THIS SITE IS NO LONGER SUPPORTED            בית מדרש הוירטואלי עבר דירה
PLEASE FIND US AT OUR NEW TORAT HAR ETZION WEBSITE                                  
     English shiurim @          לשיעורים בעברית @

Shiur #13: Kabbala, Sabbateanism and Chassidism

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

The Vilna Gaon suspected a connection between the Chassidic movement and Sabbateanism, and he expected that the Chassidim would eventually follow in the footsteps of the messianic heretic, Jacob Frank. This explains the Mitnagdim's absolute rejection of Chassidism and the severity of the counter-measures taken against it. What is the background against which fears of this nature grew?


I wish to present the following outline, as basic and brief as it may be, in the hope that it will help us understand the spirit of those times.[1]


The Kabbala and Its Popular Impact


The Kabbala of Safed of the sixteenth century was one of the critical turning points in Jewish thought in modern times. Its importance lies not only in its novel ideas, but also in its broad revolutionary impact, which reached all strata of Jewish society. The world of prayer and custom aligned itself with kabbalistic teachings in countless areas – from the formulation of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, to the recitation of Tikkun Chatzot, to the study of Mishna for the benefit of the souls of the dead. These, however, are the practical components of the kabbalistic approach. The essence of the revolution lay in its language, in the concepts that it introduced and disseminated, and in the worldview which it caused to take root. All this took place, surprisingly, within the context of Orthodox Judaism, which preserved the tradition of Torah and mitzvot.


In the eyes of the Jewish masses, the presence of the Kabbala and its masters marked an inner and spiritual world, which is the foundation and essence of the cosmos. The Kabbala maintained that the building blocks of reality are not chemical elements or physical particles, but rather spiritual ideas and ideals that are systematically arranged and that mutually draw upon and influence each other.


This worldview was also capable of providing an explanation of worldly events, and in particular the turbulent experiences of the Jewish nation. In light of the teachings of Kabbala, the notion penetrated that the historical drama taking place before over very eyes is but the husk of the true epic – the struggle between God and the forces of impurity, which plays out in infinite spiritual worlds that cannot be perceived by the physical senses. The wretched condition of the people of Israel in exile is a direct result and symbol of a fundamental defect in the internal mechanism that drives the world. Would not Jews who are satiated with bitterness be forcefully drawn to this idea which bestows meaning upon their troubles and tribulations? The Spanish inquisition and the Khmelnitsky pogroms could now be seen as necessitated by the reality of a universe that has not yet returned to its primordial perfection.


The conclusion that followed from all of this was that an inner-spiritual perspective was to be applied also to the idea of messianic redemption. From now on yearnings for redemption were to be directed first and foremost to the revival of the inner core of reality and the repair of the very soul of the universe. The long-awaited future change must be revolutionary and absolute, because it will occur in the depths and the heights, which determine the reality of our lives in the real world.


This approach is paradoxical, because the diversion of attention from concrete reality to worlds of the spirit does not render human actions superfluous; but just the opposite. Man becomes a pivotal figure, for who should be in charge of the efforts to bring about the cosmic redemption, if not he? Rabbi Yitzchak Luria taught that despite his physical smallness in the visible world, man enjoys critical power that is rooted in the upper worlds, and his actions affect and determine the course of the battle and the balance of power in the spiritual arena. Man's sins impair the spiritual worlds, increase the power of the Sitra Achra ("Other Side"), and draw out the exile. His good deeds, on the other hand, "repair" those worlds and connect them to God's bounty. One good deed joins another, until the repair of the spiritual dimensions of the cosmos will find physical expression in the coming of a concrete and historical Messiah.


It is easy to see from this how Lurianic Kabbala could have a profound effect on how one understands Torah and the mitzvot. For those who seriously accept the teachings of Kabbala, the mitzvot cease to be merely tasks through which a person demonstrates his subordination to the Creator and his will to worship Him. From now on, their deeper, and perhaps more important meaning is messianic. The purpose of the Torah's commands is mystical repair that will in the end bring about the world's redemption. Consequently, the messianic process itself donned new clothing. Formerly a political process which the persecuted Jewish people had no chance of actualizing on their own, and whose realization depended primarily on the grace of God, Messianism now became a spiritual, mystical process, in which each and every Jew is obligated to take part, and to which he must make his vital contribution.


