Latter-day Luminary (Continued)

Reading Hegel in German

Born in Warsaw, in 1885, Yehuda Ashlag was fascinated by kabbala from an early age. Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Gottleib, whose hagiography of Rabbi Ashlag, also called "Hasulam," provides invaluable material on his life, recounts that when Ashlag was just seven years old, a book of kabbala fell on his head while he was lying in bed.

"What's this?" he asked his father.

"This book is meant for angels, not people," his father said.

"If it was published," young Yehuda replied, "it must mean that it is meant for everybody."

"But not for you," his father reportedly said.

The younger Ashlag was not convinced by this response. While still a teenager, he would reportedly tear out pages of Rabbi Isaac Luria's "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life") and hide them in the volume of Talmud he was supposed to be studying. Ordained as a rabbi at the age of 19, Ashlag had a reputation as a masterful Talmudist; he was quickly appointed to a teaching post and was also considered an expert at mediating judicial disputes.

In Hasidism and kabbala, Ashlag was a student of the rebbe of Prosov, who belonged to the school of the renowned Kotzker rebbe, and was himself the grandson of one of the great Hasidic masters, "the Holy Jew." But the Prosover rebbe was apparently not his only mentor. In a letter to his uncle, whose contents became known to his family and disciples only after his death, Ashlag describes meeting a mysterious teacher in Warsaw in 1918: The teacher, a well-known merchant whose identity Ashlag does not reveal, instructs him in the secrets of the kabbala during midnight study sessions that continue for three months, disappearing suddenly after his student becomes puffed up with pride. Approximately two months later, Ashlag meets his teacher again - for what proves to be the last time. After revealing a great secret, the mysterious teacher becomes visibly weak and dies the next day. Ashlag, mourning, forgets nearly everything he knows, according to the letter, but eventually, after "infinite longing and yearning, my heart was opened with supernal wisdom like the waters of an ever-increasing wellspring."

Ashlag is said to have studied Torah virtually ceaselessly, yet his curiosity and his uncompromising search for truth also carried him far beyond the confines of the beit midrash. He learned German and read Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx and Nietzche in the original. During the tumultuous years after the end of World War I, Ashlag participated in socialist and communist demonstrations on the streets of Warsaw, and followed world political developments acutely.

In 1921, at the age of 36, Ashlag made a sudden decision to move to the Land of Israel. According to Gottleib, whose source is a conversation that one of Ashlag's students had with his master's wife, Rivka Roize, Ashlag had become convinced that only in the Land of Israel would he be able to find new spiritual challenges; if he remained in Poland, he would literally die, taken by God because his work there was over. His decision to emigrate was so hasty that he was forced to leave several of his children behind with relatives in Warsaw, and to leave his wife, who gave birth during the journey to Palestine, in Czechoslovakia; she rejoined him several months later. Once in Israel, he left the children he had brought in immigrant housing in Jaffa and set out for Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. Like an arrow speeding toward its target, Ashlag headed for the Beit El yeshiva in the Old City, which for hundreds of years had been a center for kabbala learning in the Sephardic tradition, and for the past 200 has followed the teachings of the Yemenite kabbala master Rabbi Shalom Sharabi.

Disappointment in Jerusalem

But Ashlag was bitterly disappointed with the Jerusalem kabbalists. In an account of his meeting with them, reprinted in Gottleib's "Hasulam," Ashlag harshly attacked the Sephardi approach to kabbala as diametrically opposed to his own. Ashlag sought to unlock and express the inner meaning of the kabbala, which he understood as a most powerful vehicle for human transformation. Though several of the Beit El scholars knew the "Zohar" and the Lurianic works by heart, according to Ashlag's testimony, they claimed that it was not humanly possible to grasp the kabbala's meaning, and that not even Luria himself understood the significance of the symbols and processes he described, which came to him as a revelation from Elijah the Prophet. "God forbid" Ashlag recalls their response to his questioning. "There is no `inner meaning' - just words as they are written and handed down to us and no more." By repeating and meditating on these sacred words, whose meaning is totally beyond human comprehension, the Beit El kabbalists hoped to achieve spiritual advancement and eventually bring the Messiah. Ashlag called the Beit El kabbalists "fools" and described being overtaken by a spirit of fiery zealousness after his encounters with them. This spirit awakens him to the task that will occupy him for the rest of his life: "revealing the [kabbalistic] garment to such an extent that it will be known that there is wisdom in Israel."

"For Ashlag," says Prof. Elkayam, "kabbala is not demonological, mystical or magical, but logical; it follows a scientific form of thought. One of Ashlag's innovative claims is that Judaism has a spiritual science: the kabbala." And this spiritual science is aimed most definitely at humanity.

