Although he is one of the most influential Jewish mystics and theologians, Isaac Luria (1534-1572) is not well-known outside of Jewish circles. Also known as “ha-Ari” or “Arizal” (meaning “the Lion,” referring to the lion-headed cherub that bears the throne of God inEzekiel 1:10), Luria was the founder of “Lurianic Kabbalah,” the dominant form of Jewish mysticism today.
Born in Jerusalem to a wealthy family, Luria was raised in Cairo, Egypt, where his family’s wealth allowed him to indulge his passion for study and mysticism. At age 22, Luria entered a seven-year period of semi-seclusion, during which he intensively studied the massive Jewish mystical classic, the “Zohar,” which was just being printed for the first time in Mantua and Cremona, Italy. He also claims to have been taught secret mystical doctrines by Elijah, the biblical prophet who ascended into heaven without dying (2 Kings 2:11). According to Jewish mystical beliefs, God permitted Elijah to remain on earth, teaching the spiritual elite. Hence the claim by some Jews that Jesus was really Elijah in disguise (Mark 6:15), or that Elijah met with Jesus (Mark 9:4).
In 1569, Luria moved to Safed (Tzefat) in Galilee, where he joined the mystical group of Moses Cordovero. After Cordovero’s death, Luria quickly rose to prominence as the leader of the group. Remarkably, Luria’s term as a mystical master and teacher lasted only four years (1569-1572), cut short by an early death at age 38. During his life, Luria taught his esoteric doctrines orally only to a small group of spiritually elite mystics, who were sworn to secrecy. After Luria’s death, his leading disciple, Chaim Vital (1543-1620) wrote Luria’s teachings down in private notes, which eventually were circulated in manuscript in Jewish esoteric circles for a century and a half until they were published as “Etz Chaim” (“The Tree of Life”) in 1782.
Like most Jews and Christians, Luria believed that the world was a fallen place. He taught that God “contracted” his omnipresence, creating a space in which creation could occur. Creation occurred by the emanation of God into a sequence of four different spheres or “worlds,” each successive one further from God and more material.
Human souls were “sparks” of God, who were alienated from God and trapped in material “shells” from which they could be freed through mystical knowledge and practices. Beyond returning his own “spark” to God, the ultimate goal of the mystic was “tikkun olam” (“the rectification of the world”). That is to say, the mystic’s beliefs and practices would rectify not only himself but also the world.
Christian readers of the Bible might be surprised that Luria taught the doctrine of reincarnation (“gilgul”), believing that souls/sparks who had not achieved salvation in one lifetime had other chances at rectification.
Luria taught that Israel could be spiritually rectified, and thus prepared for the coming of the Messiah, only through the study and practice of Jewish mysticism. Luria and his disciples seemed to believe that the coming of the Messiah was imminent.
Chaim Vital, Luria’s most important disciple, privately believed that he was the messiah, and kept a detailed private spiritual journal of his dreams, visions and former lives. Another later Lurianic mystic, Shabbetai Tzvi (1626-1676), publicly proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, and briefly convinced much of the Jewish world to accept him as he prepared to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. His movement was cut short by the Ottoman Turkish Sultan, who viewed it as an act of political rebellion.
Isaac Luria’s interpretation of Jewish mysticism remained fundamental to many subsequent Kabbalistic systems. Although Luria himself believed his mystical doctrines should not be taught publicly, his later followers believed that Kabbalah should be made accessible to all Jews, not just the mystical elite.
Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (1885-1954) is the most influential modern Lurianic interpreter and commentator, who wrote important commentaries on Luria’s teachings. Even wider publication of Luria’s teachings can be found in the international Kabbalah Centre (kabbalah.com), founded by Philip Berg and his family. The Bergs teach a form of New Age Lurianic Kabbalah, maintaining that Lurianic Kabbalah should be studied by all people, not just Jews.
Although rejected as heretical by many traditional Kabbalists, the Kabbalah Centre and other similar movements have transformed Luria’s teachings from the secret doctrine of a small 16th century messianic Jewish mystical group into an international form of New Age popular culture that’s now followed by Hollywood celebrities.
Daniel C. Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, is editor-in-chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is a professor of history at BYU and co-author of “Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History” and is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.