Sabbateanism: Deepening and Radicalizing Mystical Tendencies


Against this background, Shabbatai Tzvi's appearance in the middle of the seventeenth century (less than a hundred years after the peak of the golden days of Safed) can be seen as a continuation of the spread of Kabbala's popular influence in a stronger and distorted form. The trickling down of kabbalistic Messianism prepared people's hearts to receive Shabbetai Tzvi as an embodiment of the expectations and processes mentioned above.[2] Those hearts were now ready to move on to the experiential stage of the process, the stage that deeply touched anyone who fell under the spell of Shabbetai Tzvi's charismatic character. This false Messiah, who according to the consensus of modern scholars suffered from manic-depression,[3] fascinated the masses in his ecstatic hours with contagious excitement. It would appear that this popular experience was so strong precisely because it drew on moral and ethical foundations. The people saw Kabbala's promises being realized, and it was clear that the people of Israel's tormented devotion was finally achieving its ultimate purpose. The ordinary Jew was granted a sense of certain truth, or, in the words of Gershom Scholem, the experience of "inner freedom, of a pure world." Ordinarily, it is rare to feel that ultimate justice is winning, that all the contortions and darkness of bitter reality are straightening out and becoming illuminated. Such a worldview might be the lot of spiritual giants, righteous men, or kabbalistic masters who are firmly rooted in their faith. Only exceptional historical moments - like the exodus from Egypt – tear open the heavens and allow also an ordinary person to touch a pure vision like this and be carried away with it. Something of this sublimity overcame the masses of Israel during those intoxicating times.


Therefore, when the "Messiah" betrayed his followers and passed over in 1666 to the "Other Side," this wasn't merely another disappointment. Jews who were stricken by their encounter with a false Messiah experienced with his conversion a real emotional abyss. For many it was exceedingly difficult to give up the "pure world" which they had imagined was so close. The proof of this difficulty lies in the fact that Sabbateanism continued not only to survive, but even to maintain its vitality for many years after its leader converted. Tremendous effort was invested in devising some ideological and kabbalistic justification, which provided many with grounds to remain in Shabbetai Tzvi's camp and await his return.


In the eyes of the Mitnagdim, the suspicion of Sabbatean leanings in the Chassidic movement could not have been more natural. Chassidism as well spoke the language of mysticism, and it too disseminated kabbalistic ideas and guidelines among the masses. Chassidism glorified the inner, experiential world, and in that way it related to the same gap and the same need that supported Sabbateanism. From a Chassidic perspective, one could argue that this was the great merit of the new movement: It offered a "kosher" substitute for the yearnings of the disappointed, and thus it was able to save them from delusions and fantasies. But surely the questions persisted: Was it really kosher? And was it not playing with fire?


Flexible “Torah”


The fear of the Mitnagdim can be better understood against the backdrop of certain changes that occurred during this period in the perception of the Torah and the obligations of Halakha.


Despite all of its mechanisms for innovation and adaptation, the Torah is seen as tradition, as a stable anchor, essentially immune to historical changes. However, even before the rise of Sabbateanism, Kabbala sowed the seeds of a new perspective.


            We have already seen that observance of the mitzvot began to be perceived as a means for repairing and redeeming the world. It is clearly evident that if Halakha is subordinate to a goal outside of it, it will be subject to pressure. Halakhic decision-making, which had been based on fixed mechanisms that grew out of the dynamic tradition of Jewish law, collided with another tendency that was growing in strength: Shaping the Torah in such a way that its cosmic influence is optimized, in accordance with kabbalistic knowledge. It is not surprising that over time there was a growth in the phenomenon of Kabbalists disagreeing with Halakhic authorities, based on knowledge and objectives derived from their esoteric lore. A discussion arose in the halakhic literature about how to treat such disputes, and there were those who maintained that preference ought to be shown to the rulings of the Kabbalists. Even among those who did not accept this premise, it was widely believed that existing halakhic disputes could be decided on the basis of kabbalistic considerations.


The Kabbala also caused new halakhic concepts to take root. For example, while many (if not most) of the commandments are obligatory only under certain conditions,[4] and in the absence of those conditions, there is no need to fulfill them, the Kabbalists argued that one must fulfill all the commandments whenever that is possible. Therefore, an ordinary city dweller, who would never consider removing chicks from their mother's nest, and who has no donkey, must try to fulfill the mitzva of sending away the mother bird and to acquire a donkey in order to redeem its firstborn offspring. All of this in order to complete the work of repair that is cast upon man to do.


From now on, because the commandments are meant to bring the redemption, the obvious question arises: What will be their fate when the redemption is realized, or when it is at least in the stages of realization? In view of the expectations for a speedy arrival of the Messiah that were stirred up by the Kabbala, this question was not merely theoretical. The logic of the processes described above almost necessitates that the when the times arrives for "a new heaven and a new earth," the world of Halakha will undergo tectonic changes. The Sabbateans did not recoil from excursions to such uncharted halakhic territory, both when Shabbetai Tzvi himself was active, and even more so after he left the public arena.


