The currency which Kabbalah has achieved in popular culture might make it easy to forget that it is intrinsically an esoteric discipline. Kabbalah had its literary debut at the hands of Jewish scholars in thirteenth-century Southern France and Catalonia, although it existed, in some form, as an oral tradition well before this period. Kabbalah is primarily devoted to expounding upon and achieving mystical experience of the ten sefirot, the ten aspects of God. In kabbalistic documents, the sefirot are described in great detail through an array of symbolic designations, including symbols taken from nature, from biblical narratives, from the human form, and from human sexuality, to name a few. According to kabbalistic doctrine, observance of biblical and rabbinic law functions theurgically to unify the sefirot, thereby establishing divine unity, a process that Kabbalists often provocatively describe as the sexual union of male and female sefirot. This union, in turn, allows the divine efflux, which is the source of divine providence, to flow to the world. Conversely, violation of the law leads to disunity among the sefirot and the cessation of the efflux.
Already in its earliest literary manifestations, the secrecy of kabbalistic knowledge is underscored. Academic scholars are well aware of the centrality of secrecy in kabbalistic discourse. Indeed, Elliot Wolfson has suggested that “Jewish esotericism” is a more apt designation for Kabbalah than the more common “Jewish mysticism.”1 Yet, despite the robust research on the philosophical and social implications of secrecy in Kabbalah that is found in the work of previous scholars, scant attention has been paid to the relationship between secrecy and the craft of kabbalistic writing. Basic issues, such as the literary techniques that Kabbalists have employed to conceal their secrets, or what determined which ideas they chose to keep secret, have not been systematically examined. It is these issues that I take up in my book Secrecy and Esoteric Writing in Kabbalistic Literature. In so doing, I offer an account of what motivates kabbalistic esotericism, a description of different techniques of esoteric writing, and a series of case studies that illustrate the use of these techniques in the writings of some of the first Kabbalists.
The seemingly strange state of affairs wherein the literary dimensions of secrecy in kabbalistic writing have not been systematically studied despite the fact that Kabbalah is recognized as an avowedly secret discourse can perhaps be explained by this very recognition. After all, a commitment to study the means by which Kabbalists hid ideas in publicly available texts is predicated on the assumption that these texts also have an exoteric meaning distinct from their esoteric one. Yet, insofar as Kabbalah is viewed, in its entirety, as esoteric knowledge, there might seem to be little to gain by examining the secret dimensions of what is already secret.
In fact, Kabbalists carefully distinguish between ideas that are suitable for a public audience and those that must be reserved for an elite audience. Indeed, kabbalistic literature
is replete with references to secret concepts that cannot be recorded, and numerous Kabbalists testify that they adopted strategies of esoteric writing to hide their ideas. These strategies, while intended to keep these ideas from the broad public, were intended, as well, to convey them to a more worthy audience.
For some readers, a discussion of esoteric strategies of writing will immediately bring to mind the work of the philosopher Leo Strauss. Accordingly, I will offer a few comments on the relationship between my project and Strauss’s work. Strauss has played an outsize role in the study of esoteric writing in both the broader western philosophic tradition and, primarily through his work on the illustrious twelfth-century Rabbinic scholar and philosopher Moses Maimonides, the Jewish philosophic tradition.2 I believe that Strauss’s keen observations about the mechanics of esoteric writing in the works of Maimonides and others are useful in the study of kabbalistic esotericism, particularly because, as I argue, Kabbalists borrowed some of their techniques from Maimonides. At the same time, my book is not a “Straussian” one, nor does paying heightened attention to esoteric writing in kabbalistic works—or even arguing that a Kabbalist’s public position contradicts his esoteric one—make one a “Straussian,” unless all that Straussianism means is respecting Strauss as a careful reader of old books.3
The book is not a “Straussian” one in two senses. First, my contention that Strauss offers useful insights into how to decode esoteric texts does not entail the corollary claim that I accept his particular interpretation of this or that esoteric text. For example, I do not have to accept Strauss’s particular interpretation of Maimonides (assuming that clarity is reached about what this interpretation is—a difficult proposition, given Strauss’s own esoteric style) to believe that his essays offer important clues to deciphering Maimonides’s thought. In any case, Strauss did not offer any interpretations of kabbalistic works, which were far from his philosophical agenda, that I would have to accept or reject. Yet his analysis, for instance, of Maimonides’s use of the dispersion of knowledge and intentional contradictions—techniques of esoteric writing that I discuss throughout the book—is nevertheless useful in assessing Kabbalists’ adoption of these
methods of esoteric writing.
