by Micha Odenheimer
Despite his powerful fusion of mysticism and social
ideas, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, who died 50 years ago, barely registered on the
radar screen of collective memory - until a few years ago, when a new wave began
to wash over contemporary Jewish spirituality. Just ask Madonna, Demi Moore, Mick Jagger and the Duchess of York.
One day in Jerusalem
of the early 1950s, Shlomo Shoham, later an Israel Prize-winning author and
criminologist, set out to look for kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag. "It was
Prof. Gershom Scholem who sent me to see him," Shoham told me.
"Scholem disagreed with what he thought Ashlag was doing with kabbala, but
he thought I would find him interesting - a curiosity." Ashlag at that
time was trying to print "Hasulam" (literally, "The
Ladder"), his Hebrew translation and commentary on "The Book of
Zohar," (the ancient, seminal work on Jewish mysticism). Whenever he would
raise a little money, from small donations, he would print parts of his "Hasulam."
"I found him standing in a dilapidated
building, almost a shack, which housed an old printing press. He couldn't
afford to pay a typesetter and was doing the typesetting himself, letter by
letter, standing over the printing press for hours at a time, despite the fact
that he was in his late sixties. Ashlag was clearly a tzaddik (righteous
man) - a humble man, with a radiant face. But he was an absolutely marginal
figure and terribly impoverished. I later heard that he spent so many hours
setting type that the lead used in the printing process damaged his health.
A few years later, on Yom Kippur evening in 1954,
Ashlag passed away, less than two years after the publication of his monumental
"Hasulam" commentary on The "Zohar." Tradition
attributes the latter to the second-century Mishnaic sage, Rabbi Shimon
Bar Yochai, while modern scholars believe it was written or compiled in the
13th century. By all accounts it is the pivotal work of Jewish mysticism, a
canonical opus whose acceptance as sacred is almost as widespread as that of
the Talmud or the Torah itself. Loosely structured as a commentary on the
Bible, The "Zohar" records the teachings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
and his disciples, who wander through second-century Palestine while revealing
the deepest secrets of creation, reincarnation and the redemptive pathways of
the divine light. Written in idiosyncratic Aramaic, The "Zohar" was
poetic, enigmatic, elliptical and at times dreamlike, and meditation on it
formed the basis for much of the kabbala that followed its publication,
including the intricate and authoritative teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the
16th-century Safedian kabbalistic master.
Like his earlier books - commentaries on the
Lurianic kabbala - Ashlag's "Hasulam" articulated a precise,
original and systematic interpretation of Judaism's mystical corpus. Ashlag's
version of kabbala promised individual transformation and even personal
redemption for those who devoted themselves to its study and practice. Called
"Hasulam" because it provided a step-by-step passageway
between heaven and earth, like Jacob's biblical dream ladder, Ashlag believed
that his commentary, by unlocking the secrets of The "Zohar," would
enable adherents to attain successive levels of spiritual illumination
including, for a select few, the transformation of their physical body itself from
a gross material into a vessel for divine light.
Dying in obscurity
But Ashlag himself was even more passionately
committed to the far-reaching social vision that emerged from his understanding
of the kabbalistic tradition. He grasped humanity as a single entity, both
physically and spiritually interdependent, and believed that only an economic
system that recognized this could liberate humankind and catalyze an era of
collective enlightenment. In his diary, Israel's first prime minister,
David Ben-Gurion, describes meeting Ashlag "numerous times," and
being struck by the fact that "while I wanted to talk to him about
kabbala, he wanted to talk to me about socialism and communism."
Yet despite the powerful fusion of mysticism and
social ideas that his work presented, Ashlag remained a fringe figure, his
personality and ideas barely registering on the radar screen of Jewish
collective memory. Too revolutionary for the ultra-Orthodox world of which he
always remained a part, too abstract and universalistic for the
religious-nationalist world which was preoccupied in any event with the thought
of Ashlag's close friend, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Ashlag was also largely
dismissed by academic scholars, who took their cue from Gershom Scholem.