Shabbetai Tzvi's messianic journey was accompanied by deviations from accepted religious law, not to mention the activities that were outright sins. The man had the daring to clash with religious conventions, and to back up his grandiose preaching with equally amazing actions, such as pronouncing the Tetragrammaton as it is written (which, according to talmudic law, will only be permitted in the Messianic period), eliminating the fast days enacted to commemorate the destruction, calling women up to the Torah,[5] and most of all – permitting forbidden sexual relations. Sabbatean literature specifically speaks about the Torah as we know it as being only a transitional stage. That Torah is rooted in the kabbalistic world called "Creation" (Beri'a), which is indeed an elevated world, but above it there is an even higher world, "Emanation" (Atzilut). When the Messiah will come, the world will enter a new period, with a different Torah: "the Torah of Emanation."


The Purpose of the Commandments According to Noam Elimelech


The extreme deviations of Shabbetai Tzvi and his movement have been extensively documented and studied, and are a major scholarly preoccupation to this day+. For our purposes, these shocking developments, which demonstrated for the first time that it is at all possible to talk about far-reaching changes in the world of Halakha, cast a long shadow, and exacerbated the fears of the Mitnagdim.


We have already mentioned several aspects of Chassidism which would have reminded its opponents of the catastrophic precedents. Here we will focus on one such aspect. We saw that Sabbateanism was born, in part, out of the idea that the mitzvot are meant to redeem the world. The Mitnagdim could see in Chassidism a parallel idea – that the mitzvot are not an end in themselves. Thus wrote one of the greatest disciples of the Maggid of Mezeritch, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk:


Now the Creator, blessed be He and blessed be His exalted name, who has commanded us about his commandments and commanded us to observe them, does not need the performance of His commandments. Only that it is sweet savor before Him, who spoke and His will was performed. For the essence of the Creator's will is that a person should have a full and perfect desire to do His will. And it turns out that matters follow the intention of the heart; if one intended to do a certain mitzva for God's sake with full and perfect desire, it is immediately considered before Him as if he had already performed it, since his intention was perfect. Nevertheless it is essential that the person do and finish the mitzva in actual practice, for it is impossible for a person to clearly determine his intention that it be perfect and with full desire… until he finishes the mitzva… Indeed, our Rabbis said: If one thought to perform a mitzva and he was barred by circumstances beyond his control, and he did not do it, Scripture ascribes to him as if he had done it. The reason is as we said above that the main thing is the intention of the heart… And conversely, if a person performs a mitzva in actual practice, but his intention is not to do it out of fear or love, it does not go up. (Noam Elimelech, Vayera, on the words: "And he said, Here is the fire and the wood")


Here the importance that the Chassidim attached to inner experience reaches almost explicit formulation: a mitzva act is merely a means to arrive at full religious intention. According to Noam Elimelech, it would fundamentally be possible to forgo the act were we able to ensure and ascertain perfection of intention without it. At the end of the passage, he finds support in the assertion that a mitzva performed without fear and love does not rise upward. This principle is rooted in Tikkunei Zohar (10, p. 25), only that this statement proves only that fear and love are necessary, but not that they are more important that the act itself, and certainly not that fundamentally they can stand without it.


The antinomian potential inherent in such a principle is easy to imagine. For example, laxity concerning the times of prayer in order to ensure that the prayers be recited with the proper intention is based on a similar principle: Inner intention is preferable to exactitude in the proper observance of the times of prayer.


Theolological Innovations


The similarity between Chassidism and Sabbateanism is evident in another aspect as well. In addition to the fluctuations and changes in the practical observance of Judaism, attention should be paid to the changes in the realm of theology. Indeed, the changes in the approach to halakhic conduct, which have been discussed above, depend ultimately on ideological questions; but these usually relate to values, e.g., the relationship between experience and practice, and the like. Here we will discuss a different matter: the relationship to God Himself and His connections to the world. In Sabbateanism we find a unique dynamic view, indicating the possibility of historical development even with regard to this matter. One who listened to the Chassidic thinkers with a suspicious ear could easily enough find in their words statements reminiscent of the daring of the Sabbateans.


What theological development was discussed by the Sabbatean movement? Their argument was that a distinction must be made between two conceptions of God: "the First Cause" as opposed to "the God of Israel." The first is the name of the philosophical concept of God, whose existence is known by way of rational arguments, and to whom we relate and communicate through that same intellectual knowledge. This is an intellectual concept, remote and abstract, which does not invite existential engagement.


