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Tag: Nahmanides

A Missing or Defective Letter, a 23 Character Alphabet, and Seven Books of the Torah

“Hence the author of the Book Temunah transfers his interest from the redemption at the end of the current shemittah (about which he has little to say anyway) to the vision of the following one. The vision of the end of the present shemittah, of the gradual extinction of humanity, and of the slowing down of the rhythm of life in the entire creation—of which older Jewish messianism knew nothing—already forms part of this newly erupting sense of utopia.

In this  conception of redemption, the Messiah himself no longer plays a visible role; interest is completely focused on the cosmic processes.

For the historian of religion, the most striking aspect of the doctrine of shemittoth resides in the close link between a rigorous Jewish piety that maintains the revelatory character of the Torah and the vision of a change in the manifestation of the Torah in the other shemittoth. We have a clear case of Utopian antinomianism.

The assertion of the Temunah that “what is forbidden below is permitted above” (fol. 62a) entails the logical inference that what is forbidden according to the reading of the Torah in our present aeon might be permitted and even required in other aeons, when some other divine quality—Mercy, for example, instead of Stern Judgment—governs the world.

In fact, in both the Book Temunah itself and writings that follow in its footsteps we find astonishing statements regarding the Torah that imply a virtual antinomianism.

Two ideas should be stressed at this point. Several passages suggest that in the current shemittah one of the letters of the Torah is missing. This lack can be understood in two ways. It could signify that one of the letters has a defective form, contrary to its past perfection, that would of course be restored in a future shemittah.

However, as the book indefatigably asserts, since each letter represents a divine potency, the imperfection of its form could mean that the sefirah of Stern Judgment that predominates today effectively restricts the efficacy of the divine lights, which are therefore unable to reveal themselves perfectly.

According to this view, one such “defective” or incomplete letter of the alphabet is shin, which in its perfect form should have four heads, but which is written at present with three: Shin But the statement also could signify that today one of the letters of the alphabet is missing completely: it has become invisible in our aeon but will reappear and become legible once again in the future aeon.

Such a view evidently implies a thoroughly changed attitude toward the received Torah. In fact, it can (and did) lead to the supposition that all the prohibitions we read in the present text of the Torah are due to this absent letter.

The alphabet, and with it the complete Torah, are actually based upon a series of twenty-three letters; if we find in the Torah positive and negative commandments, it is only because this letter has dropped out of the present text. Everything negative is connected with the missing letter of the original alphabet.

According to another and no less audacious idea, the complete Torah contained in reality seven books, corresponding to the seven sefiroth and shemittoth. It is only in the current shemittah that, through the restrictive power of Stern Judgment, two of these books have shrunk to the point that only a bare hint of their existence remains.

The proof text of this assertion was a passage in the Talmud (Shabbath 116a), according to which the book of Numbers actually consists of three books. A tradition from the school of Nahmanides specifies that the power inherent in the Torah will manifest itself in the future aeon in such manner that we shall again perceive seven books.

The Book Temunah itself (fol. 31a) avers that the first chapter of Genesis is merely the vestige of a fuller Torah revealed to the shemittah of Grace, but which has become invisible in our shemittah, as the light of this earlier book has disappeared.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, pp. 471-3.

Bodhisattvas

“Occasionally even the mystical illumination produced by the effluence of the divine power from one sefirah to another is designated as sod ha-‘ibbur. In general, the kabbalists of Gerona restricted the transmigration of souls, on the basis of Job 33:29, to three rebirths following the first entry of the soul into the human body, though they admitted the existence of exceptional cases.

An important detail has been transmitted from the school of Nahmanides. In the famous disputation with the ex-Jew Paulus Christiani, the monk invokes the well-known aggadah according to which the Messiah was born at the hour of the destruction of the Temple.

To this Nahmanides replied: “Either this aggadah is not true, or else it has another explanation according to the mysteries of the sages.” Although the wording of this reply clearly points to kabbalistic teaching, it has not been understood until now.

Nahmanides does indeed give a plausible—literal and exoteric—explanation of the aggadah, to the effect that the Messiah was currently biding his time in the terrestrial paradise, but his true opinion can be gleaned from the questions of his disciple Shesheth des Mercadell concerning metempsychosis, where this aggadah figures as a proof text for this doctrine.

What the aggadah means to say is, therefore, that since the destruction of the Temple the soul of the Messiah is in the process of ‘ibbur. On this point, Nahmanides and his school depart from the older idea of the Bahir section 126, according to which the soul of the Messiah does not inhabit a human body before.

