The Occidental Mystic: Jewish Spirituality in Early Medieval Europe

WITH the Ashkenazi Jews of the old Khazar Empire bringing their religious mystique into Europe from the fringes of the Orient, first to Hungary and Poland and then into various other Slavonic countries, the scene was set for a mighty flourishing of Jewish culture and spirituality:

It is clear from the remains that these newcomers were as tolerant of their predecessors of the Jewish religion. The visible consequence was a return from Hellenism and Greek customs to a more authentically Jewish way of life. Tombstones now gave up Greek inscriptions and re-adopted Judaic symbols as a statement of religious identity: the menora (candelabra), the shofar (ram’s horn), the lulav and esrog (palm brance and citron fruit, symbols of Succoth, the Feast of Ingathering).[1]

In what is now modern-day Hungary, Judaism was even adopted by a small number of Huns, although most of these warlike ‘barbarians’ eventually converted to Christianity. The fact that a new religion was appearing throughout Eastern Europe, however, did not prevent Jews from being tolerated by their hosts. In ninth-century Bulgaria, for example, Christian rulers often sought the advice of their Jewish associates on matters pertaining to dietary habits and religious law. Bulgarian lords even used Hebrew names such as Moses, David, Aaron and Samuel. Elsewhere, there was a thriving Jewish quarter in Ukraine and Jews themselves even had a presence in neighbouring Poland prior to the coming of Christianity.

In Western Europe, Ashkenazi Jews appeared in Italy and Gaul as traders and businessmen, not to mention purveyors of the nefarious money-lending that their Sephardic counterparts had first practiced in Babylonia as far back as the fifth century BCE. Sephardic Jews themselves, meanwhile, began arriving in Spain from both Rome and the Holy Land but things were not as cordial as they had been in Eastern Europe. Apart from tombstones and mosaic inscriptions, what we know of the earliest Spanish Jews

can be deduced from the deliberations of the 4th-century Synod of Elvira (Illiberis), some clauses of which tried to regulate the relations between Jews and Christians. Jews, for instance, for forbidden to bless the fields of Christians; a Christian who permitted such a thing was liable to a permanent excommunication.[2]

On the other hand, Jews in Iberia were generally tolerated by their Spanish hosts during the Visigoth rule that lasted from the early-fifth to the early-eighth centuries. The real persecution only began once King Reccared I (559-601), who also ruled Septimania in southern France, renounced the ‘heretical’ Arian creed and became a Catholic in 586. Three years on, the Visigoths began enforcing a series of anti-Jewish laws and these worsened over the course of three decades. By 613, King Sisebut (565-621) gave the Jews an ultimatum: convert to Christianity or leave the country altogether. Those who did actually convert, subsequently known as ‘conversos,’ were nonetheless prevented from holding public office or exerting power over their Christian neighbours.

In 711, when parts of Visigothic Spain and what is now Portugal fell into the clutches of Moorish invaders from North Africa the Jews were thought to have conspired to allow them to gain entry. Whilst there is very little evidence for this, the Sephardim were nonetheless pleased to see the overthrow of their Christian rulers and Jewish culture and spirituality certainly thrived under the Islamic occupation. By the tenth century, Jewish life in Muslim Spain was positively thriving and under the rule of Abd-ar-Rahman III (912-961) and both the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties Moorish-controlled Al-Andalus became a stable hub of Jewish poetry, religious literature and Talmudic scholarship. With a relaxation of the Christian laws which had prohibited usury, Jewish communities in Southern Iberia became extremely prosperous and the region attracted Jews from all over the world.

* * *

Whilst the persistent forces of the Christian Reconquista would not take back the Iberian peninsula from the Muslim invaders until 1491, one of the more prominent Jews in the Early Medieval period was Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204), better known as Maimonides (pictured). A trained physician and one of the great philosophers of the Jewish world, Maimonides is important to the sphere of Jewish mysticism in that he also discussed prophecy and magical practices.