Second, while Strauss’s rediscovery of esotericism was part of his broader philosophical project, I do not need to subscribe to this project to accept his basic proposition that esoteric writing is ubiquitous and demands careful attention. Thus, for example, Strauss, among other things, was concerned with showing that the existence of esoteric layers in various philosophic texts could serve as an antidote to historicism. Yet I can reject Strauss’s particular critique of historicism and its relationship to esoteric writing without discounting the significance of such writing. In fact, as I demonstrate in the book, close attention to esotericism provides us with a much richer sense of the history of Kabbalah than could otherwise be achieved. The words of Arthur Melzer, in his study of esoteric writing in the Western philosophic tradition, are apt here
as well: “It should always be firmly kept in mind that whatever one’s final view of the complex philosophical issues raised by Strauss, both the historical existence and the scholarly importance of esotericism are facts that stand squarely on their own.”4 Similarly, with or without Strauss, esoteric writing is a major component of kabbalistic literature.
My fundamental concern in the book is with secrets that, while they are withheld from a wide audience, are nevertheless communicable. This type of secrecy may be contrasted with two other forms of secrecy, which are also present in kabbalistic literature, in which the secret is either uncommunicable or merely a rhetorical device.
In the first form, which may be called essential secrecy, the secrets are uncommunicable because they are fundamentally beyond human understanding. An inkling of the secret may be knowable, but this inkling lacks any communicable content that the Kabbalist could choose to either reveal to or conceal from others. Often, for example, Kabbalists refer to the essential secrecy of the highest of the ten sefirot, which is considered the most recondite. As Azriel of Gerona, a thirteenth-century Kabbalist says in reference to this sefirah, “One should not investigate these matters beyond what the power of thought [allows].”5 Here, and in numerous similar passages, secrecy is an ontological reality, and the secret remains inaccessible even to the most accomplished Kabbalist.
The second form is secrecy in name only. While the language of secrecy may be employed, it functions as a rhetorical device used to establish group identity and prestige rather than to conceal information. Either the so-called secret simply does not exist, or, if it does exist, it is not really a secret but readily available information. Outside of the context of Kabbalah, this form of secrecy has been examined by scholars such as Hugh Urban6 and Paul Johnson,7 both of whose work I discuss in the book. In the study of Kabbalah, it has been explored by Hartley Lachter whose work I also draw on.8 In this type of secrecy, the social benefits of the claim of secrecy—such as the social capital that might accrue to one who employs the rhetoric of secrecy—are more important than the actual content of the “secret,” if, indeed, there is any content.
These two forms of secrecy are quite prevalent in kabbalistic literature. I would argue, however, that this prevalence should not obscure the fact that many kabbalistic texts do conceal
real secrets with communicable content. And these real secrets are put into sharp relief when seen in the context of the ubiquity of these other forms of secrecy.
Why did Kabbalists feel a need to keep secrets? Among the various explanations, I treat two in my book: defensive and protective esotericism.
Defensive Esotericism: Defensive esotericism9 is esotericism employed to hide heterodox ideas or practices from those in authority who might feel challenged by them and persecute those who propound them. For example, as I explain at length in the book, two important scholars, the twelfth-century southern-French Talmudist Abraham ben David and his grandson the Kabbalist Asher ben David, were worried, with good reason, that should the idea that divine unity is contingent on the sexual union of male and female sefirot become public, they would be subject to attack from various quarters. This is because in their time and place, such a view might seem to go against Jewish philosophic orthodoxy, according to which divine unity is defined by simplicity or absence of composition. It might, moreover, open Kabbalists up to the accusation that they were dualists like the contemporary Cathars, or that their theology was uncomfortably close to Christian trinitarianism.
