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Dialog on Kabbalah and Postmodernism


The Torah of the Tree of Life:

Kabbalistic Reflections on the Hermeneutics of Infinity in Scholem,

Idel, Dan, and Tishby


Sanford L. Drob, Ph.D


            Contemporary scholarship on the Kabbalah has focused considerable attention on the Kabbalist’s views of language and interpretation. One reason for this, as Moshe Idel and others have observed, is that there is an important affinity between the Kabbalistic conception of infinite layers of meaning in scripture and contemporary philosophical ideas regarding the infinite interpretability of both texts and the world. In this essay, I will review some recent scholarship on Kabbalistic hermeneutics.  I will attempt to show how a careful consideration of Kabbalistic notions of “infinite interpretation” will not only lead to a new understanding of the relevance of Kabbalah to contemporary thought, but also to a radical new understanding of the Kabbalah’s attitude toward  “Torah” and religious life.


Scholem: The Divine World of Language

            Gershom Scholem was perhaps the first modern scholar to note that for the Kabbalists, language plays a unique and foundational role for both the nature of the cosmos and the mystical ascent to the absolute. As Scholem observed, “the secret world of the godhead is a world of language.”[1] Scripture, and its constituent elements, stories, phrases, names, and, especially, the very letters of the Hebrew language carry a wealth of significance that goes far beyond their literal or conventional meaning. God is said to have looked into a Primordial Torah (Torah Kedumah) in order to create the world, and the cosmos, including the upper, divine worlds, is said to be comprised of the “foundational letters” (Otiyot Yesod) which through an infinity of recombinations produce everything that exists.[2] Conversely, the interpretive, hermeneutic, process is one that penetrates beyond the superficial appearance and significance of the letters, and is itself a mystical act that brings one into proximity with the divine essence.[3]         

According to the Kabbalists, it is the Torah which mediates the creative power of the holy letters, and the Torah itself is understood to be a changing organism whose very structure is transformed in response to alterations in the cosmos and the life of man. For the 16th century Safedian Kabbalist, Moses Cordovero, the Torah was originally a concatenation of divine letters, which as a result of the processes of creation and materialization, were combined into the names of God, divine predicates, and finally words and phrases referring to material objects earthly events.[4]  According to followers of Israel Sarug, an early expositor of the Lurianic Kabbalah, the original Torah, existing in the highest world of Atziluth, consisted of all possible combinations of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.[5] On this view, Torah becomes identical with the totality of linguistic possibility, i.e. all that can possibly be written and said, including that which is illogical, contradictory, or (from an ordinary linguistic perspective)  completely senseless. According to the early 18th century Kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu of Smyrna, when God looked into the original Torah “He had before Him numerous letters that were not joined into words as is the case today, because the actual arrangement of the words depend on the way in which this lower world conducted itself.”[6] For example, according to Rabbi Eliyahu, had Adam not sinned there would have been no death and hence no reference to death in the actual Torah. Eliyahu goes on to say that the absence of vowels in a Torah scroll to this day is an oblique reference to the time when the Torah was a heap of letters, yet unarranged.

The notion that Torah is a changeable organism, subject to recombinations of its elements generating new meanings in response to changing circumstances, suggests a plasticity in textual meaning that goes far beyond even the most radical contemporary accounts of interpretive latitude and multiple textual significances. Scholem quotes from the 18th century Kabbalist Hayim Joseph David Azulai: “When a man utters words of the Torah, he never ceases to create spiritual potencies and lights, which issue like medicines from ever new combinations of the elements and consonants.”[7] According to Azulai, when an individual spends his entire day reading a single verse of Torah, certain unheard, inner linguistic elements in that verse alter in response to the demands of each new moment and new meanings are continually created.


Infinite Interpretations

Scholem points out that the plasticity of the Torah and the possibility of a manifold of interpretation is clearly present in the various (especially later) strata of the Zohar.[8] For example, Tikkune ha-Zohar offers seventy interpretations of the first five verses of Bereishit (Genesis). The idea that every verse of scripture, indeed every word and letter has seventy “faces” or aspects is found in the Midrash Numbers Rabbah, and is itself based upon the Talmudic idea that each of the commandments given to Moses at Sinai were divided and uttered in each of the seventy languages, the number seventy thought to be equal to the number of nations and languages of the world.[9] Moses himself is said, in an early post-talmudic mystical work, to have been “instructed in the Torah in all seventy languages.”[10]

The midrashic and later Kabbalistic view that there are seventy layers of meaning in scripture, corresponding to the seventy nations of the world, suggests that one should understand Torah and Kabbalah, as well as the world as a whole, from multiple cultural and linguistic perspectives. (Indeed, as we will see, the Zohar is critical of those who comprehend the Torah only from the perspective of Israel!). We might learn from this that each nation has its share in Torah, and that each culture has its share in, and perspective upon, the plenitude of meaning that constitutes the world and God.

According to Scholem, an even more radical development of the principle of the plasticity of meaning in Jewish mysticism is to be found amongst the Kabbalists of 16th century Safed.[11]  Both Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria held that there are 600,000 “aspects and meanings in the Torah”[12] corresponding to the 600,000 souls of Israel who ventured forth from Egypt and whose soul sparks are present in each subsequent generation. Cordovero held that “each of these 600,000 holy souls has its own special portion of the Torah, and to none other than he, whose soul springs from there, will it be given to understand in this special way that is reserved to him.”[13]According to Isaac Luria, with the advent of the Messiah each individual will read the Torah according to the interpretation associated with his soul root, and further, in Luria’s own time this is precisely how the Torah is understood in the Holy land.[14]

Interpretation, for Luria, is not only culturally and linguistically determined (the Torah’s 70 aspects) or subject to historical change (Cordovero’s theory of the recombination of letters), but is also individually, and we might therefore say, psychologically relative. Further, the ideal (i.e. interpretation in the messianic era and in the Holy land) is not that of a single correct understanding, but rather that of the widest possible interpretive dispersion and latitude.


Idel on the Plasticity of Textual Significance

In his book, Absorbing Perfections, Moshe Idel, details the manner in which the Kabbalists regarded the text of the Torah, and by extension, the text of the world, to be subject to an indefinite if not infinite, number of determinate interpretations.  He points out that as early as the second half of the 13th century certain Kabbalists adopted the view that the Bible contains an infinite number of meanings, and describes several factors adduced by the Kabbalists in support of their claim of “infinite interpretability.”[15]


(1)   The Bible’s lack of Hebrew vowels creates an indeterminacy in pronounciation and sense that leaves it open to a multiplicity of interpretative possibilities. The mid-thirteenth century Kabbalist, R. Jacob ben Sheshet of Gerona, wrote “it is a well-known thing that each and every word of the Torah will change [its significance] in accordance with the change of its vocalization though its consonants will not be changed.”  A slightly later, anonymous Kabbalist, expanded upon R. Jacob’s notion in writing that “the vowel [system] is the form of, and is soul to, the consonants…and if we should vocalize the scroll of the Torah [i.e. insert vowels] it would receive a limit and measure, like the hyle [primordial undifferentiated matter] that receives a peculiar form” thus limiting the Torah to a single interpretation.[16]  Thus the prohibition against vocalizing [adding vowels to] the Torah scroll guarantees a hermeneutic freedom permitting unlimited interpretations of the scriptural text. [17]  Any particular vocalization or interpretation, grants form to the hyle, and thereby makes the reader a co-creator, with god, of the Torah, and ultimately, of the world.[18] According to R. Bahya ben Asher “The scroll of the Torah is written without vowels, in order to enable man to interpret it however he wishes…as the consonants without vowels bear several interpretations…” (Idel, p. 86). A similar view was put forth by the 14th century Kabbalist, R. Menahem ben Benjamin Recanti, who held that the Torah is written without vowels because it contains multiple aspects.[19]