In Lurianic kabbala, the breaking of the "vessels" is described as a cosmic catastrophe that preceded the creation of the world. God attempts to pour his light into the vessels that he has created, but the vessels are too small and rigid to hold the influx. The vessels shatter, and sparks of divine light plummet downward, into the dark realm of the "shells" - the basest part of the material world. The shattering of the vessels, and the entrapment of divine light within the "shells" is what necessitates tikkun - the work of cosmic repair that the soul is enjoined to undertake. Through our consciousness, our intention and our good deeds, we can repair the vessels and uplift the sparks.

"There is this general understanding of kabbala as something mystical, concerned with spiritual worlds and such," says Rabbi Avraham Brandwein, son of Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein and himself a scholar of Ashlagian kabbala. "His approach was the opposite, that everything is practical, is part of this world, the world of action. For example, he interpreted the breaking of the vessels and their repair in terms of human society. Repairing society means ensuring that everybody gets what they need and gives what they are able. All of the injustices and the social gaps are because some people receive more than they need. This destroys them, as well as the whole world. The abundance flowing from heaven is enough. If the distribution was just, everyone could live without worries."

Where much of previous kabbala and Hasidism had emphasized the role of individual acts of intention and piety in uplifting the sparks, Ashlag placed issues of social and economic justice at the very center of the kabbalistic process of tikkun.

Six years after his arrival in Jerusalem, Ashlag published his first works of kabbala - a commentary on key sections of Luria's "Tree of Life," called "Panim Meirot" and "Panim Masbirot" in which he introduces the basic language and concepts he will use throughout the rest of his life in interpreting kabbala. The essence of his innovation, what Dr. Boaz Huss of BGU calls "Ashlag's radical shifting of the center of gravity of what kabbala is about" is in his refocusing of the incredibly complex Lurianic narrative, which tells the story of cosmic creation and redemption as revolving around a single axis: the transformation of humankind from base and self-destructive egoism to an altruism that makes each individual a channel for divine light. Hasidism, from its inception, had emphasized the ethical and downplayed the mythical in interpreting the kabbalistic tradition, as Avi Bernstein, a Bar-Ilan doctoral candidate who is working on Ashlag has pointed out. But Ashlag was the first to show how the inner logic of the Lurianic kabbala, in all its manifold details, could become a vehicle for ethical transformation.

Ashlag's kabbala sharpens the dialectical nature of the process that Luria depicted. God's desire is to bestow pleasure and bliss, which is the essence of his light. But pleasure, whether physical or spiritual, can only be experienced if there is an appetite for it. God thus creates "the will to receive," the vessel made of desire into which his light can be poured. But the will to receive, which is the essential nature of created beings, is the very opposite of the divine will to give. The creation's desire to receive distances it from God, making the absorption of his light impossible. The only solution is for created beings to develop an altruistic desire to give alongside their highly developed desire to receive. This can be accomplished through the study of kabbala, which draws purifying divine light into the mind, through faith, and most of all through praxis: by developing a community based on love between its members and a society founded on economic justice.

`High priest of kabbala'

After his arrival in Jerusalem in 1921, Ashlag spends a year or two trying to live incognito, doing manual labor to support his family during the daylight hours, and studying and writing at night. But it is apparent from the approbations printed at the front of his commentary that by the time his first book was published in 1927, he had been recognized for his genius and piety by some of the most prominent rabbis of his time. Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the spiritual and political leader of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community and the head of its rabbinical court, calls him "that great man, the high priest of kabbala learning."

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, chief rabbi of Palestine, at political odds with the anti-Zionist Sonnenfeld, agrees with him about Ashlag: "a divine wise man, holy treasure." Even Rabbi Shaul Dueck, the recognized leader of Jerusalem's Sephardi kabbalists, contributes his recommendation, calling Ashlag "a divine kabbalist."

And yet these praises don't tell the whole story. Ashlag is restless, his enormous sense of mission guaranteeing that he doesn't fit in anywhere, his radical views instigating opposition. Through Sonnenfeld's intervention, he is appointed rabbi of the Givat Shaul neighborhood in Jerusalem in 1924, but geographically, he is unstable: He was to move seven more times during the course of his life. In 1926 he travels to London, where he spends two years writing and studying. In 1928 he moves back to Givat Shaul, but within four years he moves again - to Tel Aviv. Soon after arriving in Jerusalem, he begins to gather a devoted group of students; as per his instructions, they must make their living through manual labor, and they must brave fields filled with wolves and bandits to reach his home in Givat Shaul at 2 A.M. for their nightly lesson in kabbala. But his group, however dedicated, remains tiny. His openly declared beliefs that kabbala should no longer be considered an esoteric discipline and that even young men should study it, along with his growing conviction that only kabbala can save the world from disaster, and that kabbalistic ideas "should be distributed like a newspaper" - all make him a controversial figure within the ultra-Orthodox world.

