Jay Michaelson
February 8, 1998
The Anxiety of Influence:
Philosophical Questions and Kabbalistic Answers
in Historical Context


I.     Introduction: New Questions

New questions are almost always more interesting than new answers. While most of us claim to be searching for "answers," advances in intellectual history draw their energy not so much from the solutions to old problems as from new problems not dreamt of before. It is common in contemporary academic discourse, for example, to settle a dispute between scholars not by deciding on one side over the other, but by showing how both sides are in fact playing the same game, on the same basis of unstable assumptions, and then show that when faulty questions are asked, the actual "answers" would be illusory at best. We can go on and on debating the nature of the ether, for instance, but a true paradigm shift occurs when the faulty, commonly-assumed ground of our debate is removed entirely.

One example of such a paradigm shift occurred during the gradual spread within medieval Jewry of Greek philosophical discourse from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. Beginning with the translation of Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus into Arabic, and the growing concern in the Islamic world with the pursuit of a "perfect" monotheism, the Jews living amongst Muslims from Baghdad to Barcelona (following the 711 conquest) began to discover questions they had not asked in the past. Theology, while of great importance in Islam, was relatively unimportant in earlier phases of Judaism.1 Rabbinic Judaism in particular, if one takes a broad survey of its literature, seems far more concerned with ethical and ritual obligations of the Jew than with the nature of the Deity to whose those obligations ultimately relate. Indeed, metaphysics is conspicuously absent from the list of "permissible" sciences of the Greeks and Romans preserved in the Babylonian Talmud, and the Talmud elsewhere warns against asking central metaphysical questions - "what comes before and what comes after" -- theology/cosmogony and eschatology -- and "what is above and what is below" -- or theology/cosmology. 2   In contrast to Plato and Aristotle, who considered metaphysics to be of higher priority than ethics, the voices of Rabbinic Judaism generally disfavor speculation on the nature of Gcd and the universe as against the "here and now" of ethics and law.

It is not surprising, then, that theological speculation, such as it was, was left in the ancient period to the mystics, and that the leading text on the physical creation of the universe was not one of the central treatises of the Rabbinic tradition, but rather the obscure Sefer Yetzira, probably composed around the 3rd or 4th century.3 It is also unsurprising that the results of these sporadic and non-philosophically- rigorous investigations are difficult to fit into any kind of coherent philosophical system - they were not meant to be so considered. Hechalot mystics were not creating a theology; they were (ostensibly) reporting on their own ecstatic visions. The philosophical implications of what they saw were not questions Jews had seriously begun to ask.

What happened when Jews looked at these Old Answers to the New Questions of rationalist philosophy? How did the tradition which produced these "insufficient answers" react to the threatening (1) ideas and (2) new questions of rationalism? It is the thesis of the present investigation that Jewish mysticism 4 is marked in the 13th century not so much by an absorption of philosophical answers as a new embrace of philosophical questions. That is to say, while it is true that the early Kabbalah incorporated some neo-Platonic and even some Aristotelian language and concepts, it more dramatically shifted Jewish mysticism's focus away from earlier preoccupations and towards philosophical ones. Jewish mysticism becomes what Scholem, and Idel, have called "Jewish theosophy." It becomes an alternative brand of theology to the rationalist one - but it becomes a theology nonetheless.

Moreover, the creators of this new Jewish theology adopt some of the rhetorical positions of their philosophical opponents relative to the non-theosophical mystical traditions that continued in their day. Polemics between mystics and anti-mystics, for example, tend to focus not so much on the cognitive content of mystical thought as on the general impropriety of what mystics were doing -- spells, gestures, and the like. Indeed, while many philosophers did indeed object to the flagrantly anthropomorphic imagery in Hechalot and Merkavah literature, more appear to have objected to the popularization of seemingly degenerate pietistic and even shamanistic magical practices, and that the whole orientation of mystical religious behavior was, basically, backward. Defenders of the mystical tradition tend to adopt these critiques in creating a Kabbalistic hierarchy with theosophy at the top and magic at the bottom.