(2)   A second foundation for the Kabbalist’s “infinite” understanding of the text, is that scripture is the embodiment of God’s infinite wisdom. A medieval midrash suggests that the infinity of the divine wisdom is paralleled by an infinity of significance within the Torah. R. Moses de Leon, the thirteenth century Castillian Kabbalist, thought by many to be the author of much of the Zohar, held that the “in order to evince that this name [or He/God] is infinite and limitless, so the Torah is infinite and limitless.”[20] Scholem noted that Kabbalist who held “Since God has neither beginning nor end, no limit at all, so also His perfect Torah…has, from our perspective, neither limit nor end.”[21]

(3)   As we have seen, the Kabbalists appealed to the infinite number of letter

re-combinations that are available to the interpreter of the Torah as a further justification for their conception of hermeneutic infinity.[22] The notion that one could derive new interpretations, words and meanings, by recombining the letters of the sacred text was familiar both to the medieval Ashkenazi Hasidim, and the ecstatic Kabbalists, most notably, R. Abraham Abulafia. According to Abulafia’s student, R. Joseph Gikatilla, through the mixture (‘eiruv), permutation and combination of the six consonants that comprise the first word of the Torah, bereshit, “the prophets and visionaries penetrated the mysteries of the Torah…and no one is capable of comprehending these things but God alone.”[23] Idel suggests that for Gikatilla “the semantic field of a given word…is constituted by all the meanings related to all the other combinations of the same consonants,”[24] a view that in the case of sentences, paragraphs and whole texts, quickly generates an infinity of meaning that is clearly incomprehensible to a finite mind. However, as if this infinity was not enough, Gikatilla suggests that each letter contains a plethora of meanings and “no one is able to [understand] one [parcel] of the thousands of thousands immense [secrets] which depend upon the part of one letter of the letters of the Torah.”[25] In contrast to Aristotelian logic that may be suitable for a direct propositions regarding the natural world, Abulafia’s Kabbalistic/textual “logic” utilizes separate letters instead of concepts and seeks not only to expand interpretive possibilities but to return the Torah to its original state as a series of letters that name God.[26]

(4)   Idel points out that for a number of Kabbalists each word in the Torah

is a symbol for one or more of the Sefirot, the divine archetypes through which Ein-sof is manifest in the universe.  The Zohar, for example, makes use of the idea that the same word corresponds to more than one Sefirah, thus yielding successively new interpretations of biblical verses, and revealing the infinite dynamic implicit in the Torah text.  By regarding words and sentences as symbols of the archetypes of creation the Kabbalists were able to provide an interpretation of the old Jewish idea that the Torah is God’s blueprint for creation.[27] 


Idel describes several metaphysical ideas that inform later Kabbalistic and Hasidic notions of textual infinity. The first of these is the idea that like the procession of the stars the worlds change from moment to moment, thereby continually informing the torah text with new meanings. According to Luria’s eminent disciple Chayyim Vital:


The worlds change each and every hour, and there is no hour which is similar to another.  And whoever contemplates the movement of the planets and stars, and the changes of their position and constellation and how their stand changes in a moment, and whoever is born in this moment will undergo different things from those which happen to one who was born in the preceding moment; hence, one can look and contemplate what is [going on] in the supernal infinite, and numberless worlds…and so you will understand the changes of the constellation and the position of the worlds. Which are the garments of ‘Ein-sof; these changes are taking place at each and every moment, and in accordance with these changes are the aspects of the sayings of the book of the Zohar changing [too], and all are the words of the living God.[28]


On this view, since no two moments are alike, no two interpretations of a text like the Zohar can ever be identical.  An infinity of moments yields an infinite number of interpretations.

A second metaphysical notion, informing “infinite interpretability” is idea the souls of different interpreters are each informed by a different source amongst an infinity of worlds. Idel quotes the 17th century Jerusalem Lurianist, R. Jacob Hayyim Tzemah;


...just as there is an infinite number of worlds, so there is the depth of the Torah infinite.  Because in each and every world, the Torah is read in accordance to its [respective world’s] subtlety and spirituality…there is no end to the degrees of its interpretations. And each and every one of the Tannaities (early rabbinic authorities) and Amoraites (later authorities) in this world understands and interprets the Torah in accordance with the world his soul is emanated from it.[29]


According to R. Hayyim, this is the reason why the Talmud proclaims that each of seemingly contradictory interpretations are “the words of the living God.”

As we have seen, according to the Safedian Kabbalists, the Torah embodies a revelation as intended to be different for each individual present at Sinai, and this led to the idea that each Jew is provided a revelation and interpretation of Torah unique to himself. This is because according to the Kabbalists, the soul of each Jew in every generation was present at Sinai. Idel cites R. Mosses Hayyim Luzatto, a later (18th century) expositor of the Lurianic Kabbalah, on the multiplicity of Torah meanings, which are like the many nuances of flame that emerge from a hot coal.[30] According to Luzatto each letter of the Torah points to the twenty two foundational letters on high, each of which is itself infinite in its meaning.

Idel points out that for Luzatto the soul of each Jew was not only present at Sinai, but is actually present within the Torah, i.e. the reader is already present in the text. The student of Torah “enflames” the meaning that is inherent in the text by virtue of the relationship between his soul and the Torah itself, and such study, in effect, links the interpreter with the twenty-two supernal letters which are the Torah’s metaphysical ground.  According to several Lurianists, including R. Naftali Bakharakh, the individual soul emerges from its correspondingly unique Torah interpretation (and not the other way around): “Out of each interpretation, the root of a certain soul of Israel emerged.”[31] On the other hand, the Lurianists held (like Leibniz) that each soul contains or mirrors each of the others, thus providing the interpreter access to, and comprehension, of the multitude of interpretations that differ from his own. According to Idel it is the restoration and linkage of all the dispersed interpretations of Torah that provides a hermeneutical parallel to the Lurianic theory of Tikkun ha-Olam  , the restoration and linkage of the dispersed sparks of the primordial Man, Adam Kadmon (Idel, p. 99). As Idel puts it: “Three major entities tell the same story, or myth, of Lurianic Kabbalah in a parallel manner: the Torah, the souls of Israel, and ‘Adam Qadmon’ [the Primordial Man].  All three were scattered into particles, and all are supposed to return to their source.”[32] Interpretation, on Idel’s view, parallels the performance of the mitzvoth and becomes an important aspect of Tikkun, the restoration and redemption of the world.

Idel argues that by appealing to the interpretations that uniquely correspond to each individual’s soul, the later Kabbalah placed an increasing emphasis on the subjective contribution of the individual to the infinite fullness of meanings inherent in the Torah text.


