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Absorbing Perfections

Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation

Foreword by Harold Bloom
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 688
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    Absorbing Perfections
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13507-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Harold Bloom

    Moshe Idel, born in 1947, submitted his doctoral dissertation on the Kabbalah of Abraham Abulafia to the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, in 1976. In the quarter-century since, his researches and publications have reconfigured the field of Kabbalistic study, essentially founded by his majestic precursor, Gershom Scholem (1897–1982). Half-a-century younger than Scholem, Idel is both Scholem’s successor and his major revisionist. It is not too much to speak of the Kabbalah of Gershom Scholem and the Kabbalah of Moshe Idel, since these great scholars are as much visionary speculators as they are historians of what can be called “Jewish mysticism,” though...

    (pp. xv-xviii)
    (pp. 1-25)

    Two main processes informed most of the speculative hermeneutical corpora in the postbiblical forms of Judaism. The first is the expansion of the relevance of the content of the canonical texts to increasingly more cosmological, theosophical, intellectual, and psychological realms than those ancient texts themselves claimed to engage. This expansion is often related to processes of arcanization, secretive understandings of the canonical texts understood as pointing to these realms in allusive ways: anagrammatic, numerical, allegorical, or symbolic.

    The other main process is intimately intertwined with the first: it consists in the emergence of complex exegetical systems that present specific methods...

    (pp. 26-44)

    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...

  7. 2 THE GOD-ABSORBING TEXT: Black Fire on White Fire
    (pp. 45-79)

    Ancient Jewish monotheism was generally uncomfortable with the idea of the preexistence of any entity to the creation of the world, a premise that would imperil the uniqueness of God as the single creator. The coexistence of an additional entity would produce a theological dynamics that would question the most singular religious achievement of ancient Judaism. Implicitly, allowing any role to such a founding and formative entity would reintroduce a type of myth that could recall the pagan mythology, where once again the relationship between the preexistent deities as a crucial condition for the cosmogonic process would be thrown into...

    (pp. 80-110)

    The suppression of some conceptual elements and forms of discourse already found in ancient Jewish circles is characteristic of the rather homogeneous type of rabbinic discourse. Though allowing divergences of opinion and, one may even claim, encouraging, preserving, and studying them for generations, the ancient rabbis nevertheless controlled the nature of the topics on which divergences are allowed. No allegorical or symbolic interpretations of the Bible, abundant as they were in Alexandrian Judaism (especially Philo), were given access to the exegetical methods characteristic of rabbinic literature. Alchemy, astrology, philosophy, and physical sciences remained at the margin of rabbinic discourse. A...

    (pp. 111-136)

    Books are not simply literary objects to be arranged carefully on library shelves; neither are they simple mediators of ideas between minds or media for, to resort to Ricoeur’s felicitous term, “proposed worlds.”¹ They are also nebulas created by rumors, religious belief, wise advertisement, or, in more modern times, the consumption of a variety of critiques. They are units that constitute intellectual fashions, which in turn create predispositions toward the reception and digestion of their own and other books’ content. Books, especially famous books, possess auras that may enwrap them long before most of their readers open them. The social...

    (pp. 137-163)

    In the previous chapters I analyzed views of the Jewish canonical texts that I describe as “absorbing.” I use this term in order to convey the expanding comprehensiveness of the concept of the text which, moving to the center of the Jewish society, also integrated attributes reminiscent of wider entities like the world or God. This expansion facilitated the attribution of more dynamic qualities to the text conceived of as capable of allowing various types of influences on processes taking place in the world, in God, and in the human psyche. I would now like to examine some views found...

    (pp. 164-201)

    The biblical attitude toward the recipients of the divine message surmised rather obedient personalities, envisioned as consumers of the revelation who yielded to the divine will and fulfilled the religious imperatives, which were considered semantically transparent. Living in what was believed to be a pressing presence of the divine in daily life, a life punctuated by miracles, there was no significant role for the religious creativity of the believer. With the emergence of the canonical text as intermediary between the Author and the religious consumer, the situation changed. According to rabbinic stands, the divine text not only mediates between the...

    (pp. 202-220)

    In its biblical forms, Judaism is a rather exoteric and democratic type of religiosity. The emphasis on making the teaching of the revealed instructions open to all classes of Israelites and the paramount importance of making religious actions open, in most cases, to all members of the nation, marginalize during the biblical phase of Judaism the surfacing and privileging of mysteries and secrets. Some of the subsequent phases of Judaism can, however, be described as part of an ongoing process of arcanization, to use a term I adopt from Jan Assmann,¹ which means that the common texts and actions become...

