Isaac Luria

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


My teacher used to expound matters of law, according to their literal meaning, each of the six days of the week. But then he used to expound secret meanings in honour of the Sabbath.
The study of the Torah must have as its primary motivation to attach the soul to its source through the Torah, in order to complete the supernal tree – the
sephiroth – and to complete and perfect the supernal man. . . . If a person has not perfected himself by fulfilling all the 613 commandments in action, speech and thought, he will of necessity he subject to gilgul – reincarnation – and whoever has not studied the Torah according to four levels indicated by p r d s, which is a composite of the initial letters from the four words peshat, the literal, remez, the allegorical, derash, the homiletical, and sod, the mystical, will have his soul returned for reincarnation so that he might fulfil each of them.

Shulhan Arukh JACOB ZEMAH

The year 1492 is remembered as the beginning of the great age of exploration, a falling of the scales from European eyes and a revelation of the civilizations of east and south and the 'new world' across the ocean to the west. The Renaissance blossomed and bore fruit in Italy and began moving northward, but as with every great light, its shadows were dark and deep. The Muslims were pushed out of Spain and the Inquisition flourished. Just as the major civilizations of the Americas would be brutally destroyed in this new epoch, so also the Islamic culture represented by the resplendent Alhambra was eradicated. Jews, who had prospered and risen to positions of power and prominence under Muslim rule, were threatened and persecuted. In 1492 all Jews in Spain were given four months to leave the country or be executed. Conversion, an unacceptable option to most, was equally unacceptable to the Inquisition, which prosecuted Marrano Jews and true converts indiscriminately. The vast exodus resulting from this ruthless policy was called the Exile, and it had its own profound effect on the Mediterranean world. Some of the exiles wandered into central Europe and some to Italy and Greece, but a large number fled to North Africa and the Middle East.

Muslim learning had blazoned forth in southern Spain, where its dynamic Sufi movements provided a background for the resurgence of Kabbalistic teachings. The Zohar had become widely known there, and centres of Kabbalistic study developed recondite philosophical doctrines and sophisticated techniques of meditation, both rooted in the principle that insight is nourished by a purificatory ethical life. Just as the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70 led to the spread of the Kabbalah throughout the Diaspora, so too the Exile of 1492 stimulated new centres of Kabbalistic learning and led to its diffusion through the popular Judaism of Europe. Fez in Morocco became one such centre, where Sufi thought had long found a haven. Egypt and Turkey also furnished places for mystical contemplation, but the chief centre was located in ancient Galilee, the homeland of Jesus, in the city of Safed. Safed was the traditional burial sire of Simeon ben Jochai, the Teacher who had first ordered portions of the Kabbalah to be set down in writing after the destruction of the Second Temple.

Joseph Karo, born in Toledo, was taken by his family to Constantinople during the Exile. A renowned Talmudic scholar and legal thinker, his intense private meditations led him to Safed in 1536. There he became chief rabbi and nurtured a group of younger Kabbalists, teaching methods of meditation and doctrines of immortality and reincarnation that have been compared to Hindu Yoga and Tibetan Buddhist philosophies. Moses Cordovero, whose early life is lost to history, settled in Safed and studied under Karo. By the age of twenty-six, he had composed the Pardes Rimmonim (Orchard of Pomegranates), which delineated thirteen gateways to transcendental states of consciousness. He held that the ceaseless exchange of energies between the Sephiroth provides a key to understanding the human being and his relationship to visible and invisible Nature. As a member of the group known as chaverim – associates – he compiled a list of precepts by which he and his companions sought to live. These principles were Pythagorean in nature and included the vow never to be forced to anger, to avoid overeating, to speak the truth, to accept without fuss both pain and delight, and to review one's thoughts and actions before each meal and before retiring to sleep. Thus, at Safed a mystic vortex formed around the memory of Simeon ben Jochai, illumined by the numinous light of the Zohar, and drawing together those who saw that the end could be found only in the beginning and who sensed in the turbulence of the Exile a symbol of the alienation of each human soul from its transcendent source. Isaac Luria entered this vortex and became its blazing focus both for his own time and for centuries to come.