Kabbalah, Divine Intent, and Infinite Freedom

The Kabbalists, like contemporary postmodern philosophers, regard the text as being subject to an indefinite if not infinite number of interpretations.  However, Idel holds that unlike contemporary criticism which rejects the notion that such interpretation discovers anything like an “archive” embedded within the text, the Kabbalists held that the process of scriptural interpretation uncovers the manifold content of divine intent. In their interpretation of scripture, the Zohar, and even various signs within the physical world (for example, the “letters” that appear on the forehead of man), the Kabbalists, it is said, engaged in a process of discovering a meaning that is already present and which is in no manner  arbitrary or dependent upon their own creativity or inventiveness.

            Idel further argues that while the Kabbalists regarded the text as having an indefinite plurality of meanings they did not adopt the postmodern view that “readers and interpreters complete the meaning by bringing their own riches to the interpreted texts.”[33] Idel contrasts this secular, “democratic” view of the text with the Kabbalistic view of multiple textual significances determined by a higher intelligence or divine author.  Unlike postmodern literary theorists who mistrust the author, the Kabbalists operated with a faith and trust in what they understood to be the divine source of textual significance.

While the founder of contemporary  deconstructionism, Jacques Derrida, in his book, Dissemination, makes explicit reference to the Kabbalist Abulafia’s method of letter recombination,[34] Idel points out that, unlike Derrida, the Kabbalists did not conclude that ambiguity of the Torah text leads to an indeterminacy of meaning, the idea that it is in principle impossible to ascertain the true meaning of a text. Rather, the Kabbalists held that textual ambiguity leads to a multiplicity of determinate meanings, all of which were intentionally inserted by the divine author. According to Idel, the Kabbalist’s view here is decidedly different from Derrida’s conception of dissemination, which rests upon semantic ambiguity and undecidability.[35]   In short,  the Kabbalists differ from contemporary  deconstructionists, in holding that there is a metaphysical (divine) ground for textual infinity. 

Several questions are raised by Idel’s attempt to distinguish Kabbalistic hermeneutics from contemporary deconstruction: (1) Do the Kabbalist’s own attitude towards the scriptural text fully support Idel’s thesis that Kabbalistic interpretations seek to uncover divine authorial intent? (2) Is there any practical difference between those who interpret a text under the assumption that they are uncovering an archived authorial meaning and those who don’t? (3) Is it actually possible to interpret a text, or a phenomenon in the world for that matter, without implicitly assuming the presence of an archived or inherent meaning?[36] I will take up each of these questions, beginning with the first.

Several considerations within Idel’s own text belie his own point of view.  In the first place, as Idel himself acknowledges the Lurianic concept of Tikkun suggests that man actually completes and emends God’s creation, and by extension God’s Torah. The act of interpreting sacred scripture not only uncovers hidden meanings, but actually completes the scriptural process. This is particularly evident in the popular Hasidic belief that a rebbe who expounds the Torah during the third Sabbath meal, is actually speaking (i.e. creating) divre Torah, words of Torah, eventhough he speaks in the vernacular (Yiddish). Further, in a process that mirrors the Lurianic notion that divine creation is completed by humankind, the rebbe’s “Torah” is, as Idel himself points out, dependent upon his audience, upon the manner in which each of his Hasidim hear his discourse. It is interesting that Idel places this material in an appendix, thus marginalizing important data that would undermine his thesis that the Kabbalists trusted in a “strong author” whose intention and will determine the significance of the scared text.[37]

In this Appendix Idel acknowledges that the notion that the Hasidic master is himself capable of generating “Torah” through his homilies on scripture undermines the idea of a transcendent God determining the meaning of scripture independent of any reader or expositor. He then articulates the idea that the Torah of the rebbe is itself dependent upon the rebbe’s listeners, suggesting a far more “postmodern” view of Torah than Idel says is typical of the Kabbalah. Idel discusses the case of R. Israel of Ryzhin, the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezeritch, who held that the rebbe’s Torah discourse would never emerge without the potential for it being heard, understood and further explicated by his disciples. According to R. Israel, each of the Maggid’s students would hear and understand the Maggid’s “Torah” in a different way, as each heard according to one of the seventy facets of Torah that he possessed.”[38]  According to Idel, R. Isreal implies that “only the interpretive skills of the recipients are able to disclose the richness that elevates the [rebbe’s] sermon to the status of Torah.” [39]

Idel argues that this Hasidic view runs counter to the general Kabbalistic understanding of the infinite plurality of meanings, which Idel says was far more metaphysical and “logocentric.”  The Hasidim were able to adopt a more interactive view of the generation of “Torah” because they (1) emphasized the essentially oral character of the rebbe’s discourse, which was always said in the presence of, and involved interaction, with his followers (Hasidim), and (2) tended to psychologize elements of Lurianic theosophy, which made them open to a more subjective, fluid, understanding of their rebbe’s “Torah” (and sacred discourse) in general. My own reading is that here as elsewhere, the Hasidim simply drew out what was already implicit within the Kabbalist’s original views. In holding that (1) there are as many interpretations of Torah as there are souls in Israel, and (2) the role of the individual is to restore, emend and complete God’s creation, the theosophical Kabbalists were only one small step removed from the idea that the reader/listener of a scared text/discourse is as much responsible for its significance, as its author. Indeed, for the Kabbalist’s the distinction between God and humanity is largely illusory, and once this is understood , the author and reader of a sacred text in effect become two aspects of a single creating/interpreting reality.  As Idel himself observes:


The status of the Torah as an independent entity—such as we find in the Talmudic and midrashic literatures—standing between man and God though separated from both, vanishes.  Likewise, in most forms of Kabbalah man’s separate identity or self is jeopardized.  The divine source of his soul, according to the sefirotic Kabbalah, or of his intellect, according to the prophetic brand, endows the Kabbalist with strong spiritual affinities to the Godhead.  These affinities authorize, as they facilitate, the emergence of pneumatic exegeses…The text becomes pretext for innovating far-reaching ideas, which are projected onto the biblical verse.[40]


In writing that the reader “projects” his ideas on the text, Idel stands outside the very notion he is discussing, i.e. that the reader is himself a part of or completes the text he or she interprets.  Of course, the view that the reader completes the text  need not permit any interpretation whatsoever—and we should reserve the right to say that at least some exegeses are simply “projections”—but once we adopt the overall viewpoint of the Kabbalah, in which humanity is not clearly distinguished from divinity,[41] we can no longer, maintain a clear distinction between author and reader, and we (like the Hasidim Idel describes) have moved very close to a postmodern view of textual meaning.  As Idel writes “The Hebrew Bible is viewed in some Kabbalistic discussions as an oper aperta par excellence, wherein the divine character of man finds its perfect expression even as it discovers God’s infinity reflected in the amorphous text.” Kabbalistic exegesis both discovers the “Torah’s infinite subtleties” and the “Kabbalist’s inner qualities.”[42] Idel calls this “paradoxical,” but it follows perfectly from the Kabbalistic theosophy.

Idel points out that the notion that the Torah contains an infinite number of Kabbalistic interpretations was variously interpreted to mean that there is nonetheless (1) a proper interpretation characteristic of each given moment (Vital), (2) a single interpretation characteristic of each master reflecting his “source” in a higher world, or (3) an interpretation determined by nature of the interpreter’s soul as it received the Sinaitic revelation. On none of these views is the interpreter given free latitude to freely  invent his or her own interpretations.

