I have been exposed to many misunderstandings in online conversations that revolve around the issue of Mysticism and Rationalism as competing strains in Jewish Thought. Including the idea that these accurate describe streams of Jewish Thought altogether. I also want to challenge the notion that the popularization of Qabbalah is somehow a byproduct of the Maimonidian Controversy, an “equal and opposite reaction” to what some saw as the excesses of the Rambam’s Rationalism. (Which is where this first post will end.)
The nevi’im clearly spoke and taught an esoteric aspect of Torah. Aside from the obvious evidence in places like the Maaseh haMerkavah in the beginning of Yechezqeil, the short description by Yeshaiah, or the Man in the Throne in Shemos, it is logically compelled that there be an esoteric element to the prophetic tradition. After all, the nevu’ah is a state of awareness not experienced by the masses. Any discussion of how to get beyond the first steps, what it was like, etc… has to be opaque to the masses. It’s not only like describing music to the deaf by using comparison and contrasts to color, it is trying to do so in sign language.
From the prophetic tradition evolved the Sifrei Heikhalos, which refers a genre, not an individual text. These works describe the “palaces” of heaven, guided meditations that would help someone up the various levels from earth to heaven, allowing the practitioner to approach G-d. These too are filled with physical imagery describing what most of us haven’t experienced and aren’t currently equipped to experience. So we know the descriptions are metaphoric; and yet I presume to the initiate they really capture what they’re trying to describe.
One more famous example is the Shi’ur Qomah by Rabbi Yishma’el, actually self-described as being revealed by the angel Metatron to the tanna. This attribution is more accepted than some others. For example, Gershon Shalom (Jewish Gnosticism, pg 40) gives it tannaitic or at the latest amoraic origins. The book describes G-d in anthropomorphic terms, describing dimensions and each of the limbs of this Divine Form. How the rishonim respond to the text is illustrative.
The Rambam is so sure it’s heretical, he describes the Shi’ur Qomah as a Byzantine forgery (Teshuvos haRambam, Blau, 1:201).
R’ Saadia Gaon (Egypt 882/892 – Baghdad 942) took the approach I implied above, that the book should be read in the same light as the Maaseh haMerkavah. Which means the dispute over Who is the Man in the Throne — whether it’s a symbol to represent the Divine created out of the mind of the perceiver or a created being that is the embodiment of Hashem’s Glory (the Kavod Nivra) — would apply to the Shi’ur Komah as well. (R’ Saadia himself holds the latter with respect to Maaseh haMerkavah. See my earlier discussion in Mesukim MiDevash: Mishpatim.)
Meanwhile, there is a second esoteric tradition that speaks an entirely different language, as found in the numbers, letters, phonetics, combinatorics and discussion of names of G-d of Seifer haYetzirah. Tradition attributes the book to Adam, Avraham avinu, or R’ Aqiva, (R’ Moshe Cordevero says the latter, although he also suggests a hybrid solution — written by Avraham, redacted to its published form by Rabbi Aqiva.) But fortunately, our discussion depends more on when the book was published and studied than on when it was written. We’re looking at streams of thought, not the birthplace of an idea in obscurity. Rabbi Aqiva’s interest in Seifer haYetzirah brings its topics to the fore, to the discussion of Jewish Thought.
Rav Saadia Gaon wrote a commentary to Seifer haYetzirah using a system of Hebrew phonetics he himself devised, mapping it to concepts in a more Aristotelian philosophy system. Our first hint that the mystical and rationalist perspectives on things didn’t historically stand apart. R’ Saadia Gaon sees its discussion in terms of number, geometry and form preceding actual object, and its description of the various names of G-d as applying the various Aristotelian categories to our perception of Him.
In Rav Saadia Gaon’s work describing his own philosophy, Emunos veDei’os, there are no citations from Seifer haYetzirah nor references to its mode of thought. In all probability his work was published in response to public need, which in turn was caused by social pressure. The Moslems of his time were embracing an Aristotelian view of the world. Aristotle was at this point 1300 years old, and so thoroughly dominated the world of science and metaphysics it was accepted as the definitive description of how the world works. Only details were considered questionable. The Kalam (“Dialecticians”) arose among the Moslems, like the Scholastics later to among Christians, who try to unify their religion with this knowledge of the world, unifying revealed and discovered into one complete Truth. The Jews living among them were also struggling with these questions.
Rav Yehudah haLevi (also, “Rihal”; Toledo 1075/1086 – Israel 1141) takes a stance in The Kuzari. There is some speculation that it was written as a response to Emunos veDeios. The Kuzari vehemently rejects the notion of religion based on philosophical speculation. After all, whatever one philosopher proves, you can find another who proves the opposite. (1:13) It is a fitting tool for the Greeks, who lack a mesorah, but Semites and in particular the Jews have a more certain source of knowledge. (1:63) His conception of that tradition is not a collection of select authorities (the great rabbis of the past) but as a living culture of all the Jewish People — including the reader.
However, one can’t pigeonhole the Kuzari as an opposite to Emunos veDei’os. Both employ modes of thought we would consider Rationalist, rather than describing transmitted ideas on the basis of earlier authority (like the Yetzirah), or instructing one how to experience the metaphysical (as the Heikhalos literature does). Although he includes mesorah as a source of givens rather than only working from what can be known a priori, he reasons from those givens in philosophical ways.
Rihal believes that Divine Attributes are “derived from the way His creatures are affected by His decrees and measures”, not actual descriptions of G-d as He Is. But unlike Rav Saadia (and later the Rambam), he also spends time emphasizing the value of these descriptions to the human emotional experience. And also, in contrast to Emunos veDei’os, he discusses Seifer haYetzirah (names of G-d, the concept of sephirah) at length.
The first publication of what we today think of as Qabbalah is the Bahir, originally called after its author, Medrash R’ Nechunya ben Haqanah (1st cent CE). For example, that is how it is cited by the Ramban. Although, part of the work does also refer to the Teverian vowel system, which didn’t exist until the Geonic period, so this attribution doesn’t work for the entire final product. (Which is only to be expected for a text that is composed centuries before it is promulgated in writing. Oral traditions by their very nature grow and evolve, and are supposed to — this is one of the motivations for leaving them oral.) For our purposes, we merely note its publication date, Provence 1126.
The publication of the Bahir was when the public becomes aware of the results of combining the 10 sefiros, which from the Yetzirah are not described beyond their role as digits, with the angelology of the Heikhalot. For the first time the 10 sefiros are described in writing as channels which conduct Divine Influence down to creation, and angels in their own right.
Just 8 years after the Bahir’s revelation to the world, the Rambam was born. Notice this means the trend toward publishing the esoteric predates the Rambam.
The Rambam and the Moreh Nevuchim is a logical place to begin act 2, so I’ll pause here.