His birth in Córdoba came at a time when High Jewish culture under Muslim rule was at its peak and little did his parents know that Maimonides would take the Jewish renaissance to another level; at least intellectually. As a young student Maimonides studied Torah, philosophy and the sciences, being fortunate enough to study the Greek texts that had arrived with the Moors. He took a particular interest in Islamic law and this shaped his later interest in Jewish ethics. At the same time, one source that was rejected by Maimonides was Isaac Israeli ben Solomon (832-932), an Egyptian-Jewish philosopher and physician who is often regarded as the father of medieval Jewish Neoplatonism. Maimonides later denounced two of Solomon’s most important works: Kitab al-Hudud wal-Rusum and Kitab al-Istikat.

When the house of the Maimonides family was captured by the Almohads, a more fundamentalist Berber dynasty which ordered Jews to convert to Islam, they were forced to wander through southern Spain before seeking exile in the Moroccan city of Fez. It was there that Maimonides produced some of his finest work, including an 1166-1168 commentary on the Mishnah. Formulating a set of thirteen principles, Maimonides summarised the main tenets of Judaic belief thus:

1. The existence of God

2. God’s unity and indivisibility into elements

3. God’s spirituality and incorporeality

4. God’s eternity

5. God alone should be the object of worship

6. Revelation through God’s prophets

7. The pre-eminence of Moses among the prophets

8. That the entire Torah are of Divine origin and

were dictated to Moses by God on Mount Sinai

9. The Torah given by Moses is permanent and will not

be replaced or changed

10. God’s awareness of all human actions and thoughts

11. Reward of good and punishment of evil

12. The coming of the Jewish Messiah

13. The resurrection of the dead.

These principles have since become widely accepted by Orthodox Jews.

In later years, the philosopher would travel to Egypt to help rescue those Jews who had been taken captive during the Christian siege of Bilbays by King Amalric (1136-1174). By organising fund-raising activities in the community, Maimonides managed to acquire enough money to pay the ransom and secure their release.

Although Maimonides is perhaps chiefly remembered for both his religious commentaries and extensive writings on health and medicine, what concerns us here is the way in which his philosophical ideas relate to Jewish spirituality. His three-part letter to Rabbi Joseph ben Judah of Ceuta (1150-1220), later translated from Judeo-Arabic into Hebrew and published as The Guide for the Perplexed, creates a fusion between Aristotelian philosophy and the Hebrew Bible. As Maimonides himself explains:

This work has also a second object in view: It seeks to explain certain obscure figures which occur in the Prophets, and are not distinctly characterized as being figures. Ignorant and superficial readers take them in a literal, not in a figurative sense. Even well informed persons are bewildered if they understand these passages in their literal signification, but they are entirely relieved of their perplexity when we explain the figure, or merely suggest that the terms are figurative. For this reason I have called this book Guide for the Perplexed.[3]

Whilst he had an interest in mysticism, therefore, Maimonides was nonetheless keen to transform the traditional Hebrew religion into a more streamlined philosophical phenomenon and in that sense his efforts were fairly modern for the time. The influence this had on Jewish scholarship was tremendous, particularly in the century that followed his death, and it led to a series of frenetic theological controversies in Spain and southern France. As David Hartman explains, Maimonides developed a

traditional support for a philosophical understanding of God both in the Aggadah of Talmud and in the behaviour of the hasid.[4]

Ironically, and despite the fact that his writings provoked accusations of ‘heresy’ from the Catholic Church, Maimonides also influenced the work of the leading Christian saint and theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Indeed, the great medieval apologist even refers to Maimonides in his 1252 work, Commentary on the Sentences.

