Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag systematically reinterpreted the Kabbalah, completing the work begun by Rabbi Isaac Luria and his disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital. Today, Ashlag’s various followers are at the forefront of the movement spreading kabbalah to the masses.
Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag was born in Warsaw Poland in 1885, to a family of scholars connected to the Chassidic courts of Prosov and Belz. Ashlag studied kabbalah from the age of seven, hiding pages from kabbalistic works in the Talmudic tractate he was meant to be learning. From an early age he devoted himself to truth, aiming never to tell a lie.
One profound experience Ashlag had while still in Poland was his meeting with a mysterious Warsaw businessman who revealed himself as a kabbalistic master. Ashlag studied with this particular teacher every night for three months “until my arrogance separated between us” (sic) and the teacher disappeared. A few months later, Ashlag re-met the teacher, and, after pleading with him, convinced him to reveal an important kabbalistic secret. The next day, the teacher died.
In 1921, at the age of 39, Ashlag moved to Israel, and worked as a common laborer until his identity as a Torah scholar was revealed. He was appointed Rabbi of Givat Shaul, Jerusalem in 1924. Ashlag was friendly with Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi Abraham Kook, who saw Zionism as part of God’s plan for messianic redemption. Remaining ultra-orthodox in custom and garb, Ashlag saw the eventual founding of Israel as “the beginning of redemption”.
Ashlag had high hopes of meeting great kabbalists in Jerusalem: the Sephardi followers of the great 18th century kabbalist Sar Shalom Sharabi. However, he was profoundly disappointed by his encounter with them. They viewed kabbalah as a mystery whose inner dimensions could not be plumbed by humans, but only repeated without understanding. This idea ran exactly counter to Ashlag’s own view of kabbalah.
In the 1930s Ashlag, now in his fifties, gathered around him a group of disciples who studied kabbalah every night, often from shortly after midnight until dawn. Ashlag openly promoted the study of kabbalah, even for those who had not mastered ‘the revealed Torah’. He believed that for most people, the study of kabbalah could give them the taste of Godliness that would enable them to conquer their evil inclinations and advance spiritually.
During this period, Ashlag wrote and published two great works. The Talmud of the Ten Sephirot was a re-editing of the seminal works of 16th century master-kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria. Ashlag wrote an extensive commentary to this re-editing. His masterwork, however, was the Sulam (Ladder), a commentary on the Zohar, the central work of the kabbalah. The work included a translation of the Zohar from Aramaic to Hebrew as well as an extensive interpretation.
Ashlag’s commentary offered a systematic interpretation of the legacy of Isaac Luria. This was the first since the 18th century when the Baal Shem Tov, Moshe Chaim Luzatto (Ramchal), the Vilna Gaon and Sar Shalom Sharabi (the Rashash) offered their interpretation of Luria’s teaching. Ashlag’s system focused on the transformation of human consciousness from a state of desiring to receive, to desiring to give. This path of transformation is described in Lurianic kabbalah.
Through intensive study of kabbalah, the mind itself opens to God’s light, and the desire to give to others is developed. Ashlag believed that the coming of Messiah meant that humans would give up their selfishness and devote themselves to love each other. Ashlag had strong political opinions, believing in a voluntary faith-based communism. Ashlag was anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, though he also opposed communism instituted by force. Ashlag tried to convince Ben-Gurion to adopt socialism in Israel.
Ashlag saw himself as fulfilling a quasi-messianic role in bringing kabbalah to the world. His main disciples included his sons, Baruch Shalom and Shlomo Benyamin, and Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein. Rabbi Baruch (d.1990), and Rabbi Brandwein, (d.1969) both left dynamic students who are involved in spreading Ashlagian kabbalah. Brandwein’s son-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Sheinberger, founded a commune in Israel called Or Ganuz (The Hidden Light), which combines Ashlag’s communal ideals with devotion to the spread of kabbalah.
The most famous (or infamous) of Ashlag’s indirect disciples is Rabbi Philip Berg. Berg was Brandwein’s son-in-law until his divorce. Berg created the Kabbalah Research Center, which by 2000 had expanded to 18 cities across the globe. Berg’s centers charge money for kabbalah lessons. Critics claim that Berg sells books at inflated prices using disciples as street peddlars. Berg has succeeded in penetrating Hollywood, gaining students such as Madonna, and influencing films such as “The Matrix”.
Ashlag’s reinterpretation of kabbalah is gaining adherents in Israel, and inspires further attempts to interpret it for a new generation. His potent combination of mystical transformation and political radicalism may still have a profound effect on Jewish thinking.
The Wisdom of Kabbalah: Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (Baal haSulam)