Exotericism and Esotericism in Thirteenth Century Kabbalah


Harvey J. Hames

Ben Gurion University


What follows is as much historiography as it is history, because the modern study of Kabbalah has a plot with its own personalities, internal developments and ideologies which have influenced how Kabbalah has been perceived historically. The study of Kabbalah in the last couple of centuries cannot be separated from significant social, political and cultural phenomena such as the enlightenment, romanticism and nationalism which, for ideological reasons have often been the cause of considerable distortions and bias in the way Kabbalah has been presented. Because of its mystical leanings, its particular world of images and language, and affiliation with eschatology, messianism and magic, Kabbalah has been the subject of much criticism which has led to misconceptions about its nature, purpose, essence, and place in the texture of Jewish life over the ages. Thus, the issue of how Kabbalah moved from the private to the public sphere, or whether it was esoteric or exoteric in the thirteenth century is involved and complex, and necessitates questioning the motives and methodologies of both the Kabbalists themselves as well as Kabbalah’s modern-day scholars.[1]

In the mid 1230’s, Isaac the Blind, a Kabbalist living in Lunel and a scion of an important provençal Rabbinical family, sent a letter to Nahmanides, the leader of the Jewish community in the Crown of Aragon and also a Kabbalist, containing the following:

'I saw wise men, men of understanding and piety engaging in long discourse, who have written great and terrible things in their books and epistles. And once something is written it cannot be concealed any more, for often it will get lost or the author will die and the letters will pass into the hands of scoffers and idiots, and the name of God is profaned... I have heard from the lands surrounding you, and from the people of Burgos, that they speak publicly in the marketplaces and in the streets in a confused and hasty manner, and from their words it is clear that their hearts have been turned from the All Highest'.[2]

This letter provides the background for the emergence of Kabbalah on to the historical stage, and seems to indicate that what was once an oral and esoteric lore, was now being written down and preached about openly. Isaac is seemingly disapproving of this trend, but he was also guilty of writing Kabbalistic compositions, and in the following generations, many treatises dealing openly with Kabbalistic teachings were composed. These works deal with a variety of different subjects from speculation on and explication of the essence of the Godhead, to commentaries on the Torah and the providing of rationales for the performance of the 613 commandments which are the normative framework of Jewish life. Yet, despite this letter, discovered by Gershom Scholem as he trawled through the maze of Kabbalistic manuscripts in European libraries, and the abundance of Kabbalistic works and other evidence which seems to indicate otherwise, the tendency of most modern-day scholars has been to describe Kabbalah in the thirteenth century as esoteric and the preserve of initiates only.


Almost from the outset, Kabbalah has had a chequered history, as it has faced internal and external criticism. As what was esoteric became exoteric, and though Kabbalah sort to portray itself as conservative and not innovative, its claim for ancient roots and for not revealing anything new brought it into conflict with other existing belief systems. In addition, the act of revealing what was considered by some to be the secret essence of the divine and the creation raised tensions within the ranks of those who considered themselves initiates. Christian attraction towards Kabbalah as an ancient lore which establishes Christian truths was also Kabbalah’s Achilles heel as some tried to deny it any authenticity whatsoever, its messianic undertones raised hackles, and in the rationalist world of the nineteenth century, many Jewish scholars were plainly embarrassed by this irrational literature. Hence, much of the modern study of Kabbalah has been devoted to re-establishing its place as one of the major trends of Jewish intellectual life over the ages.

The aforementioned Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was without doubt, the major figure behind the renaissance of Kabbalah studies in the twentieth century and its acceptance as an academic discipline. He worked in opposition to the sires of the Wissenschaft des Jüdentums, whom he viewed as living a contradiction: claiming on the one hand to be entirely objective in their scientific enquiry, and on the other, presenting a view of Judaism which distorted the past, removed all irrationalism and contradiction, was apologetic, and supported Jewish claims for equal rights and a place among the nations. Scholem, however, viewed himself and his contemporaries as recovering the vitality and dynamic of the tradition from within: ‘The new slogan was: to see from within, to go from the centre to the periphery without hesitation and without looking over one’s shoulder! To rebuild the entire structure of knowledge in terms of the historical experience of the Jew who lives among his own people and has no other accounts to make than the perception of the problems, the events and the thoughts according to their true being, in the framework of their historical function within the people’. [3]

Hence, Scholem saw himself as working from within to recover the multifarious traditions and religious forces which were set aside or disparaged by the acolytes of the Wissenschaft. His own personal interests led him to the field of Jewish mysticism.[4] The rediscovery of the mystical currents in religion as well as the resurrection of the idea of God after the extreme rationalism of the nineteenth century made it a legitimate field of study, but as an esoteric discipline mainly concerned with the mystical approach to the divine.[5] Indeed, in an essay dealing with Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah, Scholem wrote: ‘By the term Hebrew Mysticism or Kabbalah, in the broad sense, we refer to the totality of those religious streams within Judaism which strive to arrive at a religious consciousness beyond intellectual apprehension, and which may be attained by means of contemplation, and the inner illumination which results from this contemplation’.[6] In other words, the essence of mysticism is the mystical experience of the individual which is beyond all rational cognition and belongs to the world of esotericism. However, to a degree, and depending on the historical circumstances, Scholem also viewed the mystics as seeking to engage with the world in which they lived, translating their experiences and insights into forces that would galvanise and rejuvenate Jewish religious consciousness.