18 Cyclamens (1984) by Moshe Gershuni. Tate Modern, London
Protective Esotericism: Protective esotericism”10 is grounded in the notion that certain esoteric ideas, should they become public, would undermine important social or religious values. Along these lines, some Kabbalists worried that if their ideas were spread too widely, they would be misunderstood and undermine the faith of the uninitiated.
To be sure, Kabbalists did not believe that their ideas were at odds with core orthodox views. Rather, their worry was that they might be perceived as such. I alluded to Abraham and Asher’s concern, shared by numerous other Kabbalists, that kabbalistic views regarding gendered and anthropomorphized multiple sefirot would lead to accusations that Kabbalists are heretics. This is an example of “defensive esotericism.” Yet Kabbalists—particularly in situations where they wielded significant religious authority—also worried that these same views would lead the noninitiated to believe the heretical ideas that God actually has a body or is really composed of multiple deities when, in fact, these views should not be taken literally but must be understood in various figurative ways. Heresy was viewed as a serious transgression that would lead to divine punishment and would undermine the Torah and God’s honor. Keeping such ideas out of the public’s hands was, therefore, seen as a way to protect individual Jews, the Torah, and, ultimately, God.
For example, the mid-thirteenth-century Castilian Kabbalist Todros Abulafia presents “protective esotericism” as the primary motivation to conceal kabbalistic secrets: “This wisdom (Kabbalah) requires the fear of the Lord for it deals with supernal matters that are as exalted as the heart of the heaven, as deep as the great depth and distant from human ratiocination. And should a person come to consider them with his human ratiocination, which is too limited to comprehend and apprehend divine wisdom, he will be led to error and will go astray like Elisha, that is Aḥer. . . . And this is the real reason that those who have understanding conceal this wisdom, so that no mishap will result from it.”11 Abulafia himself employed esoteric writing throughout his works. Here he explains that one who rationally speculates about kabbalistic matters is bound to make theological errors and ultimately be led astray, much like the arch-heretic of rabbinic literature Elisha ben Abuya, known as Aḥer (“Other”). The Talmud uses the expression “cutting the saplings” to refer to Elisha’s heresy,12 and, for Abulafia and other Kabbalists, it came to anachronistically mean heretically misunderstanding the nature of the unity of the sefirot. It is likely that in invoking Elisha here, Abulafia intends to allude to such a misunderstanding. In Abulafia’s view, it is precisely the desire to prevent such a misunderstanding that leads Kabbalists to conceal their ideas.
This type of protective esotericism, of course, is elitist and reflects Kabbalists’ self-perception as superior to non-Kabbalists. It is not, though, designed to strengthen this perception but to protect those less fortunate than they. That is, in contrast to defensive esotericism, it is not based on an adversarial relationship with non-Kabbalists but on a caring, if paternalistic, one.
In addition to examining the complex motivations behind kabbalistic secrecy, my book also deals with the more practical question of how Kabbalists kept secrets. The most straightforward way in which Kabbalists have historically kept secrets from a wider audience is by not committing them to writing. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, Kabbalah moved from a strictly oral tradition to a written one. Isaac the Blind, one of the first Kabbalists and a figure I discuss at length in the book, protested this transition and argued that Kabbalah should remain oral.13 Yet even Kabbalists who did record kabbalistic ideas continued to maintain that certain ideas must remain unwritten. And this is true not only of Kabbalists who, generally speaking, made an effort to conceal their kabbalistic ideas by adopting esoteric modes of writing but also of Kabbalists who typically presented Kabbalah in an accessible fashion.
A good example is the thirteenth-century Castilian Kabbalist Joseph Gikatilla. His Sha‘are orah served as a Kabbalah primer for later generations of students because of its clarity of style and organization. Nevertheless, he believed that some topics must be left unwritten. As he puts it in one instance, “I do not have permission to explain more than this in writing,” 14 or in another, “I have to enlighten your eyes regarding these matters for they are closed and sealed, and I offer hints in writing, but I will complete [transmitting] all the matters to you in an oral transmission, God willing.”15
A second approach to keeping secrets from a wide audience was to sequester
kabbalistic manuscripts and circulate them only to confidants. A particularly striking example of this is referred to in a letter written to a student by David ben Judah he-Ḥasid, another Castilian Kabbalist, who was active at the beginning of the fourteenth century. There he states: “All of these matters are received by one man from the mouth of another man. They were not meant to be written. Were it not for my love for you, I would not write them down. But since I know that they will remain concealed with you, I have written them for you.”16 David, then, regards keeping certain secrets entirely out of writing as the ideal. Given, however, his feelings of affection toward his student and his trust that the student will keep the letter concealed, he is willing to record his esoteric ideas.
After the practice of printing kabbalistic works became more widespread, one way to limit the dissemination of kabbalistic secrets was to leave certain sensitive materials out of print, thereby consigning them to manuscripts that were much harder to come by. One example is the fourth and final section of Sha‘are kedushah, by the sixteenth-century Kabbalist Ḥayyim Vital, which was left out of the first edition of the work that was printed early in the eighteenth century and, until recently, of subsequent editions. In lieu of publishing this section, we find this note: “The printer said: This section, the fourth, has not been copied or printed since it is all about [divine] names and combinations [of letters] and hidden secrets, which are not allowed to be put on the altar of printing.”17
Kabbalists, however, kept secrets not only by preventing their dissemination but also by hiding them in plain sight within their publicly available works by adopting various techniques of esoteric writing. In the hope of providing other scholars with tools for uncovering kabbalistic secrets, describing these techniques is one of the main goals of my book. These techniques include various forms of ciphers, dispersion of knowledge, intentional contradictions, Zoharic symbolism, and allusive writing. In this brief essay, I will offer an overview of just one of them, “dispersion of knowledge.”
“Dispersion of knowledge,” a technique of esoteric writing whereby ideas are
broken up over the course of single or multiple works rather than presented all at once, has a long history, which has yet to be fully written. It was, for example, already employed by the second-century church father Clement of Alexandria.18 It was used extensively in the alchemical tradition, where it had a particularly important place in the corpus of works attributed to the eighth-century Islamic alchemist Jābir Ibn Ḥayyān.19 It was also employed by the fourteenth-century pseudepigraphic Latin Geber (=Jabir)20 and, under his influence, by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa at the beginning of the sixteenth century.21
In non-kabbalistic Jewish sources, the locus classicus of this technique appears in the introduction to Maimonides’s Guide of the Perplexed: “You should not ask of me here anything beyond the chapter headings. And even those are not set down in order or arranged in coherent fashion in this Treatise, but rather are scattered and entangled with other subjects that are to be clarified. For my purpose is that the truths be glimpsed and then again be concealed, so as not to oppose that divine purpose which one cannot possibly oppose and which has concealed from the vulgar among the people those truths especially requisite for His apprehension.”22 “Chapter headings” are pithy explanations that do not provide all the details, a form of esoteric writing that I also explore in the book. For our present purposes, I would like to highlight Maimonides’s contention that even the “chapter headings” are not presented in a logically contiguous manner in the Guide. Rather, they are scattered across the text, and the astute reader must assemble them into a coherent whole. Maimonides expressly indicates that he used this technique to keep certain ideas away from the masses.
Until a full history of this technique is written, it is impossible to offer a complete assessment of the potential influences under which Kabbalists employed it. Given, however, his outsize influence on Jewish thinkers of all stripes, including Kabbalists, it is reasonable to conclude that Maimonides was the most significant influence, even if is difficult to find the imprint of his specific phraseology on the descriptions of the technique of dispersion that I am familiar with in kabbalistic sources. Let me offer a few examples of kabbalistic usage of this technique.