One way of viewing each of these so-called limitations on the interpreter’s freedom are that they are after-the-fact explanations that, in effect, salvage an “object” that is continually and subjectively reconstructed. To understand how this might be the case I will make a comparison between interpreting a text and interpreting dreams. Friedan, following Derrida’s discussion of the unconscious suggests that the interpretations that analysts and their patients place upon dreams are de novo constructions, that nonetheless must be viewed as a process of uncovering an “archived” meaning that pre-exists within the dream itself.[43] The very concept of an interpretation of a dream, a text, or for that matter anything whatsoever, suggests to us the notion of an original significance whose meaning is somehow revealed.  When we make an interpretation we necessarily believe that it is accountable to a datum: that is the difference between an interpretation and a free, creative invention. Similarly, and more generally, Derrida has argued that the signifier (words) always refers to another signifier and never to an actual signified or thing-in-itself. In effect, Derrida argues that our words always refer to (and must always be disambiguated) by other words. Nevertheless, he is forced to acknowledge that we could neither speak nor think, unless we acted as if our words actually refer to things that are independent of language. The Kabbalist’s positing of various metaphysical grounds for the infinitely varied interpretations of Torah, are, in effect, following this pattern of assuming an archive, or more generally, a signified, that answers to each interpretation. Kabbalistically speaking, however, this assumption only makes sense if we remain under the illusion (an illusion created by the Tzimtzum) that Torah, God, humanity and the world are each separable, independent entities. Once this illusion is penetrated, we can recognize that the proposition that the interpreter creates his interpretations is equivalent to the proposition that he discovers them, as the distinction between subject and object, interpreter and text, creation and discovery dissolves.


Excursus: Deconstruction and Negative Mysticism

If the notion of authorial intent versus creative interpretation does not clearly separate Kabbalistic from postmodern or deconstructive hermeneutics what difference, if any, can be charted between these two forms of thought? They can, I believe, be distinguished on the grounds that deconstruction, unlike the Kabbalah, practices dissemination and dispersion of infinite meaning without any expectation of unity, or any belief that the disseminated text and its disparate interpretations will or can be unified in a single, integrated synoptic idea or vision. In this sense deconstruction can be described as the inverse of mysticism: whereas mysticism sees unity in all things, the deconstructionist sees endless differences between them, differences that are required for each thing to even approach being what it is said to be. The relentless pursuit of difference, and the insistence, that all texts, events and things, are continuously recontextualized, and thus inevitably subject to reinterpretations without end, distinguishes deconstruction from any form of synopsis, absolutism and (it is said) mysticism and religion. Derrida’s efforts to put a halt to the (Hegelian) integrative dialectic, is an effort to maintain a democratic multiplicity of perspectives indefinitely, and to prevent any shutting down of the interpretive process.

However, when we closely examine the deconstructionist use of difference, we see that it is inextricably bound to a vision, originally articulated by Nietzsche and later by the French linguist Saussure, that the understanding of any one thing is inextricably bound up with an understanding of all things. What defines a given term or thing for deconstruction, is its differences from everything else, i.e. its place in an infinitely complex and indefinitely extending system of differences that mark it is as unique. Once we ask the question “Different from what”” we realize that to know one thing is to know an entire system, an entire world, and the distinction between deconstruction and mysticism begins to break down. As we carry out the project of deconstruction, dissemination, and difference to its ultimate conclusion we are suddenly confronted with the unity of all things, the reflection of each and every thing in each and every other thing as the only possible means of speaking about or referring to any thing. This notion is exemplified in Leibniz’s monadology but also in the Kabbalistic doctrine of the behinnot (aspects), which holds that each aspect of the cosmos is reflected in each of the others. To paraphrase Jung: one pursues difference but ends with unity.[44]  The negative mysticism of deconstruction ends by providing a profound rational explanation of the positive mystical doctrine of the unity of all things! Language, thought, differance, is what links everything together! This, in effect, is the deconstructionist equivalent to the  unio mystica.


Joseph Dan: The “Meaningless Text”

Returning to the question of whether in the Kabbalah infinite interpretations uncover the divine author’s intent, we should note that Joseph Dan has argued that the widespread  Kabbalistic practice of creating and interpreting divine names “is characterized by a consistent attempt to divorce language from meaning.”[45] According to Dan, the Kabbalistic attitude towards divine names (מּיּהּלּאּ, הּוּהּיּ, יּנּדּאּ,) is such that these “names” do not simply refer to, or mean, the divine, but are actually the divine itself!  Dan writes:


…we can define a sacred name of God as that linguistic expression of the divine that is not communicative; it just is, representing in a linguistic form the inexpressible essence of God Himself. Such a concept represents the belief not only that God inspired scriptures and communicated His truth and wisdom to man, but that he Himself actually exists in the scriptures, in those phrases that are noncommunicative and essentially meaningless: יּנּדּאּ, הּוּהּיּ, מּיּהּלּאּ, תּוֹבּצּ. They have no literal meaning (although throughout history, they accumulated hundreds and thousands of interpretations). They do not convey, inform, or describe, they are the essence of God.[46]


According to Dan “the whole vast body of midrashic hermeneutics is not a decipherment of more and more layers of meaning within the text of a meaningful message, but all these layers are superimposed on a text that is devoid of any original meaning.” Further, “while the Midrash treats the Torah as an inexhaustible text of infinite meanings, the mystic who identifies it with the secret name of God actually treats the text as a huge blank scroll, as far as meaning is concerned, on which any meaning can be written.”[47] On the one hand Dan holds that the text so understood is devoid of any intrinsic meaning; on the other hand it is so intensely meaningful that like a semantic “black hole” no meaning can escape from it.

There are two trends within Kabbalistic hermeneutics to be discerned here. The first regards the text as replete with an infinite manifold of meaning, reflecting divine authorial intent; the second regards the text as but a jumble of letters, names, or on some views, a single name of God, embodying the divine essence, but devoid of communicative meaning. The latter trend, as Dan suggests, provides an opening for regarding the Torah as a blank slate (on which any meaning can be written—or in which letters can be infinitely recombined) and thereby, for regarding the Torah as a  source of infinite meaning. In the process the Torah becomes both filled with and depleted of authorial intent; the former because the raw material of the interpretive manifold is the divine name, which on Dan’s interpretation is God Himself, the latter because the interpretive manifold becomes identical with the entire linguistic field (any and all interpretations or combinations of letters) and is completely unrestricted. In this way, the traditional theological and postmodern conceptions of infinite interpretability come together in coincidentia oppositorum.[48]

These ideas are worth exploring in some depth. If the Torah is regarded as a single name of God, and this name is considered to be identical both with God Himself and the entire linguistic field (i.e. all possible combinations of all letters, all their readings and all their interpretations) then it follows that God Himself (and thus the divine intent) involves infinite linguistic and interpretive freedom. Kabbalistically, Ein-sof becomes the entirety of all meaning whatsoever: the infinite creative and interpretive play of language, in all places and all times. In writing a poem, providing a text (any text, not just Torah) with a new interpretation, articulating a philosophical theory or scientific discovery, etc. humanity is both exercising its absolute freedom and articulating the name, being and intent of God.[49]

Indeed, in his article, Dan points out that Scholem had regarded mysticism, as “an explosion of freedom of thought and expression within established religion.”[50]  While the freedom of the early Jewish (Hekhalot or Chariot) mystics consisted in their reliance on direct mystical experience, independent of any scriptural constraints, later Jewish mystics tended to denigrate their own experience and substituted “the claim that everything [they] saw and discovered has been known all along and is hidden within the ancient text.”[51] However because that which is hidden in the ancient text is infinite, the latter Kabbalists safeguarded for themselves as much freedom as if they had not been constrained by scripture at all.


