Judaism is not a religion of eternal universal truth. Judaism is based on the meaning given to specific events in Jewish history, especially the covenant (a holy committed relationship) between God and the Jewish People which commits them to establish a good and holy society, that would eventually become a blessing for all humanity in a future Messianic Age on earth. Thus, the meanings of specific events in Jewish history are important elements in Jewish thought.
Since there is only one God, the God of Israel is also the God of all other peoples. God has inspired prophets of other nations (Noah, Melchizedik, and Balaam) and redeemed other peoples in other lands (Deuteronomy 2:9-23, Amos 9:7). God has also made a covenant-a committed sacred relationship with one small people: the people of Israel. God and Israel are partners.
Thus, the historical development of the Jewish people, its survival in spite of attempts by evil forces to destroy it, and its influence on the development of mankind, are a significant expression of God’s desire that humans create a just, holy, loving and peaceful society on earth.
This is why Jewish sacred scriptures include a great deal of history. Of the 39 books in what Christians call the Old Testament, 10 are history books (36% by number of pages). Of the 27 books of the New Testament, only 1 is a history book (13% by number of pages). The Koran, Vedas and Sutras include even less historical material.
This is also why there are a number of Jewish holidays that commemorate events in Jewish history (from Passover-the 13th century B.C.E. exodus from Egyptian bondage, Purim-the 5th century B.C.E. avoidance of Persian anti-Semitism, and Hanukkah-the 2nd century B.C.E. victory in the fight against the Syrian Greeks for religious freedom, Yom Hashoah — the 20th century C.E. European Holocaust). But there are no Jewish holidays that commemorate the birth, death, or enlightenment of any individual, human or divine.
Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible does not begin with the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, or with Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, but with Adam and Eve, who represent the whole of mankind. Judaism was always aware that it originated within, and in opposition to, long established pagan civilizations that worshipped many Gods who could be represented visually in man made art, and/or located specifically in natural objects i.e. sun, moon, mountain, river, tree, animal, or human being.
The one God of the Jews existed primarily in human history, both past and future. The current Jewish calendar year 5781 (2021) is the sixth millennium of Biblical history. The year 1 is not the birth of Abraham or Moses, nor is it the revelation of Torah at Sinai or even the beginning of a new cosmic world cycle.
The year one dates from “eating” the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil which launched humanity on a path of moral and social development. It also approximates the beginning of cities, states and writing, the basis for most history.
A millennium ago 60-70% of the world’s Jews lived in Muslim lands, from Spain and Morocco in the west to Persia in the east. Most of the rest lived in Christian countries north of the Mediterranean Sea. Smaller numbers lived in India and China. There was also a Jewish community living among the pagans in the Ukraine who were the descendants of numerous pagan Khazars who had converted to Judaism a century or two earlier.
Over the next 2-3 centuries the Jewish community in Muslim Spain grew in numbers and influence. Jewish scholarship of that period excelled in Hebrew poetry both religious and secular, Biblical commentary, and Jewish philosophy both rational and mystical. Rabbi Moses Maimonides, born 1135 in Spain, who lived most of his life in Cairo, was the most influential rational philosopher in the last 1000 years. Rabbi Moses de Leon, 1240-1305, wrote and edited the most important single text of the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism).
In the 14th and 15th centuries, as the Christians reconquered more and more of Spain, the Jews were subjected to increasing efforts to convert them, sometimes forcibly, to Christianity. They resisted vigorously. Finally, in 1492, with the fall of the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, all the Jews in Spain who refused to become baptized were expelled from the country. A quarter-million people became refugees. Although this was the worst of the expulsions of Jews from Christian lands it was not the first.
Jews had already been expelled from England (1290), France (1394), Austria (1421), and several German Dukedoms (1426-1461). But these were smaller Jewish communities and not a vibrant center of Jewish culture and life as was the Spanish Jewish community. Also, in Spain, thousands of Jews had been forcibly baptized in previous generations and continued to practice Judaism in secret. The Inquisition vigorously pursued them and their children for many decades, adding to their tragedy, and drawing out their suffering.
