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Concealment and Revelation

Concealment and Revelation: Esotericism in Jewish Thought and its Philosophical Implications

Moshe Halbertal
Translated by Jackie Feldman
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 212
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  • Book Info
    Concealment and Revelation
    Book Description:

    During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, great new trends of Jewish thought emerged whose widely varied representatives--Kabbalists, philosophers, and astrologers--each claimed that their particular understanding revealed the actual secret of the Torah. They presented their own readings in a coded fashion that has come to be regarded by many as the very essence of esotericism.Concealment and Revelationtakes us on a fascinating journey to the depths of the esoteric imagination. Carefully tracing the rise of esotericism and its function in medieval Jewish thought, Moshe Halbertal's richly detailed historical and cultural analysis gradually builds conceptual-philosophical force to culminate in a masterful phenomenological taxonomy of esotericism and its paradoxes.

    Among the questions addressed: What are the internal justifications that esoteric traditions provide for their own existence, especially in the Jewish world, in which the spread of knowledge was of great importance? How do esoteric teachings coexist with the revealed tradition, and what is the relationship between the various esoteric teachings that compete with that revealed tradition?

    Halbertal concludes that, through the medium of the concealed, Jewish thinkers integrated into the heart of the Jewish tradition diverse cultural influences such as Aristotelianism, Neoplatonism, and Hermeticisims. And the creation of an added concealed layer, unregulated and open-ended, became the source of the most daring and radical interpretations of the tradition.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2796-1
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. A Note on Editions Used
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    Esoteric teachings form a body of knowledge whose dissemination is severely restricted. These restrictions are meant to carefully filter the listening public in the case of oral transmission, and to impose limits on copying and circulation, and later on the printing, of the written word. As a result of these restrictions, complex strategies of encoding and double speech and writing were developed, which enabled the transmission of secret information to the worthy elect, without preliminary filtering of the congregation of listeners or readers. Esotericism as a general attitude, in distinction from actual esoteric practice, is a tendency to view canonical...

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Paradox of Esotericism: “And Not on the Chariot Alone”
    (pp. 8-12)

    The classical foundational text for the existence of a realm of secret knowledge within Jewish tradition is the Mishna in the tractate Hagiga 2:1:

    The [subject of] forbidden sexual relations may not be expounded before three persons, nor the work of creation before two, nor [the work of] the chariot before one alone, unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge. (p. 59)

    More than any other source, this Mishna—which dates to the second century, though it might reflect earlier traditions—granted legal authority to the claim that there is a secret dimension to the Jewish...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Hidden and the Sublime: Vision and Restriction in the Bible and in Talmudic Literature
    (pp. 13-17)

    The mishna in Ḥagiga that we have studied does not tell us why there is a need to restrict the number of students. With respect to the restrictions on exegesis of matters of incest, many suggestions have been raised and the issue is still a mystery. The restriction on the study of the chariot is explained by the Jerusalem Talmud as follows: “‘Nor the chariot before one alone’—is this also according to Rabbi Akiba? It is the opinion of all. So that one will know how to render proper respect to the honor of his Creator” (JT Ḥagiga 2:1,...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Ethics of Gazing: The Attitude of Early Jewish Mysticism Toward Seeing the Chariot
    (pp. 18-27)

    The relation that we find in talmudic literature between the vision of the deity and the restriction of looking at Him is linked to the nature of early Jewish mysticism in general. It is reflected in the Hekhalot literature, whose epitome is the crossing of the border of heaven and the vision of God in all his beauty and splendor. We do not know the identity of the circles in which this early level of Jewish mysticism originated; the date and place of composition, as well as the degree of unity of the works of Hekhalot literature, are also disputed...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Concealment and Power: Magic and Esotericism in the Hekhalot Literature
    (pp. 28-33)

    In the hekhalot literature, as we mentioned earlier, there is one focus that deals not with the image of God, but with His names; this theme has its own esoteric logic. The esotericist transmits the names designating the essence of God and His powers. Through the proper enunciation or writing of these names, one may activate the creative power of the godhead or of the angels. These names were transmitted to Rabbi Akiba: “This is the name that was revealed unto Rabbi Akiba, as he was gazing at the vision of the chariot, and Rabbi Akiba descended and taught it...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Esotericism and Commentary: Ibn Ezra and the Exegetical Layer
    (pp. 34-43)

