adultery, sodomy and masturbation. According to Vital, he learned of Luria’s proscribed penance for homosexuality from three people who actually carried it out. Luria’s remedy was that a person should fast for 233 days, which is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word regel, foot. This denotes the part of the Ze’ir that the sin displaced the saphira of Yesod into

The fact that such emphasis was placed on how to repent from sexual transgressions raises some questions as to nature of the people living in Safed in the sixteenth century. If you read Haredi “history” books, all you will hear about sixteenth century Safed is that it was a holy city, full of holy people. In truth Safed was a much more interesting and dynamic place. Clearly the city contained people who had a lot more weighing on their consciousness then missing morning prayers every once in awhile. For one thing many of the people, who migrated to Safed, were ex-conversos, who had lived as Christians for significant parts of their lives. Many of them had left behind non Jewish wives and children. To say nothing of the sins that people committed while living in Safed. Safed was not Lakewood or the Mir; it was an openly dysfunctional place and that was the point of it.

This sinful side of Safed is important for understanding the community and Luria. More than any other movement within traditional Judaism, Lurianic Kabbalah confronted the reality of sin in this world. The goal of Lurianic Kabbalah was to bring about the redemption of the world by redeeming the divine sparks that trapped by the forces of darkness, which in the terminology of Lurianic Kabbalah is referred to as the qelippot, the shells. It is not enough to simply remove oneself from the world and be holy; one has to confront the forces of sin. In effect one tries to redeem even sin. This is not the theology of people convinced of their utter righteousness; this is the theology of people confronting their own sinfulness.

No comments: