What is God?
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The Renaissance (Rebirth) was a period of great intellectual and artistic growth in much of Europe. Many historians date its start to the late 14th century though there was no great event to mark its inception. After gestating in a few cities in Italy for about 100 years, things expanded in the late 15th century. Beginning with art in the form of painting, sculpture, and architecture, it captured the attention of the most creative minds of the time. The most famous of these were Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, but they were just two out of a major trend. The crowning achievement that almost defined the spirit of the times was Copernicus’ theory of the heliocentric (sun-centered) universe that shoved the earth from its Biblical and Aristotelian position in the center to the scientific position on the periphery. The stage was set for even more radical breaching of walls. It was the cusp of the Age of Discovery.
The borders of the known world expanded in all directions. The shackles that an antiquated and overly authoritative religion had placed on the human mind were slowly being removed. The invention of the printing press insured that the new ideas being thought up would not be suppressed by opposing forces. By the second half of the 17th century, Galileo and Newton had firmly established science as the final arbiter of all natural matters. It was a new world and there was no looking back.
Surprisingly, none of this made more than a ripple on the Jews. If one looks at Jewish literature of the era from 1400 to 1700, it would be almost impossible to detect that any of this was happening in the wider world. There are a few scattered references to the work of Galileo and Copernicus, but they are usually in opposition. None of the other great names and works are mentioned anywhere. Even the discovery of the New World, something that was an established fact and not a theory, was largely ignored. The prominent exceptions to this are the great Bible commentator Ovadia Sforno, who lived in Italy around 1500 right in the midst of the Renaissance, and Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher who was excommunicated by his community for his heretical writings.
This ignorance is not what one would have expected from the Jewish influence in science during pre-Renaissance centuries. Sefaradi Jews were at the forefront of medical advances. They were also among the leading astronomers of the era. Jews were frequently the mapmakers for the Spanish and Portuguese explorers of the 15th century. If anyone understood the possibilities of discovering new routes and new lands, it was the Jews. Dutch Jews, who were refugees from the Portuguese inquisition, were among the first to exploit the economic potential of the New World, and were among its earliest settlers. By all rights, Jews should have been among the leading lights of the Renaissance. Instead, it passed them by almost unnoticed.
What accounts for this? The best guess is that it was probably a combination of anti-Semitism from outside and an increasingly insular attitude from inside. The Inquisition was raging during the Renaissance in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the New World. Jews were not welcome in most intellectual and artistic circles. With the exception of Holland and Poland, they really weren’t welcome at all. The forced conversions in Spain during the 15th century and the final expulsion in 1492 had a cataclysmic effect on the Jews who experienced it and their descendants. While they managed to find homes in new lands, they were no longer even second-class citizens. They were unwanted foreigners with a repulsive religion and strange ideas.
The Ashkenazi Jews, who for the most part experienced no inquisitions or expulsions, had their own anti-Semitic matters to deal with. They were always treated with suspicion and scorn for both religious and economic reasons. In Poland they thrived, but only by the grace of the local and national authorities who could be overruled or overthrown by a mob or could change their attitude on a whim. Any local priest could foment a pogrom. Jewish populations grew rapidly in Eastern Europe, but this was in spite of their economic and social condition, not because of it.
This blatant antagonism from the people they lived amongst forced the Jews to look inward instead of outward. If their contributions were no longer welcome in secular circles, they would direct their energies exclusively to Jewish studies. Talmudic scholarship thrived in the ghettos of Europe. Especially among the growing communities of Poland, it became the supreme intellectual goal. Secular studies such as philosophy were treated with suspicion and derision. They hadn’t accomplished anything for the Jews so why should they continue to study them?
The substitute was mysticism, which emerged from its battles with philosophy as the unchallenged victor. Kabbalah, as it was increasingly referred to from the Renaissance onward, was the Jewish version of science and philosophy. That it worked almost exclusively on tradition and hidden knowledge instead of on observation and logic, was not a disadvantage at all. On the contrary, this only broadened its appeal. This was secret knowledge that was inaccessible to all but the Jews (this wasn’t entirely true) so it must be the ultimate path to truth. In addition to its esoteric appeal, it also blended in much better with the superstition and spirituality of the Talmud than did philosophy, which was frequently at odds with rabbinic ideas.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the small Galilean town of Tzefat. This little mountain village became the number one refuge for Sefaradi Jews looking for a home after wandering away from Spain and Portugal and other lands. It became a magnet for Talmudic and Kabbalistic scholars, and the place for the combination of the two.
The person who most epitomized this thoroughly Jewish mixture was Rabbi Yosef Karo, a refugee who left Spain in 1492 at the age of 4 and grew up in Turkey. He was the scholar’s scholar – expert in all matters of Talmud and Halacha. His Shulhan Aruch, a complete code of all of the relevant Halacha of his time, has never been replaced as the primary text of Jewish law. But he was also a mystic who fit right into the mystical aura of Tzefat. He spoke regularly with an angelic guide and occasionally incorporated his mystical leanings into his legal rulings. Among other things, he introduced a little known formula for auspicious dream interpretation into Jewish practice. This formula, and the description of God that it uses, will be our first image from this era.
Tzefat was best known as a town of mystics whose lives revolved around comforting the Shechina in its exile, welcoming the Shabbat Queen in the Field of Apples, and exploring the Zohar and revealing its hidden knowledge to the world. Among many, there were two who systemized the massive amount of conflicting and complementary ideas that were floating almost randomly around the Kabbalistic stratosphere. The first of these was Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, who was responsible for the initial phase of systemization. He may have been a native of Tzefat and unquestionably lived most of his life there. He immersed himself in the study of the Zohar at the age of 20. After mastering it in a short time, he set about organizing it into a cohesive and semi-rational system. His major works, Pardes Rimonim (Orchard of Pomegranates) and Or Yakar (Precious Light) go into great detail about this system. Among the main concerns in these books is how the unknowable essence of God becomes known through the emanations known as the Sefirot. The Sefirot will be our second image.
The successor of Rabbi Cordovero, whom tradition has arriving in Tzefat the day of Cordovero’s funeral, was the famous Yitzchak Luria, or the Ari (an acronym of his name combined with lofty titles), as he is better known. There is little doubt that in an informal vote of the most influential Kabbalist, he would win hands down. He refined the earlier system in a way that it is clear he is not replacing it as much as filling in important gaps and making subtle but important changes. Getting the two systems to mesh has been one of the major concerns of subsequent Kabbalah. By and large, mainstream opinion follows the system of the Ari, but since it is much more difficult to access due to the lack of an organized presentation by its originator, the earlier system is still widely used. More than anything, the Ari clarified how the different components of the system work to make things happen in the world. He introduced a crucial element of the transformation that allowed the unknowable essence (the En Sof) to be revealed in some way through the Sefirot. This element goes by the odd-sounding name Tzimtzum, or constriction. We will attempt to perceive a third image through it.
Jewish poetry began with the Bible itself. It reached its Biblical peak with the Psalms. Throughout the second temple period, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmudic era, and the medieval centuries of Spain, Italy, France and Germany, Jewish poetry flourished wherever Jews found the emotional inspiration to express their inner feelings. God was usually the subject, but not always. By the Tzefat period, poetry had encompassed Kabbalistic concepts. Lecha Dodi by Shlomo Alkebetz is probably the most famous example of Jewish poetry exalting a somewhat Kabbalistic idea. Another example that likely came out of Tzefat is the famous poem Yedid Nefesh. It introduces at least two new images of God – the Beloved Friend and the Radiance of the Universe. While these two images do not sound remotely connected, they blend seamlessly into this beautiful poem. This combination is our fourth image.
While it is true that the most innovative developments were happening in Tzefat, Jews were struggling and thriving all over the known world and a little bit in the New World. Dutch Jews, refugees from Spain and Portugal, found immediate success in Holland. Some took their business savvy to the New World to grow sugar and other cash crops. Holland was one of the few places where Jews were welcomed with somewhat open arms. In addition to being highly enlightened politically, it was also a bastion of Renaissance thought.
Among the most innovative thinkers was the Jewish renegade mentioned earlier, Baruch Spinoza. His ideas were way beyond the pale of normative Judaism, so the community leaders had to take the drastic step of excommunicating him. As far as history can tell, he wasn’t the least bit disturbed by this. He went on with his philosophical speculations, eventually encapsulating it all in his groundbreaking and extremely cerebral work, ‘Ethics’. He wrote other works that paralleled Ethics in its radical ideas about God and religion. One of these goes by the unlikely name of ‘Theological-Political Treatise’. He introduces a very non-Biblical and non-rabbinic image of God which would have great influence on the future. This is our fifth and final image from this period.
The Renaissance may have skipped the Jews for the most part, but these two centuries were among the most innovative in Jewish history. Most of the innovation emerged from Tzefat, a town that was steeped in tradition but not tied down by inflexibility. In a sense it was representative of the most important feature of this period – the mixing of traditions and the exchange of ideas through the twin watershed events of the Spanish expulsion and the invention of printing. Tzefat was a place that absorbed many of those exiles, as was Holland. It should come as no surprise that these two places produced the most radical developments in Jewish thought. Both were inundated with new Jewish blood and unencumbered by the weight of custom. Perhaps they, more than anywhere else, represent the Jewish version of the Renaissance.
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