On the other hand, this text already exhibits the transition to the doctrine, first attested shortly after Nahmanides, to the effect that the name of Adam is an abbreviation (ADaM) of the three forms of existence of this soul in Adam, David, and the Messiah.

This would imply that the Messiah has to pass through various stages of incarnation so that his essence “always lives among us” in one form or another. The idea that also arose shortly after Nahmanides and according to which “soul sparks” can fly off from a central soul and thus pass simultaneously through many bodies is not yet attested in Gerona.

This doctrine was also used in the school of Solomon ibn Adreth in order to eliminate the difficulty that would arise at the resurrection of the dead for the different bodies through which one single soul had passed. The different bodies of the resurrected would be inhabited by sparks of the same soul, thus providing a solution to the problem.

According to Azriel there also exist souls of such exalted rank that they do not return to the world of bodies, but remain in the “world of life” and thus do not participate at all, or only in a purely spiritual sense, in the resurrection.

In this manner the kabbalists seem to move, at least as regards a privileged category of superior souls, in the direction of a denial of bodily resurrection—precisely the view for which the radical Maimonideans were so bitterly rebuked. It should be added, however, that this idea appears only in strictly esoteric contexts describing the eschatological progress of the souls after their departure from the terrestrial world and was never formulated in a dogmatic manner.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 459-60.

Not All Human Souls Are Blessed

“The human soul is essentially different from the animal soul; Nahmanides adopts, along with other kabbalists of the earliest period, the Platonic view of the soul, according to which there exist different souls in man and not only different faculties of a unitary soul.

According to Nahmanides, man’s anima rationalis unites the rational and the mystical-intuitive, and hence he sees no need for further distinctions. Nevertheless, the weight shifts imperceptibly to the second side: the highest soul, neshamah, which comes from binah and yesod, is the mediator of prophecy, and through it man, in the state of debhequth, attains communion with the deity as a result of the longing for its origin implanted in it.

Enoch and the three Patriarchs, Moses, and Elijah had achieved this supreme state already on earth; however, it is not a full unio mystica with the deity but rather a communio, as we have argued at length in our discussion of the subject of kawwanah.

In the prophetic vision, during which the soul is united with the objects of its contemplation, it is in this state of debhequth, that it obtains a ”knowledge of God face to face.” In this longing for its origin, the highest soul of man becomes capable of penetrating all the intermediary spheres and rising up to God by means of its acts—which, strangely enough, are united here with contemplation.

The eclectic manner in which the kabbalists adopted philosophical doctrines concerning the soul is also apparent in the fact that Azriel, for example, accepts the Aristotelian definition of the soul as the form of the body, seemingly unaware of the contradiction between this idea and important kabbalistic doctrines.

The contradiction results from the adoption and further development of the doctrine of metempsychosis. While this doctrine is rather openly propounded in the Book Bahir, as we saw on p. 188ff., it is treated, strangely enough, as a great mystery in Provence and in Gerona.

The authors without exception speak of it only in hints and in veiled allusions. They make no attempt to account for this idea but presuppose it as a truth handed down by esoteric tradition.

The term gilgul, generally used at a later date for the transmigration of souls, seems to be as yet unknown among these early authors. Instead, they prefer to speak of sod ha-‘ibbur. This term, literally “secret of impregnation,” is used in the Talmud for the methods of computing the calendar, handed down only orally for a long time, the idea being that the leap years were impregnated, as it were, by the addition of an extra month.

But ‘ibbur can, if necessary, also be understood as “transition,” and it is doubtless in this sense that the term was picked up by the kabbalists. The “secret of the ‘ibbur” is that of the passage of the soul from one body to another and not, as among the later kabbalists, a real phenomenon of impregnation through which, after birth an additional soul sometimes enters into the one originally born with a person.

We still do not know what led the kabbalists of the first generation to treat this doctrine in such a strictly esoteric manner and what danger they saw in exposing it to the public. It is most unlikely that fear of the Catholic Church, which had officially condemned this doctrine, was a factor.

Where no christological elements were involved, Jewish theology generally had no inhibitions. The polemics directed by the philosophers against this doctrine should likewise have stimulated controversy rather than secrecy. Nahmanides had no lack of opportunity to denounce the philosophic criticism of this doctrine. Instead, he retreated into extremely prudent, and for the uninitiated, often impenetrable statements in his commentary on the book of Job, the key to which, according to the kabbalists of Gerona, lay precisely in the doctrine of metempsychosis.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 456-7.