Scholem, the predominant academic scholar of kabbala
until his death in 1982, believed that Ashlag's project was a misguided attempt
to unify Luria's system with The "Zohar." Scholem was a scholar for
whom historical context was a key to interpreting thought: He believed, for
example, that Luria's kabbalistic thinking was in large part a response to the
Jewish exile from Spain.
As a Zionist thinker, Scholem was intoxicated by the power of history to
unleash new spiritual forces. He was thus opposed to what he saw as Ashlag's
effort to harmonize Luria and The "Zohar," though each had emerged
from a different historical period. What Scholem apparently did not understand
was the radical originality of Ashlag's own reading of the tradition, and the
"Hasulam" commentary's success in marshaling both the poetics
of The "Zohar" and the Lurianic processes in support of his new
interpretation of kabbala.
Ashlag's kabbala survived thanks to the efforts of
two of his sons, Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag and Rabbi Shlomo Benyamin Ashlag, and
his disciple and brother-in-law, Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, who served for a
number of years as the chief rabbi of the Histadrut labor federation.
All three devoted their lives to spreading his system, all three founded
yeshivas where Ashlagian kabbala was taught, all three continued to publish and
disseminate his works. And all three disciples, like their master, lived and
died in relative obscurity, scrounging for funds to publish books of Ashlagian
kabbala, and teaching small groups of dedicated students in the wee hours of
Geography of spirituality
And then something changed. Over the last few years,
Ashlagian kabbala has become a force that is increasingly hard to ignore in the
geography of contemporary Jewish spirituality. I first fully realized the scope
of Ashlag's new prominence in the New Delhi
airport this September, when I came across an article in The Hindustan Times
reporting that Madonna, the supreme icon of postmodern stardom, had paid a midnight visit to Ashlag's grave in Jerusalem during her trip to Israel this fall. Madonna is a
student of Rabbi Philip Berg, founder of the Kabbala
Center, which has numerous branches in
Israel, Europe, the United States and South
America. Berg, who was a student of Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, traces
his spiritual lineage to Ashlag, although his opponents argue that Berg has
deviated from his master's path.
They have a point: Ashlag vigorously opposed making
money from the teaching of kabbala, while Berg's Kabbala Centers are managed
like a modern corporation, and have helped him amass a substantial personal
fortune. Ashlag was equally vehement in resisting the popular association of
kabbala with magic. Although Jewish mysticism has from its beginnings included
a magical component - already in the Talmud there are accounts of rabbis using
divine names to create living beings, and the kabbalists' ability to levitate,
travel long distances instantaneously and read thoughts is the common stuff of
Jewish legend - many kabbalists have also condemned magic as an abuse of holy
power for personal gain. Ashlag saw an obsession with the miraculous as a
distraction and impediment to the real challenge: the grueling and constant
effort necessary for spiritual metamorphosis. He consistently refused to engage
in activities such as miraculous healing, blessings or dream interpretation,
which for other kabbalists were part of their daily routine. In contrast,
Berg's Kabbala Centers sell "kabbala water," posters of divine names
and lucky red strings to be worn as bracelets, and also offer courses on
subjects such as "kabbala and success," which harness kabbala's
prestige to the goal of personal prosperity.
Recently, Berg seems to have crossed another line,
further separating him from Ashlag's legacy: the adoption of Christological
symbols - he now calls The Zohar "the Holy Grail" - and rhetoric that
veers uncomfortably close to classic anti-Semitism. In his introduction to the
English translation of The "Zohar" and commentary on "Hasulam"
that was written by his son, Rabbi Michael Berg, the elder Berg cites Jewish
suppression of The "Zohar" as the key cause of worldwide suffering
and of anti-Semitism: "These Jews were and continue to be the underlying
cause of anti-Semitism. If the Holy Grail became widespread, there would be no
further need of intermediaries. The Jews and all mankind would finally achieve
that long sought-after goal of eliminating chaos. The primary factor that
festers anti-Semitism is the denial by the Jew, albeit, the authorities, of the
fruits of the Holy Grail. While this denial originates with the few leaders,
nonetheless the blame of chaos is thrust upon the entire Jewish people,
including the innocent ones."