In suggesting that mysticism adopted philosophical modes of discourse even while maintaining non-philosophical theological concepts, it is important to note that they had an alternative. Defenders of Jewish mysticism who took the rationalist challenge seriously already had at their disposal theological concepts which could have deflected most of the actual philosophical issues. Most important of these concepts -- the idea that the entity "seen" by Biblical prophets and subsequent mystics was a specially created entity, the "created kavod" (kavod nivra) -- had, in fact, been developed by the non-mystic Saadia Gaon and elaborated upon by the Hasidei Ashkenaz.5 But instead of simply making use of this concept, and thus deflecting criticisms of anthropomorphism, early Kabbalistic thought in the thirteenth century developed a complex mythico-theological system partly based on the kavod nivra, partly based apparently on neo-Platonism, partly perhaps based on gnosticism, but, whatever its substantive roots, a theological system that by the end of the 13th century represented a developed alternative theology to the rationalistic one. In short, though other alternatives were available, what actually resulted from the mysticism-rationalism confrontation was, on the Kabbalistic side, a mystical doctrine that answered new, philosophical questions.
I begin by briefly analyzing some trends within polemics against mysticism in the high medieval period, and then turn to examining how Kabbalah developed in the context both of these polemics and, more importantly, in terms of the larger sets of questions and categories which rationalism brought to the forefront of Jewish consciousness. In the concluding portions of this paper, I suggest that the revolution may go deeper than we imagine; indeed, philosophy may have brought the idea of "depth" itself to a tradition that did not know of it earlier.

II. Critiques of the Mystical Tradition

So writes a Provencal rationalist to his allies in Sefarad, decrying the pietistic and prophetic practices of FrGerman Jewry. If Graetz were right (though as students of Scholem we can expect Graetz never to be right about anything), we would have expected the rationalist author of the above epistle to focus on the superiority of rationalist philosophy to the mystical nonsense that was his target. Graetz saw the Kabbalah as a response to the new threats of rationalism; Maimonides threatened to make the mitzvot contingent and arbitrary in form, the Kabbalists made them necessary again, through whatever theoretical machinery they could muster.7 But that is not what the polemicist is concerned about. Though the philosophical attack on mysticism was largely implicit, the explicit attacks exemplified by the above excerpt were focused not on philosophically problematic ideas, but on more general religious matters.
Examining the above epistle in detail, we find the following attacks against the Franco-German pietists: (1) foreign sources ("abominations of the nations"), (2) soothsaying, (3) vain magical practices (names, angels, demons, amulets), (4) false prophecy, and (5) bizarre practices ("immersed in stinking cave water"). What is interesting is that none of this has to do with the anthropomorphism of Hechalot speculation, the anti-rational reification of language by the Hasidei Ashkenaz, or any of the substance of mystical thought in the 1230s. Indeed, the polemic would not be out of place today, in the modern Israel where the continued use of folk healing and magical practices virtually identical to those described in the Narbonne text draws similar contempt from latter-day "rationalists."


Also significant is that the letter, written during the 1230s, was composed by a Provencal Jew at a time when the early Kabbalists were already quite active in Provence. Note the text states "there is no breach, no ill repute, no shouting in our streets," not "there is no mystical speculation in our community." It would seem that, at least as a matter of polemical value, the external practices of various mystics seem far more problematic than the ideas they supposedly expressed.


