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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Lost in Safed

February 10, 2002
Marc Rosenstein

The other day I attended a “think-tank” with a few other Jewish educators, on directions for tourism development of Safed. For me, the conversation only sharpened the questions I have been asking myself about Safed for a number of years - but didn’t help me with the answers.

Safed played no significant role that we know of in Jewish history before the 16th century. With the arrival of exiles from Spain and Portugal after 1492, it became a center of kabbalistic study and creativity, and attracted, for its brief moment in the spotlight, some of the greatest scholars and thinkers of the period, producing the Shulchan Aruch and the doctrines of the activist, Lurianic school of Kabbalah. Then, after barely a century of glory, political and economic developments led to the decline of Safed, and it remained a poor “holy city,” a small orthodox community in an Arab town, twice destroyed by major earthquakes in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Arabs all fled in 1948, and the quaint, crumbling, scenic Old City attracted artists - and, in the days before air-conditioning, summer tourists drawn by the mountain air and glorious Galilean views. Meanwhile, ugly modern apartment blocks were built around the Old City, to house new immigrants.

With the advent of air-conditioning, all the overnight tourism moved to Tiberias, on the shore of the Kinneret. The quaintness of the alleyways and synagogues of the Old City - and the historical memories of the 16th century - suffice to make Safed a “must” for many tour groups, but generally only for a couple of hours: a tour of a few of the synagogues, and free time for shopping in the souvenir “shuk.”

After a couple of summers of leading such tours for North American teens, I got fed up with trying to get them excited about the memories of 16th century Kabbalah that haunt the crooked alleys of Safed; somehow, the romance is lost on hot, tired, secular teens who grudgingly endure the tour and the explanations as the price they must pay to get to the souvenir shops and refreshment stands. My attempt at a solution was to write a self-guided tour for small groups, based around a fictitious mystery plot about an American college student who came to Safed on his own spiritual search... and disappeared. I thought that by putting 16th century Kabbalah in the context of current spiritual search, I could grab at least some of the kids and help them feel a connection to Safed. It works, sometimes - just like a charismatic guide can sometimes grab the attention of his/her flock. You can never please all of the people all of the time...

The difficult question, it seems to me, is: what are we trying to accomplish? If I succeed in “grabbing” the attention of the visitor, what do I want to do with it? As a capitalist, or a resident of Safed, my goal is simple: keep the visitor in town as long as possible, and get him/her to spend money. But as a Jewish educator, my goal is less obvious. Historically, mysticism was always a phenomenon that was kept, deliberately, on the fringes of communal life; Kabbalah study was limited to mature scholars. Already in the Talmud there are references to the danger - to personal faith and to communal authority - inherent in mysticism. It has been argued that the Kabbalah that came out of Safed in the 16th century laid the groundwork for the disaster of Sabbateanism a century later. So maybe we shouldn’t be romanticizing Kabbalah. On the other hand, rationalist that I am, I cannot simply dismiss Jewish Renewal as a pop fad. Clearly, the undercurrent of need for the spiritual that has flowed through Jewish history is part of the driving force of that history; it wells up again and again, and must be attended to by educators. Perhaps, somehow, Safed can be a point of contact between the land of Israel and the spiritual search of the Jews of today. Safed does have a magic. What it needs is teachers and programs that can use that magic to create a venue for exploring the living spiritual aspects of Judaism, and not merely the romanticization of a past that is religiously and culturally foreign to our own Jewish identity.


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