Sufism

Sufi ideas found their way into Jewish mystical literature through Bahya Ibn Pakudah and the Kabbalist Isaac of Acre.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

It has been conjectured that Sufism, the Islamic ascetic and mystical movement, was partly influenced by the Jewish Midrashic literature but, in turn, exercised considerable influence on Jewish mystical and ethical literature.

Egyptian Beginnings

There is enough evidence from the Cairo genizah to show that a pietistic movement arose among Egyptian Jews, the members of which called themselves Hasidim, not to be confused with the Hasidim belonging to the Saints of Germany, and these were indebted to Sufism.

Abraham Maimonides, son of the famous philosopher, was an ardent follower of this pietistic movement. Abraham's son, Obadiah Maimonides (1228-65) in his Treatise of the Pool, only recently published from manuscript, provides guidance, in the Sufi spirit, to the wayfarer along the Path to God.

Ibn Pakudah's Influence

But the most marked influence of Sufism on Jewish thought is found in Bahya Ibn Pakudah's Duties of the Heart, where the very title and the ideas behind it belong to Sufism. Bahya gives examples of Hasidim who are not Jews and are probably Sufi saints.

The arrangement of the material in the form of Ten Gates in Bahya's work also owes much to Sufi treatises. Some of the titles of these 'Gates' to piety are the titles used in Sufic works.

In Gate Nine, on the theme of abstinence, Bahya quotes sayings of the Sufis whom he calls Perushim ('Seperatists' or 'Abstainers') in the sense of ascetics, although he takes issue with the extreme asceticism followed by the Sufis.

Through Bahya and the Kabbalist Isaac of Acre, Sufi ideas found their way into Jewish mystical literature. It is always difficult to trace influences on religious thought with exactitude. Nevertheless, it would seem that the ideal of disinterestedness or equanimity, which first appears, among Jewish thinkers in Bahya, has its origin in Sufism, which itself was influenced by Stoicism.

The Hasidic doctrine of annihilation of selfhood also seems to have had its origin in Sufi thought, whence it came through various channels to the latter-day Hasidim. And there are echoes of Sufi thought in the Hasidic idea, developed especially in Habad, that from God's point of view there is no world at all, only God enjoying true existence.

The attacks of the Mitnaggedim on this doctrine, on the grounds that it tends to obliterate the distinctions between good and evil, are virtually the same as the attacks of Islamic Orthodoxy on the Sufis.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.