Isaac Luria, who came to be called Ha-Ari, 'the Lion', after the initials of Ha-Elohi Rabbi Yizhak, 'the divine Rabbi Isaac', was born at Jerusalem in 1534. His father's family were Ashkenazi emigrants from Germany, and his mother belonged to the Sephardi Frances family, perhaps exiles from the Spanish expulsion of 1492. Legend shrouds his early life, suggesting that at seven years of age he went to Egypt with his mother, shortly after the death of his father. He later attested, however, that he had studied the Kabbalah under the Polish Kabbalist Kalonymus in Jerusalem. History verifies that he studied in Egypt under David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra and his successor Bezalel Ashkenazi, both masters of halakha, the orthodox legal system. He gained a sound reputation in the study of the law and in rabbinical literature, and at least one of his halakhic decisions survives into the present. The Cairo Genizah contains documents showing that he was adept at commerce, an activity he continued at Safed, where he settled his accounts just three days before he died. Whilst gaining public recognition as an orthodox participant in the community, he studied the mysteries of the Kabbalah assiduously. Before he moved to Safed he wrote a short treatise on the "Book of Concealment", a critical section of the Zohar, but nothing in that commentary suggests the revolutionary insights he would later communicate to his disciples.

In 1570 Isaac Luria settled with his family in Safed, where he was recognized as an accomplished student and teacher of the Kabbalah, including its rigorous meditative practices. He already understood that the Kabbalah, when applied to states of consciousness, leads to unusual powers and warned his followers to avoid all fascination with ambiguous magical practices by adhering to a disinterested pursuit of spiritual wisdom. He studied under Moses Cordovero briefly just before the latter's death in the fall of 1570. Cordovero had the opportunity to peruse some of Luria's writings before his death, and there was no doubt that, despite the short time he had been in Safed, Luria was Cordovero's successor. Disciples, many of whom had studied under Cordovero, gathered about Luria in an esoteric circle. Whilst his reputation for halakhic wisdom and purity of personal conduct spread as far as Egypt and Europe, he kept his Kabbalistic teachings completely veiled. Building special living quarters for themselves and their families, this intimate group occupied itself with intense study, communal work and individual meditation, all guided by Luria. When he died at the age of thirty-eight in 1572, less than three years after arriving in Safed, he had left an ineradicable mark on the Kabbalah and a strong conviction amongst his followers of his divine inspiration.

Luria, like all true students of perennial wisdom, did not seek to alter or add to the Kabbalah. He took the tradition, especially as it was expounded in the hoary Zohar, as the framework and guide for his profoundly intuitive meditations, and his insight and rational comprehension were solidly grounded in the daily discipline of the ethical life. Like all true learners, he brought a fresh perspective to the sacred subjects he studied. Although the tendency to think of the divine origin of the world in temporal terms as creatio ex nihilo had already affected Jewish thought, Luria understood the first verses of Genesis in their original meaning: "When God (Elohim) began to create heaven and earth, the earth was a formless waste." Creation emerged out of divine activity in and on primordial matter. For Luria, the real question was: whence this primordial matter? If Deity is omnipresent – a merely analogous expression for That which is spaceless and timeless – then where is there room for primordial matter to exist? Rather than imagine chaos abiding in some space outside of Deity, Luria taught that manifest existence had its first ethereal beginning in zimzum, contraction.

Ain-Soph, the Infinite and Limitless, the Unknown and Unknowable Source of all emanations and differentiations, dens absconditus, cannot be linked to the chain of progressive emanations represented in the Sephirothal Tree. It is not first among causes: It is beyond causation and therefore out of all relationship to anything finite. In this sense, there is a gulf between the utterly unmanifest and every form of manifestation. Ain-Soph can emanate nothing; nor is there room for anything besides Ain-Soph. The first activity that marks the beginning of manifest existence is zimzum, contraction, the withdrawal of Deity from a place, "the entry of God into Himself", a limitation of the Divine through concealment. Compared with Infinity, the place of withdrawal is only a point, and this point is tehiru, primordial space. Withdrawal of the Divine left in space a chaotic aroma or residue, reshimu, the hylic dimension of the universe to be. This residuum of Absolute Light is the receptive substratum for the creative and ordering power of emanation that follows contraction and is space itself. Thus, both substratum and potency have their origin in Unknowable Deity. Out of space-embracing Ain-Soph comes a Ray whose focus elicits a response from the reshimu in the form of a primordial vessel which can receive the Ray. Since the Ray comes from all sides, as it were, the refractory vessel is spherical, and since the Ray is an ascending and descending "cosmic measure", known as rahamin (compassion), the universal pulse is reflected in a tenfold vessel, the ten kelim or vessels of the Sephiroth. Taken together, the Sephiroth constitute Adam Kadmon, primordial man, the link between Ain-Soph and the pure space of zimzum. Contraction and expansion, regression and egression, histalkut and hitpashtut, is the rhythm of cosmic evolution and the heartbeat of Adam Kadmon, cosmic Man. Every embodied existence in the universe tends towards the sphere in its form and towards man in his oviform potentialities.