Other polemics reveal a similar set of interests. There are some rationalist texts which do take mystics8 to task for their ideas -- another Provencal polemic from the same period as the one discussed above expresses sadness that the Jews of Toledo "show[ed] love for the accursed enemies of the Lord who ascribe--after the vanities of the gentiles--corporeality to Gcd."9 There are also various polemics accusing the Kabbalists (probably correctly) of forgery.10 Yet most continue to focus on those elements of mystical practice which, from as early as the mid-13th century, became denigrated by Kabbalists themselves.11 Just as the early critics of Kabbalah focused on the use of magic and angelology,12 later Kabbalists themselves criticized those who made use of esoteric traditions for this-worldly gains, deriding the baalei shem in favor of the "new Kabbalists," the baalei sefirot.13
Essentially, these kinds of critiques seem as much about the social ambience of mystical speculation as about its substance. Not unlike most of the early polemics against 18th century Hasidism, it is not the ideas that seem so objectionable; it is the fact that what these people are doing -- enthusiastic, seemingly foreign, basically, acts of gasat ruach14 -- just is not what Judaism is about.
This should not be terribly surprising. While it is not my intention to enter here into a discourse about the role of intellectual versus cultural factors in historical change, it is safe to say that we should not be surprised that cultural valences play a heavy role, especially since we are dealing not with erudite disputations but with bitter polemics.
It is also important to note that there are many different kinds of polemics. In the cases both of philosophy and of Kabbalah, there are "skeptical" polemics and "elitist" polemics. A skeptical anti-Maimonidean polemic would take the form of some of the Kabbalists' own criticisms -- that Maimonides' ideas are to some extent incorrect, and should thus be suppressed. An elitist anti-Maimonidean critique, however, might grant that Maimonides' ideas are correct, but still say they are dangerous, because they might confuse the unlearned -- Maimonides himself appears to say as much in the Guide to the Perplexed. This dual phenomenon exists on the mystical side as well. The skeptical critiques we have seen -- but there were also those who, while not taking issue with the Kabbalists, were dismayed at the "popularization" of what should have remained an elite activity.15


In any case, if we return these criticisms to the more general framework set up in the introduction, what they really seem to be saying is that mystical practices are not the sorts of things Judaism should be about. An Aristotelian and a Neo-platonist may have large disagreements about the answers to various key questions -- the nature of creation, the eternity of the universe, etc. -- but they do not disagree about the questions they are asking. In this light, a Jewish Aristotelian and a Muslim Aristotelian have more in common than either has with a Kabbalist or a Sufi, because their questions, though answered in very different ways, are more similar. (Not to mention the fact that, though philosophers and Kabbalists each accused the other of taking too much from foreign sources, both groups were in contact with their counterparts in other religious traditions at least as much as with their coreligionist adversaries.) What is interesting is when Neo-platonic Kabbalists begin appearing on the scene, taking answers from one source and questions from another. Having suggested the contours of the rationalists' critique of Kabbalah, we now turn to the rationalists' positive conception of what Judaism should be about, and to the Kabbalists' possible responses to it.


III. Rationalism and Jewish Theology

"The Kabbalistic movement in Judaism cannot be described adequately according to the categories of the history of philosophy," wrote Gershom Scholem in On the Origins of the Kabbalah. "It can only be explained in terms of the history of religions, however close its connection with philosophy may here and there turn out to be."16


It is interesting that Scholem's translator has used both the word "categories" and the word "terms" -- because it is that dichotomy which I would like to explore here. The terms of the Kabbalah, it is true, are essentially those of religion -- Scholem, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, ascribes in his later work the origins of the Kabbalah to various forms of oriental (i.e. Middle Eastern, and possibly Persian) gnosticism, filtered through Provence and such early texts as the Bahir and those of the Circle of Contemplation, together with earlier Jewish mystical motifs from the Merkabah/Hechalot mystics, the Shiur Komah, the Sefer Yetzira, and so on.17

But the categories of the Kabbalah are much newer. Scholem himself notes that, following the Zohar's acceptance, "Instead of the fragmentary and obscure sentences of the Bahir they had in the Zohar relatively well developed and systematic homilies that far better expressed the state of mind of the kabbalists of those later generations."18 I would suggest that it is not just the state of mind that is better suited to the Zohar than the Bahir; it is the state of Jewish thought as well. The Bahir, organized (if one can use the term) as a midrash, offers no systematic theology whatsoever -- it is, rather, "a potpourri of many motifs that could be of interest to the adepts of the old esoteric doctrine."19 The Zohar, and even more so contemporary works such as R. Joseph Gikatilla's Shaarei Orah, are systematic discourses, complete with questions and answers on contentious issues, and a thought-through set of metaphysical and cosmological speculations. The terms may well be "religious," not philosophical, but the categories in which those terms are placed have certainly changed.