More importantly, Maimonides discussed Jewish prophecy and his general approach to metahistorical experiences was to insist that supernatural events should be seen through a decidedly Aristotelian prism. In other words, that the use of logic should always be at the forefront of any authentic discussion. This, he argued, is achieved through study and meditation, as well as through the application of the will. Whereas his Judeo-Spanish predecessor, a mystical poet by the name of Yehuda ha-Levi (1075-1141), had argued that one can only become a prophet if God directly intervenes, Maimonides was convinced that prophecy was in everyone’s capabilities and that it is part of human destiny. Pronouncements such as this caused serious friction between some of the country’s leading Jewish scholars and

Maimonides split the Jewish community of his own day into warring factions, who conducted a savage battle of words, flinging cruel insults and vicious accusations against each other.[5]

Elsewhere, Maimonides discussed Jewish astrology and concluded that to avoid the pitfalls of common superstition we should only trust those things which are revealed to us by the senses and which thus involve a degree of rational proof. He also refused to accept astrology as a science, suggesting that a belief in the stars inevitably makes us slaves of destiny. On the whole, therefore, it is probably fair to conclude that Maimonides was caught between two worlds. On the one hand, he was highly suspicious of the supernatural realm and, on the other, fully prepared to accept that prophecy – and, by default, mysticism itself – was a truly fundamental part of the potential human experience. As one perceptive observer explains, Maimonides

provides an excellent example of how a philosophical spirituality gradually merges into mysticism. It is man’s rational faculty, i.e. his capacity to unite himself to the ‘active intellect’ emanating from God, that makes him the image of God and that leads him to true contemplation of, knowledge of and communion with God. Maimonides identifies this stage of being lovingly united to God – an amor intellectualis dei that is at the same time an emotional experience – with prophecy.[6]

At the same time, Maimonides continued to emphasise the fundamental incorporeality of God and this meant that he made an important distinction between the standard devotion of the everyday worshipper and the mystical annihilation of the self within the Absolute, or ‘great Nothing’.

In 1204, when Maimonides died at Fostat in modern-day Egypt, some of the more fanatical opponents of radical philosophy’s intrusion into spiritual affairs vandalised his grave. Despite this, the seeds had been sown for Western Jewry’s continuing intellectualisation. Not a drift towards philosophy as such, but certainly the transformation of Jewish spirituality into a more cerebral and idealistic entity.

As the century wore on, an important Kabbalistic centre sprang up in the Catalonian city of Gerona and included within its ranks were Judah ben Yakar (d. 1201-1218); Ezra ben Solomon (d. 1238 or 1245); Azriel ben Menahem (1160-1238); Rabbi Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi (d. 1264); Moses ben Nahman (1194-1270), more commonly known as Nachmanides; and Meshullam ben Solomon Da Piera (1200-1299). Later additions to both the Gerona circle and Kabbalistic Spain as a whole included Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla (1248-1305); Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa (1255-1340), also known as Rabbeinu Behaye; Isaac ben Samuel of Acre; and Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet (1326-1408).

One of the most important of these was Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (1240-1291 onwards), who began life in Zaragoza and eventually travelled through Sicily, Greece, Italy and the Middle East. Abulafia, himself a mystic, taught Kabbalah from the perspective that the Hebrew language was sacred and that it can be interpreted – even experienced – supernaturally. Whilst he rejected the ten sefirot, he developed a unique system of bodily postures that transformed the teachings of the Kabbalah into something approaching a Jewish version of yoga. His chief work, on the other hand, was the Sitrei Torah (‘Mysteries of the Torah’) and it deals with the fusion of rationalism and spirituality that one finds in the writings of Maimonides. So much was Abulafia feared by his Christian contemporaries, that when he expressed a wish to meet Pope Nicholas IV (1227-1292) in Rome the authorities condemned him to death and it was only the death of the Pontiff himself that eventually saved his life. Between 1271 and 1291, he produced twenty-six books on prophecy and a number of detailed commentaries on the Sefer Yetzirah, the Pentateuch and the Sefer Maftehot ha-Torah. Discussing prophecy, Abulafia explains that it

is a mode of the intellect (inyan silkhli). It is the expression of the love of the Lord our God, the Lord is One. It is well known that those who love prophecy love God and they are beloved of God. Undoubtedly these are called sages and prophets. Observe and realise that the numerical value of the word “lovers” (‘ohavim) is the same as that of the word”prophecy” (nevu’ah) and by “lovers” I mean beloved “prophets”. This stage of prophecy is itself the worship of God in love.[7]

Abulafia also had a strong interest in messianism and apocalyptic imagery, and it was not insignificant that he finally passed away in the Palestinian town of Safed – itself the hub of a profound Jewish mysticism.

