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Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation

Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation

by Moshe Idel

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In this wide-ranging discussion of Kabbalah—from the mystical trends of medieval Judaism to modern Hasidism—one of the world’s foremost scholars considers different visions of the nature of the sacred text and of the methods to interpret it. Moshe Idel takes as a starting point the fact that the postbiblical Jewish world lost its geographical center


In this wide-ranging discussion of Kabbalah—from the mystical trends of medieval Judaism to modern Hasidism—one of the world’s foremost scholars considers different visions of the nature of the sacred text and of the methods to interpret it. Moshe Idel takes as a starting point the fact that the postbiblical Jewish world lost its geographical center with the destruction of the temple and so was left with a textual center, the Holy Book. Idel argues that a text-oriented religion produced language-centered forms of mysticism.

Against this background, the author demonstrates how various Jewish mystics amplified the content of the Scriptures so as to include everything: the world, or God, for example. Thus the text becomes a major realm for contemplation, and the interpretation of the text frequently becomes an encounter with the deepest realms of reality. Idel delineates the particular hermeneutics belonging to Jewish mysticism, investigates the progressive filling of the text with secrets and hidden levels of meaning, and considers in detail the various interpretive strategies needed to decodify the arcane dimensions of the text.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Idel displays his grasp of a wide-ranging and deep body of material.
Publishers Weekly
Hebrew University professor Gershom Scholem, who died in 1982, is regarded as the greatest Kabbalah scholar of the 20th century. His successor and critic is Idel, also a professor at Hebrew University and author of this densely written treatise. In contrast to recent efforts to make Kabbalah more accessible, Idel presents a highly specialized narrative in language that can be grasped by only a few learned scholars. Idel demonstrates his intellectual mastery of Kabbalah by citing both Jewish and Christian commentators from medieval to modern times. Many of his sources are obscure and abstruse. Seemingly in recognition of this limitation, Idel offers six appendices in which he tries to further explain the work of Abraham Abulafia, Isaac of Acre, Nahman of Braslav, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, among others. All of these thinkers, along with Idel, focus on the mystical aspect of the Bible as the major topic for analysis. Idel's writing is sprinkled with foreign words and phrases that are not translated, as well as English terms that require an academician's expertise: anagrammatic, renomadization, crisical, superarcanization, hypersemantic, theosophical-theurgical, historiosophical, floruit, astromagical, extradivine, imaginaire, intercorporal, ergetic, clinamenic, and so on. Kabbalah enthusiasts who emphasize its experiential rather than its intellectual aspects will be bewildered by this text, though some academic specialists may appreciate its dizzying breadth. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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Kabbalah and Interpretation

By Moshe Idel


Copyright © 2002 Moshe Idel.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0300083793

Chapter One

The entire Torah is not [embodied] in the world
But the entire world is Torah.

Although most of the following discussion will rotate around the Hebrew Bible, its various perceptions and multiple modes of interpretations, it is hard to delineate a systematic textology, namely a unified approach to the status and nature of the biblical text, or of the ways of its interpretation in the biblical literature. Those concerns arise gradually in the Jewish postbiblical literatures. In this chapter I shall address succinctly the expansion of the status of the biblical text in ancient Jewish sources and one of their later major reverberations.

    The nature of midrashic exegesis is determined by two main components of the interpretive experience: the text and the interpreter. The text is the canonized Hebrew Bible, whose precise borders are delimited and whose sacrosanct status is sealed. The situation of the interpreter is altogether different. As the text became fixed, the terms of the interpreter's task altered. The divine spirit, which was conceived of as instrumental in the formation of the canon, was then excluded from the interpretive process. The rabbinic interpreter, no more than a simple human being before divine revelation, had now to function without the divine help so necessary to fathoming the messages inherent in the text. In penetrating the intricacies of the Bible, he had only two tools: the tradition he inherited and his own intellectual abilities and capacity to apply the authorized rules of interpretation. The Godhead was now conceived of as expecting that man, on his own, would articulate His intentions as instilled for eternity within the revealed book, and He Himself was portrayed as an arduous student of the Torah.

    Man faced, then, a silent Godhead and a text conceived of for centuries as the single authoritative source of divine guidance. No wonder that close scrutiny of the Bible, motivated by and combined with an overwhelming conviction that everything is hinted at or solved by the biblical verses, became the main intellectual activity of Jewish spiritual leadership. The whole of its literary output in the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods was aimed at elucidating the legal part of the Bible and explaining its narrative portions. The authoritative rabbinic Jewish texts were regarded as but pleiades of stars rotating around the Bible, while the other kinds of texts (philosophical, historical, apocalyptic, magical, mystical, or literary) were successfully excluded from the rabbinic universe and condemned to total oblivion. Some remnants of the nonrabbinic Jewish literary creations that did survive became planets in Christian literatures; only seldom did they penetrate the rabbinic firmaments. Other texts were simply suppressed, though they continued to be esoterically transmitted among select groups. Such was the case with various types of mystical treatise (the greatest of these coming to comprise the so-called Heikhalot literature) as well as with certain magical texts that remained in usage in more popular circles.

