Reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.
The Kabbalah (Hebrew for “handed down by tradition”) made its appearance in the twelfth century in Provence, southern France, which at the time was the scene of the Cathar heresy [one of a number of dualistic religious revivals during the Middle Ages]. It reached maturity, however, in thirteenth-century Spain, with the composition of Sefer ha‑Zohar (“Book of Splendor”). Henceforth, the Kabbalah became the main trend of Jewish mysticism, theosophy and esotericism, comprising many different, at times contradictory, approaches.
Basically, kabbalists wanted to transform Judaism into a more profound inner experience; an experience, so they believed, that could not be attained through a rational and intellectual approach to religion. For them Judaism was a system of mystical symbols reflecting the mystery of God and the universe, and their aim was to discover keys to the understanding of this symbolism.
The Zohar, generally attributed to Moses de Leon, sought to revive a “communion” between the faithful and divinity. The Divine manifests itself in ten Sefirot (emanations) representing an intermediate stage between God and creation. Just as these emanations are contained within the Godhead, so they impregnate all beings outside it. Man is capable, by practicing precise rites, of influencing the Sefirot which determine the span and progress of the world. The theory of Sefirot became the backbone of Spanish kabbalist teachings, represented by a great number of images.
In time, two attitudes emerged: one esoteric, which tried to restrict the secrets of kabbalist wisdom to a small circle of initiates; and a second which insisted that it should be widely‑spread, benefiting everyone. Rabbinical Judaism received the Kabbalah with mixed feelings: some rabbis regarded the kabbalists as brave defenders of tradition, whose insistence on a meticulous observance of the commandments was more than praiseworthy; others saw in them dangerous innovators, whose introduction of non‑Jewish elements must be arrested at all costs.
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