Winter 2001-02

Jewish Studies At The University


‘The Root of Faith Is the Root of Heresy,’
 ‘Circles and Straightness,’ 
and Other Kabbalistic Concepts


by Mordechai Pachter


The unique perception of faith and heresy in Kabbala, Jewish mysticism, was formulated by R. Azriel of Gerona in the first half of the 13th century, using the famous statement in Rabbi Yehuda Halevy’s Kuzari: ”The root of faith is the root of heresy.”  From there it evolved via the literature of the Zohar (perhaps the seminal work of mysticism) to R. Nachman of Bratslav in the early 19th century, and from him to Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook in the early 20th century. 

  Despite the big differences among these three thinkers both from the different historical circumstances in which each lived, worked, and formulated his world outlook, and from the completely different nature of each, their approach to the issue of faith and heresy is fundamentally similar. This basic similarity does not seem likely, except against the background of their common Kabbalistic perception, which views faith first and foremost as a divine hypostasis.

  The evolution of the concepts of “circles” and “straightness” as the two principal aspects of the emanation of the heavenly sefirot is also being traced.  This concept was formulated by the Ari (Rabbi Yitzhak Luria) in the 16th century and evolved through the doctrines of the Ramhal (Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzato) in the 18th century and the Gaon (R. Elijah) of Vilna and his disciples (end of 18th, beginning of 19th century) to Rav Kook (end of 19th, early 20th century).  This research shows how the concepts of “circles” and “straightness” in the Kabbala of the Ari were comprehended in their simple geometric meaning, but in the course of their evolution took on a more and more abstract meaning to the point that, with Rav Kook, they are understood as signifiers of religious-moral principles.

  Such a process of abstraction and demystification also characterizes the evolution of another pair of concepts, “smallness” and “largeness.”  In the Ari’s Kabbala, this pair signifies two basic states in the development of the lower divine configurations in parallel with the two periods in the process of the physical and spiritual development of a person, from birth to adulthood.  In their evolution to the initial writings of Hasidism and the doctrine of R. Nachman of Bratslav, however, the mythic layer was peeled off and they have came to mark two psychological states of every human being in general and of the zaddik— the righteous—in particular. 

  As a result of the surveys described, another, more detailed tracking will be made of the evolution of the Kabbalistic concept of evil through a description of the history of the formula, “depth of goodness and the depth of evil” from the Book of Creation to the doctrine of Rav Kook.  Similarly the evolution of the concept of Ein Sof (infinity) as “surrounding all the worlds and filling all the worlds” will be traced from the literature of the Zohar to the thought of R. Hayim of Volozhin (beginning of 19th century), on the one hand, and to that of Habad Hasidism (end of 18th century) and R. Nachman of Bratslav (end of 18th, beginning of 19th century), on the other. 

  The tracking and tracing of the history of these Kabbalistic concepts will be assembled into a volume, to be called Circles and Straightness—The History of Kabbalistic Ideas.

Prof. Mordechai Pachter, who has been tracing the evolution of basic Kabbalistic concepts and terms from the beginnings of Kabbala to the writings of Rav Kook, heads the Center for the Study of Jewish Culture.





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