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  • Asceticism, Mysticism, and Messianism: A Reappraisal of Schechter’s Portrait of Sixteenth-Century Safed
  • Elliot R. Wolfson

onsafed in the sixteenth century: a city of legists and mystics” (1908)

It goes with out saying that the fields of Jewish mysticism and intellectual history have greatly evolved since the time that Solomon Schechter wrote “Safed in the Sixteenth Century: A City of Legists and Mystics,” first published in 1908.1 We now have a more nuanced understanding of the relationship of law and mysticism as it was expressed by kabbalists and pietists through the centuries and especially in the sixteenth century. We have a better grasp of the complexity of the Lurianic Kabbalah and the difficulty of establishing with certainty the contours of both the oral and the written dimensions of this phenomenon. Our understanding of the historical connection between the expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century and the proliferation of kabbalistic activity in the Jewish diaspora of the sixteenth century, especially in the city of Safed, is far more sophisticated today than it was when Schechter wrote his essay. These qualifications notwithstanding, the pathos and intellectual vigor of Schechter’s masterful portrayal of sixteenth-century Safed have stood the test of time. In this brief essay, I would like to draw attention to some of the themes that run through his study, themes that still have the capacity to illumine essential features of the mystical piety that crystalized in the upper Galilee at that time. [End Page 165]

asceticism, hypernomianism, and the saintly life of the mystic

“The history of the world, some maintain, is but the record of its great men. This is especially true of the history of Safed in the sixteenth century, which is essentially spiritual in its character, made and developed by men living lives purified by suffering, and hallowed by constant struggle after purification and holiness” (pp. 209–10). Schechter is to be given credit for his attentiveness to the primacy accorded the spiritual comportment of the Safedian kabbalists, moralists, and preachers, and particularly to the ascetic sensibility they cultivated in an effort to achieve the coveted state of virtue and veneration. In a separate but thematically related study, “Saints and Saintliness,”2 he articulated in more general terms the corrective to a familiar misrepresentation of Judaism: “The statement is often made that Judaism is not an ascetic religion, and, indeed, there are passages in Jewish literature which might be cited in corroboration of this view. But the saint, by reason of his aspirations to superior holiness, will never insist on privileges and concessions . . . And thus we find any number of saints in Jewish history, as notorious for their asceticism with all its extravagances as those of any other religion” (pp. 161–62). The implementation of this ideal is exemplified by the sixteenth-century kabbalists. Schechter offers the following thumbnail account of their milieu:

A religious atmosphere seems to have pervaded all classes of the Jewish population, so that the impression the Safed of the sixteenth century leaves on us is that of a revival camp in permanence, constituted of penitents gathered from all parts of the world. Life practically meant for them an opportunity for worship, to be only occasionally interrupted by such minor considerations as the providing of a livelihood for their families and the procuring of the necessary taxes for the government.

(p. 242)3

To buttress the general claim with specific examples, Schechter notes that from his angelic mentor, the magid—the externalization of the internal light of the soul personified as the Shekhinah materialized in the form of [End Page 166] the Mishnah—Joseph Caro received “chastisement” that “consisted partly in imposing . . . a number of regulations of an ascetic nature” (p. 215). These restrictions extended not only to Caro’s physical activities, including food, drink, and sleep, but also to his psychological ability to experience joy in the world. To be single-mindedly dedicated to the divine, to become the seat upon which the Shekhinah is enthroned, one must be exceedingly contrite and chaste, indeed transcending, albeit without abrogating, the obligations required by the law. Schechter illumines the nature of the Safedian...


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