Miracles

“We shall forgo a closer analysis of the views of this circle on the constitution of creation but shall nevertheless mention the important contribution made by Nahmanides, in marked opposition to Maimonides, with his doctrine of “hidden miracles.”

This doctrine, repeatedly expounded by him as the foundation of the whole Torah, sees the natural law in certain respects as mere appearance behind which is concealed, in reality, a continuum of secret miracles. Hidden miracles are those that give the impression of being nothing more than the effects of the natural course of events, although they are not.

In relation to man, the world is not “nature” at all but a perpetually renewed miracle. In fact, the blessedness of man depends upon his acceptance of this doctrine! Nahmanides may thus well be described as an occasionalist of the purest stripe—at least as regards Israel’s relationship to nature. The opinion of most authorities, including Maimonides, that God does not always act by means of miracles and that the world in general takes its natural course is, according to Nahmanides, a major error, the refutation of which is the purpose and meaning of the revelation of the Torah.

It is true that Maimonides himself in his Treatise on the Resurrection had already explained the coincidence of the promises in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 33 on the one hand and the natural law on the other as a “permanent miracle,” and as a “miraculous sign greater than all the others.”

Bahya ibn Paquda, too, and above all Yehudah Halevi, discussed this subject at length. They too teach that events appear to occur in an order conforming to the natural law whereas in truth they follow the religious order that regulates them in consonance with the Torah’s promises of reward and punishment for Israel in accordance with its conduct.

But the notion of hidden miracles is not yet formulated by these authors; Nahmanides took it from the astrological theory of Abraham ibn Ezra and reinterpreted it in a kabbalistic spirit. God acts in nature in secret ways and introduces into its course a supernatural causal chain that is linked to the moral order of the world and to its system of rewards and punishments.

The hidden miracles are not historical, local, or individual events that are directly recognizable as miracles; they represent the action of individual providence within the natural order.

As YHWH, who suspends the natural order from outside, God brings about manifest miracles; as ‘El Shaddai, he causes the hidden miracles for the Patriarchs and for all Israel through the power of the Shekhinah, the sefirah malkhuth, his “royal dominion,” thanks to which Israel is removed from the causality of natural law and placed in a higher causal order of permanent miracles.

Divine intervention, in the form of rewards and punishments, occurs at every instant; rain and sunshine do not come from the hidden harmony of creation but are, in this sense, hidden miracles.

Since they are by no means inherent in the inner necessity of the course of nature, these hidden miracles must be announced explicitly in the Torah, whereas doctrines such as the immortality of the soul or retribution in the beyond after death necessarily follow, according to Nahmanides, from the natural course of things and therefore need not be explicitly mentioned in the Torah. This doctrine may well be expressed in the words of the eighteenth-century German poet and thinker G. E. Lessing: “The greatest miracle is that the true, the genuine miracles can and should become so ordinary to us.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 453-4.

The Torah is the Name

“In a more mystical sense, it is true, the ‘asiluth represents the name or the names of God, as has been shown in the preceding chapter. This theosophic conception was preserved in Gerona. Creation can subsist only to the extent that the name of God is engraved in it.

The revelation of the name is the actual revelation, and the Torah is not merely a conglomeration of the names of God, but, in its very essence, nothing but this one name itself. This doctrine, which transmuted an originally magical tradition into a strictly mystical one, was clearly expressed for the first time in Gerona, and from there reached the author of the Zohar.

Light-mysticism for the emanation and language-mysticism for the divine name remain the two principal means by which the world of the sefiroth could be described.

For Nahmanides, the ten sefiroth are the “inwardness” of the letters. The beginning and the end of the Torah together form, according to a mystical pun, the “heart,” heart of creation of creation; in terms of gematria, the traditional mysticism of numbers the numerical value of the word (thirty-two) also indicates the thirty-two paths of wisdom active in it.

This “heart” is nothing other than the “will” of God itself, which maintains the creation as long as it acts in it. For it becomes the Nothing, the Nothing (the inversion of the same two letters), as soon as the will reverses its direction and brings all things back to their original essentiality, “like someone who draws in his breath.”

But this return of all things to their proprietor is also their return to the mystical pure Nothingness. The primordial beginning of creation consisted in the emergence of hokhmah from the infinite plenitude of the “supreme crown” or the will, in an act of limitation, simsum, in which the all-embracing divine kabhod was restricted.