The Torah of the Tree of Knowledge and the Torah of the Tree of Life

Isaiah Tishby, in his Wisdom of the Zohar, draws our attention to a fascinating distinction ,  made in the latter strata of the Zohar , and which bears on the question of interpretive (and general) human freedom. The distinction the Zohar makes is between the “Torah of the Tree of Knowledge” and the “Torah of the Tree of Life.” Whereas the former Torah, the historical Torah in possession of Israel, is said to represent commandments, restrictions and limitations, the latter Torah represents freedom and is, in effect, an ideal, primordial and utopian Torah prior to the distinction between good and evil and is untouched by the fall and death. The Zohar informs us that the first set of tablets, shattered by Moses after Israel’s sin in the incident of the golden calf were from the Tree of Life. Only the second set of tablets, given to Moses after Israel’s sin, contain the negative commandments that came to characterize the Torah of the tree of Knowledge. With the breaking of the first tablets, the letters which had been engraved upon them “flew away.” Those, however, who possess mystical insight can perceive them beneath the new letters or “outer garments” of the second set of tablets, and thus, the Torah of the Tree of Knowledge.[52] We read in the Zohar:


Moses brought down to Israel the Torah from these two tablets (i.e. from the secret recesses of divine wisdom), but [Israel] was not sufficiently worthy, and they were broken and fell…Why did they fall? Because the letter vav (i.e. the power of the Tree of Life) flew away from them…And he gave them others from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, from which originated the Torah [that contains] the forbidden and the permitted, life on the right and death on the left.[53]

The Zohar further indicates that originally when the Israel stood at Sinai they laid hold to the Tree of Life[54] but  “as soon as they [Israel] sinned, the first tablets of the law were broken—those tablets which [meant] complete freedom, freedom from the serpent who is the “end of all flesh.”[55]

Tishby points out that according to the author of the Zohar’s Raya Mehemna the Torah was itself transformed as a result of these events, from a Tree of Life to a Tree of Knowledge, the latter containing references to death and making rigid distinctions between the permitted and forbidden.  Human sin actually resulted in a decline in the Torah’s status, from a Torah that was originally a Torah of eternal life and freedom to one of mortality and servitude.  However, the advent of the Messiah will reverse this damage and decline in the Torah and restore a Torah of life and complete freedom. Tishby writes:


Here, apparently, we have the explicit idea that the written Torah we now possess, which was revealed in the second set of tablets, with all the practical commandments, and the distinction between the forbidden and the permitted and with, furthermore, all the limitations in the Oral Torah, resulted from the decline that set in as a consequence of Adam’s sin with the Golden Calf…Only at the time of perfect redemption will its hold be broken, and the freedom-giving domain of the Tree of Life be restored.[56]


Yet, according to Tishby, the Torah of the Tree of Life is not simply a part of the remote past or messianic future, but rather “exists all the time in the esoteric wisdom of the kabbalah, side by side with the practical halakhic Torah of the Tree of Knowledge.” [57]  Indeed, the Zohar[58] goes so far as to state that while the Torah of the Tree of Knowledge, the actual halakhic Torah, is the province of rabbinic scholars, the ignorant, the mixed multitude, and the wicked the Torah of the Tree of Life is the inheritance of the mystics whose souls are pure and completely righteous. While the former perform commandments to place the peoples and gods of idolatry under their own power, the latter put tefillin on their heads “to bring all other gods (i.e. the sitra achra) under the control of the higher Shekhinah and to bring all the nations under the hand of the Lord, which is the lower Shekhinah.”[59] Tishby interprets these and other similar passages as suggesting that those who follow the (halakhic) Torah of the Tree of Knowledge are, by comparison to those who follow the Torah of the Tree of Life, unrooted, imperfect and motivated by concern only for themselves or the welfare of the people of Israel rather than a concern for bringing the entire world under the divine dominion.[60]

We thus see that underneath the letters of the actual, worldly Torah, is another, mystical, utopian Torah, one that transcends the power of the sitra achra, goes beyond mere selfish and parochial interests, and opens one to the possibility of infinite freedom and the transcendence of death. Further, such a mystical Torah, is not only the goal of Tikkun, the restoration to be completed in the messianic age, but is available to Kabbalists even now, who can, as it were, read its text beneath the letters of the actual, earthly Torah scroll. Such an idea, which suggests that there might be a Torah of values (sefirot) without restrictive law (halakha) has obvious antinomian implications, and is one reason why the study of Zohar and Kabbalah in general was forbidden to those who were not completely grounded and committed to the halakha.


Giegerich: The Death of the Symbol and the Birth of Meaning

Traditional Judaism, and certainly the Kabbalah as it is traditionally understood is awash in symbolism.  Putting aside, for the moment, recent scholarly debate regarding the nature of religious symbolism and it relationship to and difference from “myth” the traditional, observant, Jew engages in a wide variety of activities, and is immersed in a great deal of language (scriptural, aggadic and devotional) that by any ordinary use of the term must be regarded as symbolic. The rituals of Shabbat, Pesach, Sukkot, and other major and minor festivals come to mind, as do such rituals of prayer as tefillin, tallit, the blessing of the Cohanim—the list could be extended indefinitely. The Kabbalah too is a highly symbolic mode of action and thought, for example, when it equates the sefirot with various biblical personages, body parts of the primordial Adam, and visages (Partzufim) of the divine countenance.

In a recent essay, the Jungian analyst, Wolfgang Giegerich, has raised the question of whether it is possible in the modern (and post-modern) era to truthfully and authentically  live one’s spiritual and psychological life within the orbit of religious symbolism. The questions he asks are important ones to consider within the context of Kabbalistic hermeneutics and our discussion of the “two Torahs.”


Giegerich’s argument begins with an idea that is already nascent in Jung:


So long as a symbol is a living thing, it is an expression for something that cannot be characterized in any other or better way. But once its meaning has been born out of it, once that expression is found which formulates the thing sought, expected or divined even better than the hitherto accepted symbol, then the symbol is dead, i.e. it possesses only an historical significance.[61]


Giegerich points out that for Jung “the symbol is only the unfinished embryonic form of a given meaning.” For Giegerich, the symbol remains “unborn” until it is provided a better, non-symbolic expression. It is at this point that it dies as a symbol and is born to a “better formulation of what it is about.” With the birth of meaning out of the symbol, the symbol becomes “demythologized and desacralized,” losing its mystique. On the other hand, the symbol’s meaning is now, finally understood, and in Jung’s and Giegerich’s somewhat inverted language, is understood esoterically, i.e. on their view from the inside. Giegerich, following Hegel, understands the transition to modernity as one in which consciousness is born precisely as a result of the demythologization and desacralization of symbolic meaning. While those who have a nostalgia for myth, the sacred, and traditional religion see the death of the symbol as a loss, Giegerich sees it “ultimately as a gain, a progress.” He writes “It is thus precisely the meaning’s destination to die as symbol and thereby be born out of its initial enveloped form of mere pregnancy.”

