Behind a Veil of Words

The Polymath

By Jay Michaelson

Published May 22, 2008, issue of May 30, 2008.
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Concealment and Revelation: Esotericism in Jewish Thought and Its Philosophical Implications
By Moshe Halbertal
Translated by Jackie Feldman
Princeton University Press, 
212 pages, $29.95.

A few years ago I was sitting on an airplane, and a woman next to me was reading “The Da Vinci Code.” At some point we got to talking, and I mentioned that I study Kabbalah. She was very interested and, after peppering me with questions for several minutes, said, conclusively, “Well, I definitely believe that this” — she waved her hand dismissively — “is not all there is.”

Such is the appeal of esotericism, ancient and modern. The notion that there is more than “this,” with its finitude, absurdity and randomness, gives meaning to many religious lives. And the notion that it’s possible to know what lies beneath it animates the mystical and philosophical and arguably many artistic quests, as well. As Rachel Elior, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (and, full disclosure, my doctoral dissertation supervisor), has shown recently in her work, mysticism is, in part, a search for freedom — displaced to other realms in the face of this one’s servitude.

As Moshe Halbertal shows in his brilliant new book, though, the way we understand the “hidden” has evolved over time. Halbertal argues that the three strands of Jewish esotericism that all developed in the 12th and 13th centuries — Kabbalah, philosophy and astrology — created new ways of understanding secrecy and disclosure, concealment and revelation, and that these movements had an impact well beyond the Jewish world.

Initially, secret Jewish teachings were similar to a secret you might tell a friend, Halbertal writes. They were concealed by means of limited distribution. Hechalot and Merkavah texts remain somewhat puzzling, but in general they disclose everything — once you’re able to get your hands on them. Later, however, a new form of esotericism emerged, one in which the text could be revealed, but its meaning remained concealed to all but the few who know how to read it.

For example, today you can buy a translation of Maimonides’s “The Guide for the Perplexed” in any Jewish bookstore. But as anyone who has tried to study it knows, the book is practically written in code. The chapters are out of order, the teachings refer to each other in bewildering ways, and many ideas are merely hinted at, not expressed overtly at all. This is, of course, the point. Many of the ideas in the “Guide” are theologically dangerous, even today, and Maimonides knew that while his intended audience was limited to the philosophical elite, the book was certain to fall into less-educated hands, as well. He designed the book so that you won’t understand it if you don’t know a certain amount in advance.

Likewise, early kabbalistic texts such as the “Sefer HaBahir”; ironically titled “the book of clarity or brilliance,” it is all but indecipherable to one who does not understand the basics of kabbalistic symbolism. And likewise the astrological interpretations of Ibn Ezra; perhaps the most surprising to lay readers, astrology was prevalent in the medieval period, and a central influence on many classical biblical commentators, but it was discussed in vague terms that only initiates would recognize.

Halbertal shows that the deepest secrets, in all three of these traditions, are precisely those that were most foreign to Jewish tradition as it existed at the time. He writes that “the realm of the esoteric is… a shelter for positions that appear unorthodox or heretical.” For example, Ibn Ezra’s astrological view totally inverts the traditional understanding of sacrificial worship. In the traditional model, God is in total control and the Temple is where Israel offers sacrifices to please Him. In the astrological model, however, the Temple is “an instrument for attracting forces, according to the magic astral conception.” In other words, human beings exercise control over an essentially mechanistic universe. This is a radical — heretical, Halbertal argues — shift, and so Ibn Ezra hides it within his commentary, but provides hints like, “If the Lord has placed wisdom in your heart, you will understand the secret.”

Even more importantly, this esoteric hermeneutic is applied to the Torah itself. Not only are the “Guide,” the Zohar and Ibn Ezra’s commentaries written on two levels, but, for these sages, the Torah is, too. “Within the words of the Torah,” Ibn Ezra writes, “we must investigate the names of the glorious and awesome God, and profound secrets in the commandments and laws as well, which no fool’s eye has beheld, and which are known only to the instructed.” This notion is similar to the Zohar’s teaching that the stories and laws of the Torah are but its outer garments. Indeed, the Zohar outrageously says, other books from other cultures have better stories, so if that were the point, we should read those books instead. And it resembles Maimonides’s view that the real meaning of the Torah is its hidden, philosophical meaning; the stories and anthropomorphic god-talk are just there for the unenlightened.