Another of the Spanish mystics was Abraham ben Isaac of Granada and, whilst we know very little about his life, we do know that he produced two important Kabbalistic texts under the titles Sefer ha-Berit and Berit Menuhah, the last of which was later used by Isaac Luria in his own studies, and a third work called Megalle ha-Ta’alumot. Abraham specialised in discussions on the spread of illumination from the Divine Source, matters of good conduct and the nature of priestly ritual. Discussing the seventh pointing of the Tetragrammaton in Berit Menuhah, Abraham says that divine meditation leads to a light flashing in the soul and the experiencing of profound visions.

The fact that Nachmanides, in particular, was the highest-ranking authority on both religious and judicial matters in thirteenth-century Spain, provided this dynamic current of mystics and scholars with a much-needed impetus. On the other hand, its adherents were not always in agreement with the rest of the Jewish community:

The kabbalists were accepted as proponents of a conservative ideology and as public defenders of tradition and custom, but at the same time they were suspected, by a substantial number of rabbis and sages, of having non-Jewish leanings and of being innovators whose activities must be curtailed wherever possible.[8]

These developments would later influence the arrival of the Sefer ha-Zohar, one of the textual mainstays of Kabbalah itself.

* * *

As we have seen in the case of Iberia, the proto-modernist combination of Hebrew tradition and Greek philosophy was part of an overall consolidation of Jewish thought and spirituality. This was also important for the future development of a Jewish mysticism that was now geographically detached from its Middle-Eastern origins.

Maimonides may have been a great thinker, but he was not at all unique in terms of the intellectual pursuits that occupied his mind. Jews in Lithuania, for example, also began familiarising themselves with the study of medicine and astrology, as well as the arts and sciences. In Poland, too, it was possible not merely to obtain Hebrew translations of Greek figures like Aristotle, but of leading Islamic thinkers such as Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) and Al-Ghazali (1058-1111).

As far as Jewish mysticism is concerned, one of the most important developments in its history took place at Provence in south-eastern France. Subjected to waves of Germanic migration between the fifth and ninth centuries – most notably the arrival of the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians and Franks – the region had seen the consolidation of the powerful Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties. Whilst many Jews had been subjected to fierce pogroms during the frantic millenarian fervour that arose with the Crusade of 1096, when the thirteenth century arrived most French Catholics were enjoying a Christian renaissance. As new churches and cathedrals were being constructed amid the vineyards and olive groves of this beautiful Mediterranean district, Jews were laying the foundations for a spiritual revival of their own.

However, the Catholics did not have everything their own way and the fact that southern France was host to the widespread Albigensian ‘heresy’ of the Cathars led to many Jews taking a renewed interest in Gnosticism. According to Gershom Scholem:

Provence in those years was the scene of a powerful religious upheaval in the Christian world, when the Catharist sect gained control of a large part of the Languedoc, where the first centres of Kabbalah were to be found. It is not yet clear to what extent if any there was a new upsurge in Judaism in the circles of the perushim and Hasidim, and the profound upheaval in Christianity which found expression in the Catharist movement. In their ideology there is practically nothing in common between the ideas of the kabbalists and those of the Cathari, except for the theory of transmigration, which kabbalists in fact took from the eastern sources of the ha-Bahir.[9]

