Shaul Magid has written a bold and intriguing book that should be stimulating to scholars of Jewish literature and intellectual thought. Utilizing five Scriptural narrativesone from each book of the ChumashMagid shows how Lurianic Kabbalists imposed their own particular mystical interpretation on Scripture. Reconstructing the Lurianic Kabbalists’ exegesis, he argues that their reading of Scripture linked contemporary sociological issues with metaphysical themes. Their most compelling societal issue was a preoccupation with the question of the conversos who wished to re-enter Judaism and the Jewish community. Their metaphysical preoccupation was the presence of Evil in a world that Torah proclaimed, "And God saw all that He had Made, and behold it was very good." Both these themes concerned a concept of "the Other."
Each of the Scriptural narratives that Magid presents is a case study of the Other. In Genesis, Magid presents the Lurianic interpretation of Adam’s sin as a way to introduce their view of Evil; in Exodus, he examines the Lurianic exegesis of the erev rav, the minority of non-Jews who accompanied the Jews out of Egypt, and who were responsible, according to some rabbinic interpretations, for the sin of the golden calf. In Leviticus, he discusses the prohibition against male homosexuality. In Numbers, Balaam is presented as the Other in contrast to Moses. And in Deuteronomy, the Torah as authoritative text is the Other when juxtaposed with the authority that is vested in the person Moses. In each case study, the Other turns out to be not a true other but a complementpart of a duality that is necessary for certain historical and metaphysical processes to complete their mission.
Magid notes that making the Other (always ontologically impure) part of one’s self is a paradoxical move for a religion that proclaims its special election as a "people apart," and who live lives of distinctiveness and separation. Magid explains that Lurianic thinkers can incorporate the impure into the pure because they hold a worldview that "all things contain their opposite; consequently, all otherness is only a temporary instantiation of the self."
Chapters One and Two provide readers enough background information to understand the assumptions of Lurianic Kabbala. Magid introduces the notion of the sephirot, entities that, depending on what kabbalistic system one studies, are alternatively regarded as building blocks of the universe or aspects of God (often characterized as the entities that constitute the personality of God). In the Lurianic system, there is a reciprocal relationshipan ebb and flowbetween the actions of people and the sephirot: the smallest movement in one realm effects the entire configuration of the other realm. Thus, the sephirot and creation are ontologically and cosmologically seamless. Adding to this seamlessness is the notion of soul inheritance (gilgul), which is a kind of recycling of souls into other souls.
In the case study on Adam’s sin, the system works in the following way: the sephirot that constitute primal Adam sin with the primal serpent, resulting in a spiritual or metaphysical blot on the soul. This blot is transmitted to the earthly Adam who passes it along to Cain and Abel. As Magid explains: "More than being born after the sin, here Cain and Abel are born in or as a result of the sin. They do not merely inherit the sin but essentially are the sin…. This affects their diminished soul construction and foreshadows their sinful behavior and the behavior of their soul progeny: the generation of the flood, of Babel, and of Sodom. Those born from Adam’s 130 years of spilled seed culminates in Jacob and his family’s descent to Egypt (Jacob being prefigured in Adam) resulting in the generation of Egypt... and the birth of Moses (prefigured as Seth)." For the Kabbalists, each stage of history is regarded as an opportunity to "repair" the sin of previous generations. This latent potential is called tikkun. In fact, the potential is always only partially fulfilled. Full success is only possible in messianic time. This pattern provides the kabbalists with an answer to the problem of Evil: we are diminished by evil (a notion, by the way, already found in the Talmud, e.g., Chagiga 12a) but we strive towards total redemption. The metaphysical "Other" (evil) turns out to be a necessary and unavoidable component of the structure of the universe. Ultimately, there is no real notion of otherness because Evil is an intrinsic part of creation and an essential part of the creation of Man with roots in the divine itself.
Magid also connects the story of Adam’s sin to the societal issue of the status of conversos. According to his thesis, the kabbalist’s version of creation and sin allows the converso, "burdened with the weight of sin from birth," to understand that his situation is "rooted in the highest realms of the cosmic world." Reconversion is simply another narrative of cosmic tikkun. Magid never claims that sixteenth-century Lurianic Kabbalists were adjudicating questions of whether coversos were Jews: "[W]hat I am doing is linking the historical fact with a particular literary trope as it appears in Lurianic exegesis and am suggesting how one may have informed the other."
The book also illustrates how this "taming" of the Other works in Lurianic Kabbala’s understanding of the role of the erev rav, the reality of male homosexuals, Balaam, and the transformation in Deuteronomy of text as the sole authority for a people who no longer have direct access to the person Moses. In a fascinating comparison of the Christian notion of incarnation (the divine became human in order that the human might become divine), Magid suggests that studying Torah triggers the divine in man: "The divine text (as divine names) and the zelem elohim [the image of God] in the human (also comprised of divine names according to these kabbalists) become activated through the engagement of text and person in the performance of study." The identification of text and person is a Jewish version of incarnation.
From Metaphysics to Midrash is rich in intriguing discussions about the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews, good and evil, God and man from the perspective of Lurianic Kabbalah’s interpretation of Scripture.Michael Nutkiewicz, University of New Mexico, Religious Studies Program, SHOFAR, (rec'd 2/10/09)