Scholem was well aware of what was going on in the Christian world as can be seen from just a superficial perusal of the catalogue of his library. Moreover, looking inside his books at the many notations he made, one can see the breadth of his knowledge of things external, but of comparable interest with Jewish mysticism. Often in his works, he mentions Christian (and Muslim) parallels, but does not entertain any immanent connection between the Jewish and Christian phenomena. In every historical period where there were significant manifestations of Jewish mysticism, these developments could be understood from internal dynamics without need for reference to the general non-Jewish environment. Scholem consciously chose to focus on the Jewish aspect of mysticism for ideological reasons, which were, however, supported, in his opinion, by the conclusions reached from his close examination of the primary sources. In the first place, because modern opponents of Kabbalah as an academic discipline and religious


phenomena disparaged it as syncretistic and full of Christian influences, and therefore as not Jewish, Scholem wanted to show that Kabbalah was inherently Jewish and part of the mainstream in Judaism throughout history.[7] In order to do this, he specifically grounded the founding of Jewish mysticism in pre-Christian gnosticism, and from there Jewish mysticism developed organically, and almost without reference to Christianity. Secondly, Scholem was writing and researching as Zionism was gaining ground and the State of Israel becoming a reality, and many of the texts he published and worked on illuminated central features of this modern day Jewish revival, from attitudes towards redemption and messianism to the importance of the land of Israel. Thus, it was crucial to focus on and emphasise the inherently Jewish aspects of these mystical texts. Scholem was a superb scholar who did not simply write history from an ideological point of view; to say that would be too simplistic. But he was writing in a particular historical context in which he was very involved intellectually and emotionally, and clearly the scholarly cannot be totally separated from his other interests.

Scholem wrote about thirteenth-century Kabbalah: ‘The Kabbalists were a small, aristocratic elite of “knowers of the secret sciences”. They had no interest in social activity or in broadening their power base, and even more so, they should not be viewed as supporting a view which intended to pursue radical change of Jewish life or its rhythm. This is most clearly evident in the neutralisation of messianic activity in early Kabbalah, a neutralisation which was almost, but not totally successful’.[8] This view was somewhat mitigated in later works where he described the Kabbalists of Gerona as compelled to take a stand against the extreme rationalising of the philosophers who sought concepts and ideas rather than the real presence of the divine in this world.[9] Thus, the practical application of mystical insights could be directed to restoring the vitality of Judaism undermined by allegorisation of the Torah and the commandments.

However, for Scholem, Kabbalah started to play a major role in Jewish thought after the expulsion from Spain, where messianism becomes a prominent force. He wrote: ‘To a generation for which the facts of exile and the precariousness of existence in it had become a most pressing and cruel problem, kabbalism could give an answer unparalleled in breadth and depth of vision. The Kabbalistic answer illuminated the significance of exile and redemption and accounted for the unique historical situation of Israel within the wider, in fact cosmic, context of creation itself’.[10] In other words, Kabbalah becomes exoteric when it comes into contact with a national aspiration for redemption, felt much more strongly after the expulsion. Though it is possible to show a fusion of Kabbalah, messianism and apocalypticism in the thought of Abraham Abulafia in the thirteenth century, Scholem tends to downplay Abulafia’s importance in the historical development of Kabbalah, perhaps because of his willingness to reveal rather than conceal, his known contacts with Christians, or because of his later influence on the development of Christian Kabbalah.[11] For Scholem, prior to the cataclysmic event of the expulsion, Kabbalah was mainly esoteric and the domain of an aristocratic elite.[12]

If Kabbalah provided an answer ‘to a generation for which the facts of exile and the precariousness of existence in it had become a most pressing and cruel problem’ after the expulsion, then why cannot similar events, perhaps not of the same magnitude provide the backdrop for the thirteenth-century as well? The controversy over the study of Aristotle in both the Jewish and Christian world, the call for reform of Jewish society in line with the calls for reform within Christian society (both heretical and orthodox), apocalyptic fervour connected with the teachings of Joachim of Fiore but interpreted in innovative ways which cut across religious boundaries: all these seem to provide a plausible context for the emergence and use of Kabbalistic ideas and teachings in a manner far more exoteric than Scholem was prepared to entertain. If the broader context is taken into account and does not fall victim to contemporary ideological concerns; if the imaginary boundaries erected between societies and religions mainly for the sake of differentiation and emphasise of uniqueness are allowed to fall; then the exoteric nature of Kabbalah in the thirteenth century becomes explicit.