This restriction of the light at first produced a darkness, into which there flowed the clear light of hokhmah. We thus find in Nahmanides the oldest form of the doctrine of a self-contraction of God at creation, which, however, is not a contraction of the ‘en-sof itself, as taught by later kabbalists, but of the first sefirah.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 448-9.

The Mystery of ben Belimah

“In the history of Jewish literature, Nahmanides is often considered to exemplify the “most Jewish” spirit; he was the one among Spanish Jews who expressed the deepest convictions regarding the Judaism of his time and embodied what was best and highest in it. From the point of view of a “refined” Judaism or the pure halakhah, it must indeed appear as an aberration that so clear a mind, one that easily penetrated the most complicated halakhic problems, should have become involved with the Kabbalah.

But it is precisely this dimension of his personality that must be grasped if we wish to understand the phenomenon. Without the Kabbalah and its contemplative mysticism Nahmanides, would be as little understood in his Jewish context as would, in the Christian context, a man like Ramón Lull (who was active in Catalonia a generation later and whose teaching exhibited structurally many analogies with the doctrine of the sefiroth) if one ignored his Ars contemplativa, in which his Christianity reached its culmination, and judged him solely on the basis of his wide-ranging activities in all other possible domains.

From this point of view, Nahmanides’ commentary on Yesirah, which develops his conception of God, is of particular importance. The gnostic doctrine of the aeons and the Neoplatonic doctrine of the emanation are combined, and we see how well they harmonize with a Jewish consciousness.

The monotheism of Nahmanides, the Jewish coloration of which is certainly beyond question, is unaware of any contradiction between the unity of God and its manifestation in the different sefiroth, each of which represents one of the aspects by which the kabhod of God reveals itself to the Shekhinah.

In his commentary on the Torah, in which he had to deal only with God’s activity in His creation, making use of the symbols of theosophy, Nahmanides could avoid touching upon this crucial point; he only discussed it in this document intended for kabbalists.

From whom Nahmanides actually received the esoteric tradition is an open question. He does mention, in his commentary on Yesirah, the Hasid Isaac the Blind, but not as his master. Nor does the letter that Isaac sent to him and to his cousin Jonah Gerondi, of whom we shall have occasion to speak later, indicate any direct discipleship.

Nahmanides refers to Yehudah ben Yaqar as his master, especially in the halakhic writings. Contrariwise, in a series of undoubtedly genuine traditions going back to Nahmanides’ most important disciple, Solomon ibn Adreth, there emerges the thoroughly enigmatic figure of a kabbalist by the name of ben Belimah—the personal first name is never mentioned—who is said to have been the connecting link between him and Isaac the Blind.

Meir ibn Sahula, in his commentaries on the traditions of Nahmanides (fol. 29a), contrasts those he had received from ben Belimah with those deriving from Isaac. In very old marginal notes emanating from the circle of Gerona and preserved in Ms. Parma, de Rossi 68, mention is made of a debate between Nahmanides and ben Belimah over the fate of Naboth’s spirit (1 Kings 22); the debate suggests that ben Belimah posited some kind of transmigration of souls or metamorphosis also for the higher spirits, even within the world of the sefiroth up to binah.

The existence of such a kabbalist therefore seems established beyond doubt, no matter how enigmatic his name. It is neither a family name nor a patronymic. Belimah is not known to me as a woman’s name, and it is extremely unlikely that Solomon ibn Adreth would have transmitted the name in a corrupted form to his disciples.

There remains the hypothesis of a pseudonym deliberately substituted for another name that was kept secret for reasons unknown to us and in a manner completely contrary to the habit of this circle. The pseudonym seems to be derived from B. Hullin 89a, where Job 26:7 is applied to Moses and Aaron who, when assailed by the Israelites, changed themselves into nothing!

The kabbalist in question thus may possibly have been a [ . . . ] ben Moses (rather than [ . . . ] ben Aaron). B. Dinur’s suggestion that the pseudonym refers to R. Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi (because of his attitude in the Maimonidean controversy) seems improbable. Perhaps new manuscript discoveries will one day clarify matters.

In any case, this name, whose literal translation would be “son of the Nought” or “son of seclusion,” provokes the historian’s curiosity. It remains uncertain whether ben Belimah should be located in Gerona, which is quite possible, or in Provence, where Nahmanides could have met with him during his youth.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 389-91.

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