The painted ceiling of the Chodorow synagogue (17th c., reconstruction  of Bet ha-Tefutzot).The Temple of Lwow. Postcard, early 20th c.Maurycy Gottlieb.  Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1878

Roee Goldshmidt : The Kabbalistic Ethics and Jewish-Christian Relations in Galicia

Eastern Europe was one of the largest and most fertile centers of the Jewish world from the sixteenth century until its destruction in the middle of the twentieth century. Absurdly, the Eastern European Jew has become, in modern narratives, a symbol of the persecuted, humiliated and degenerate “Diasporic” Jew. Yet for long periods of time, Eastern Europe was one of the strongest Jewish centers both politically and culturally. This vibrant Jewish center also had a flourishing literary culture. The intellectual life of the Jews of Eastern Europe has mainly been identified with Talmudic and halachic creativity. The legend presented in Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon’s book Elu Va Elu (Heb.), about the Jews who first came to Poland from the West and found the Babylonian Talmud among the tree trunks of the Polish forests, reflects the modern image of the Talmudic culture of Polish-Lithuanian Jewry. Indeed, there is no doubt that Eastern European halachic works and Talmud commentaries are important in their scope and cultural status. However, Jewish culture in Eastern Europe also included a great deal of esoteric literature and a unique stream of kabbalah which has not yet been characterized by historical research. This is in spite of the fact that modern research has shown great interest in two movements that are closely related to kabbalistic literature: Hasidism and Sabbateanism. Yet modern scholars have often been plagued by an Orientalist attitude towards Eastern European Jewry —critical on the one hand and romantic on the other— which led them to focus on certain aspects of kabbalah and the social movements it inspired, while neglecting other aspects.

The proposed project will have two main components, both of which are related to the research methods I have developed in my previous work. These combine methods from several disciplines: the field of the history of the book; literary methods which provide perspectives on orality, on the formal structure of homiletics, on methods of editing and organizing ideas, on rhetoric, and on literary aesthetics; social history; and, of course, the history of ideas.

The first component will focus on creating a foundation of bibliographical information about the spread of kabbalah in Eastern Europe in general, with a special focus on the geographical region of Galicia. This is necessary for the current research project as well as for future studies in this field. As I will specify in what follows, there is still no organized and detailed source of information about the extant manuscripts and printed books in the area of kabbalah which were printed and disseminated in Europe. Many such books were printed several times in Galicia, and clearly influenced the intellectual trends among kabbalists in Galicia on several theological and ethical issues, as I will describe below. In two of my articles I dealt with various aspects of the spread of Lurianic kabbalah in manuscript among rabbinic scholars in Galicia at the end of the 18th century. There is no doubt that the existence of manuscripts of Lurianic kabbalah and their availability up until their first printings in Eastern Europe at the end of the 18th century had a large impact on kabbalistic creativity in Eastern Europe in general. Additionally, in my doctoral dissertation I treated several aspects of the kabbalah in Galicia, especially in the work of R. David Shlomo Eybeschutz, a central figure who served as a halachic decisor, the rabbi of several communities, a superb preacher, and one of the earliest Hasidic leaders. Additionally, the description of the spread of kabbalah through kabbalistic ethical (mussar) literature, homiletics, and anthologies, will help us better understand the role of kabbalah in Eastern Europe and Galicia, especially among larger demographic groups and not only amongst the rabbinic elite.

The second component of this research project will examine several issues related to ethics, and particularly the status of the non-Jewish “other” in kabbalah in Galicia, which is unique and different from that of classical kabbalah. One of the important phenomena which has not yet been seriously discussed in academic research is the spread of “Byzantine kabbalah” in Eastern Europe. Therefore, I initially intend to focus on this very neglected field, that is, the place of the Byzantine kabbalistic literature and its influence on the patterns of thought and kabbalistic creativity in Galicia. Especially, I will explore its influence on concepts of history, time, the “rectification of the world” (tiqun olam), the relation to the “Other,” and more. In my research to this date I have found several exceptional statements originating in Galicia, from different periods, concerning the role of the non-Jew in the kabbalistic tiqun olam. There are connections between these ideas and kabbalistic sources from the Byzantine and Italian contexts, and in the present project I aim to examine this phenomenon broadly. This topic is also a meeting point between the first component of my research, which draws on the history of the book and literary research, and the second component, which emerges from the fields of the history of ideas and social history

1. In the early 1950s, the renowned Kabbalah scholar Prof. Gershom Scholem began collecting materials on the later kabbalah, especially on kabbalah in Eastern Europe, with the generous support of the Bollingen Foundation, which also supported the Eranos conferences. As Prof. Jonathan Meir recently described in a public lecture, this study was supported throughout the early 1970s, yet Scholem’s many bibliographical findings have remained hidden in his archive. With the exception of his article on the kabbalah in Poland, which was published as part of the collection of studies Beit Yisrael be-Polin, we do not have a detailed description of the kabbalah in Eastern Europe as regards its character and trends or its distribution and position in the various strata of Jewish society. Its particular combination of geopolitical context and literary resources created unique interpretations, ideas, and ethical approaches which all deserve attention. The close link between East European Jewry and Italian Jewry, trade relations with the Ottoman Empire, and complex relationships with the non-Jewish populations of Eastern Europe, also created new perspectives on previous kabbalistic literature. The kabbalah in Eastern Europe combined Middle Eastern, Byzantine and Spanish kabbalah with early Ashkenazi Pietistic traditions and, of course, with original ideas. These resulted in novel interpretations of Kabbalistic symbols, a unique cosmic-messianic eschatology and view of humanity’s role in the redemptive process, and the development of diverse ethical and moral teachings.

