The book 'Safed Spirituality: Rules of Mystical Piety, The Beginning of Wisdom' is a text produced by the Paulist Press for their series on the Classics of Western Spirituality (see the end of this review for more information. The translation of these texts were done by Professor Lawrence Fine, who also wrote the introduction. At the time of its printing, Fine was a professor of religious studies and Jewish studies at Indiana University, and I took a course in Jewish mysticism under his direction.
'The renaissance of Jewish mystical life that took place in the Galilean city of Safed in the sixteenth century is one of the most significant and remarkable chapters in the history of Judaism. The ideas that developed there, the rich literature that was produced, the stunning array of teachers it nurtured, established Safed as one of the great centers of Jewish creativity.' Given this glowing introduction to the place and time, it is remarkable that few people, including few Jewish people, have ever heard of Safed or Safed spirituality. In the preface by Louis Jacobs, the idea of normative Judaism's resistance to things mystical is explored. Certainly in an era where Hasidic Jews are no longer unknown people and Kabbalistic mysticism is made popular by pop stars and New Age spiritualists, to explore the great production of the community of Safed makes sense.
Safed spirituality had no qualms about reinventing the symbols, practices and traditions of Judaism, and in that has an interesting modern sensibility to it. However, the Safed community was careful not to push beyond the boundaries of `orthodox' Judaism, and so remains firmly a part of the greater Jewish communal experience. The Safed community benefited from a convergence of historical events, including the expulsion of Jews from various European kingdoms, most particularly the Spanish explusion of 1492, and from tolerance and trade within the Ottoman Empire at the time. Fine describes the Safed community of the 1500s as having five primary features that constituted innovations in Judaism:
- messianic fervor
- organised brotherhoods
- ascetic behaviour
- ritual innovations
- contemplative practices
Fine has selected two types of literature from the Safed community to present in this text. First, there is the Hanhagot, codes and practices of religious behaviour. Second, there is the Resh-it Hokhmah, which translates as The Beginning of Wisdom, an ethical-mystical text written by Elijah de Vidas.
The Hanhagot are, in effect, practical daily instructions. This is not out of keeping with greater Jewish custom and practice, where writings such as the Talmud are esteemed for their organisation principles and exacting prescriptions for action and behaviour. 'Forsaking speculative, theoretical, and analytical concerns, the Haghanot are usually composed of lists that, in a terse, systematic format, enumerate practical behavioral standards and expectations. In tone they are conspicuously directive and didactic. In this latter respect, the Haghanot are very much like Hebrew ethical wills, letters written by a father to his children before his death, or by a scholar to his community.'
There are six sets of texts presented here, by Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, Abraham ben Mordecai Galante, Abraham ben Eliezer ha-Levi Berukhim, Joseph Karo, and Isaac Luria. These include instructions as well as reflections, hymns and brief biographical statements of each spiritual leader. The instructions range from how to pray, how to observe Sabbath, how to conduct interpersonal relationships, and much more.
Elijah de Vidas' text on The Beginning of Wisdom is deeply steeped in Kabbalistic literature and practice. The entire book is divided into five `gates' each one of which is long and involved, exploring specific points of the mystical journey such as far, love, repentance, holiness and humility. While the Kabbalistic influence is very evident, Elijah de Vidas incorporated much non-kabbalistic literature from the medieval period into this work, as well as drawing on Talmudic and Midrashic texts, including the Bible.
The text included here is a condensation of de Vidas' book. This was done by Jacob Poyetto in 1580, one year after the publication of the original. Poyetto's abridgement contributed greatly to the readability and popularity of the book, and concentrates far more on practical aspects of de Vidas' text.
Fine includes an appendix that includes a description of the Sefirot, a useful glossary of Kabbalistic and Jewish mystical terms, a selected readings list divided by subject area, and a good number of notes from the texts.
This is indeed an interesting text highlighting spirituality from an influential period in Jewish history. It is worthwhile for anyone interested in Jewish history or in mysticism and spirituality generally.
The series of Classics of Western Spirituality is produced by the Paulist Press. With an impressive editorial board comprised of many of the top scholars from around the world, the CWS series includes texts from the most ancient of sources to very recent modern compositions. All texts in this series include significant portions of the original sources, with generous commentary in the form of introductions, notes, and appendices. With new volumes being produced all the time, the CWS series is a great achievement in religious studies and the study of spirituality.