An early case is found in Commentary on Sefer Yetsirah by the thirteenth-century Kabbalist Barukh Togarmi, a teacher of Abraham Abulafia: “I propose to write, but I am not permitted, so I propose not to write. Yet I cannot put it entirely aside. Therefore, I write and then put it aside, and I return to it again in another place. Such is my method.”23 For Togarmi, then, using the technique of dispersion was a way of getting around the impermissibility of recording kabbalistic secrets.
A somewhat different version of the technique of dispersion is employed by another thirteenth-century Castilian, Moshe de León, in his Mishkan ha-‘edut. There he refers to a secret, which the sages “revealed and concealed” regarding the ability of human beings to draw down the tenth sefirah. According to de León, “One who understands its secret will merit a great matter.” He does not, however, reveal this secret in Mishkan ha-‘edut: “It is not fitting to reveal it here, but in the secret of the concealments of Sefer ha-pardes that I composed. . . . There, I revealed and hinted at this matter when I expounded the secret of the chariot. Go to it, and there you will find it explained.” 24 The approach to dispersion here, which has precedents in the Jabiran corpus, involves presenting the secret more fully in another work—in this case, the no longer extant Sefer ha-pardes—while merely whetting the reader’s appetite in the work at hand. To understand the secret in Mishkan ha-‘edut, the reader would need to have access to Sefer ha-pardes, quite possibly a difficult proposition in a period before printing, when manuscripts of kabbalistic texts were scarce and were possibly purposely sequestered.
This technique continued to be used throughout kabbalistic literary history. As late as the the eighteenth century, it was employed by revered Kabbalist Shalom Sharabi, who was born in Sana‘a, Yemen, and immigrated to Jerusalem. In reference to a discussion in his Hakdamat (“introduction to”) reḥovot ha-nahar, Sharabi writes: “I wrote with brevity regarding this matter insofar as was possible, for I was afraid that these pages [of the ‘introduction’] would fall into the hands of one who has not yet properly studied the words of the ARI (Isaac Luria), of blessed memory, and he will suspect that I have studied other works, but this is not so, as I explained. Therefore, I have written with brevity, and I have scattered the matters in the ‘introduction.’ But everything is written there in the ‘introduction,’ but a high level of insight is required to understand one matter from another.”25 Here, then, Sharabi describes his practice of writing with brevity and of scattering the components of an idea throughout his work rather than presenting it all at once. Both these practices were intended to ensure that a novice reader would not fully comprehend the text.
In all, the technique of dispersion, like some of the other techniques I discuss in the book, functions as a test of the worthiness of the reader. The reader must possess a substantial level of knowledge and exegetical creativity to determine, for example, whether a particular passage is a complete exposition of the subject or if the exposition fully emerges only when the original passage is combined with other passages. This technique was intended, therefore, to keep kabbalistic secrets out of the hands of the unworthy even while spreading them to the worthy.
Several conclusions and suggestions for further research emerge from my analysis in the book, some of which I hope will also be useful to those interested in non-kabbalistic traditions of esoteric writing. First, the acts of leaving certain kabbalistic ideas out of writing or presenting them only through various styles of esoteric writing are ubiquitous in kabbalistic history. These phenomena, are reflected in the works of Kabbalists of all types—such as those associated with theosophic, ecstatic, and Hasidic forms of Kabbalah—and from all locales. While it is certainly not the case of every kabbalistic work, my analysis in the book makes clear that even some Kabbalists who generally preach the need to spread kabbalistic ideas widely still hold on to the notion that certain ideas are not intended for public consumption. From the perspective of its growing influence in the public square, it is true that, over time, Kabbalah became an increasingly exoteric doctrine. This should not be taken to imply that Kabbalists abandoned the sense that certain ideas should remain out of public circulation. Certainly, for example, in the contemporary state of Israel, there has been a striking push to publicly disseminate Kabbalah under the continuing influence of figures like Yehuda Leib Ha-Levi Ashlag (1884–1954), a Polish rabbi who immigrated to Palestine in 1921 and became a leading popularizer of Kabbalah. Not surprisingly, the popularizing tendencies of Ashlag and his followers have been met with opposition from other Kabbalists who have argued for reinstating a more esoteric stance.26
Second, the manifold examples that I have provided deal with real secrets and do not merely reflect what might be called a rhetoric of secrecy. To repeat, there is no doubt that various kabbalistic works employ a rhetoric of secrecy but do not actually conceal any information. This reality should not obscure the fact that in the examples that I provide in the book, as well as in countless others, real secrets are concealed.