And not only there. In 1933, he does try to disseminate his ideas in newspaper form, starting with a pamphlet whose banner reads "Dedicated to the dissemination of original reports about the Jewish soul, religion and the wisdom of kabbala among the avenues of the people." In 1940, he starts another publication: a biweekly newspaper called Ha'uma (The Nation). But his fledgling publication is shut down by the British Mandatory police because Ashlag is accused of promulgating communist views. The Torah's central commandment, Ashlag says in his essays, is "Love thy neighbor as thyself" - and he translates this as a divine demand to create a new world order based on radical economic equality, "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Only in a world freed of imperialism and economic exploitation, he writes, can the Jews and humanity begin to fulfill their spiritual potential.

For Ashlag, the fulfillment of this vision is not something that can suffer delay. Increasingly, the possibility of the imminent founding of the Jewish state seems to him the best opportunity to catalyze the metamorphosis he seeks. The Jews, both because of their divine election and because of their history of suffering, are meant to serve as a kind of avant-garde - creators of an ideal society whose model will quickly spread to others. He begins to seek out opportunities to influence the political and intellectual leaders of the labor Zionist movement.

Prof. Dov Sadan, an editor at the (now-defunct) socialist newspaper Davar, introduces him to Haim Arlosoroff, Chaim Nahman Bialik, Yaakov Hazan and Ben-Gurion, with whom he develops a special rapport. "He asked me numerous times," Ben-Gurion writes in a letter to Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, dated May 1958, "if we would create a communist order here after the State of Israel was founded."

Shaken deeply by the Holocaust, by the development of nuclear weapons and by the brutality of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, Ashlag works with a growing sense of urgency on the task of spreading and interpreting the kabbala. He appears to give up in his attempts to influence the Zionist leadership and to lose hope in the value of political communism imposed from above. What he does propose, astonishingly, is a kind of world religion, based on altruistic social justice, in which every culture would retain its own specific religious traditions while cooperating in uprooting exploitation and poverty. Communism that has no spiritual basis, he writes in a number of mostly unpublished essays during this period, is potentially even more exploitative then the worst of capitalism, because it must use fear to catalyze productivity.

Like Sherlock Holmes

All of Ashlag's enormous mental energies - Rabbi Avraham Brandwein, who was 10 when Ashlag died, recalls him pacing for as much as 10 hours at a time, reflecting on kabbalistic ideas, like Sherlock Holmes trying to crack a case - are channeled into his epic project, the "Hasulam" commentary on the "Zohar."

For a long time Ashlag has been possessed by a sense of divine ordination: His soul had been assigned the task of creating a kabbalistic language for the modern age, an age when "the will to receive" is expanding to the limits of its capacity, making both ultimate redemption and horrific destruction imminent possibilities. In a letter to his father written in 1927, he already expresses the conviction that he has become "impregnated" - a kabbalistic term for a process in which the soul of a tzaddik from a previous generation enters and mingles with a living person, to enable him to perform some great task - by the soul of Rabbi Isaac Luria: "And know with certainty that from the time of Ha'Ari [literally "the Lion," Luria's nickname] until this very day there has been no one who has understood to its roots Ha'Ari's method. And behold, through the will of God, I have been graced by an impregnation of the soul of Ha'Ari, of blessed memory, not because of my good deeds, but through the divine will, for reasons I don't myself understand, and I cannot elaborate on this matter because it is not my way to speak of wonders."

In the "Introduction to the `Zohar,'" printed at the beginning of his "Hasulam," he quietly expresses the same idea: that his magisterial interpretation marks a new era for kabbala, similar to the appearance of the "Zohar" and the works of Luria themselves.

Although he resolutely opposes kabbalistic wonder-working and adamantly argues that human redemption must unfold as part of a natural process, his loyal disciples at times suspect that their master, operating in near obscurity, is actually at the center of unfolding events affecting the Jewish people - and, perhaps, all of humanity.

During the War of Independence, according to Rabbi Avraham Gottleib's "Hasulam," Ashlag sat daily with several of his students in front of a map of Israel, predicting the outcome of battles, "his Hasidim certain that the course of the war is working itself out within their teacher on an inner level."

His grandson, Rabbi Yekhezkel Ashlag told me that he was at Ashlag's side in 1953, at a festive meal at the Herzliya Hotel in Safed, celebrating the completion of "Hasulam": "Suddenly, as my grandfather was singing a slow and soulful melody he had composed, the owner of the hotel, Moshe Perl, exclaimed excitedly, `At this table we just killed Stalin!' We all thought he was crazy, but on the way back from the hotel, we heard on the radio that Stalin was dead."

