Body of Land

In "escstatic" mysticism, the Land of Israel is a metaphor for the human body.

Print this page Print this page

Medieval kabbalah (mysticism) in Spain is generally grouped in two broad categories: The "Gerona Circle" approached kabbalah philosophically, while "ecstatic" or "prophetic"  kabbalah sought a transformative spiritual experience. The following article examines the Land of Israel in the thought of the 13th-century ecstatic kabbalists. Reprinted with permission from The Land of Israel: Jewish Perspectives, edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman (University of Notre Dame Press).

Alongside the theosophical brand of kabbalah, which is mainly con­cerned with the inner processes in the Godhead, there exists another type of Kabbalah, the prophetic, or ecstatic, one. This latter kabbalistic school was interested in techniques of reaching ecstatic experience rather than in influencing the divine powers.

land of israel The focus of discussion in the works of the representatives of prophetic kabbalah is the inner processes taking place within human consciousness. According to the theosophic kabbalah, the Land of Israel becomes symbolic of a supernal manifestation; the prophetic kabbalah perceives it as a metaphor for human status.

Prophecy, In & Out of the Land

According to R. Abraham Abulafia, the outstanding proponent of this brand of kabbalah, the true analogue of the Land of Israel is the human body. Commenting upon the rabbinic dictums which asserts that proph­ecy will not dwell (i.e., occur) outside the Land unless it dwells beforehand within the Land, Abulafia maintains that a simplistic, i.e., merely geo­graphical, understanding of the meaning of "Land of Israel" is untenable. He emphasizes the fact that the first prophecy reported in the Bible oc­curred in Ur Hasdim, when Abraham was told to leave his homeland for the Promised Land. In Abulafia's opinion, the Land of Israel is the body of the righteous man, whereas the term "huts la-aretz"--outside the Land--points to the soul, which is different from the body. Therefore, the geographic meaning of the Land of Israel is irrelevant in the context of the gift of prophecy; the Divine Presence (i.e., the Shekhinah) dwells everywhere, although only in someone who is worthy to receive prophetic inspiration.

The same rabbinic dictum was interpreted by R. Isaac of Acre, an­other outstanding kabbalist who was influenced by the prophetic kabbalah. In his mystical diary, entitled The Treasure of Lift, we read:

"The secret of 'outside the Land' and of 'the Land of Israel' is that… The Land (eretz) does not signify the earth of dust (i.e., the geographic land), but the lump of dust (i.e., the human body) in which souls dwell. 'The Land' is the palace of the souls; it is flesh and blood. The soul that dwells in earth (ba-aretz) which derives from Jacob's seed cer­tainly dwells in the Land of Israel. Even if the soul dwells outside the Land (i.e., geographically), the Shekhinah (the presence of God) will rest upon it since it is definitely in the Land (i.e., earth) of Israel. But the soul which dwells in the Land (i.e., geographically) which does not derive from the seed of Jacob . . . who is Israel, our father, cer­tainly dwells 'outside the land,' even if it is in the Land of Israel, [even] inside Jerusalem. Neither the Shekhinah nor the spirit of prophecy will dwell upon it, since it is certainly 'outside the Land.'"

Wherever a Jew Goes…

Like Abulafia before him, R. Isaac of Acre uses a pun on the word eretz, which means both land and earth; by changing "land," as mentioned in the dictum, into "earth," which is taken to signify the human body, he transfers the focus of the discussion from the geographical-national level to the in­dividual one. The Land of Israel thereby loses its geographical centrality of the theosophical kabbalah, so that its national and, eventually, its mes­sianic role, is neutralized by its transformation into a metaphor of the hu­man body. According to R. Isaac, the Land of Israel exists wherever a Jew goes; in Abulafia's view, the body of any person who is worthy to receive a prophetic inspiration may be considered as a "Land of Israel."

At least from the phenomenological point of view, the views of these two kabbalists may be considered as the precursors of attitudes which flour­ished much later in the Hasidic literature (18th century). Some Hasidic masters considered the place where they established their court as the "Land of Israel," an assertion closely related to their emphasis on the possibility of individual salvation, which (for them) is independent of both the Mes­siah and the actual geographical Land of Israel.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Moshe Idel

Moshe Idel is Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the foremost contemporary experts on kabbalah.