Radical social vision
Despite his increasingly bizarre divergence from
Ashlag's ideas, there is no doubt that Berg is devoted to one of Ashlag's
primary goals: the dissemination of kabbalistic texts and ideas. Furthermore,
his coterie of celebrities - Madonna, Demi Moore, Mick Jagger and the latest,
Sarah Ferguson the Duchess of York - have raised Ashlag's fame to an
unprecedented level. The Kabbala
Center, though, is not by
any means the only vector through which Ashlagian kabbala is spreading.
Groups studying Ashlag now meet regularly in dozens
of cities and towns across Israel.
In Petah Tikva, a nondescript building in the industrial area comes alive at 3 A.M. as 150 dedicated students
arrive for a daily kabbala class led by Rav Michael Laitman, PhD, a Russian
immigrant who was a close disciple of Rabbi Baruch Ashlag. The building is the
headquarters of the Bnei Baruch group founded by Laitman, and its drab exterior
opens into a sparkling new beit midrash (study hall) lined with hundreds
of copies of Ashlag's books and a broadcasting studio with state-of-the-art
equipment, through which kabbala classes are beamed to an international
audience - consisting of many non-Jews - in Hebrew, Russian, English and
Italian. While they have no exact gauge, Bnei Baruch says that they have
indications that several hundred thousand people worldwide view their internet
broadcasts or visit their extensive Web site on kabbala every month.
About 15 years ago, students of Jerusalem
kabbalist Rabbi Mordechai Sheinberger, a disciple of Brandwein, founded an
Ashlagian commune near Mount
Meron called Or Ganuz,
which combines kabbala study with efforts to realize their master's radical
social vision. For the last several years Or Ganuz has been providing
kabbala instructors to largely secular audiences in various locations
throughout in the Carmel and Galilee.
In Bnei Brak, one of Rabbi Ashlag's grandchildren, Rabbi Yehezkel Ashlag, has
built a yeshiva together with Rabbi Akiva Orzel, a student of Yehezkel Ashlag's
father, Rabbi Shlomo Binyamin. In the ultra-Orthodox community of Telshe Stone
and in the Old City of Jerusalem, there are Ashlag centers that are also active
Suddenly, the academic world has begun to notice
Ashlag as well. Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev
will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death this year by hosting
the first ever-academic conference on Ashlag this December 26. The conference
will bring together top academics in the field of kabbala, such as Prof. Moshe
Idel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with Ashlag disciples, including
Laitman and members of the Ashlag family. The first doctorate on Ashlag's
thought, written by Tony Lavie, was accepted by Bar-Ilan University last year
(Lavie previously published a book of dialogues with the late Prof. Yeshayahu
Leibowitz), and a book of dialogues between Lavie and Rabbi Orzel is
forthcoming this year. Several more doctorates are in the works.
Prof. Avi Elkayam of Bar-Ilan, which is cosponsoring
the conference, sees the awakening of the academic world to Ashlag's importance
as the righting of a historic wrong. "It's clear already," says
Elkayam, "that Scholem was shortsighted in not perceiving Ashlag's
originality. There is a renewed interest in kabbala in the West, and much of it
is based on Ashlag." Elkayam believes that the inner life of the religious
public in Israel
is at a crucial juncture today, and that Ashlag may have a key role to play.
"Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, as interpreted
through the prism of his son's philosophy, created a mysticism of land and
settlement. But with the foundations on which Gush Emunim stands
crumbling, Ashlag can provide an alternative - a kabbala whose focus is not on
settlement, but on individual consciousness, and the mending of society and the
world. Ashlag can provide the basis for a concept of social justice founded on
a spiritual science of kabbala. Of course, we are only at the beginning. We
have to be cautious. It takes a huge effort - four years studying from morning
until night - to really understand Ashlag's kabbala. We - the whole academic
world - are just at the very beginning, still infants, so to speak, in regards
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Rav 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.