Medieval kabbalah (mysticism) in Spain is generally grouped in two broad categories: The “Gerona Circle” approached kabbalah philosophically, while “ecstatic kabbalah” sought a transformative spiritual experience. The following article examines the Land of Israel in the thought of the 13th-century Gerona kabbalists. Reprinted with permission from The Land of Israel: Jewish Perspectives, edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman (University of Notre Dame Press).
The conception of the Land of Israel as the center of the world was widespread in talmudic and midrashic literature; nevertheless, a new turn can be detected in kabbalistic comments upon this theme. In a letter written by R. Ezra b. Solomon (died c.1238), one of the kabbalists belonging to the school of Gerona, we read:
“The inner line of the populated world is the Land of Israel, which is called the omphallus (i.e., the navel) of the world and around it there are 70 nations; so also regarding the Glorious Name (shem ha-nikhbad); the inner line and the heart (i.e., the center) are [the source of the] power of Israel… and around it there are 70 names, and all of them depend upon and are sustained by [the efflux] from the center.…
“This is the reason why the inhabitant of the Land of Israel [receives directly] from its [i.e., the Land’s] power and is under its [sphere of] influence and is similar to someone who has a God; whereas whoever dwells abroad actually must resort to [the efflux] he receives from the name which is appointed [i.e., has dominion] over him… But at the time of the resurrection, the souls, even of those who died in the Land of Israel, will return through its area, using the inner path, which ascends to the inner line of the Glorious Name, which is called ‘the bundle of life.'”
Center of Power
It is obvious that we face here a kabbalistjc version of the well-known alchemical statement that asserts, “That which is above is like that which is below, and that which is below is like that which is above.” Thus the Land of Israel corresponds to the center of the creative divine powers. This correspondence is no mere structural paradigm. According to the last statement in the passage, “an inner path” links the two centers by which the souls of the dead return to their bodies. This “path” seems to constitute an ontological nexus and may reflect the influence of the Islamic concept of the straight line that connects two centers and is used by souls in their ascent to their source.
The perception of the Land of Israel qua center remains a mere theory in the words of R. Ezra. He maintains:
“Nowadays the Jews are already released from the obligation [to dwell in] the Land of Israel. Their suffering–out of the love of God–the [vicissitudes of] the dispersion, and their afflictions and subjugation are like an atoning altar for them, as it is written (Psalms 44:23), ‘Yea, for Thy sake are we killed all the day long.'”
This rather non-activist attitude is reflected also in R. Ezra’s Commentary to the Song of Songs, where he asserts that in the Messianic time the people of Israel “will go to the Land of Israel with the permission and help of the gentile Kings.” As R. Ezra explains, “Not by [the power of] their bows and their swords will you inherit the Land, and not by horses or chariots, but by the will of God, who will cause the fall of the nations and will humiliate them before you.”
This passive orientation toward the return of the Jews to their Land contrasts sharply with the extremely activist, even militant, position of R. Ezra’s younger contemporary–the renowned R. Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides). A distinguished kabbalist, he subscribes to the perception of the Land of Israel as corresponding to a supernal divine power and being directly influenced by it. But regarding the practical consequences of this theory, his attitude is diametrically opposed to R. Ezra’s.
Dwelling in the Land of Israel becomes for him not only a religious obligation but the single way to attain perfect Jewish life. The performance of the commandments in the Diaspora is, in Nahmanides’ view, a mere preparation intended to enable their true performance in the Land of Israel. Moreover, the Promised Land being the only proper forum for a full religious life, the Jews must live in their own Land even if this aim can be achieved only by fierce wars with its gentile conquerors. Nahmanides considers this fight as one of the daily religious obligations incumbent upon every Jew and not a matter to be postponed until the Messianic era.
Since R. Ezra and Nahmanides were contemporaries–and possibly also colleagues–the basic differences between their attitudes toward the Land of Israel may be the result of an inner controversy in kabbalistic circles in Catalonia. Since R. Ezra’s views were formulated before the bulk of Nahmanides’ works, the latter’s views are, at least partially, a reaction to R. Ezra’s position.