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Tikkun (Divine Repair) and Healing in a Kabbalistic Yeshiva: Using Sacred Texts as Healing Devices

Abstract

While the study of Kabbalah is expanding in non-Orthodox circles both around the world and in Israel, Kabbalah is also studied in Orthodox (mainly Sephardic) yeshivot concerned with tikkun (divine repair) of the world and of the individual. Tikkun of the world involves a special kabbalistic prayer method, while tikkun of the individual involves methods of healing and treatment of personal problems. This article, based on participant observation conducted for a year in a Jerusalem kabbalistic yeshiva, is a response to the appeal for an ethnographic study of those immersed in Kabbalah in the traditional locale. The fieldwork findings reveal that the yeshiva, the traditional institution of study, also serves as a place of healing and personal therapy in which the sacred text occupies a central place. In the yeshiva, instrumental use is made of the text as object. From a configuration of symbols subject to many alternate interpretations, the text is transformed into a pattern of icons and signals with only one meaning. The kabbalists as therapists use texts to create personalized symbols that assist their supplicants in coping with their personal hardships. This ability is a powerful cultural tool that provides support and solace to the community of believers, and is simultaneously a powerful instrument in the hands of the yeshiva institution. We conclude that a community whose members adopt a mystical worldview, also gradually attribute iconic significance to its texts.

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Notes

  1. The field work was conducted as a part of a doctoral research by Shlomo Guzmen-Carmeli, the first researcher, under the guidance of Nissan Rubin, the second researcher.

  2. We will use the term ultra-Orthodox Judaism also referred to as Haredi Judaism.

  3. Kollel is a collection of advanced Talmud and rabbinic literature students. They are all married men.

  4. For further details, see Dan (1997, p. 145); Giller (2008, pp. 3–4); Idel (2002, pp. 150–151, 422–423); Lavi (2008, pp. 117–174, 357–381).

  5. Despite the familiar expression that “in the place where ba’alei teshuva stand even the holy righteous cannot stand” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 34b), ba’alei teshuva are often viewed as belonging to a separate group that is regarded with some suspicion. They even suffer discrimination in acceptance to ultra-Orthodox educational institutions. Thus the yeshivot for ba’alei teshuva are viewed as being on a lower religious level than the regular ultra-Orthodox institutions.

  6. Spiritual discourse in this context refers to preoccupation with the internal experience of the individual and with the emotional dimensions of existence and religious life (Waaijman 2002), in contrast to halakha (Jewish law) alone.

  7. For the characteristics and qualifications of the desirable disciple of mystical study, see: Rabbi Chaim Vital’s book Etz Hachayim 1:4, and Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s book, Or Ne’erav, 1:6.

  8. Hasidic discourse is influenced by kabbalistic terminology and makes use of it, sometimes altering the meaning of the terms (Idel 1995).

  9. Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (1720–1780) was born in Yemen and moved to Jerusalem as a youth. Eventually he became head of the Beit El kabbalistic yeshiva (established in 1737 in Jerusalem) and is considered one of the greatest kabbalists of the modern era. Most of Rabbi Sharabi’s fame stems from his commentary on the writings of the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 16th-century kabbalist), and the prayerbook he composed that earned the title, “the Rashash prayerbook.” This prayerbook is used for prayer with the Kavanot (mystical intentions, more about this later) (Giller 2008; Meir 2011b)

  10. About the use of the term “mystic” and its controversial definition, see: Dan (1997, pp. 18–21, 2003, p. 45).

  11. Meron is the tomb of the well-known Talmudic scholar (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) to whom authorship of the Zohar is attributed. Many Jews make pilgrimages to the site.

  12. “Best men of the holy ones” is a more refined appellation than “saints’ impresarios.” Bilu changed the appellation in his later studies due to the problematic connotation of “impresarios,” see Bilu (2000, 2010).

  13. For an analysis of the absence of research on this subject, see Bilu and Witztum (1994, pp. 21–22); Harari (2010).

  14. For information about the study methods adopted by the Sephardi yeshiva in Israel in recent decades, see Leon (2010), pp. 57–61.

  15. The term, meaning “opponents,” refers to opponents of Hasidim.

  16. Due to these historical circumstances and despite the fact that Sephardic Jewry in Israel adopted, and imitated, ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi behavior patterns and viewpoints as representing authentic ultra-Orthodox Judaism (see, for example, Leon 2010, pp. 11–23), most of the kabbalistic yeshivot remained under the aegis and leadership of rabbis affiliated with “Sephardic Judaism.” For more about the establishment of kabbalistic yeshivot in Jerusalem, see Leon (2010, pp. 19–74); Meir (2011a).