The God of Israel, on the other hand, is the Master of the Universe, who directs history and human life, and with whom we maintain a living religious dialogue. Sabbatean ideology claimed that in exile God is recognized as the First Cause, whereas at the time of the future redemption, we will once again experience Him - as in ancient times – as the God of Israel.[6]


It is important to be especially careful about this formulation. For on the face of it there is nothing new about the idea that in the exile the people of Israel experience the "hiding" of God's face, a situation that expresses existential distance between the people of Israel and their God. However, this biblical concept is not related to different definitions, as it were, of the very concept of God. In truth, we already find the following in the words of Chazal:


I am called according to My works… When I judge men, I am called Elohim; and when I wage war against the wicked, I am called Tzeva'ot; and when I suspend judgment for a man's sins, I am called El Shadai; and I when I show mercy to My world, I am called the Lord… (Shemot Rabba 3)


God is called, as it were, by the type of interaction that He is having with the world. But this Midrash deals only with the changes in God's appearance that are liable to occur at any given moment. This is not the same as the Sabbatean claim that there is an overlap between a particular conception of God and an entire historical period – the period of exile as opposed to the end of days. The door was opened here to historical development even in theology. The direction of this development is that the Creator becomes more accessible, closer and more connected, as time goes by and the days of the Messiah become more imminent.


This is exactly the kind of theological innovation that we encounter in Chassidism. It is brought in the name of the Baal Shem Tov in Keter Shem Tov that "there is nothing else (but God)– literally, even among the created beings" (no. 151, Kehat ed.). This is a new explanation of the concept of an immanent God. The Divine presence in the world is so powerful, pervasive and all-encompassing, that visible reality ceases to exist, it becoming entirely nullified by the supernal light. All of physical reality – the rocks, the trees, nature, humanity - is an illusion, because these things are merely expressions of the Divine vitality that is found within them, and that at the same time - paradoxically – nullifies them through the intensity of the sanctity of its light. Such a perspective on the world draws the heavenly presence closer to man. One who seeks God can find him very close, in every physical environment in which the person himself is found.[7]


The Gra was very aware of this Chassidic concept, and also of the fact that this was a theological innovation. In a letter written in 5557 (1797) – twenty-five years after the outbreak of the controversy – the Gra re-confirms the intensity of his opposition (after rumors had circulated that his position had moderated), and criticizes what in his eyes was an alien view:


A generation that has raised its eyes, and spoken words against the most High,[8] This is your God, Israel, in every tree and every stone. And they pervert the verse: Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place (Yechezkel 3:12), and the verse: And you give life to all of them (Nechemya 9:6). Alas the evil shepherds, who have invented a new judgment and a new teaching, which their students that came after them imbibed, and thus the name of God is desecrated by them.


The Chassidic position that the Divine presence is found in every tree and every stone, which the Chassidim based on their interpretation of the verses mentioned here, is compared to the idol worship involving the golden calf (of which the sinners declared "this is your God, Israel"). It is called an invention, a new judgment and a new teaching. This new theology, according to the Gra, was preceded by audacity and arrogance. It is reasonable to assume that the Sabbatean precedent stood before his eyes when he wrote these words.


[1] Our review is based on the studies of Gershom Scholem (primarily, in his book, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism) and Nathan Rotenstreich (Jewish Philosophy in Modern Times).

[2] Some scholars question whether Shabbetai Tzvi should be seen as a continuation of earlier kabbalistic tendencies, since he publicly rejected the Lurianic teachings. We maintain that in any case the spread of Kabbala, with respect to which Rabbi Yitzchak Luria was a key figure, prepared the ground for Shabbetai Tzvi's arrival. For the purpose of understanding the tremedous attraction to him, the fact that Shabbetai Tzvi did not view himself as a disciple of Lurianic Kabbala is insignificant.

[3] The disease is characterized by radical transitions from periods of depression to periods of intense activity, often accompanied by delusions, impaired judgment and the like.

[4] This idea is emphasized by the Rambam in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot, at the end of the positive commandments. It is further expanded upon in the introduction to Sefer ha-Chinukh, where it serves as a key for classification of the mitzvot.

[5] To satisfy the readers' curiosity: Indeed, Shabbetai Tzvi aspired to gender equality. He proclaimed that by virtue of his role as repairer of Adam's sin, women are to be freed from the curse of their subordination. A detailed study of this aspect of Sabbateanism was recently conducted by Ada Rappoport-Albert ("Chalom ve-Shivro," Mechkerei Yerushalayim be-Machshevet Yisrael, vols. 16-17).

[6] For all this, see Rotenstreich (above, note 1), pp. 32-33.

[7] Chassidism did not at first emphasize that this was a novel idea. At a later stage, however, this was explicitly recognized. For a recent example, see Ma'ayanotekha, Tevet 5774, p. 4,

[8] The original wording here, which constitutes an accusation of audacity and arrogance toward God, is taken from Mishlei 9:13 and Daniyel 7:25.