Third, Kabbalists did not treat all kabbalistic ideas with the same level of secrecy. Throughout the history of Kabbalah, Kabbalists distinguished between kabbalistic ideas that were suitable for public consumption and those that were not. Indeed, I would argue that we must distinguish between exoteric and esoteric Kabbalah. In the study of medieval Jewish philosophy—particularly when it comes to the work of Maimonides—scholars routinely distinguish between esoteric and exoteric ideas. Yet similar analysis has been largely lacking in the case of Kabbalah.
Fourth, trying to uncover the esoteric views of Kabbalists will enhance our understanding of kabbalistic thought and history. This is demonstrated in a number of important studies, undertaken by previous scholarship, which have attempted to “read between the lines” of kabbalistic texts to uncover their hidden ideas.27 More frequently, esoteric asides, marked by expressions such as “the knowledgeable will understand” and other esoteric strategies of writing, are ignored in scholarly literature. Yet it is possible that precisely the ideas that Kabbalists conceal are the ones that they consider most important. At the very least, there is no reason to believe that the esoteric ideas are any less important than the exoteric ones. The attempt to uncover the ideas concealed by a Kabbalist must involve extremely close readings of kabbalistic texts that are sensitive to the various strategies of esoteric writing that I outlined in the book. It must also involve comparisons between the various writings of the Kabbalist in question, since he may be more open in one text than another, or between various Kabbalists of a single circle insofar as one member of the circle may be more open than others, or between earlier and later Kabbalists who are part of a single tradition because the latter may be more open than the former.
Fifth, scholars should examine what motivated various Kabbalists to keep particular
ideas secret. Such examination will shed light on the range of factors that helped shape the literary decisions that Kabbalists made in their texts. Such factors might include, to name a few, halakhic considerations, a desire to avoid persecution for heterodox ideas, or a fear that certain
ideas are detrimental to the public good. Since such factors are often historically determined, what one Kabbalist may have treated as esoteric may have been viewed as exoteric by another.
Sixth, once we have acknowledged a distinction between exoteric and esoteric Kabbalah, we must consider the relationship between them. Are the esoteric ideas merely a more developed and nuanced version of the public ones? Are the esoteric ideas not intrinsically related to exoteric ones? That is, do they simply concern different topics? Alternatively, do they concern the same topics but offer opposed perspectives such that the secret and public positions stand in contradiction to each other? In the book I show that some Kabbalists use the technique of intentional contradictions to conceal their ideas, but it is also possible that, even when this technique is not formally used, the public doctrine of a particular Kabbalist may be diametrically opposed to his private views. In such situations, the examination of the exoteric meaning of a text may distort our understanding of what a given Kabbalist actually believed.
Finally, we must wonder if there are times when even Kabbalists who do not announce that they are employing techniques of esoteric writing may nevertheless do so. In such cases, the very fact that the work contains secrets is concealed. Only a sharp reader who knows how to spot the clues that the author left “between the lines” will fathom the esoteric dimensions of the text. Needless to say, to prove that a seemingly exoteric text has esoteric dimensions is a difficult task, and the interpreter runs the risk of imputing secret ideas to a text in which no such ideas are present. This is a problem that has bedeviled the Straussian enterprise of uncovering the esoteric ideas in philosophical texts and has, to my mind, rightly threatened to undermine some of Strauss’s contributions. At the same time, the fact that so many Kabbalists unambiguously announce that they are employing esoteric strategies of writing must at least make us open to the possibility that some kabbalistic texts that lack such announcements may nevertheless engage is esoteric writing, too.