Yehuda Ashlag, the Socialist Kabbalist

Among the few who know of Rav Yehuda Ashlag (1885–1954), his name is associated with esoteric Jewish thought or with the pop Kabbalah movements led by his second generation students. Some may know that he translated the central work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, into modern Hebrew in the early 50s, or have studied his brilliant commentary on it, Perush al HaSulaam (The Ladder).

Few think of him as a political pamphleteer or a utopian who proposed models for a socialist society. Yet he was those things too, and a look at what he wrote reveals him to be one of the most interesting Orthodox Jewish thinkers of all time. Rabbi Ashlag divided his time between utopian political dreams and explaining how the human being calls down higher levels of soul existing in the infinite thought of God, or how the upper worlds nest within each other like russian dolls.

Ashlag was born into a Polish Hasidic family and moved to Israel in 1921, spending most of his life there until his death in 1954. He was friendly with Rav Kook, and likewise unhappy with the approach of the traditional old settlement Kabbalists he met. In the 20’s he began publishing commentaries on the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria. A group of disciples gathered around him and in the 30s he began writing essays and political pamphlets which promoted the popular study of Kabbalah, which he thought would cause revolutionary changes throughout the world. He also promoted a Kabbalistic take on the political movements in pre-mandate Palestine and a universal love ethic intended for both the Jewish and non-Jewish world. These three concerns were seamlessly united in Ashlag’s mind; he articulated his complex, integrated vision in his books, letters, and essays.

During his life Ashlag was little known. An excerpt from Ha’aretz describes him: “One day in Jerusalem of the early 1950s, Shlomo Shoham, later an Israel prize-winning author and criminologist, set out to look for Kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag…Ashlag at that time was trying to print Hasulam (literally, The Ladder), his Hebrew translation and commentary on The Book of Zohar… Whenever he would raise a little money, from small donations, he would print parts of his Hasulam.

‘I found him standing in a dilapidated building, almost a shack, which housed an old printing press. He couldn’t afford to pay a typesetter and was doing the typesetting himself, letter by letter, standing over the printing press for hours at a time, despite the fact that he was in his late sixties. Ashlag was clearly a Tzadik (righteous man) — a humble man, with a radiant face. But he was an absolutely marginal figure and terribly impoverished. I later heard that he spent so many hours setting type that the lead used in the printing process damaged his health.’”

A Cosmology of Gifts

Ashlag’s vision of the purpose of creation and the purpose of Judaism were united in one idea: that God had created the universe in order to have an other to give to (this idea had been expounded before him by Hesdai Crescas [1340–1411] and Moshe Chaim Luzzatto [1707–1746]). What God wants to give is Himself, and His way of doing so is to create a creature who unlike God, the Giver, is inherently a Receiver. The Creature receives God by becoming like God, or in other words, becoming a Giver as well. This attainment of “affinity of form” between creature and Creator is what constitutes, and empowers d’vekut (cleaving to God). For Ashlag, all creatures have been made ungodly so as to receive God, and hence fallible, mortal, capable of evil, and selfish, unlike God (who is immortal, incapable of evil, and selfless). Through Torah and mitzvot humans develop the will to give benefit (ratzon l’hashpia), the desire to serve God and fellow human beings. Humans evolve towards union with God in one of two ways: either on the basis of wisdom or the basis of suffering. In the end, believed Ashlag, all souls (Jewish and non-) will reincarnate until they have attained affinity of form with the Creator. The Creator has no will to receive; the pinnacle of human development is when the human being receives the gifts of God only to give them away to others and back to God.

This is one vector of evolution; the other takes place on earth where human society, as he put it, “sluggishly and painfully evolves” until all of its relationships reflect love. The word “evolve” is not chosen lightly. Evolution is central to Ashlag’s thought. Also essential is the fact that for Ashlag evolution is not individual, it is communal. Ashlag is unusual in claiming that the mitzva of v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha (love your fellow as yourself) generally cannot be fulfilled except in a communitarian society where everyone’s needs are met, thus allowing people to give selfishly because they live free from fear. Whereas some individuals may be ahead of the curve, generally the individual and the world are interdependent. Pious individuals may uplift humanity, but humanity evolves together and no one is free of responsibility for the rectification of the world: “There is no difference between people, between the black and white and the yellow, between the wise and the foolish. They are all equal, and each is obligated (Ashlag, Global and Local Spiritualities.).”

Ashlag argued that humanity was evolving towards a society where serving the other would be the fundamental value and priority of culture and politics. His letters and writings are scattered with descriptions of what this might look like and critiques of the political methods of the revolutionaries of his day. Ashlag did not simply write about his ideas: he worked arduously to promote them. He met with prominent figures in Israel such as David Ben Gurion, Chaim Nachman Bialik, and Zalman Shazar. Ben Gurion wrote in his diaries that he met with the Baal HaSulam several times, and that he was surprised because “I wanted to talk to him about Kabbalah, and he, about socialism.”

Ashlag argued that human society has been steadily evolving and our capacity for understanding becoming greater, uncharacteristically for an Orthodox Jew, who generally believe in historical devolution. The Talmud speaking of the sages of the past, says,“if they were angels we are men, if they were men we are donkeys”. Ashlag argued that we are getting ever closer to the messianic society with it’s other-centred love ethic and wrote that the messianic society can be imagined and should be imitated now.