    This "purification" of Jewish literature contributed to the emergence of a relatively uniform attitude toward the biblical text. But the apocalyptical, magical, mythical, and mystical perceptions of this text, which, naturally, could not be totally eradicated, continued to survive as vague hints or fragments incorporated into classical rabbinic literature. This literature, which was intended as a vast interpretation of the canon for the benefit of the large Jewish public, was consumed by a community who sought in it the guidance and instruction that it was once the role of the prophet or priest to supply.

    Let us delve briefly into the main components of the midrashic literature examined from the point of view of its hermeneutics. (Some of the more technical issues will be addressed later, in Chapter 6.) First and foremost, it seems that its disseminators were leading figures in Jewish communities or academies, speakers who delivered their homilies before an open audience without any restrictions regarding the age or the competence of the participants. The language of their discourses was generally perspicuous and aimed at explaining relatively simple items related to the biblical texts. Such explanation was usually achieved without resort to complex or systematic theological concepts. Further, these homilies took the form, it seems, of primarily oral speeches, delivered as part of or in connection with the oral religious service. The language of these homilies served a highly social function, its central feature being its public or collective communication. Indeed, there is a strong affinity that links the ancient Jewish interpreter, using authorized hermeneutic devices and perceiving the text as speaking mainly to the Jewish community, and the plain, public language he used in order to deliver his message. In effect, one implies the other.

    As long as Jewish culture was given the chance to develop more or less autonomously, without a close encounter with or pressure from other theological systems, it generated mostly self-interpretative literature of this type. However, when attacked or criticized by sectarians, like the Karaites, or by outsiders, like the Islamic theologians, some Jewish masters reacted by absorbing some of the theological positions of their opponents, trying thereby to evidence the complete compatibility of Jewish texts with the intellectual standards of other traditions, such as Islamic Kalam or Aristotelianism. One of the most dramatic consequences of this apologetic reinterpretation of Judaism was the further suppression of some of the apocalyptic, magical, mythical, and mystical elements that survived in a diluted fashion in rabbinic sources, or in their primary form in Hebrew texts existing outside the authoritative Jewish literature. But just as the purification of Jewish literature caused a relocation of the mysterious, mystical, or magical elements in. Midrash, so the rationalistic reconstructions of Judaism prompted a powerful reaction from a variety of circles, wherein an amalgam of older traditions, including the same mystical, mythical, and magical elements, came to the surface in more overt and more crystallized forms.

Let me list what I understand as the four major characteristics of the postbiblical rabbinic conceptualization of the Torah, which apparently are new in this literature. They constitute the rabbinic imaginaire that redefined the boundaries of the Torah. As some of these features have been dealt with elsewhere in scholarship, and as the present framework strives to portray the Jewish mystical literatures, I cannot offer in this chapter a detailed analysis of all these characteristics but will elaborate on the first two alone. Naturally, they do not exhaust the rich gamut of understandings of the Torah in these literatures.

1. Torah is conceived of as a preexistent entity, which not only precedes the creation of the world but also serves as the paradigm of its creation.

2. Torah encompasses the whole range of supernal and mundane knowledge, serving thereby as the depository of the perfect and complete gnosis and as an indispensable bridge between man and the divine.

3. Torah study is a religious imperative, as it embodies the will of God, which has to be further explicated by the intense devotion to the perusal and analysis of the contents inherent in the biblical text. Even God was not exempted from this religious obligation, and His study of the Torah became a leitmotif in rabbinic thought.

4. Torah is regarded, in some rabbinic texts and in a plethora of Kabbalistic ones, as the "daughter" of God?

    Such a special status of the text is different from that of the myths prevalent among the ancients and medieval Gnostics, or the various forms of pagan myths in the Near East, or those types of myths that were preferred in the regular scholarly expositions of the nature of mythology. First and foremost, in rabbinic sources there is an hypostatical understanding of the Torah, but not, insofar as ancient texts are concerned, a full personification. The sacred book does not possess a changing will of itself but rather embodies the dynamic will of its author. It has a feminine gender but only very marginally is it described in an erotic or sexual manner or characterized as playing the role of the divine wife or a goddess, though a more erotic role may be detected in the context of the relationship between the Torah and the people of Israel. This last role was already "occupied" in Jewish thought by other hypostases, like those that represent the collective Jewish nation (knesset yisra'el) or the iconic representation of Jacob engraved on the divine throne.

    However, even these obvious differences between the more common Near Eastern myths and the above descriptions of the Torah cannot attenuate the mythological nature of the conception of this literary entity in some important trends of rabbinism. Its conceptualization proposes a canonization of events (some of them primordial) and of ritual by telescoping them into a mythical zone; I propose to call this literary zone a mesocosmos, an ontological universe that is the prototype of both cosmogonic processes and human behavior. According to some rabbinic texts, the Torah includes even directives concerning how to influence the status of the divine power. This radical ontologization of the Torah in rabbinism is of paramount importance for understanding some later basic developments in Kabbalistic ontology in general and Kabbalistic textology in particular. The ontological approach to the sacred text, which sometimes may presuppose a unique status for Hebrew, serves as one of the most powerful nexuses between the rabbinic literature, interested mostly in the ritual and legendary aspects of the Bible, and the theosophical Kabbalah, which projected the primordial Torah into the bosom of the divine.