During the last few years of his life, Ashlag became more confident that a turning point in human history had indeed been reached. He saw the founding of the State of Israel as a sign that redemption had already been bestowed, though in the realm of the spirit there is always a time gap between giving and receiving. And at another celebration, in Meron, he told his disciples that the publication of "Hasulam" was also an indication that we are living in messianic times. In other generations, very few could reach great heights of spiritual knowledge and attachment to God, and even for them not everything could be revealed.

"But in our generation we have been graced with the gift of the `Hasulam' interpretation, which explains fully everything the `Zohar' says in terms of the simple, analytical intellect, so that the average person can understand and this is a clear proof that we are living in the messianic age, the beginning of that generation of whom it was said: `And the earth will be filled with knowledge of God as water covers the seas.'"

New Hasidic dynasties

Why did it take half a century until Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag's teachings began to spread beyond the small circle of his immediate students and their disciples? One answer lies in the fact that his sons chose to situate themselves in Bnei Brak, within the ultra-Orthodox world, each attempting to establish a new Hasidic dynasty, of which both claimed to be the chosen leader.

In 1980, I studied for several months with Ashlag's younger son, Rabbi Shlomo Binyamin, in his beit midrash in Bnei Brak. His students included a group of diehard elderly Hasidim, several brilliant younger disciples, including Rabbi Akiva Orzel, and a ragtag group of ba'alei tshuva (newly observant Jews), who commuted from Tel Aviv for his 5:30 A.M. kabbala lessons. Rav Shlomo Binyamin himself, near 70 at the time and a survivor of a series of heart attacks, was incisive, inspired, tireless and totally devoted to spreading his father's word. He had lost the index finger of one of his hands in a construction accident, a defect he wore with pride; like his father, he believed in the value of manual labor and insisted on taking only public transportation wherever he traveled. Within the confines of Bnei Brak, his radical commitment to spreading kabbala was viewed with suspicion.

But the conservative nature of the ultra-Orthodox world is only a partial explanation. Other Ashlagian disciples, such as Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, the rabbi of the Histadrut, lived and taught in a wider context: Brandwein moved to the Old City of Jerusalem soon after the 1967 war. One of his students, the famous Rabbi Philip Berg, set up the first Kabbala Research Center in the late 1960s, already attempting to appeal to as wide an audience as he could find. Rabbi Levi Krakowski, a student of the elder Ashlag, began publishing books in English on Ashlagian kabbala as early as 1937; the first book, foreshadowing Madonna's interest in the subject, was published in Hollywood. And yet until recently, Ashlag and his kabbala remained obscure.

Prof. Elkayam believes that the new popularity of Ashlag's kabbala is connected to broad cultural shifts in the Western world. "While Hinduism and Buddhism became the ordering powers during the West's spiritual search in the 1960s and `70s," he says, and Sufism was similarly potent in the `80s, in the post-9/11 world, in which the West feels the need to turn to sources closer to home, kabbala has become the organizing force in Western spirituality.

"Ashlag was able to internalize and integrate modern thought within kabbala," says Dr. Boaz Huss of BGU. Marxism, for example, becomes part of a "dialectical ladder" in Ashlag's kabbala leading toward individual enlightenment and communal redemption. "In Ashlag's thought, the entire kabbala is conceived of as a model for human progress" and this is part of what makes it uniquely appealing for modern audiences.

"His concept of altruism," adds Elkayam, "also strikes a chord in the Christian West, which has its own tradition of altruism."

For all its emphasis on repairing society, Dr. Tony Lavie sees the unique attraction of Ashlagian kabbala in the pathway it provides for individual realization. "Ashlag's system," Lavie says, "gives a person tools to catch himself in any given situation and know where he is standing spiritually." The clear, systematic nature of Ashlag's kabbala makes it particularly attractive in an increasingly chaotic world: "It provides a complete conceptual structure for the psyche. Within 10 years," Lavie predicts, "the Ashlagian Torah will spread with great energy not only in Israel, but in the whole world."

For Rabbi Laitman, there is a metaphysical reason for the current upsurge in interest in Ashlag: "The world is reaching the final thickening of the will to receive. Look what is happening in China: Over the last 10 years, 2 billion people have begun to see themselves as consumers, hooked into a seemingly unlimited global economy. There's a huge eruption, all over the world, of the will to receive."

Only an equally deep and widespread revelation of the secrets of the Torah can offset apocalyptic destruction and bring repair. The notion that the very crudeness and selfishness of the modern world is also the vacuum drawing in, legitimating and necessitating the spreading of kabbalistic light, is not unique to Ashlag: Chabad Hasidism, for one, has used this image as well. This idea also seems to have its parallel in Marx's notion that only the cruelty of advanced capitalism itself can create the conditions for world revolution. Ashlag's unique contribution seems to be in his seamless fusion of the spiritual and the economic, the social and the personal, the intellectual study of an abstract system and the most grounded forms of praxis. What remains to be seen is how far his dream of Judaism's esoteric tradition of transforming human consciousness and society can go.