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Special to the JTA Ancient Spanish Synagogue Sparks Modern Mysticism Controversy

April 24, 1984
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A Spanish rabbi who died 750 years ago is the topic of a lively local debate that shows signs of growing into an international controversy.

The contention involves two names relatively little known in the world at large: “Gerona” and “Isaac the Blind.” Gerona, today, is an industrial town in the northeast corner of Spain; Isaac the Blind, in religious history, was an early advocate of the Cabala, the medieval system of Jewish mysticism.

What now brings them into a juxtaposition that has been attracting attention beyond the borders of Spain is the claim that Rabbi Isaac practiced in Gerona and that the site of his Cabalistic activites can be identified in that town. Thus a “new” cultural resource and historic landmark has been discovered deserving the widest dissemination — so it is claimed.

The leading advocate is Josef Tarres, a Salonicoborn resident of Gerona, who says he has been working on this for 12 years. He envisions major recognition for Rabbi Isaac and his contributions to spiritual literature. Tarresenvisions also the establishment of a “school of Cabala” in the rabbi’s name to advance and teach the master’s brand of mystical religious philosophy in the contemporary world.

The other side of the debate is mainly expressed as informal skepticism by Spanish intellectuals who feel that, scientificially, the claimed discovery is full of holes and unanswered questions. The “opposition” is all good-natured, however, without the rancor often found when experts disagree.


Visitors, especially foreign visitors, are often impressed, however, when Tarres explains the historic landmark and guides them through the site of Isaac the Blind’s “original Gerona synagogue of the Cabala.” The building itself is reached through a very narrow street of undoubtedly ancient structures in the middle of what scholars have identified as an authentic district of the Middle Ages.

Gerona may be second only to Toledo in the amount of Jewish community relics from the Middle Ages actually in place, as distinguished from destroyed locations that can be identified by records in the archives. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Gerona was a very important Jewish community, famous for learning and one of the first centers of the Cabalist movement.

The building identified with Isaac the Blind, however, is a problem of “too good to be true.” It is a beautifully restored structure, on many levels, showing the separate quartes for a synagogue, ritual bath (mikva), study rooms, kitchen, eating room, women’s prayer room, storage area, passageways, and water channels. The renovation has been done with loving care and excellent taste.

It has also been designed to meld with a modern facility for food and refreshments, around a charming patio, said to also have excellent acoustics for modern concerts.


Critics question its historical authenticity on several grounds, particularly the involvement of Isaac the Blind. That he was one of the early Cabalists seems established by the writings attributed to him, and his dates are given as approximately 1160 to 1235. But not much else is known about him.

The Encyclopedia Judaica states that no biographic facts or details are available, so that it is not possible to prove or disprove that he was ever in Gerona. There are other questions involving the rabbi. What does “the Blind” mean? Was he sightless from birth? Was this a physical condition or a symbolic reference?

His disciples do not mention his blindness at all, in available documents. Aside from the role of Isaac Tarres, who is neither an archaeologist nor a trained Cabalist, may have explaining to do on how the renovation of the building identified with Isaac relates to the original, and how the use of the original building as a Cabala school was figured out.

Tarres, however, has two things going for him. Gerona is in Catalonia, which by recent Spanish law has political autonomy, and is bent on making the world aware of its cultural individuality. The powers might pick his project for official support. And secondly, more and more people are being attracted to mystical philosophies and esoteric religious views. It is possible that Cabala may see a revival, especially among young people.

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