It would be useful for my project here if a Kabbalist, or even an anti-Kabbalist, would have acknowledged that they were trying to answer pquestions. But of course such an admission would be out of the question. Instead, we have only the texts themselves, and the projects they carry out. I have already suggested that the questions they answer seem more like philosophical questions than those asked by earlier generations of Jewish mystics. The Shaarei Orah, for instance, is about what the nature of the divinity is, how the world was created, and the nature of the physical universe(s). Such topics are more reminiscent of Maimonidean projects than those, for example, of the text known as the Maaseh Merkavah, which is largely about the prayers uttered by a mystic when he beholds the vision of the heavenly throne.20 More proximate texts of Jewish mysticism share a similar non-philosophical orientation. To the extent the Bahir may be said to be about anything, it is about allegorically describing the kavod/shechinah, mystical prayers, and an embryonic description of the sefirot as they function in the divine dynamos. It is uninterested in potential contradictions, and maintains throughout an "aggadic spirit"21 in sharp contrast to the air of inquiry around texts like the Shaarei Orah.


Despite this difference, Scholem, who was chiefly interested in the development of Kabbalistic doctrine, tended not to contrast the Bahir with later works but rather see the Bahir as the beginning-point of the development of Kabbalistic symbolism.22 While obviously Scholem was quite aware of the differences in the various texts, in Origins and in Major Trends, he was more interested in the substance of Kabbalistic answers than the agenda of Kabbalistic questions, and thus saw the Bahir less as an encapsulation of what pre-philosophical mysticism was like, and more as an early example of Kabbalah's general development in Provence.
Likewise, Joseph Dan, in his analysis of the philosophy-kabbalah relationship, notes that "the impact of medieval philosophical thought on Judaism created an awareness of problems never before paramount in Jewish thought," but, strangely, goes on to treat only how Kabbalah deal with certain "conflicts raised by the injection of Aristotelianism into Judaism," i.e., substantive 'answers.'23 In this regard, he is in rough agreement with Scholem, and rejects the theory that Kabbalah developed as a response to rationalism. As a result of his conflation of substantive answers (doctrine) and pertinent questions (agenda), he too sees the Bahir as evidence that philosophy's impact on Kabbalah was minimal.24
In contrast, I have suggested that in terms of the questions that it asks, the Bahir stands on the brink of a large gulf separating early Jewish mysticism from the Kabbalah -- and that it is on the far side from the Kabbalah. Doctrinally, the Bahir well represents the mix of possibly ancient gnostic symbolism, adaptation of Hechalot and Merkavah motifs, and some philosophical concepts that was the state of affairs in the early Kabbalah. But Kabbalah changes after the Bahir is redacted (and it is worth repeating that Scholem appears to have believed that much of the text originated from the orient, not Provence) in terms of the questions it asks. In these terms, Kabbalah as it developed in Spain and Provence was -- despite the leadership of many of its figures in the opposition to rationalist philosophy25 -- animated not by the questions of its mystical forebears but by the new problems of its adversarial contemporaries.

 IV.     Philosophy, Inwardness, and Jewish Practice

Beyond the changing items on the Jewish thinker's agenda, there are yet further ways in which the Kabbalah may be said to be assimilating philosophy's general orientation, again despite the virulent opposition of many early Kabbalists to rationalist philosophy itself.26 Chief among these new, subterranean assimilations of thought is the new inwardness of the Kabbalah. Essentially, Kabbalah takes on from the philosophical questions it asks a wholesale philosophical orientation towards the world that sees the world as comprised of "inner" and "outer" elements, a conception which had not animated Rabbinic Judaism, and which may well have caused some non-rationalistic Jews to be skeptical of the developing Kabbalah.