Scholem plays down the influence of Gnosticism to a certain extent, possibility because it infers that Jews may have become reacquainted with the religious values of their predecessors by way of their Gentile neighbours, but the two communities certainly had more in common than a shared belief in transmigration. Indeed, whilst most Cathars would be wiped from the face of the earth during the vicious Albigensian Crusade of 1209, prior to that they had access to ancient Gnostic texts. Needless to say, although most of these were lost amid the fires of Catholic fury they would undoubtedly have influenced local Jewish mystics who were aware of the fact that their own Sefer ha-Bahir (‘Book of the Bright’) – said to have reappeared in 1174 – had transformed the Merkabah aspects of the Judaic religion into a decidedly Gnostic tradition.

Maimonides himself considered Provence to be a bastion of Kabbalistic proficiency and one of his Judeo-Spanish colleagues, Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon (1120-1190), an accomplished translator and physician, relocated to southern France to assist this process. Tibbon had at his fingertips a remarkable collection of books, many concerning the Greek Neoplatonism which had so influenced Philo of Alexandria:

Jewish versions of Neoplatonic theories of the Logos and Divine Will, of emanation and of the soul, acted as a powerful stimulus. But philosophical theories concerning the Active Intellect as a cosmic force, association with which could be attained by the prophets and the select few, also penetrated these circles. The close proximity of this theory to mysticism stands out clearly in the history of medieval Islamic and Christian mysticism, and not surprisingly it acts as an important link in the chain which connects many kabbalists with the ideas of Maimonides.[10]

Tibbon’s son, Samuel ben Judah (1150-1230), who had been born in the Languedoc region, was also a doctor and philosopher who translated rabbinic literature from Arabic into Hebrew.

One pivotal character in Judeo-French circles was Rabbi Yitzhak Saggi Nehor (1160-1235), also known as Isaac the Blind. Despite this unfortunate impediment, the renowned scholar produced a body of important work at Narbonne and is acclaimed for developing the idea that the ten sefirot of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life have their origins in a hidden realm called the Ein Sof, or Divine Being. Isaac identified this infinite, concealed domain, as the ultimate source for the emanation of Divine Thought (Makhshava). Being the first of the supernatural qualities, the sifirot are projected into the cosmic womb prior to being responsible for the emergence of material creation at a lower level. Isaac was almost certainly influenced by the Neoplatonic concept that God cannot be related to any form of desire, thought, word or action. These attributes are negated in the sense that Ein means ‘nothing’ and Sof ‘limitation’. An elitist, Isaac sought to dissuade those in his immediate circle from making the esoteric aspects of Kabbalah more well-known.

* * *

Contemporary with the formation of Early Kabbalah that was taking place in Spain and France were figures such as Eleazar of Worms (1176-1238). Thought to have been born in the German town of Mainz, Eleazar was introduced to Kabbalah by the renowned Ashkenazi Hasidim scholar, Rabbi Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg (1150-1217). The leaders of the Hasidim, known as ‘the Pious Ones of Germany,’ had migrated to Germany from northern Italy during the previous century, but whilst their mysticism was similar to that practised by other Jews it was far more unique in a theological regard. Communion with God, they believed, was determined by the Din Shamayim (‘Law of Heaven’) and was achieved through prayer. Harking back to the time of Rabbi Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon (882/892-942), a prominent philosopher from the Geonic period under the Abbasid Caliphate, the Ashkenazi Hasidim agreed with their esteemed predecessor that descriptions of God sitting on a heavenly throne were purely manifestations of God’s glory and not faithful images of God himself. Such visions, they claimed, were blasphemous and merely provided to give the prophets and mystics something to focus upon during their states of ecstasy. More importantly, perhaps, the Hasidim believed that God’s heavenly realm parallels the ten sefirot as they emanate from the Ein Sof in a downward fashion.