Jung, however, made the mistake, especially in his later years, of believing that one could return to the old symbolic (pre-modern, pre-consciousness) mode of existence, and his work has in fact been used to justify those who attempt to hold themselves and others enthralled with a renewed mythological/symbolic aura and mystique. For Giegerich, however, the old symbols can only function this way today because “they now have the status of (spiritual) drugs used to benumb consciousness or give it its highs.”[62] Those, for example, who today attempt to live within the symbol of God as the all-embracing father (or mother), have abrogated their role as modern, conscious, adults, who are responsible for their own existence, and for the exercise of their own powers of reason. (Giegerich tells us that “to still preach religion in all earnest –instead of seeing, appreciating, and studying it strictly historically [is]…like squeezing an adult into a crib.)[63] Support for Giegerich’s position is, for example, to be found amongst those committed to an intense “Kabbalistic” spirituality and who find that in order to remain enveloped in its “truth” they must  reject historical scholarship and insist that the entire Zohar was written by Shimon Bar Yohai, that it was indeed presented to Moses as part of the oral teachings at Sinai, and is, moreover, the source of all the world’s philosophical, and even scientific, wisdom and knowledge. From a modernist perspective, such individuals  have immersed themselves in a symbolic, imaginative construction and have divorced themselves from reason and criticism.

One need not follow Giegerich to his ultimate conclusions, in order to recognize the value of providing sacred symbols with rational, discursive interpretations, or to even acknowledge that such interpretations represent what might be called a maturing or development (but even here we are using symbols or metaphors) of human consciousness and understanding. Giegerich’s position, however, appears to rest upon the distinctly modern assumption (challenged by postmodernists) that like the human individual born out of a human embryo, there is indeed an individual meaning to be born out of a symbol, and, further, that once this meaning has been born, the symbol is exhausted and dead.[64]  As we have seen, there are several alternatives to the notion that there is a single interpretation that exists behind the symbol. Amongst such alternatives are the ideas (1) that there are an indefinite, if not infinite array of interpretations inherent in the symbol, and (2) that the symbol has no inherent interpretation behind it but is rather a stimulus to an indefinite, if not infinite array of interpretations that are creatively forged ahead of it. While it is true that some symbols, for whatever reason, at some point ceases to stimulate interpretive possibilities, and thus die, others continue to be a source of seemingly endless hermeneutic appeal; the expulsion from Eden, and the death of the suffering Messiah, are the first two that come to mind.  Hegel, for example, thought he had provided a rational interpretation of the Christian trinity, that at least for philosophical sophisticated minds, uncovered the rational truth behind these symbols. Very few Christian philosophers or theologians would now agree with this rather immodest self-assessment. In writing Symbols of the Kabbalah I endeavored to “uncover” the rational significance of the Lurianic symbols. However, while I believe that today we are (in one sense) in a position to understand the Kabbalist’s symbols “better” than the Kabbalists did themselves, I am hardly under the illusion that by interpreting Luria’s symbols in philosophical/rational terms, we can exhaust and “kill” them.  

A single example should suffice to show why this is the case. In Symbols of the Kabbalah I gave rational content to the symbol of Tzimtzum by comparing the divine concealment which produces the myriad of finite entities in the world, to the partial concealment of light in a photographic slide that produces the myriad of color, form and detail in what would otherwise be a uniform white field, or to the production of an infinite series of arithmetical and arithmetic equations that only “exist” because their immediate and obvious equivalence is concealed from the human, finite mind. Such explications, however, hardly exhaust the symbol, as they, for example, leave room for the notion of Tzimtzum as a divine contraction granting human freedom, analogous to a father’s contracting his ego in order to allow his growing child the freedom to make his own decisions (and his own mistakes), as well as for many other rational and imaginative understandings.


Fine: The Role of the Intellect in the Kabbalah

Luria and his followers were themselves highly suspect of intellectual interpretations of the Torah and Kabbalah. Lawrence Fine points out that the Lurianists laid claim to a form of knowledge that issues forth from “a contemplative intuition nurtured by a life of intense piety” and not from an intellectual understanding. In point of fact, there is a rejection of any cognitive-intellectual approach to knowledge amongst the Lurianists that sometimes even borders on anti-intellectualism. According to Chayyim Vital:


The secrets of the Torah and her mysteries are not revealed to human beings by the power of their intellects, but by means of divine vitality that flows from on high, through God’s messengers and angels, or through Elijah the prophet, may his name be a blessing.[65]




There is no doubt that these matters cannot be apprehended by means of human intellect, but only through Kabbalah, from one individual to another, directly from Elijah…or directly from those souls that reveal themselves in each and every generation to those who are qualified to receive them.[66]


Fine points out that while the Kabbalists all believed that their wisdom was traceable to the revelation to Moses at Sinai, in practice there were three basic methods for attaining such knowledge: (1) direct revelation to the Kabbalist in terms of visions and other forms of divine inspiration, (2) oral transmission from master to pupil, and (3) textual exegesis. All three were practiced by the Lurianists, but only the latter, can readily be assimilated to an intellectual or philosophical methodology. (Indeed, Fine points out that placing an emphasis on textual exegesis the Zohar  made the discovery of new meanings within the Torah text open to anyone with knowledge of the Torah’s symbolism, and no longer dependent upon either mystical revelation or the transmission of a received tradition.[67])

It is nonetheless clear that the Kabbalah, as it was originally constituted is much more of an imaginative construction than an intellectual one. In “translating” the imaginative products of the old Kabblah into ideas that have rational/intellective content, one must not forget the imaginative, symbolic origins of the material one is working with.  While the Kabbalists denied the possibility of an intellectual understanding of mystical religion, the question raised by Giegerich is whether a purely imaginative understanding of religion and spirituality is viable in the modern age. For Giegerich, the immersion in the imaginative/symbolic is today always regressive. In effect, Giegerich wants us to move away from immersion in the dream, in the direction of becoming immersed in its rational interpretation.

I believe that Giegerich is correct in his belief that there must be a shift in the center of gravity away from our being enveloped in the womb of the symbol in the direction of the symbol being born in rational/discursive form. This, I believe, is indeed analogous to the shift that occurs in various forms of psychoanalysis, whereby the individual moves from being enveloped in a symptom or a dream in the direction of coming to grips with that symptom or dream in rational terms. The goal is not to fully translate one’s dream into rational terms, but rather, I think, to create a dialog between the dream and one’s rational, conscious self. Similarly, interpreting the Kabbalah (or Torah for that matter) is not a question of exhausting (and thus killing) the imagination or symbol and replacing these with rational contents but rather of a continual interaction and dialog between the symbolic and the rational, unconsciousness and consciousness. Indeed, we might say that a symbol dies only when it is given a final, dogmatic interpretation; only when it is completely known. Perhaps this is why when Adam eats from the Tree of Knowledge it becomes a “Tree of Death.”[68]


The Torah of the Tree of Life

The Torah of the Tree of Life, the Torah of freedom that lies behind the historical Torah of specific narratives and laws, is the Torah that through a continual dialectic between the imaginary and symbolic, between the mythical and rational, yields an endless dialog and an infinite series of interpretations. It is the Torah that Moses Cordovero understood as the  concatenation of divine letters that only later crystallize into words, phrases, narratives and laws [69] and it is the Torah that the followers of Israel Sarug believed to consist of all possible combinations of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.[70]  Such a Torah is tantamount to the totality of the possibilities in language, and is thus not only a Torah of infinite interpretive possibility, but of infinite creative possibility as well.  It is the Torah that can be understood rationally as well as mythically, intellectually as well as mystically.