From a modern vantage point, it is almost impossible to conceive of a world without inwardness, let alone a religion without it. And yet, the vast majority of rabbinic interest focused -- broadly speaking -- not on the intentions, motivations, and thoughts behind human action, but on the actions themselves. This held true both for ethical action (mitzvot bein adam l'havero), in which thoughts played a much smaller role than deeds, and ritual action (mitzvot bein adam l'makom), in which, with the occasional exception of prayer, the performance of the right ritual action was much more important than the intention (kavvanah) with which it was performed. Just as rabbinic ontology was seemingly much more interested in the "here and now" than in the "hidden transcendence" of existence, rabbinic law seemed much more interested in the here-and-now of surface reality and actions, as compared with the murky mysteries of human thought.

Such an orientation is, in fact, quite foreign to the modern (but not the post-modern), because the "deep" subject is the locus of everything that matters: reflection, Kantian moral action, and so on.27 Closer to our topic, however, the rabbinic deeds-centered orientation is also quite different from the twin inwardnesses of rationalist philosophy and Kabbalah.


Rationalism, particularly the rationalism of Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed, strove to uncover the meanings of the commandments. For Maimonides, many of the commandments were pedagogical in nature, others were meant to draw helpful distinctions; again, for our purposes, the answers do not matter as much as the questions. And Maimonides' question, though pressing for him, is curiously absent in rabbinic thought. For them, the "meanings" of the commandments were the commandments themselves.


The Maimonidean question is also absent in the "pre-philosophical" mysticism of the Hasidei Ashkenaz. For the Hasidei Ashkenaz, to quote Joseph Dan, "ein kavvanah eleh ma'aseh," there is no intention apart from the act.28 This spirit animates the Hasidei Ashkenaz approach to prayer. In marked contrast with 13th Century Kabbalists in Provence, who saw the words of prayer as either (1) a more or less irrelevant outer garment to what was basically a spiritual exercise29 or (2) the garments of the rich symbolic interplay of the sefirot, the Hasidei Ashkenaz were interested in the words and letters of the prayers themselves -- not because of gematria, or sefirotic equivalences, and certainly not because of their rational, semantic meaning -- but because of the way the numbers of letters and pronunciation of words corresponded to various concepts.30 Essentially, the Hasidei Ashkenaz, supported by their immanentist worldview which saw God in every thing, had no interest in "depth." God was on the surface.


By the time of the writing of the Zohar, however, God was submerged, related to the visible world through an intricate web of sefirotic symbolism. The world, and the human soul, were seen as deep structures. Kabbalah took on the philosophical project of explaining the mitzvot, and the rest of creation, apparently without questioning why the world is necessarily "deep" to begin with. Again, while it took many of its answers for how the inner structure of the world was built and how it related to God from non-philosophical sources, it took its project from philosophy.


Once again, it would be helpful if a Kabbalist had written somewhere that philosophy had helped him see that there were layers of meaning beyond the surface, and that was the reason why Provencal and Geronese Kabbalists in the 12th and 13th century suddenly began explaining the deeper significance of Jewish ritual life. But such a text does not exist. And, as before, I am persuaded by Scholem's and Dan's arguments that Kabbalah does not invent itself because of the rationalist threat. But, before the twelfth century, and in areas where philwas not historically widespread, Jewish rabbinic and mystical thought was not at all interested on the "inner meanings" of the commandments. After the twelfth century, Kabbalah was all about them.


Indeed, as Kabbalah flowered, the distinction between "shell" and "kernel" became the foundation of the entire Kabbalistic ontology. Here again, the doctrines were likely of ancient origin: the phenomenological likeness between the Kabbalah's layer of worlds to gnosticism is quite compelling. But Jewish mysticism had for one thousand years made use of gnostic imagery and symbolism without constructing an elaborate system of "inner meanings" of prayer, ritual acts, and the entirety of human life.