Ashlag wrote that the messianic society would have at its core education towards other-centredness, a kind of Levinas-ian education where the greatest human wisdom on “sharing with the other” would be housed in a vast library. The houses of justice do not give out punishments but rather rewards, and citizens wear badges showing their accomplishments in serving the community. The citizenry in fact compete in serving others, and even endanger themselves in feats of altruistic daring-do. Those who act in a self-interested manner lose social status, and if they do something concretely wrong they are sent to the house of justice. There they do not receive punishment, but some benefit that aims at healing and empowering them. “Every defendant comes out of the house of justice with some profit.” (Ashlag, On World Peace). Justice is entirely restorative, and extreme cases are sent to houses of healing and treated with appropriate therapy. Everyone is assigned mandatory work hours based on their capacity, with the stronger working more: everyone is rewarded for their level of effort, not the quantity of their work. In addition to mandatory work people are encourage to add volunteer work according to their taste and capacity. Ashlag also stressed that every ethnic group in the society must be treated equally to maintain peace, lest resentments lead to violence when those who profit from war play on the inequalities in society to foment conflict. Further, argued Ashlag, every nation must serve the whole world, since the wellbeing of world and nation are inescapably intertwined.

Ashlag felt that revolutionary changes should be made slowly and without violence, and with the attitude of taking what is in the world and refining it, rather than of destroying or eliminating things. He criticised “false repairers of the world” for this destructive attitude, arguing that everything in both nature and human culture has a divinely ordained value and simply needs to be refined; “it is well known that in the beginning God did not finish Creation but left it for us to perfect.” Although Ashlag argued that Utopia would need to ground its values in religion to succeed, and envisioned the whole world ultimately adopting a purified Judaism, he also argued against eliminating other religions through any means whatsoever: “God allows every nation to keep its religious customs that were received by its sages; each people according to its preferences and spirit.”

For Ashlag, the Jewish people had been given the Torah in order to create a society based entirely on other-regarding love for people and God. This love would then emanate outward to the Nations and repair the world, bringing all souls closer to affinity of form with God in the process.

Ashlag critiqued the forceful elimination of private property (though he called the abandonment of private property “our most exalted concept”). Ashlag also wrote that he disagreed with the attempt of some radicals to destroy religion and nationalism. He argued that the religious and the nationalists be resisted only when they directly fight against revolutionary change, but otherwise harassment against them is “crime and evil-mindedness”. Ashlag asserted that nationalism should be embraced and refined, until in the messianic future it could be “completely uprooted and fought against”. He conceded that religion and nationalism had presented “the most terrible opposition” to the revolutionary programs, “according to the nature they have received from the bourgeoisie”. He also supported the maintenance of national and ethnic identities, and offered the interesting halachic midrash that “every country has it’s own ideas and ancestral heritage, some important and some less, and the prohibition against murder applies to all of them” (i.e. ethnocide, the destruction of a culture, is halachically forbidden as a violation of the commandment against murder).

Ashlag’s writings survived thanks to his sons Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag and Rabbi Shlomo Benyamin Ashlag, and his brother-in-law Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, who served for a number of years as the chief rabbi of the Histadrut labor federation. All three devoted their lives to spreading his system. In the early 90s students of Jerusalem kabbalist Rabbi Mordechai Sheinberger, a disciple of Brandwein, founded an Ashlagian commune near Mount Meron called Or Ganuz, which combines kabbala study with efforts to realize their master’s radical social vision. Prof. Avi Elkayam of Bar-Ilan told Ha’aretz that there is increasing academic interest in Ashlag, and sees it as the righting of an historical injustice and an important development in Israeli spirituality:

“Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, as interpreted through the prism of his son’s philosophy, created a mysticism of land and settlement. But with the foundations on which Gush Emunim stands crumbling, Ashlag can provide an alternative — a kabbala whose focus is not on settlement, but on individual consciousness, and the mending of society and the world. Ashlag can provide the basis for a concept of social justice founded on a spiritual science of Kabbala. Of course, we are only at the beginning…We, the whole academic world, are just at the very beginning, still infants, so to speak, in regards to Ashlag.”

Outside of Israel today few Jews are aware of Ashlag. Inside the more esoteric circles of Israel’s religious scene there is a resurgence of interest in the Baal Hasulaam; one beit midrash haunting Israeli friend of mine remarked to me recently that “In Israel Ashlag is everywhere!”.

Today outside of Israel Ashlag is most strongly associated with the controversial activities of some students of his students, namely the Bergs of the Kabbalah Institute and Michael Laitman of Bnei Baruch. Thanks to the Bergs, who see him as their Master, Ashlag’s grave receives the strange tribute of a visit from Madonna every year.

Rav Ashlag’s utopian imagination advocated racial and national equality, nonviolence, religious toleration, the protection of ethnic diversity, the abandonment of personal property, the abolition of nationalism, the replacement of retributive justice with restorative justice, and a truly global outlook, all through “proper regulation and education”. Today these are a series of unlikely political commitments for an Orthodox Jewish theologian, though with a rebirth of interest in Rav Ashlag’s thought in Israel one can hope that won’t be the case forever.

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