Rabbi Yitzchak Luria ben Shlomo Ashkenazi (1534-1572), also known as the ‘Ari’ or ‘Lion of Safed’, was taught by the influential Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522-1570). Known for instigating a new school of Kabbalistic thinking in Palestine known as Lurianic Kabbalah, Luria himself writes very little, and his work becomes known through its reference in the writings of his pupil Hassyim Vital (1543 -1620). He is credited with several specific Kabbalistic innovations that simultaneously clarify and yet complicate earlier Kabbalistic doctrines. The first is the development of an earlier idea of tzimtzum (contraction). This is the contraction of Ein-Sof – God retracting into himself to make room, a void for creation to exist. Credited with introducing this sense of exile to the heart of Jewish mysticism, Luria envisages the eschatological Beginning and End. Detailing the process of shevirat hakeilim (the shattering of the vessels), he continued with the introduction of the concept of partzufim (faces) and elaborated on the idea of the tikkun (rectification or restoration). The Lurianic Kabbalistic doctrine of tikkun provided a foundation for the Kabbalistic belief that matter and spirit are opposite ends of a continuum. The doctrine of tikkun places exile at the centre of a processional stage in a universal process of ultimate renewal, perfection and redemption.
Moshe Idel disagreed with Gershom Scholem’s assertion that this was a reaction to traumatic historical Jewish expulsions, stating instead that it was a natural progression of pre-existing Kabbalistic principles. Today, this issue of exile, occupation or willing withdrawal from the sacred is more than metaphysics – it is part of contemporary Jewish life, even more so in Israel. In recent years, some Jewish groups have even started to advocate ascending the Temple Mount. Jewish law prohibits ascending the mountain. No Jew can risk walking on the spot where the Holy of Holies once stood. It is only after the Messiah comes that the Temple will be rebuilt. Until then, to trespass there is a grave sin – a self imposed exile from the sacred; a tzimtzum from the Temple. However, a renewed desire for more intimate relationships with the Temple are starting to flourish. Speaking in Jerusalem as part of the CENSUR 2017 Conference, I shared a panel with Dr. Tomer Persico, a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, who presented an engaging paper on this issue of Jews ascending the Temple Mount suggesting that it was indicative of an ongoing Christianisation of contemporary Judaism – the desire for an intimacy with the divine, for the logos to become ‘flesh’, as it were. Indeed, in recent decades, Messianic Judaism, a movement of Jewish people who have accepted Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah and continue to embrace their Jewishness, have steadily been growing with an estimated 15,000 Messianic Jews living in Israel today. Politically, the debate is poised on the issue of the Temple Mount status-quo and Israeli sovereignty. Despite Chief Sephardic Rabbi (Rav) Shlomo Amar’s continued call to believers not to ascend the Temple Mount, hopes for a tikkun of the earthly Temple remain, with the messianic and political consequences clear to everyone in the region.
Many Jews who had been exiled from Spain following the Alhambra Decree in 1492 believed they too were also in the time of trial that would precede the appearance of the Messiah in Galilee. Those who moved to Israel in anticipation of this event during the sixteenth and seventeenth century found a great deal of comfort in Luria’s teachings, due to his theme of exile. A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to visit the town most closely associated with Luria, one of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities – Safed (Tzat) in the Galilee, Northern Isreal. Since the 16th century, Safed has been considered a holy city, along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias; the city has remained a centre of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.
I had the great pleasure of Prof. Boaz Huss, professor of Kabbalah and chair of the Goldstein-Goren Department of Jewish Thought at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, a leading scholar in contemporary Kabbalah, as my guide. In excellent company, and after a long journey from Jerusalem, with some spectacular views of the Sea of Galilee, we arrived and made our way through Safed’s old streets towards the beautiful ancient Red Mosque. Sultan Beibars constructed the Red Mosque (Jama’ael Akhmar) in 1276 after he conquered Safed from the Crusaders in 1266. It is one of the few remaining structures from the area’s past Islamic heritage. In this beautiful setting we were treated to a concert of Kabbalistic music, and in the late evening sun, it was just beautiful. Afterwards, we paid a visit to the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue, built in memory of Rabbi Luria. It dates from the late 16th-century and was constructed a few years after his death. A lyrical Hebrew inscription above the entrance lintel reads: “How awe-inspiring is this place, the synagogue of the Ari of blessed memory.” With a beautifully colourful and ornate Holy Ark, some consider it the oldest synagogue in Israel still in use. It was here that Luria became accustomed to praying in the synagogue on the Eve of Sabbath and then leaving with his disciples to a nearby field (Hakal Tapuchin) to ‘greet’ the Sabbath’s arrival. This practice is said to have influenced the Lekha Dodi, a Hebrew liturgical song recited on Friday at dusk, usually at sundown, in a synagogue to welcome Shabbat. Lekhah Dodi means “come my beloved,” and is a request of a mysterious “beloved” that could mean either God or one’s friend(s) to join together in welcoming Shabbat that is referred to as the ‘bride’ – likrat kallah (“to greet the [Shabbat] bride”). During the singing of the last verse, the entire congregation rises and turns to the west towards the setting sun, to greet “Queen Shabbat” as she arrives.
Leaving the synagogue, we headed down towards the base of the mountain, where lies the famous cemetery of Safed. Many famous Rabbis are buried there, the most famous of these is Luria. As dusk started to fall, I made my own pilgrimage towards the grave of the Ari. Legend states that while in Safed, Luria learned his Kabbalistic insights by studying with the Prophet Elijah in a cave in the synagogue located above the cemetery – today named the ARI Sepharadic Synagogue. Luria is greatly revered by the Hassidim Jews, and every year on the anniversary of his death thousands of Hassidim come to pray at his tomb. With a platform built around it to make it easier for people reach, Luria’s grave is the most notable gravesite in the cemetery.