In this section I would like to point out the existence of the concept of a hidden layer of the Torah in writings that predate both Kabbalistic literature and the masters of Hasidei Ashkenaz. The existence of such an understanding means that the dynamics of the development of the processes of arcanization will have to be analyzed as starting much earlier and to take into consideration presymbolic secret layers. It seems that without allowing magical arcanization a role in subsequent hermeneutical developments, the picture of Jewish hermeneutics will remain fragmentary.

    The reception of the Torah by Moses in heaven has been described in several rabbinic and Jewish magical sources as preceded by a contest between him and the angels. After Moses' victory, the angels, which previously had opposed God's revealing the Torah to him, gave him the secret divine names. Thus, the reception of the Torah was accompanied, according to several early medieval sources, by the disclosure of divine names—secret formulas, many of them unknown in classical Jewish texts and conceived as reflecting divine powers or attributes. The most important discussion of this issue, found in the preface of a magical book entitled Ma'ayan ha-Hokhmah, will be translated and discussed later. The assumption that potent names emerge out of the verses of the Torah has been expressed in Ma'ayan ha-Hokhmah by the verb yotze'im, which means "go out." In that context it appears that a certain linguistic exegetical technique is able to extract from a regular verse something that is found in it. Interestingly enough, an early medieval midrash, called Midrash Konen, explains an operation performed by God himself on the text of the Torah: "He took the Torah and opened it and took out from her one name, which has not been transmitted to any creature, as it is written, 'This is my name forever' ... He opened the Torah and took out a second name ... He opened the Torah and took out a third name."

    The opening of the Torah and the taking out of names seem to reflect a certain understanding of the "emergence" of the names from the text, conceived of now as a box where the names are deposited and, presumably, kept in secret. This implies another type of imaginary, in comparison to that of Ma'ayan ha-Hokhmah, where the secrets, though also closely related to the text of the Torah, are disclosed by an external agent; angels, which teach Moses where precisely in the Bible to find the verse that generates the name pertinent to the cure of a malady or offering a remedy for a certain problem. In Midrash Konen, however, the Torah is conceived of as preexisting creation and as the source of the creative processes, by means of three divine names found in it. Let me designate this approach as intratextual. It means that the additional layer of understanding of some parts of the Torah is generated by a rearrangement of the linguistic units that constitute the interpreted text, an approach I propose to call intracorporal, not by the introduction of an elaborate nomenclature whose conceptualization is extraneous to the interpreted text—what may be referred to as the extratetextual or intercorporal approach. This approach is closer to a use of the Torah than an interpretation of it, though the rearrangement of the linguistic material is presented as disclosing a dimension within the canonical text.

In the vast talmudic-midrashic literature several different ways of understanding the biblical account of creation are present. One of them, possibly influenced by Platonic thought, portrays God as consulting or contemplating the Torah as an architectonic model and creating the world according to its pattern. The universe of language, as it was preestablished in the sacrosanct structure of the canon, is, according to such a view, the blueprint of the material cosmos. The peculiar arrangement of the linguistic material in the Torah is apparently regarded as compelling God Himself. He is now conceived of not as a totally free agent, a creator who may shape the nature of the world according to His unpredictable will, but as a power that enacts, on another plane and using other material, the content of a preexistent Torah. The act of creation is, in this view, an act of imposing the inner structure of the Torah on an undefined material. What seems to be absent from this description is the conception that letters are the raw material out of which the world is going to be created. Its primary material, its hyle, is not specified, but its "form," to speak in Aristotelian terms, is language as embodied in the Torah.

    Interestingly, this presentation of creation did not specify whether God's contemplation of the Torah was accompanied by a pronunciation of its content as part of creation. This way of describing the creational process envisions Torah as the paradigm and is especially important for understanding the paramount centrality of Torah in Judaism, more specifically its commandments, whose performance is regarded as safeguarding the existence of heaven and earth.

    Another version of creation connected to language is expressed, tangentially, in a well-known statement according to which Bezalel created the tabernacle using his knowledge of the way heaven and earth were created by combination of letters. According to this interpretation of the talmudic statement, Bezalel was cognizant of this peculiar method of creation, namely the technique of combining letters rather than using letters as raw material, as implied in the interpretation proposed by Scholem. Depicted as the paragon of Jewish artisans, Bezalel was described as uniquely wise, his name being understood to mean "[being] in the shade of God." His knowledge of the combinatory device used by God, based on linguistic technique, enabled him to accomplish a creation that is second only to the creation of God—the creation of the tabernacle. The peculiar wisdom of the builder of the temple, Solomon, is well known; however, even he is not described as being in the possession of the combinatory practice that served God. In this description of creation, it is not clear whether God or Bezalel pronounced the peculiar combination of letters involved in the creational process.


Excerpted from ABSORBING PERFECTIONS by Moshe Idel. Copyright © 2002 by Moshe Idel. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Moshe Idel is Max Cooper Professor of Jewish Thought, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and senior researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute.


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