One of the chief works of the group is the Sefer Hasidim, a day-to-day account of Hasidic life that was produced by Judah ben Samuel. The text also deals with the concept of a hidden will of God (Ratzon Haborei) that cannot be ascertained from either the Oral or Written Torah, and this must be fulfilled by following the precepts laid down in the Sefer Hasidim itself. This sense of religious duty imbued the Askenazi Hasidim with a profound sense of elitism and, as a result, they became far more fundamentalist than their Judaic counterparts elsewhere. As Nicholas de Lange explains, they

carried to an extreme which is hard to parallel in the Jewish tradition the pursuit of asceticism, ritual, and ethical rigour, and they combined it with a passionate interest in mystical theology, religious symbolism and even magic. In many ways these concerns have more in common with Christian spirituality than with mainstream Judaism, and it has been plausibly argued that they were directly influenced by contemporary Christian ideas and practices.[11]

One notable feature of the community was their refusal to engage in the kind of rapacious Jewish money-lending that saw them expelled from one European country after another, and

the Hasidim emphasized the need to understand one’s fellow men and to show consideration to all, even Gentiles. Thus, for example, they opposed taking high interest from Christians, then the usual practice, and their doctrine contained a bitter social criticism of those leaders who, in their opinion, were not behaving properly and were concerned only with their own status and honour.[12]

It was into this strict and pious environment that Eleazar of Worms had been born.

Although Jews had previously been massacred at Metz during the First Crusade that shook Europe in the final years of the eleventh century, Eleazar’s hopes for a more peaceful future were shattered in 1196 – exactly one century later – when two Crusaders entered his house and murdered his wife and two daughters. Both Eleazar and his son, despite being injured, managed to survive this terrifying experience but it completely transformed his life and he became a most pious and dedicated student of Kabbalah. Not simply a student, of course, because such was his eventual reputation that Eleazar became one of the chief progenitors of Kabbalah itself. His work on Jewish esoterica, for example, was a direct result of his mystical experiences and these were based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the complex numerology of gematria and notarikon found in the Talmud. The flagship in his literary repertoire is the mystical Sefer Raziel, in which an angel speaks to Adam.

Another contemporary was Menahem ben Benjamin Recanati (1223-1290), who lived and worked in central Italy. Although he produced material on the Jewish prayer and the Ten Commandments, his other writings were heavily centred on Kabbalah. These included the Perush ‘Al ha-Torah (1523), which deals with his own mystical visions and celestial revelations in general, and both the Perush ha-Tefillot (1543–1544) and Ta’ame ha-Mizwot (1581), each of which feature an esoteric blend of German and Spanish philosophy.

With the Ashkenazi (Khazar) and Sephardic Jews of the Diaspora determined to prevail in the midst of Western Christendom and Moorish Iberia, therefore, the mystical winds that were blowing from Spain to France and from Germany to Italy were helping to lay the foundations of Early Kabbalah.


1. Kriwaczek, Paul; Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation (Phoenix, 2005), p.45.

2. Beinart, Haim; “The Jews in Spain” in Elie Kedourie (Ed.); The Jewish World: Revelation, Prophecy and History (Thames & Hudson, 1979), p.161.

3. Maimonides, Moses & Friedländer, Michael (Trans.); “Introduction” in The Guide for the Perplexed (George Routledge & Sons, 1919), p.2.

4. Hartman, David; Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976), p.98.

5. Kriwaczek, Paul; Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation, op.cit., p.185.

6. Werblowsky, R.J. Zwi; “Jewish Mysticism” in Elie Kedourie (Ed.); The Jewish World: Revelation, Prophecy and History (Thames & Hudson, 1979), p.220.

7. Jacobs, Louis; Jewish Mystical Testimonies (Schocken, 1987), p.57.

8. Scholem, Gershom; Kabbalah: A Definitive History of the Evolution, Ideas, Leading Figures and Extraordinary Influence of Jewish Mysticism, op.cit., p.50.

9. Ibid., p.45.

10. Ibid., p.44.

11. Lange, Nicholas de; Judaism (Oxford University Press, 1987), p.97.

12. Ibid., p.97.

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