Hartley Lachter on the popularization of Kabbalah in 13th cent Castille

Nice little piece in Zeek bases on the dozens of introduction to kabbalah written by those in the 13th Castille school. Lachter points out how the idea of esotericism is based on certain texts like Nahmanides and the Zohar and not on this wide spread 13th century mid-brow literature.Idel has already noticed both the midbrow second-tier of intelligentsia involved in these texts and that for most 13th readers the most important fact of the kabblah was how to do mizvot properly. Lachter offers us a transcription of a paragraph that commences to teach the reader the secrets of how to pray. The latter was important because according to the Kabbalists the philosophic- Maimonidean culture of the era caused many of the educated laity who did not pray or keep positive commandments since they figured they already grasped the Maimonidean philosophic meaning of God’s unity and attributes. They read Maimonides as if he was the Islamic haver of the Kuzari, a philosophic religion without need for most commandments. Kabbalah came to the rescue and offered supernal reasons for the observance. in addition, the 13th century was interested in a variety of ancient Hermetic traditions- Kabbalah allowed Jews to say that we have it also.

Re-considering the Elitism of Medieval Jewish Mysticism
By Hartley Lachter

One of the claims frequently lodged against 20th and 21st century popularizers of Kabbalah — whether in commercial forms such as the Kabbalah Centre or New Age forms such as Neo-Hasidism and Jewish Renewal — is that they are making popular what is meant to be an elite discourse, reserved only for the few…. In Gershom Scholem’s words, most medieval Kabbalists were “a small group of esoterics who had little or no desire to spread their ideas.” (Scholem, Major Trends, 244)

The perception of medieval Kabbalah as a carefully guarded, secret discourse is the result of an overemphasis on some early kabbalists, as well as a narrow selection of texts that have received disproportionate attention due to their prominence in later centuries. In fact, many medieval kabbalistic texts reflect an explicit desire to introduce Kabbalah to readers who are just beginning to study Jewish esoteric lore. While this might not constitute “popularization” in the simple sense, since these texts were only accessible to relatively literate and erudite Jewish readers, it is nonetheless the case that more than a few kabbalistic treatises were composed with the openly stated purpose of instructing non-kabbalists in the study of Kabbalah.

Dozens of texts were composed in the 1280s and 90s in Castile with the clearly stated goal of instructing novices in the wisdom of Kabbalah.

The evidence of these compositions suggests that, as the 13th century drew to a close, kabbalists become more actively engaged in promoting the central claims of their understanding of Judaism, namely, that the Jewish tradition possesses a secret doctrine concerning the inner life of the Godhead, and that the practice of Jewish law has the power to influence the divine realm and sustain the connection between God and cosmos.

Late 13th century Castilian kabbalists were prolific writers. They composed commentaries on the Torah, explications of the secret meaning of rabbinic texts, detailed interpretations of the kabbalistic meaning of the commandments, poetic allegories, and texts intended to provide a general overview of Jewish law. One genre of kabbalistic writing from late 13th century Castile is the peirush or “commentary” on the ten sefirot or ten divine luminosities that serve as the basic symbolic structure of kabbalistic theosophy (Chavel, 1984, p. 7). Over one hundred of these commentaries were written in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.

One interesting example can be found in a lengthy commentary on the ten sefirot entitled Sefer ha-Shem, or “The Book of the Divine Name.” Towards the end of the prefatory comments, the author states that he wrote it to create a guide to help those who are beginners in the wisdom of Kabbalah, as a service “to all of Israel, according to their capacity” and that he “saw fit to set forth a disquisition to enlighten the eyes of one who is beginning to learn Kabbalah” (Oron, 2010, p. 54). These passages clearly indicate the author’s interest in the instruction of the uninitiated in the wisdom of the Kabbalah.

We find a similar formulation in another anonymous commentary on the ten sefirot preserved in Milano Hebrew Manuscript 57, where the author introduces his work by stating that he wrote it for “one who desires [to comprehend] the wisdom of the Kabbalah in its entirety.” The author indicates that his enumeration of the divine names associated with each of the sefirot will serve as a guide to understanding the meaning of other kinds of Jewish texts, since “once one knows this, it will be possible for him when he reads a biblical verse or dictum of the Rabbis of blessed memory, or a matter described in a kabbalistic composition, that he will understand the intention of that verse or dictum, and to what matter it alludes. It is for this purpose that I composed this text.”

The dissemination of Kabbalah in late 13th century Castile, however, existed for reasons quite different from those of the contemporary popularizers. Rather than present a universally accessible discourse for the attainment of self fulfillment, medieval Kabbalists sought through their compositions to establish a shared symbolic framework that reinforces the Jewish tradition by re-envisioning it as the exclusive path to true knowledge regarding the mysteries of the Godhead, the meaning of the Torah, and the power of Jewish religious praxis.

For example, in a passage from an anonymous text entitled Mekor ha-Sekhel preserved in Bodleian Opp. 487, the author laments the trend that he observes among his fellow Jews of those who neglect prayer because they have come to regard it as worthless and ineffective. The author urges his readers not to follow such a path, but rather to recognize, on the basis of the sefirotic map, that “the prayers that come forth from a man’s mouth ascend to the place of the emanation of souls. And if it is pure and unblemished, free from impure thoughts, it shall go in peace,” (45r).

The text then, interestingly, illustrates this conception of prayer, and the practice of Judaism more broadly, with a parable that makes intriguing use of the idea of mapping: “This matter can be compared to a house filled with silver and gold and many kinds of food and drink and treasuries with keys, and before them lay scorpions and pits, trenches and caves, and there is a single good path by which one may be saved from all of these evils. When a man arrives who wishes to obtain silver, gold, food, drink or other things, if he knows the location of these treasures, and he knows the pathway leading to them, he shall obtain everything he desires, ‘he shall enter in peace and depart’ (Hagigah 9a),’ and he shall find that which he seeks. But if he does not know the pathway leading to the treasures, he shall grope in the dark and fall victim to the creatures and pits.” (45r–v)

The kabbalistic conception of Judaism that arose in late 13th century Castile accords well with the increased interest in esoteric discourses such as Hermeticism and Neo-pyathagoreanism. By putting forth a claim to ancient, revealed knowledge stemming from antiquity, kabbalists were casting Jews, and an esoteric chain of Jewish transmission, in terms that would have resonated with other forms of esoteric knowledge. Moreover, the secrets concerning the power of Jewish ritual in relation to the incomprehensible, inner life of God that the kabbalists claim as the unique patrimony of the Jewish people can be understood as a response to Christianity, as well as Christian anti-Jewish argumentation.
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2 responses to “Hartley Lachter on the popularization of Kabbalah in 13th cent Castille

  1. michael scarn

    [According to some] There is actually very little evidence that hyper-rationalist Maimonideans who didn’t pray or keep mitzvot actually existed. There were tendentious reports of such people (especially in the letters that led to the Maimonidean controversies, e.g. Abba Mari of Lunel), but little hard evidence. See David Berger’s “Judaism and General Culture in Medieval and Early Modern Times.”
    [site owner- if you return, please use your real name.]

  2. you may not want to link to the full article as it uses images without the permission of their owners.

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