However familiar such notions are today, Halbertal shows how radical they are, as well. Normative Judaism is, by and large, constructed on the exoteric meaning of the Torah. But for esotericists, like my friend on the airplane, “this is not all there is” — in this case, “this” meaning the foundation of Jewish religious life.

And even that is not all. Here is Halbertal on the effect of esoteric thought on the very notion of normativity:

We may say of all medieval esoteric doctrines that, as a rule, each one of them deeply undermines the structure of revealed faith as it appears in Scripture and in the Midrash. The esoteric has a subversive aspect, which effectively precludes any decisive formulation of principles of faith, which might serve as a kind of Jewish dogma. The multiplicity of contradictory esoteric positions makes the formulation of Jewish theology an impossible mission. The esoteric is a wide field, which enables apparently heretical positions to thrive. In other words, not only does esotericism displace the centrality of p’shat, or literal meaning, of what the Torah seems to say; it displaces the notion that there ever can be a single authoritative meaning at all. This conclusion connects with Moshe Idel’s point, in “Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation,” that the Torah contains everything, and as such includes every possible meaning. It’s a kind of Scriptural Walt Whitman, who said: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself./(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

This seems exactly right. Once the esoteric is privileged, then multiple meanings are possible, and the notion of singular meaning is undermined. No wonder these books were written in code; with their methodologies, you can prove anything. Medieval esotericism was postmodernism before its time — which is why it was reserved for the elite. “Secrecy is the medium,” Halbertal writes, “that enables integration of different cultural contexts into the tradition…. [A]s long as each side guarded its Torah secrets in secret, the radical multiplicity of competing and conflicting positions could be tolerated.”

Of course, it didn’t always stay that way; all containers leak. Christian Kabbalah, New Age Kabbalah, popular astrology and magick — all these are examples of hermeneutical plenitude unmoored from both orthodoxy and careful reading. As Halbertal shows, esotericists were aware of these possibilities. Some were worried that the knowledge was simply dangerous, the theological equivalent of “the procedure of producing nuclear bombs.” Oth ers had a more subtle concern: that “the body of knowledge itself will be transformed and diminished by its disclosure.” Which, in the case of Kabbalah, is exactly what has happened today.

Toward the end of “Concealment and Revelation,” Halbertal attempts some wider points about these motivations. For example, he suggests that the fear of disclosure is like a fear of shaming, “a loss of [one’s] capacity to control the basic, most rudimentary forms of his appearance.” There is also, in precisely the act of concealment, a kind of “intimacy.” After all, if the Zohar sees the exoteric as the garments, then, as Halbertal says, “the Zohar perceived the deeper layers of Torah as God’s own body uncovered in the interpretive act.”

Halbertal focuses more on the negative here — “the very act of improper exposure is itself a violation and diminishment… in similar ways that pornography might be a diminishment of honor and love.” But I’m reminded of Foucault’s point that the more something is concealed, the more it is eroticized. This is what is so appealing, I think, to the reader of “The Da Vinci Code”: that the secret “something” is forbidden, and thus erotically charged. Perhaps it is no surprise that the same culture that gave us sheitels (wigs) and tznius (modesty) also gave us a secret tradition that — since the 18th century, anyway — you’re only supposed to learn once you’re 40.

The mark of a classic is that once you’ve read it, it seems patently obvious — but then you can’t quite remember reading it before. Clocking in at just 212 pages, Halbertal’s book is a masterpiece of economy. Though dense, it has an understated quality to it, and it is rendered in a clear and concise translation. And yet he says much, and proves it convincingly. Indeed, I’ve only summarized a few of his points here; the latter part of the book muses on war, antisemitism and myth, and engages with Sartre, Freud, Heidegger, Strauss and Arendt.

But its fundamental point is one that many Jews are discovering, in different contexts, today: We do not agree on the most basic meanings of our own religious tradition. In esoteric traditions, radically different notions of cosmology and religion coexisted, because they shared a superficial referent (Torah and the life of mitzvot) and conducted their disputes in code. Now, the code has been broken, and with it has come the very diminishment in intellectual religious discourse that Halbertal’s esotericists feared. Of course, freedom has come, too — if it’s been worth the price.


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