The Torah of the Tree of Life is, in effect, totality of possibilities inherent in thought and language. It is the Torah that not only represents, but which actually embodies Ein-sof, the infinite God.  It is a Torah of infinite creativity, infinite interpretation and, thus, infinite wisdom. It is both a meaningless blank slate and, as Joseph Dan has observed, so concentrated in its significance that like a semantic “black hole” no meaning can escape from it.  For such a Torah, free inquiry and dialog are more important than knowledge and law, and questions are more significant than answers. Perhaps it was the respect for the significance of open inquiry that prompted the Kabbalist, Shimon Labis to write in his work Ketem Paz “Concerning everything that cannot be grasped its question is its answer.”[71] Indeed, as I pointed out in Symbols of the Kabbalah, the Kabbalists occasionally regarded the Sefirot, the divine attributes which comprise the world as “questions” and therefore developed the foundation for an interrogative as opposed to a propositional metaphysics.[72] 

Is there then no content to the Torah of the Tree of Life? Is it simply an abstract representation of absolute creativity, absolute freedom? In order to answer this question we must recall that, for the Kabbalists, the Torah of the Tree of Life is something that is hidden, something that must be seen through the veil of the Torah of the Tree of Knowledge, the Torah of specific laws and narratives. The latter Torah, far from being expendable, is actually the necessary structural ground through which the disarranged letters of the Tree of Life are intuited. It is only through mystical insight, or revelation at the end of days that one Torah will, in effect, shine through the other.

Why we might ask should this be the case? The answer to this, I believe, must be derived from the limitations of the human spirit; a spirit that must be structured and limited in certain respects if it is to exercise its creative freedom, a spirit that must view things from a particular perspective if it is to view things at all, and a spirit that must speak a particular language, within a particular culture, if it is to generate any significance whatsoever. While God can be infinitely creative and view the world sub specie aeternae, the human soul can only perceive, create and understand within the context of a given language and form of life. It is for this reason that a Torah which provides such a language and form of life is absolutely necessary. The Torah of the Tree of Life cannot stand on its own, but rather like Kant’s noumenal realm, must shine dimly through a structured, phenomenal realm, serving both as an ideal or inspiration, as well as the foundation, for those in that realm.  The Torah of the Tree of Life, with its infinite freedom, endless creativity and limitless dialog must be mediated through the specificities of a historical Torah, and/or (as its logic compels us to recognize) the specificities of other scripture, languages, cultures and traditions.  We should here recall  Cordovero’s claim that the primordial, eternal Torah, the one that is a combination of all the letters, takes different forms depending upon the call of each new place and time, and further, the Zohar’s dictum that in accordance with the changes “taking place at each and every moment” the sayings of the book of the Zohar  [are also] changing, and all are the words of the living God.”[73]  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should recall the midrashic and early Jewish mystical suggestion that the Torah was uttered in each of the 70 languages of the nations and that Moses was himself  “instructed in the Torah in all seventy languages.”[74]  The combined import of these ideas is that the historical Torah known by the Jewish people is but one of a number of possible Torahs that forms in response to varied circumstances, for different peoples, in different languages, at different times.

            Presumably, the Torah of the Tree of Life constitutes a spiritual core that underlies each of the various historical manifestations of Torah. However, we are again faced with the question of whether such a Torah has any content other than the infinite creativity, dialog and interpretive freedom apparently attributed to it by the Kabbalists themselves. Here I would suggest that the entire Kabbalistic enterprise is devoted to this very question, i.e., to uncovering the core values and spiritual dynamics that transcend the expressions of the Torah of a given epoch or location, and which have a universal application. Such values and dynamics are embodied in the system of the Sefirot and their vicissitudes; moreover in the Kabbalistic theosophical system as a whole. In this regard it is important to note that the Kabbalists themselves depicted the Sefirot in the form  a spiritual tree and spoke of the Zohar as The Tree of Life, and that the greatest compendium of the Lurianic Kabbalah, written by Isaac Luria’s most important disciple bears the name: Sefer Ez Chayyim: the Book of the Tree of Life. While it is far too complex a topic to discuss here, the spiritual dynamics of the Kabbalistic Tree can be understood as providing a system of specific values and ideas that both underlie the historical Torah, as well as the various “torahs” of the historical religions. Further it does this without violating the fundamental “Tree of Life” principles of infinite creativity, infinite interpretation, and infinite dialog. The Kabbalistic “system,” as I have described elsewhere, is both a system and not a system, both constructive of a world-view and deconstructive of itself, and is hence compatible with both religious and post-modern sensibilities.  The project of adumbrating the values, dynamics and ideas of such a system-non-system, amounts to the articulation of a Kabbalistic metaphysics and axiology, and to the tracing of the connections between such a system-non-system and the narratives and mitzvoth of the historical Torah, on the one hand, and the various great religious traditions that lie beyond Judaism on the other.



The Lurianic Kabbalah is treated in detail in Sanford Drob's Symbols of the Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Metaphors .

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[1] Scholem, The Meaning of the Torah in Jewish Mysticism, p. 36.

[2] Zohar I: 29b-30a: “Letters were imprinted on the fabric of the Whole, on the upper and the lower

[3] For a discussion of the Kabbalah’s linguistic mysticism, ontology and metaphysics see S. Drob, Symbols of the Kabbalah (Northvale, New Jerse: Jason Aronson, 200), Ch. 5, pp. 236-262.

[4] Scholem, Meaning of the Torah, p. 71.

[5] Ibid. p. 73

[6] ibid. p. 74. This idea is repeated by the Hasidic master Pinchas Koretz, a contemporary of the Baal Shem Tov, who wrote “the holy Torah was originally created as an incoherent jumble of letters.” (ibid. p. 76).

[7] Ibid. p. 76. Quoting H. J. D. Azulai, Dvarim ‘ Ahadim, Livorno, 1788, 52 c-d.

[8] Scholem, The Meaning of the Torah, p. 57.

[9] Scholem, The Meaning of the Torah, p. 62.

[10] Othiyot de Rabbi Akiva, Jerusalem, 1914, Quoted in Scholem, The Meaning of the Torah, p. 63.

[11] Scholem, The Meaning of the Torah, p. 64

[12] Scholem, p. 76

[13] Scholem, p. 65.

[14] Luria, Sefer Ha-Kavvanoth 53b, quoted in Scholem, p. 176/

[15] M. Idel, Absorbing Perfections, p. 83.

[16] Idel. Absorbing Perfections,  p. 84-5

[17] In practice the actual vocalization (and thus reading) of the Torah text is quite fixed by tradition, and does not offer nearly the latitude suggested by the Kabbalistic commentators.

[18] Idel. Absorbing Perfections,  p. 85.


[19] Idel. Absorbing Perfections,  p. 87.


[20] Idel, Absorbing Perfections, p. 88.

[21] Idel,  Absorbing Perfections p. 89, see fn 28. P. 514)

[22] Idel,  Absorbing Perfections, p. 89. 

[23] Idel,  Absorbing Perfections, p. 89. 

[24] Idel,  Absorbing Perfections, p. 90. 

[25] Idel,  Absorbing Perfections, p. 89. 

[26] Idel,  Absorbing Perfections, p. 91. 