One example of the link between geopolitical contexts and Eastern European kabbalistic concepts is the role of Christians in the Kabbalistic process of cosmic redemption. In contrast to the kabbalistic tradition that dates back to the Zohar, which views the process of correction as unique to the Jewish people—and hence excludes non-Jews—in Galicia we find a completely different approach, as I show in a forthcoming article and in another context in my dissertation. My first example is from a sermon delivered by R. Israel of Belzec at a mass grave of Jews who were murdered in a pogrom during the Ukrainian revolt of 1649. The sermon describes a spiritual partnership between the Jews and their Christian neighbors. Given the traumatic context in which the sermon was delivered, this is truly astonishing. The second example is from the beginning of the 19th century; R. David Shlomo Eibeshitz, an important Halakhic decisor from the Hasidic circles, described the role of the (Gentile) “Sons of Noah” as participants in the kabbalistic “fixing” of the cosmos through acts of kindness and fair behavior. In these two examples, the local context, in which Jews and non-Jews inhabited the same spaces, is key to understanding the development of these unique kabbalistic approaches to the Other.

Another related issue is the activity of Christian kabbalists in Eastern Europe, beginning in the last third of the 15th century. There has been a great deal of academic work on the Christian kabbalists in France, Italy and Germany, such as Guillaume Postel, the French scholar who translated the Zohar and many other kabbalistic books into Latin, and who added his own glosses and interpretations to the text. There is also increasing research on the Christian Pietist kabbalists in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries, some of whom mention the rabbi of Frankfurt as their teacher in kabbalah. However, we have no detailed knowledge of such activities in Eastern Europe. This fact demands investigation, in light of the interest of both Protestants and Catholics in the Kabbalah and their Christian interpretations of kabbalistic symbols and myths. Pawel Maciejko recently proved that such activities occurred, but these areas have been neglected due to the emphasis that the historical research of the kabbalah placed on Sabbateanism and Hasidism.

 The historical study of kabbalah in Eastern Europe has focused mainly on the expansion of the Sabbatean movement, which originated in the Ottoman Empire and Italy and eventually laid deep roots in Eastern Europe. The same is true of the byproducts of Sabbatianism, such as the Frankist movement in the middle of the eighteenth century. On the other hand, much emphasis was placed on the seemingly unique Hasidic interpretations of kabbalah, especially the Lurianic kabbalah which originated in the circle of R. Isaac Luria in Safed in the middle of the 16th century. Today, it is clear that the Hasidim did not adopt a single clear and uniform approach to kabbalah, nor was the Lurianic kabbalah the exclusive source of inspiration for their moral ideas. Various kabbalistic sources were distributed in Eastern Europe and inspired creative and popular preachers and the authors of various ethical tracts. Two important paths by which these ideas were disseminated were anthologies of Kabbalistic ethical texts, such as R. Elijah de Vidas’s Reishit Hochmah, and works of Kabbalistic homiletics, such as the Midrash Hadash of R. Yisrael of Belzec (mentioned above). These were the main sources of the proliferation of kabbalistic ideas at a time when there only a few partial printed editions of Lurianic kabbalah were extant. The importance of this literature in disseminating popular kabbalah is not yet adequately expressed in research. Furthermore, we do not have a comprehensive bibliographical review of Eastern European kabbalistic literature, whether in print or in manuscript, nor of the references to this literature in sermons. This is an important basis for any historical research on the development, distribution, and acceptance of ideas among the general public. Such a review would be the first stage of the study proposed here, but would serve as a platform for further discussions of the study of kabbalah in Eastern Europe. At the same time, as a case study for the importance and relevance of the kabbalah for our understanding of Jews in Eastern Europe, I will characterize the different approaches to the Other in this literature. In this context, it will be necessary to examine a wide range of images of the Other produced inside and outside the Jewish community. The social hierarchy described by Kabbalistic literature is sometimes intended to exclude parts of society and to position the writings of Torah scholars in differential power-relations in the consciousness of other groups. Yet kabbalistic and rabbinic attitudes toward the Other may also be expressed in the idea of the need for various groups in society to form partnerships for the sake of its healthy existence, and even for the messianic process of cosmic correction. In the Eastern European context, I will examine the different approaches in kabbalistic ethics to the Other, whether that Other be a non-Kabbalist, a non-scholar, a sinner, a convert, or, of course, a non-Jew. This study will express the complex and varied relationships between Jews of different social strata and between Jews and their Christian neighbors, not only in their economic and political contexts, but also in terms of the religious worldviews which were shaped by Kabbalistic perspectives. The bibliographical data and research findings will also form the basis for many future studies in the religious, cultural, and social history of Eastern European Jewry.

See report 2019 (in Hebrew)