Safed, Israel: Mystic Echoes from the Middle Ages

By Pitock, Todd | Midstream, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

Safed, Israel: Mystic Echoes from the Middle Ages


Pitock, Todd, Midstream


The first mystic I ever met was in Jerusalem in the mid-eighties. She was a melange of seemingly conflicting identities: an English subject living in France, a Jew who bathed in the light of Sufism, Islamic mysticism. Her spiritual master, as she called him, had pointed her to Israel to study Cabbalah, her own religion's mystical tradition, and she was en route to Safed, where it had flourished in the 16th century.

My own family was somewhat disengaged from matters of the soul, and at first, when she told me about her master, and how, when she visited the Pyramids in Giza it had taken eight hours to draw vibrations from the stones, I was inclined to dismiss her out-of-hand. But she was so matter of fact, as if she were only telling me about the weather, and she wasn't proselytizing. Nor was she asking for money, and as we walked around Jerusalem, an appropriate place for this sort of encounter, her descriptions of transcendental bliss--I pictured a Chagallesque nimbus rising out of her--were alluring and not a little disorienting. When it gets right down to it, faith is an either/or proposition. If you don't believe, religion is deluded or fraudulent, and devotion is a waste of time. If you do believe, the waste is devotion to anything but.

The next day she caught the bus to Safed, one of Judaism's four holy cities, and I didn't see her again. Then, this spring, 14 years later, I went to that part of the Galilee myself. I wasn't looking for an out-of-body experience. My own attempts at meditation only succeeded in putting me to sleep, and my body, if not my soul, has not responded enthusiastically to the sort of self-abnegation mystics typically relish. (My wife's cousin, who spends part of the year at an ashram in southern India, has often commented on her elevated soul, and in the midst of such evaluations, I sense he is looking at me as a sort of Untouchable.)

Rather, I was intrigued by Safed's medieval history, a period of cruel power struggles and mystifying plagues that left people from Asia to Europe brooding and anxious and certain the world was about to end. A period, in short, not unlike our own, when, whether it's a form of Y2K bug or the Age of Aquarius, spiritualism is once more all the rage, and people who have not otherwise observed a particular religious tradition are trying to satisfy inchoate spiritual longings.

We actually started our trip to Safed in Meron, a hilltop village in the Galilee in northern Israel, where on a warm early summer afternoon, the sun dangles like a big white bulb. A fanning breeze from the valley pulls up dust, and between that and the bright light, you squint like you're trying to see something in the distance. Meron's main attraction is the legendary grave of Shimon Bar Yochai, the 2nd-century rabbi revered for purportedly having plumbed life's deepest mysteries during 13 years he spent in a cave hiding from the Romans. His teachings, say believers, were passed on orally for centuries until they were set down in a 13th century volume, the Zohar, the Cabbalah's main text.

The crypt is covered by a stone building with a modest white dome, and as you step through the blue gates at the entrance, you enter a world of perfect belief. Men and women daven on two sides of the mechitzah, their eyes sometimes focused on an open book, sometimes closed, their prayers either personal or committed to memory. Their lips move; words come out in a firm murmur. Candles flicker, and there's an abundance of well-used religious books and signs with Cabbalistic charts and large Hebrew letters. Velvet curtains and coverings veil the grave site itself.

Not everyone is praying. A few ascetically thin young men make conversation, and one man, with cavernous eyes and a figure as exaggeratedly elongated as in an El Greco painting, surveys the room. In an open space, some women carry trays with pretzels, cookies, and dates, while a corpulent beggar insists loudly on adequate donations. …

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