[27]Idel,  Absorbing Perfections, p. 92.  

[28] Chayyim Vital, Sefer Ez Chayyim: I I 5 fol. 15a, quited in Idel,  Absorbing Perfections, p. 101,


[29] Idel, Absorbing Perfections, pp. 94-5.

[30] Idel, Absorbing Perfections, p. 97/


[31] Idel, Absorbing Perfections, p. 98.

[32] Idel, Absorbing Perfections, p. 99. See M. Buber, The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism, p. 121, and Bruce Lincoln, Myth Cosmos and Society (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1986).


[33] Idel, Absorbing Perfections, p. 103.

[34] Jacques Derrida, Disseminationsa, p. 344: See Idel, Absorbing Perfections, p 91.

[35] Idel, Absorbing Perfections, p 87.

[36] As will be explained, this question is but a corollary to a wider question of whether one can use language without assuming the sign/signified distinction, i.e. a distinction between one’s words and what one’s words are about.

[37] It is particularly surprising to find this material in an appendix as it constitutes the fourth of the four factors which Idel (Absorbing Perfections, p. 93)  says are the  metaphysical foundations for the Jewish mystical conception of textual infinity. Idel discusses the first three of these factors (which better support his overall thesis that the Kabbalist assumed a “strong” author) in the body of Chapter 3 of his book.


[38] Idel, Absorbing Perfections, p. 476.

[39] Idel, Absorbing Perfections, p. 477.


[40] Idel, Absorbing Perfections, p. 107.


[41] In the Lurianic Kabbalah this is evident in the symbols of Tzimtzum (which implies that  the metaphysical distinction between God and finite humanity is an illusion) and Tikkun ha-Olam  (which suggests that humanity must complete both creation and God Himself).

[42] Idel, Absorbing Perfections, p. 107.

[43] K. Friedan, Freud’s Dream of Interpretation, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990

[44] C.G. Jung, Seven Sermons to the Dead.

[45] Joseph Dan, The Name of God, the Name of the Rose, and the Concept of Language in Jewish Mysticism,  p. 143.

[46] Joseph Dan, The Name of God, p. 143.

[47] Joseph Dan, p. 148.

[49] I hold in reserve the question of whether other forms of symbolic expression such as art and music are to be included here, but there is good reason to believe that Kabbalistically these too (particularly music) articulate Torah and the name of God. The Kabbalists understood music (cantillation) to be embedded within the Torah text (the cantillation marks) and thus part of the hermeneutical process. The place of representational and figurative art in this scheme is, given the Torah’s explicit bar against graven images, more problematic, and will require its own separate study.

[50] Joseph Dan, p. 175, referencing Giegerich. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, pp. 5-31.

[51] Joseph Dan, p. 176.

[52] Scholem, The Meaning of the Torah, p. 69. See Zohar I 26b (Tikkunim), II 117b, III 124b, 153a, 253a (Raya Mehemna), Tikkune Zohar 56, 60, Zohar Hadash 106c. The Zohar sometimes speaks of this as the Torah that had been given to Adam prior to the expulsion from Eden. In Zohar I, 117b-118a, we read that R. Jose “entered a cavern, at the farther end of which he found a book hidden in the cleft of a rock. He brought it out and caught sight of the seventy-two tracings of letters which had been given to Adam the first man, and by means of which he knew all the wisdom of the supernal holy beings, and all those beings that abide behind the mill with turns behind the veil among the supernal ethereal essences, as well as all that is destined to happen in the world until the day when a cloud will arise on the side of the West and darken the world. R. Jose then called R. Judah and the two began to examine the book. No sooner had they studied two or three of the letters than they found themselves contemplating that supernal wisdom. But as soon as they began to go into the book more deeply and to discuss it, a fiery flame driven by a tempestuous wind struck their hands, and the book vanished from them.” In this passage the Zohar suggests that the wisdom of the primordial scripture is vouchsafed for the days of the Messiah. (Zoahr, Sperling and Simon, Vol, 2, pp. 366-7.


[53] Tishby, Wisdom of the Zohar, p. 1103. Zohar I 26b (Tikkunim); Tikkunei ha-Zohar, Tikkun 40,80b. Cf. Zohar I, 28b (Tikkunim), Zohar hadash, Tikkunim 110a.

[54] Zohar I 63b. Sperling and Simon, I, p. 207.

[55] Zohar I 63b. Sperling and Simon, I, p. 207. See Tishby, p. 1103. Cf. Zohar I 37b, 52b-53a (sperling and Simon I, p. 165), 131b. II: 45b. Zohar Hadash, Ruth 83b-83d.

[56] Tishby, p. 1104.

[57] Tishby, p. 1105.

[58] See Zoahr III, 124a-125a (Raya Mehemna); 153a (Raya Mehemna); Zohar Hadash, Tikkunim, 106c-107b. Cf. Tishby, pp. 1097-99, 1106.

[59] Tishby, p. 1106, Zohar Hadash, Tikkunim, 106d-107a. See Zohar II, 118b-119a (Raya Mehemna).

[60] Tishby, p. 1106.

[61] C. G. Jung, Psychological Types, par 816.

[62] Wolfgang Giegerich, The End of Meaning and the Birth of Man: An Essay about the State Reached in the History of Consciousness and an Analysis of C.G. Jung’s Psychology Project, Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice. Vol. 6, No. 1, 2004,  p. 13.

[63] Giegerich, The End of Meaning, p. 22           

[64] This notion of a single, or at least finite range of definitive meaning(s) is implied by Giegerich’s argument.

[65] Chayyim Vital: Introduction to Sefer Etz Chayyim, p. 7. Quoted in Lawrence Fine, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship (Stanford University Press, 2003), p.97

[66] Fine. p. 101-2

[67] Lawrence Fine p. 97.

[68] See G. Scholem, Sitra Achra p. 76.

[69] Scholem, Meaning of the Torah, p. 71.

[70] Scholem, Meaning of the Torah. p. 73

[71] Daniel Matt, “Ayin: The Concept of Nothingness in Jewish Mysticism,” in Essential Papers on Kabbalah, Lawrence Fine, ed.  New York: New York University Press, 1995, p. 96, note 37)

[72] The Zohar, for example, equates the Sefirot with certain “questions” that provide an indication of the Sefirah’s level and the nature of God. Binah, which the Zohar connects with the primordial “mother” and the “beginning” of creation, is spoken of as the question “Who?” (Mi? in Hebrew).  Malchut, the last Sefirah, at the end of the emanative process, prompts a contemplation of the cosmos as a whole, and is called “What?” (Mah?). For the  Zohar this “What?” pertains to “these” (eleh) Sefirot, and when the letters comprising the Hebrew terms for “What are these?” (Mah Eleh) are rearranged we arrive at “Elohim”, the revealed God of the bible.[72]  It is thus questions, not answers that lead us to the living, creator God. See Zohar  I:2a, Sperling and Simon, The Zohar, Vol. 1, p. 6, and discussion in Tishby, Wisdom of the Zohar, Vol. I, p. 294-5.

[73] Chayyim Vital, Sefer Ez Chayyim: I I 5 fol. 15a, quoted in Idel,  Absorbing Perfections, p. 101,


[74] Othiyot de Rabbi Akiva, Jerusalem, 1914, Quoted in Scholem, The Meaning of the Torah, p. 63.