    (pp. 221-249)

    In the present and following chapters I would like to address two different forms of Jewish exegesis, to be distinguished by whether they anchor themselves in the semantic or the parasemantic aspects of the interpreted text. The former is represented substantially by the midrashic writings, the halakhic treatises, most of the theosophical-theurgical Kabbalistic literature, and Jewish philosophical allegoresis. The parasemantic aspects of the interpreted texts, on the other hand, are put into relief by the Heikhalot literature, some late midrashim (likeMidrash Konen), Hasidei Ashkenaz esoteric corpora, and some advanced stages of the exegetical enterprise of the ecstatic Kabbalah. Although...

    (pp. 250-271)

    The eleventh through thirteenth centuries produced the most important exegetical literature of the Middle Ages and made a substantial contribution to the canonical writings in this genre. Rashi and his French followers, Abraham ibn Ezra, Nahmanides, and theZoharrepresent the best of the medieval commentaries that not only became classics but also illustrate different intellectual attitudes toward the Bible and epitomize the main forms of Jewish spirituality of the period. Rashi was the master of the plain sense; the renowned philosopher and astronomer Abraham ibn Ezra opened vistas for understanding the Bible in terms of new forms of knowledge...

    (pp. 272-313)

    The biblical and the rabbinic literatures are devoid of substantial symbolic propensities, if by symbolism we understand a way of reflecting the divine attributes or worlds by means of a sustained exegesis of the sacred scriptures. The emergence of forms of Kabbalah that display a vigorous symbolic mode of interpretation, and the composition of a book that is informed by a symbolic code and becomes canonical, are therefore sharp departures from the royal road of expression and interpretation dominant, previously, in those forms of religious literature.¹ Interestingly, even after the ascent of this figurative mode in some Kabbalistic writings, symbolic...

    (pp. 314-351)

    As we have just seen, some modern scholars assumed the ubiquity of the symbolic mode of expression in Kabbalah as a whole, even portraying it as completely different from allegorical types of expression, which they regarded as representative of Jewish philosophical literature. Indeed, interpretive allegory, or allegorization, is one of the outstanding spiritual imports into the exegetical arsenal of Jewish hermeneutics. Despite Philo of Alexandria’s great contributions to the emergence and development of allegorical exegesis in early Christianity and, to a lesser extent, to allegory in Western medieval exegesis, his exegetical approach to the Bible was completely rejected in the...

  17. 12 TZERUFEI ’OTIYYOT: Mutability and Accommodation of the Torah in Jewish Mysticism
    (pp. 352-389)

    The absorbing quality of the Torah, a trait related to many of the issues we have addressed so far in this book, assumes that the nontextual reality either is a small part of the broader textual reality or is sustained by it. This nontextual reality was conceived of as consonant with the textual one and as reflecting changes taking place within it. The leading assumption has been, nevertheless, that the textuality of existence is informed by the temporal and hierarchical priority of the concept of the Torah, whose structure and content reality is believed to imitate. In one way or...

    (pp. 390-409)

    So far we have examined the different ways in which the worlds of the sacred texts were imagined by various Jewish mystical thinkers and how they interpreted those books. In the past few chapters the emphasis has been on explicating the exegetical techniques, which offered the strong exegetes the possibility of discovering, in fact rediscovering, religious worlds that had previously been adopted by the Kabbalists, or sometimes by their philosophical sources, from a variety of relatively late intellectual and literary corpora—mostly Greek thought as translated and adapted in Arabic and, less frequently, Latin. We should be aware, however, that...

    (pp. 410-428)

    The different forms of Kabbalah demonstrate the existence of significant instances of linguocentric forms of mysticism. They not only emphasize the holiness of Hebrew language, in a way that is reminiscent of two important forms of Muslim and Hindu mysticism or of the importance of the text, as is the case in many kinds of mysticism, but also assume that it is within language and through the text—though not exclusively—that the mystical experience can be attained. Many authors whose writings constitute the mystical literature of Western Christianity envisioned the human soul and the introvert path as the major...

  20. APPENDIX 1 Pardes: The Fourfold Method of Interpretation
    (pp. 429-437)
  21. APPENDIX 2 Abraham Abulafia’s Torah of Blood and Ink
    (pp. 438-448)
  22. APPENDIX 3 R. Isaac of Acre’s Exegetical Quandary
    (pp. 449-460)
  23. APPENDIX 4 The Exile of the Torah and the Imprisonment of Secrets
    (pp. 461-469)
  24. APPENDIX 5 On Oral Torah and Multiple Interpretations in Hasidism
    (pp. 470-481)
  25. APPENDIX 6 “Book of God”/“Book of Law” in Late-Fifteenth-Century Florence
    (pp. 482-492)
  26. NOTES
    (pp. 493-618)
    (pp. 619-646)
  28. INDEX
    (pp. 647-668)