Metaphysically, the root of evil is found in the limitation of the Absolute represented by zimzum. The ontological and atemporal act that permits the existence of individuals is also the source of the impulse to evolve and the need to choose between good and evil. The ethical life – the life of conscious choice – is as primordial and original as existence itself. Nonetheless, other ontological events precede the existence of concrete individuals and practical choices. The Ray that enters reshimu initiates the two activities found in the Pythagorean geometry of the point, the dynamic movement which is geometrically described as iggul ve-yosher, circle and line. The circle is the natural form of divine energy, and the line is the willed activity that seeks to create a unified whole. Rather like a copper coil that remains inert until a bar magnet moves through it, creating an electric current in the coil, the spherical Sephiroth are alive because of the lines that connect them in living relationships. The Tree of Lights is the active aspect of the quiescent concentric spheres of Adam Kadmon. The lines of electric will endow cosmic Man with soul. From the head of Adam Kadmon tremendous lights radiate in complex patterns, the pristine language of the primitive Torah which is the realm of spiritual archetypes. Thus, the Sephiroth, when understood as turned towards their ultimate Source, are each a divine Name.

This initial collection of lights was called olam ha-tohu, the world of chaos, for it represents the original limitation of zimzum without the ordered perfection of the whole Tree, since the linear movement of the Ray had not stabilized the relationship between the Sephiroth. Each light is contained in a vessel of denser luminosity derived from the reshimu. As the divine light of the Ray flowed from Kether, the first sephira, into the subsequent Sephiroth, a cosmic disaster occurred. The upper triad of Sephiroth held the light, but the vessels of the next two triads shattered under its spiritual intensity, and the lowest sephira, Malkhuth, the astral realm, cracked. Some of the spilt light returned at once to its source, but some fell with the vessels, and these vivified material shards became the kelippoth, the vampiric shells and demonic forces of sitra ahra, the region of dark emanations. Whilst this disaster might seem inexplicable, it is the necessary result of the nature of zimzum as limitation. In one sense, the restoration of the Tree of Lights to its perfect form is an inherent part of the process of evolution. The moral and spiritual life of the individual human being is an integral aspect of the divine urge to manifest a microcosm which is the perfect temporal image of transcendent Deity.

The story of emanation and evolution is the story of tikkun, restoration of an intentional order that has never existed in time. Tikkun, the redemption of the world and of every individual within it, is the fulfilment of the original impulse of intelligent will and is thus also essential to the logic of zimzum. The fragmented light that emanated from Adam Kadmon's head must be restored to the harmonious whole that manifests as the universal community of righteous beings. This quintessential light, which in consciousness is spiritual wisdom, is the chief element in all endeavours at restoration. The highest triad of Sephiroth – Kether (the crown and seed of emanations), Hokhmah (pure wisdom) and Binah (abstract intelligence) – is the support for restoration, since it was unaffected by the cosmic disaster. They bind the disfigured lights as the first phase of an alchemical process of transmutation in which the dross of darkness can be removed whilst preserving the entrapped spiritual light. The Tree of Lights manifests in this intermediate form as five physiognomies or "faces" of Adam Kadmon, corresponding to the four worlds, from the archetypal to the material and illusory. The highest and first parzuf or face consists of Kether as Arikh Anpin, the forbearing one, corresponding to the archetypal world Aziluth. The second and third parzufim are Abba and Imma, father and mother, masculine Hokhmah and feminine Binah seen from the standpoint of restoration and corresponding to Beriah, the world of creative potency. From their union came the parzuf Ze'eir Anpin, the impatient one, constituted by the six Sephiroth of the formative world which contains the six powers of Nature in the world of Yetzirah. The lowest sephira, Malkhuth, became the parzuf Nukha de-Ze'eir, the receptive feminine aspect of Nature, corresponding to the material world of Asiah, manifest to the five senses.