Many of the Jews exiled from Spain ended up in the Ottoman Empire and some of them moved to the Land of Israel. Safed, a small town in northern Israel, became a major center for Kabbalistic studies. One of these sages, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) developed a radically new system for understanding the nature of evil and suffering in the world.
The Biblical and Talmudic rabbinic view of evil is that it is solely the result of immoral human decisions and activities. There is no source of evil outside of human beings. The natural world itself is good, not evil. Genesis 1 makes this clear by repeating again and again at each stage of the world’s creation that “God saw that it was good”. Not only is the physical world in general good, but marital sex, which is considered inherently negative in some religious traditions, is considered holy in Judaism.
The Rabbis regard marital sex as a Mitsvah-a good deed/a sacred obligation. Sex was not a concession to human lust, justified by the need to procreate, and celibacy was not considered a higher spiritual state. Indeed, the Kabbalists maintained that God rejoiced when a man-made love to his wife on the holy Sabbath day.
Finally, there is no evil power opposing God that can make people do evil. Satan in the Hebrew Bible is not the Devil. Satan is an angel of God whose job is to tempt people in order to find out how committed they are to being good. If evil is not attractive there is no challenge to resisting evil and therefore no virtue in avoiding it. Satan is a metaphor for temptation: Foods that are healthy are not as tasty as those that are bad for you.
Short-term benefits seem more attractive than long-term benefits. Forbidden fruits seem sweeter. Indulgence feels better than self-restraint. None of this makes us do evil but it does make it harder to do good. The decision is always ours. This was the normative majority view within the Jewish tradition for almost three millennia.
Luria proposed a radically different view that rapidly became the dominant view within Kabbalistic thought. In our post-holocaust world it has even spread beyond Kabbalistic circles. Luria saw evil as an inevitable flaw within the creative process itself. According to Lurianic Kabbalah when God created the universe, the infinite Divine energies overwhelmed the finite “vessels” of time, space, matter and energy. These shattered and thus became flawed. The Divine sparks became embedded in the fragments of the vessels in the same way that kernels of grain are embedded in their husks.
God knew that this must happen but there was no other way for the Infinite One to create a complex finite universe. However, God also knew that such a universe could produce, and it was the Divine intention that it should produce, creatures created in the Divine image, who would be able to mend the fractures and flaws of worldly existence. The fractures in the structure of reality, and the husks that encapsulate the sparks explain much of the evil and suffering we are subject to.
In modern terms, the fractures explain why there often are unintended negative consequences from programs and activities that only seek to help people or why good intentions do not always bring about good results. The fractures are why one sibling suffers from a genetically influenced mental or physical disease while another sibling does not.
The fractures are why some people have the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The fractures are why we often can see only in retrospect why we made the wrong decision for the right reason.
People attribute responsibility for events leading to and resulting from situations such as those referred to above as due totally to conscious moral choice when much of what people do in these circumstances is really the result of fractures beyond human control. Of course, most choices for most people most of the time are under our control so that most evils are the result of human decisions.
But the big evils, the outrageous ones, and the unexplainable ones can now be accounted for. They are not simply the result of conscious human choice. Cosmic factors beyond our ken are also at work.
At the same time Luria’s system also provides for a way to improve things. In modern terms, humans can use their God-given intelligence to understand genetic diseases and devise cures, or to learn from history and experience how to reduce unintended negative consequences by changing things slowly and non-dogmatically.
In traditional terms, Luria’s system provided a way to mend and repair fractures in the universe. Each time one did a Mitsvah (one of God’s commandments/a good deed/a Jewish obligation) it now also became a Tikun-an activity that repairs a fracture in existence.
Thus a Mitsvah was not only a way to make yourself or others into better people. Each Mitsvah that was done repaired a tiny crack somewhere in the cosmos. For example, a blessing recited over bread or wine not only elevated the awareness of the person reciting the blessing; it also mended a fractured Divine spark within the bread or wine, and thus elevated its purpose of providing nourishment.
Thus each Mitsvah performed repaired a crack, not necessarily for oneself or for the Jewish community or even for the whole of humanity, but the Tikun could affect the natural world we live in, or even the heavenly worlds beyond us.