Given that one rationalism's largest perceived threats was that by providing the underlying rationale for the commandments, it removed the need for the Jew to actually perform them, we might see here why Septimus has suggested viewing rationalism and Kabbalah as twin challenges to a kind of default, normative rabbinic Judaism.31 I would agree with Septimus that "Often, Spanish rationalism and kabbalah provided opposing yet parallel responses to the same set of problems."32 I would suggest, though, that it was not conservatism that marked the hesitance of figures like the Ramah to embrace either camp. Rather, it was the radicalism of both rationalist philosophy and Kabbalah. Both sought to completely reconfigure what it was that was "essential" to Judaism, moving away from the "letter," both of prayers and the law generally -- and towards some underlying "spirit." Though the dichotomy is familiar to us now, it was not so to a rabbinically- minded, or mystically-minded, early medieval Jew.


V. Conclusion


Eventually, the philosophers and mystics won; their parallel projects of intellectualization/spiritualization of the mitzvot and of constructing a cosmology/theology that explained core questions about the nature of the universe have come to define much of what Judaism became, and still is today. I have suggested that philosophy and Kabbalah are more alike than different, in that they share the same questions and concerns, even though they differ greatly on the answers to those questions and the way those concerns are played out. So successful has the "victory" been that it is hard even to imagine a religious worldview that is not particularly interested in how the world was created, and that doesn't try to uncover the deeper meaning of right human action.


And yet, both the Talmudic-rabbinic and mystical veins within Judaism appear to be just that. A Yored Merkavah may meditate, utter divine names, and have a vision of the Chariot, but he is unlikely to connect that vision either with the nature of the universe or with the inwardness of his prayers.33 Likewise, the revealed nature of the commandments was enough for the Rabbinic Jew, who placed value in their proper performance, not in their intellectual or symbolic inner structure. To reassert such structures could have been the response of Judaism to the philosophical challenge -- it would have been an interesting debate, but it would not have been Kabbalah.


Instead, Kabbalah drew on non-explanatory, non-deep-structural roots within Jewish (and other) traditions and created a counter-philosophy, one which anxiously rejected philosophical answers while still taking on philosophical projects and agendas. Consequently, from the period under discussion here until the postmodern revalorization of surface over substance (and, not coincidentally, sign over sense), the "superficial" performance of the mitzvot was seen either as increasingly irrelevant surface manifestations of philosophical ideas or as precious, but still not quite ultimate, "clothing" of religious truth, just as the "surface" of the world concealed either a rational meta-structure of one kind or another, or a dynamic cosmos bursting with Divine activity. Before philosophy and Kabbalah, Judaism may have once been about the letter of the law on the surface of the world. But it has not been for a while.



Primary Sources

Epistle from Narbonne to communities in Sefarad, (Ms. Oxford Ms. Heb. d. 2), in Shatzmiller, below, and translation in Septimus, below.

Maaseh Merkavah, in Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, below.

R. Eleazar of Worms, Sefer Raziel, in Jacobs, below.

R. Joseph Gikatilla, Shaarei Orah (1993 ed.)

R. Meir ben Simon, Milhemet Mitzvah, reprinted in Scholem, Teudah Hadashah, below.

Sefer HaBahir (anon.; redacted in Provence) (reprint)

Shaar Hakavvanah L'Mekubalim Rishonim (anon.; member of Provencal Kabbalistic circle) (reprint from Joseph Dan)

Shiur Komah (reprint)

Sodot Hatefillah (anon.; pupil of R. Yehuda haHasid) (reprint from Joseph Dan)


(references made to Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed, the Zohar, and other works were from memory.)



Secondary Sources


Dan, Joseph (ed.), The Early Kabbalah (1986)

Jacobs, Louis, Jewish Mystical Testimonies (1996)

Schechter, Solomon, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1961)

Scholem, Gershom, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkavah Mysticism, and the Talmudic Tradition (1960).

Scholem, Gershom, Kabbalah (1974)

Scholem, Gershom, On the Origins of the Kabbalah (1962)

Scholem, Gershom, Teudah Hadasha L'Toldot Reishit Hakabbalah, in Sefer Bialik (1934)

Septimus, Bernard, Hispano-Jewish Culture in Transition (1982), Joseph Shatzmiller, Towards a Picture of the First Maimonidean

Controversy, Zion 34 (1969)

Urbach, E.E., The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs (1975)


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