  17. See Note 7 above. In this context, kabbalists cite Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, The Book of Knowledge, Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, 4:13. Although the criteria cited by Maimonides was ostensibly for the study of Jewish philosophy, it was adopted for Kabbalah study as well.

  18. For information about “popular Kabbalah” activities, see Harari (2010, pp. 25–28); see also Garb (2005, p. 208).

  19. For detailed information about the spiritual meanings embodied in prayers with Kavanot, see Giller (2008, pp. 19–55).

  20. God may not be described by adjectives because He has no body; therefore his description remains “Infinity” (Hallamish 1991, pp. 97–99).

  21. The kabbalists taught that, in order for creation to take place, God had to make space—zimzum—for it. Thus, God contracted and descended to the world via the ten Sefirot, through which God’s infinite power is revealed to humankind. (See, for example: Dan 1997, pp. 307–314; Hallamish 1991, pp. 100–113).

  22. The term “names of God” does not relate to God Himself, who is noted in kabbalistic literature as The Infinite One. The names that are mentioned in the various kabbalistic writings and in prayerbooks with Kavanot, indicate different powers and methods through which God reveals himself in our reality. For example, see Dan (1997, pp. 108–130); Shatil (2007, pp. 181–182).

  23. Despite the difficulty inherent in any description about the inner workings of the consciousness of the kabbalist, it is important to examine these dynamics in order to understand the role of the kabbalist as one who attempts to repair this world. For a discussion concerning ethnographical descriptions of intersubjective experiences see, for example, Pagis (2010).

  24. Parchment inscribed with religious texts and attached in a case to the doorpost of a Jewish house.

  25. This description is similar to Goodman’s description of ‘therapy interventions’ held by Rabbi Shimon, a Hasidic tzadik (2013, pp. 127–214) described as a holy man by his adherents whose counsel is based on his experience in dealing with various emotional troubles. Rabbi Shimon offers his adherents long-range personal therapy, while the treatments offered in the Heichalot Yeshiva are different. Rabbi Leon and Rabbi Cohen offer pinpointed, one-time treatments based on their expertise in Kabbalah wisdom. Despite the similarity between these cultural treatments, the interventions proposed by Rabbi Shimon seem to be holistic in nature; he treats people suffering from emotional/mental problems via integrating them in the community framework. By contrast, the treatment offered by Rav Leon and Rav Cohen is targeted at specific problems.

  26. The Hebrew term is grissa, which also has the meaning of shredding or grinding, hinting at an instrumental use of the text.

  27. This is the meaning of the concept in kabbalistic yeshivot. In mainstream yeshivot of advanced study of Jewish law, the intention is superficial (not in-depth) familiarity of a text.

  28. Accounts of moments of tears while reading Psalms and other texts and even descriptions of the “Book” as wet with tears, were repeated in various interviews. It seems that these situations are occasions that mark the transition of the text from a “cultural symbol” into a “personal symbol” (Obeyesekere 1990). For information on the use of symbolic elements and texts as part of the “therapeutic process” in psychiatric therapy in the ultra-Orthodox population, see Bilu and Witztum (1994), pp. 25–26.

  29. The meaning of this is that the entire universe is concealed in the sacred text of the Torah that preceded the world. God scrutinized the text, as an engineer would study building plans.

  30. Another use for Psalms books in Israel as sacred objects is the printing of miniature versions of them. These miniatures are often used as amulets. For a similar use of texts in different ethnographic contexts see Baker (1993).

  31. Morley’s analysis uses the term “text” in an extremely expansive manner, similar to way it is viewed in the post-modern approach in which cultural content is also called “text.” I attempt to analogize from Morley’s broad usage, to interpretation and comprehension of written text as well.

  32. Genesis Rabbah 1:1.

  33. For the textual characteristics of the mantra, see: Coward and Goa (2004), pp. 64–66, 85–86.

  34. Bilu’s field work (2000, 2010) demonstrates the significance of ‘personal symbol’ terminology to the analysis of rituals and various phenomenon of contemporary Judaism.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Haim Hazan, Tova Gamliel, and Nissim Leon for their guidance and help during this ethnographic journey. In addition, we thank Neta Sobol, Samuel Cooper, Ilana Friedrich Silber, Ephraim Tabory, and the three anonymous reviewers of Contemporary Jewry for reviewing earlier versions of this article.

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Correspondence to Shlomo Guzmen-Carmeli.

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Guzmen-Carmeli, S., Rubin, N. Tikkun (Divine Repair) and Healing in a Kabbalistic Yeshiva: Using Sacred Texts as Healing Devices. Cont Jewry 34, 217–241 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12397-014-9119-9

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Keywords

  • Kabbalah
  • Healing
  • Text
  • Ethnography