    The earliest source dealing with the attitude of rabbinic authorities to the Hekhalot literature is the discussion in the tenth century between Rav Shrira Gaon and his son Rav Hai Gaon and the community of Fez on the nature of the compositionShi’ur Komah. Rav Shrira Gaon and Rav Hai Gaon were the heads of the academy in Pumpedita in Babylonia at the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh centuries. In their capacity as the authoritative rabbinic leaders of the era they corresponded with the vast Jewish diaspora concerning legal and theological matters. In a question addressed to Rav...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Concealment and Heresy: Astrology and the Secret of the Torah
    (pp. 44-48)

    A more detailed examination of the concept of esotericism in the writings of Ibn Ezra can illuminate another essential element of the esoteric idea in the Middle Ages. In Ibn Ezra’s commentaries, as we have seen, the esoteric refers to astrological and magic knowledge that elucidates the inner level of the text. This knowledge is the key to understanding various aspects of the commandments and of ritual, and also helps us comprehend miracles. This layer, does not, however, merely exist alongside the revealed level of meaning. This deeper layer is in profound tension with the revealed level; the crux of...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Double Language and the Divided Public in Guide of the Perplexed
    (pp. 49-59)

    The basic elements of the esoteric structure in the conception of Ibn Ezra are found in the writings of Maimonides as well. Maimonides’ works are the most important esoteric teachings of the philosophical movement in the Middle Ages. He was born in approximately 1135 and grew up in Cordova before being forced to immigrate to North Africa, and was thirty years old when Ibn Ezra died. He was the crown of the last generation of the great Jewish Andalusian tradition, which produced Ibn Ezra as well. As one of the most renowned legal authorities in the Jewish medieval world, Maimonides’...

  13. CHAPTER 8 The Breaching of the Limits of the Esoteric: Concealment and Disclosure in Maimonidean Esotericism
    (pp. 60-68)

    Maimonides invested significant efforts not only in expounding the secrets of the Torah, but also in order to explain, from various angles, why the category of concealment was necessary. Among all the medieval scholars who dealt with the secrets of the Torah, Maimonides dealt most systematically with the esoteric idea, as well as with the method of writing his own esoteric teachings. Maimonides’ extensive attempt in clarifying why esotericism was needed was an integral part of his exegetical strategy. He explained to the perplexed person that the Scriptures contain a concealed layer of meaning that can resolve his perplexity; in...

  14. CHAPTER 9 From Transmission to Writing: Hinting, Leaking, and Orthodoxy in Early Kabbalah
    (pp. 69-76)

    In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, while Ibn Ezra’s and Maimonides’ esoteric projects were flourishing, a parallel yet strikingly different esoteric option emerged through the various traditions of the Kabbalah. This form of Jewish mysticism, quite distinct from its earlier tradition of the Hekhalot, constructed divinity as a living organism emanating from the depth of God’s infinite essence into his revealed and complex dimensions—thesefirot. The first text that testified to this form of esoteric knowledge was the book ofBahir, which surfaced in Provence in the middle of the twelfth century. The earlier kabbalistic centers known to us...

  15. CHAPTER 10 Open Knowledge and Closed Knowledge: The Kabbalists of Gerona—Rabbi Azriel and Rabbi Ya’akov bar Sheshet
    (pp. 77-82)

    The works of the kabbalists of Gerona, all of them active at the first half of the thirteenth century—Rabbi Ezra, Rabbi Azriel, and, subsequently, Rabbi Ya’akov bar Sheshet—induced the dramatic change in the means of transmission of kabbalistic knowledge, as we discussed above. Rabbi Asher ben David explained the change effected by these kabbalists as the product of an uncontrollable desire for publicity. A closer look at their words and their styles of writing, however, discloses their underlying positions with respect to the nature of kabbalistic knowledge, which resulted in these changes in the means of its transmission....

  16. CHAPTER 11 Tradition, Closed Knowledge, and the Esoteric: Secrecy and Hinting in Nahmanides’ Kabbalah
    (pp. 83-92)

    In the introduction to his commentary on the Penateuch, Nahmanides specifies his position with respect to the question of the esoteric nature of the Kabbalah:

    Now behold I bring into a faithful covenant and give proper counsel to all who look into this book not to reason or entertain any thought concerning any of the hints which I write regarding the hidden matters of the Torah, for I do hereby firmly make known to him [the reader] that my words will not be comprehended nor known at all by any reasoning or contemplation, excepting from the mouth of a wise...