The five "faces" constitute Adam Kadmon as the partially restored cosmos which humanity alone can bring to completion. This necessary descent from the pristine Adam Kadmon stabilized the world with an intermediate order and harmony that allows the alchemical efforts at restoration to continue. It is outward restoration; the human being's task is inner restoration. As it stands, each sephira is one place lower than its natural order. This is why Malkhuth, the astral realm, manifests to consciousness as the physical world, an illusion. Tikkun for the human being has two aspects, fulfilment of the commandments and mystical meditation. The pure life can be set out in terms of the six hundred and thirteen commandments or injunctions found in the Torah. (The number is significant, for 6 refers to the powers of nature and 13 is one short of 2 x 7, the number of perfect ascending and descending unity, whilst 6 + 1 + 3 = 10, the Pythagorean number of cosmic completion and perfection.) Each commandment has a literal, allegorical and spiritual meaning. Whilst each human being contains more or less of the supernal light associated with one of the seven hierarchies or roots of light, corresponding to the seven damaged vessels, it is impossible to fulfil all the commandments in an average lifetime. Thus, all human beings are involved in gilgul, reincarnation, in which each soul progresses towards internal tikkun, restoration through gradual perfection, and the gilgulim or reincarnations taken together work towards the restoration of the cosmos.

Prayer is made efficacious through kavvanah, mystical intention, when it is a profound meditation upon the nature of and need for cosmic unity. It is at once the summoning of the forces of restoration, the ascent of the soul towards its divine Source through continual purification and continuity of spiritual consciousness, and the source of magic. Prayer should always be turned within and upward towards the Divine so that it does not become a degraded yet powerful attempt to manipulate the world. Prayer is therefore a spiritual effort to focus the will on wholeness, the afflatus of which will be compassion and benevolence, just as a powerful electrical current circulated in an ascending spiral (combining iggul ve-yosher, circle and line) generates a magnetic field that tends to align around itself entities susceptible to magnetization. In the process of self-transformation, one unites the Sephiroth in their proper and elevated order, contributing to the tikkun of the cosmos, and dissolving the parzufim so that the primordial and pristine Adam Kadmon is manifest in consciousness, pointing towards the ever-unmanifested Ain-Soph. Because meditation based on ethical self-purification is a potent force for universal good, its shadow is equally powerful. Hence the dibbukim, the possessing demons of inversion and black magic, are real so long as the cosmos is not a perfect harmony. Amongst Luria's most secret teachings was the doctrine of ibbur, the teaching that souls far advanced in righteous reincarnation could share experiences in the highest Sephiroth, so that they did not incarnate wholly as individuals but rather overshadowed those who did. This doctrine so challenged ordinary conceptions of individuality, however, that Luria's disciples did not dare to spell it out in its fullness.

Isaac Luria refused to commit his seminal teachings to written form. When his disciples pleaded with him to do so, he replied: "It is impossible because all things are interrelated. I can hardly open my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst its dams and overflowed. How then shall I express what my soul had received, and how can I put it down in a book?" Despite his refusal to give his teachings a public forum, the purity of his character and his compassionate insight became known throughout the centres of mystical study in Egypt, Italy and central Europe. Many of his closest disciples gathered about Hayyim Vital after his death, and Vital wrote down as much of the doctrine as could be reduced to words. Eventually Luria's ideas followed his reputation, and for two centuries they electrified and transformed popular Jewish religion and deeply affected late Renaissance thinkers. Whilst his individual instructions in meditation could not be passed on, since they varied in accordance with the character and temperament of each disciple, the spirit of his inward work for restoration is intimated in an intuitive reading of one of his liturgical prayers, still in use today.

With thy multiple compassion,
Unify my heart,
And the heart of all thy folk
To love and revere thy Name.

And our eyes enlighten
In the light of thy Torah,
For with thee is the source of life:
In thy light shall we see light.