Kabbalistic Revolution: Reimagining Judaism in Medieval Spain

Kabbalistic Revolution: Reimagining Judaism in Medieval Spain

Kabbalistic Revolution: Reimagining Judaism in Medieval Spain

Kabbalistic Revolution: Reimagining Judaism in Medieval Spain


The set of Jewish mystical teachings known as Kabbalah are often imagined as timeless texts, teachings that have been passed down through the millennia. Yet, as this groundbreaking new study shows, Kabbalah flourished in a specific time and place, emerging in response to the social prejudices that Jews faced.

Hartley Lachter, a scholar of religion studies, transports us to medieval Spain, a place where anti-Semitic propaganda was on the rise and Jewish political power was on the wane. Kabbalistic Revolution proposes that, given this context, Kabbalah must be understood as a radically empowering political discourse. While the era's Christian preachers claimed that Jews were blind to the true meaning of scripture and had been abandoned by God, the Kabbalists countered with a doctrine that granted Jews a uniquely privileged relationship with God. Lachter demonstrates how Kabbalah envisioned this increasingly marginalized group at the center of the universe, their mystical practices serving to maintain the harmony of the divine world.

For students of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalistic Revolution provides a new approach to the development of medieval Kabbalah. Yet the book's central questions should appeal to anyone with an interest in the relationships between religious discourses, political struggles, and ethnic pride.


The Jewish esoteric discourse that developed between the late twelfth and late thirteenth centuries known as Kabbalah had a profound influence on the history of Judaism, as well as on the intellectual history of the West. The kabbalistic worldview, which claims a secret oral tradition stemming from the revelation at Sinai that reveals the mysteries of the Godhead and the theurgic impact of Jewish ritual, became a dominant paradigm according to which many Jews conceptualized the meaning of Jewish life. In the last three decades of the thirteenth century, a remarkable and unprecedented proliferation of kabbalistic texts and discourse took place in Spain, especially in the region of Castile. It was during this period that hundreds of texts were composed, ranging from short explications of specific points of kabbalistic doctrine to lengthy compositions that offer systematic treatments of Kabbalah and its interpretation of scripture, rabbinic rituals, and liturgy. Most significantly, it was during this crucial period in Castile that the texts that eventually came to be known as the Sefer ha-Zohar, or “Book of Splendor,” were composed and began to circulate. The aim of these kabbalists was bold and transformative in scope, seeking to reimagine the traditional forms of Jewish life and the circumstances of Jewish historical experience in terms of an esoteric doctrine with a complex and daring theosophy.

According to the kabbalistic tradition, the transcendent divine essence known as ein sof (the endless) or ayyin (the nothing) created the cosmos through a process of emanation in which a series of ten sefirot (luminosities) mediate the continuum of being that connects the physical universe to God. According to this model, the sefirot, which are described with strikingly paradoxical and apophatic language as the ten that are simultaneously one and infinite, channel the divine shefa (overflow) into the world, sustaining the fabric of being and bringing blessing to humanity. Due to the exile of the Jewish people from their land, as well as a history of Jewish violation of covenantal law, the interconnections between the . . .

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