  17. CHAPTER 12 From Tradition to Literature: Shem Tov Ibn Gaon and the Critique of Kabbalistic Literature
    (pp. 93-104)

    The attempts of Naḥmanides to restore the limits of secrecy, and subsequently the attempts of the Rashba (Shlomo ibn Adret), Namanides’ great student and his heir as the main talmudic authority of Spanish Jewry, and the Rashba’s own students, do not reflect the state of esotericism in the thirteenth century. The conception of the Kabbalah as a tradition given to Moses on Mount Sinai, which Nahmanides attempted to marshal in order to grant his kabbalistic position absolute authority, disintegrated when faced with alternative formulations of kabbalistic knowledge. The writings of the kabbalists of Castile, who were active in the mid-thirteenth...

  18. CHAPTER 13 “The Widening of the Apertures of the Showpiece”: Shmuel Ibn Tibon and the End of the Era of Esotericism
    (pp. 105-113)

    The tension between concealment and disclosure in the kabbalistic tradition of the thirteenth century, the process of erosion of the boundaries of secrecy and the attempt to re-erect them later on in that century, find a parallel in a similar process within the Maimonidean tradition in that century. The height of this process is the dispute over the teaching of philosophy in the early fourteenth century, in which the question of the status of philosophy as an esoteric realm of knowledge broke forth in full force. The great change in the molds of esoteric writing in the philosophical tradition took...

  19. CHAPTER 14 Esotericism, Sermons, and Curricula: Ya’akov Anatoli and the Dissemination of the Secret
    (pp. 114-119)

    The process of the transformation of philosophy into an exoteric culture in the thirteenth century, which was vigorously launched in the writings of Shmuel Ibn Tibon, continued on two levels: the first, the development of a literature of philosophical homilies, and the other, an attempt at anchoring the philosophical educational program as the central element of the Jewish curriculum. The process of expansion and dissemination of philosophical Torah secrets took place mainly in Provence, where Maimonidean culture gained the upper hand. This process, however, did not come about without struggle, a struggle that also touched upon the determination of the...

  20. CHAPTER 15 The Ambivalence of Secrecy: The Dispute over Philosophy in the Early Fourteenth Century
    (pp. 120-134)

    At the core of the dispute over the study of philosophy that raged in Provence in the early fourteenth century was the rise of the philosophical sermons and the transformation of the curriculum, the two elements emphasized in Anatoli’s writings, whose influence on the esoteric structure was far-reaching. This dispute deserves to be examined in detail, as it deals entirely with the problem of secrecy. Here, the tensions between disclosure and concealment, which developed in the thirteenth century, erupted into a fierce dispute transcending communal borders.¹ According to the testimony of the instigator of this dispute, Abba Mari, the event...

  21. CHAPTER 16 Esotericism, Discontent, and Co-Existence
    (pp. 135-141)

    Esoteric doctrine, as we have seen, was the most unguarded area of the tradition, precisely because it was the most guarded and protected of all. Secrecy is the medium that enables integration of different cultural contexts into the tradition. Under the cloak of esotericism, radically conflicting positions were integrated into the heart of Judaism. Each of these positions granted totally different significance to the meaning of halakhah and the system of Jewish beliefs. But as long as each side guarded its Torah secrets in secret, the radical multiplicity of competing and conflicting positions could be tolerated. The open and revealed...

  22. CHAPTER 17 Taxonomy and Paradoxes of Esotericism: Conceptual Conclusion
    (pp. 142-168)

    The historical material examined thus far gives rise to three kinds of esotericism which will guide the taxonomy of the hidden and concealed—theinternal, theinstrumental, and theessential. The primary motivating force for the existence of an esoteric hidden domain is based on an internal non-instrumental motivation that establishes a connection between the transcendence and the hidden, or in reverse between exposure and violation. Unlike internal non-instrumental arguments, instrumental reasons for esotericism argue for the problematic consequences of revealing knowledge. The procedure of producing nuclear bombs, for example, should not be disclosed since it will fall in the...

  23. Notes
    (pp. 169-190)
  24. Index
    (pp. 191-200)