Monday, January 21, 2013

Isaac Luria and the Spiritual Benefits of Reading

Worlds Without End, one of the more engaging Mormon-themed blogs, recently had an interesting discussion on the psychological (and spiritual) benefits of reading the Book of Mormon somewhat like one would do with a novel. That is, a “casual, straightforward read.”[1]
There is an early modern precedent for this kind of reading of sacred writings. R. Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (the Ari, or Arizal), a seminal figure in the history of Jewish mysticism, was, in Lawrence Fine’s memorable phrase, “physician of the soul.” The cosmos was held to be mirrored in the human body and soul, so both the heavenly and the earthly affected and influenced each other.[2] Luria’s primary disciple, R. Hayim Vital Calabrese, described in some detail Luria’s activity as the spirit’s doctor. “He [Luria] would not reveal any of the mysteries of this holy knowledge to one in whose soul he perceived, with the [aid of the] Holy Spirit, a blemish- until he gave him penitential acts to straighten out all that he did crookedly. And like the expert doctor who prescribes for each sick person the proper medicine to cure this illness, so too [Isaac Luria] may he rest in peace, used to recognize the sin, tell him where he incurred a blemish, and prescribe for him the penitential act needed for this transgression in order to cleanse his soul, so that he could receive the divine light, as it is written: “O Jerusalem, wash thy heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved” (Jer 4:14).”[3] In order for man to positively influence and heal processes in the divine (as well as receiving revelation), his soul must first be purified and refined. To this end, Luria prescribed particular practices. Vital collected as many reports of these varied practices as possible. R. Avraham Ha-Levi Beruchim, another disciple of Luria’s, shared with Vital Luria’s advice on how to attain the Holy Spirit. Of the three practices prescribed, two reflect traditional modes of ascetic piety- avoiding idle talk, and performing midnight vigils in which one weeps for the lack of esoteric knowledge. [4] The third practiced involved the method for reading the Zohar, the premier work of Jewish mysticism. “He [Beruchim] should only study the Zohar in such a way that increases his familiarity of its contents, without in-depth, intensive study, about forty or fifty pages a day, and that he should read the Zohar frequently.”[5] When combined with the other two practices, reading forty or fifty pages of the Zohar each day without pause for detailed study forms praxis for attaining the Holy Spirit, among the highest levels of revelation and inspiration.

However, as noted above, Luria prescribed practices on an individual basis. Just as patients visiting a doctor may not all have the same illness, so too did Luria’s “spiritual patients” have individual needs. This “remedy” of reading the Zohar like a novel was specific to Beruchim’s condition. Luria himself did not use it, but devoted himself to very intensive study of the Zohar. Luria once addressed the question of why he was able to attain more inspiration than either Hayim Vital or R. Moshe ben Yaakov Cordovero, despite their own deep study of the Zohar. “He [Luria] told me that while it was true that we had exerted ourselves [in study] more than any others of our generation, but we didn’t do as he did, for he would deprive himself of sleep for several nights poring over a single Zohar passage. Sometimes he would also seclude himself during the nights of the six weekdays, intensely studying a single Zohar passage only. Most of the time he wouldn’t even sleep during the course of those nights.”[6] As Ecclesiastes wryly observed, there is nothing new under the sun. Luria was not a psychologist. I doubt that he would even have found much value in it, but he sometimes presaged modern psychological trends in interesting ways.[7] We may not always share the same assumptions, concerns, or worldview, but there is value in listening to the voices of the past. At the very least they can point us in intriguing directions.


[2]See Lawrence Fine, “Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship,” p. 141-144, 150-258, and Pinchas Giller, “Reading the Zohar: The Sacred Text of the Kabbalah,” p. 38, 41-42. Compare also R. Hayim ibn Attar’s remark in his commentary, “Or ha-Hayim.” “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, that is, He created something even more cherished and excellent- the earth, on which the heavens depend. All this He achieves through Israel, His holy people, on whom the maintenance of both worlds depends, as is known to those adept in the innermost chambers of true [I. E. esoteric] knowledge.”

[3]Hayim Vital, “Shaar Ruah ha-Kodesh,” p. 40, as translated in Fine, “Physician,” p. 152-153.

[4]Interestingly enough, ritual immersion in the mikveh is not prescribed, though Luria attached the utmost importance to it. Fine noted that, “Luria regarded ritual immersion as essential to the attainment of the Holy Spirit. Immersion was believed to be a purifying exercise of such importance that it was to be practiced with the utmost diligence and regularity (“Physician,” p. 263).” It could be that Luria considered it unnecessary for Beruchim, but I think a likelier view is that immersion was a given, not needing special mention. As far as arising at midnight to weep and lament, Luria has added an interesting twist. The prevalent practice in Safed was to arise at midnight and weep for the exile of the Shekhinah. Beruchim himself was an enthusiastic practitioner, reportedly waking all the scholars of the town every midnight for the vigil. See the sources in Lawrence Fines “Safed Spirituality: Rules of Mystical Piety, the Beginning of Wisdom,” p. 47-53.

[5]”Shaar Ruah ha-Kodesh,” p. 36. Translation mine. There is a practice among North African and Middle-Eastern Jews of gerisah, that is, reciting the Zohar aloud even if one doesn’t understand a single word, but it is not the same as Luria’s advice. As a scholar Beruchim would have been able to understand what he was reading, he was merely to avoid intensive study.

[6]Ibid. R. Moshe Cordovero was the foremost Kabbalist of Safed before Luria’s arrival.

[7]See the studies mentioned in Walker Wright’s Worlds Without End post.