In the generation after Scholem, many of his central thesis were undermined, as his broad strokes came under close review, new texts were discovered and others were re-read and re-examined. For instance, Scholem’s thesis regarding the foundations of Jewish mysticism has been shown to be problematic, and his claim for increased messianic speculation after 1492 has been revised. However, the external historical circumstances that have connecting lines with the development of Kabbalah have still remained largely unexplored. In addition, the orientation of Kabbalah studies has moved away from the historical method taken by Scholem to a more phenomenological approach, and while this has contributed to illuminating the development and diversity of Kabbalistic thought over the ages, it has set aside the need to contextualise Kabbalah.[13] In this matter, one has to consult the works of Moshe Idel, widely recognised as one of the leading figures in the study of Kabbalah today.[14]

In the introduction to his major study Kabbalah: New Perspectives, Idel writes: ‘Rather than concentrate upon the Kabbalistic schools – or trends, as Gershom Scholem designated them – and their historical sequence, I will take a phenomenological approach that will deal primarily with the major religious foci of the Kabbalah – their nature, significance, emergence and development… I adopt an essentialist attitude to the contents of Kabbalistic material that places greater emphasis upon their religious countenance than on their precise location in place and time… The unfolding of the key concepts that characterised and directed Kabbalistic activity and thought, their exposition as atemporal modes, and the understanding of their interplay in various Kabbalistic schools is the “inner” history of Kabbalah or of Jewish mysticism, just as the temporal description can be considered the “outer” history’.[15] Though Idel’s methodology is more complex and he does not totally ignore the historical context, the so called “inner” history which comes to light through the phenomenological approach is the most fundamental aspect of his work. Hence, it is only in the last chapter of the book that Idel turns to Kabbalah as a cultural factor and deals, briefly, with the emergence of Kabbalah in the thirteenth century.[16]

Idel refers to Provence, the area where Kabbalah emerged, as one fraught with religious tensions, and in this context he mentions Catharism and philosophical pantheism. However, Kabbalah, unlike Maimonidean philosophy, was not implicated in the ongoing polemics because ‘it was studied within families and limited groups, making no attempts to disseminate its tenets to larger audiences’. Kabbalah was also acceptable because of its ‘deep affinity with certain rabbinical patterns of thought’, and therefore not seen as an innovative interpretation as was philosophy. In addition, some of the most powerful members of the Jewish elite were Kabbalists, a factor which would have intimidated critics and tempered any open attacks on this doctrine. In other words, according to Idel, Kabbalah was esoteric and restricted to a small elite, yet there was enough knowledge of its tenets possibly to cause concern, but because its adherents were leaders of the community, there was little if no open controversy over these teachings. However, as Idel himself remarks, by the end of the thirteenth century there were thousands of folios of Kabbalistic texts and their authors rarely presented the material as esoteric. Hence, on the one hand Idel claims that in the thirteenth century Kabbalah was an esoteric body of thought restricted to an elite, yet acknowledges that there was an explosion of written texts as Kabbalah emerged onto the historical stage. Idel explains the sudden appearance of Kabbalah as a reaction to Maimonides’ dismissal of earlier types of Jewish mysticism, and an attempt to give these aspects of Rabbinical thought new authenticity.[17] In other words, the stimulus for Kabbalistic speculation was historical, but it was an intellectual reaction to a particular inner phenomenon, and did not have anything to do with the external circumstances or ideals of social reform.[18]


What has been suggested so far is that the study of Kabbalah in the modern era developed, in the first stage, as part of the nationalistic discourse which sought to recover themes in Jewish history which had been marginilised by previous generations, and which showed its vitality and multifaceted aspects. Zionism enabled Jewish history to be written critically from ‘within’, and allowed the creative forces of myth, the irrational and anarchic to surface and take their rightful place. The second stage has involved a very in-depth and critical reading and examination of the sources which has contributed greatly to our understanding of the theosophical, theurgical, mythical and ecstatic aspects of Kabbalah. It has broadened our knowledge of the semantic fields, geographical environs and the nuances of the different schools of Kabbalistic thought, but is still written mainly from ‘within’ the tradition and has paid only lip service to the broader historical context. Thus, the issue of esotericism versus exotericism as part of the evolvement of Kabbalah has also been discussed from ‘within’ and if there have been attempts to link internal developments with the Christian world, it has been done from an insiders perspective, rather than looking at the historical context as a whole.

However, when seen in the broader historical context of the thirteenth century, the appearance of Kabbalah when and where it does takes on new meaning. One cannot divorce text from context, and the Kabbalists were not living in a vacuum, but were part and parcel of what was going on around them. If they wrote texts and preached, partook in disputations and spread their teachings, it was because they saw in them the potential to reform Jewish life and practice, and reinforce the bond between God and Israel and they were reacting to particular circumstances and to similar stimuli as were their Christian contemporaries. Clearly, their responses to the challenges facing them were not the same as those of their Christian contemporaries, as their political and social circumstances and their religious premises were different. Yet, the winds of change were blowing from the same direction, and the underlying challenges to religious concepts and beliefs were coming from the same intellectual milieu and sources.

Thus, what is being suggested here is that the appearance of Kabbalah on the historical stage can only be understood as an exoteric phenomenon. Jewish mysticism does not start with Kabbalah in the thirteenth century but is part and parcel of the religious system for centuries previously. The need to transgress the boundaries between esoteric and exoteric, the need to reveal what was for centuries considered secret and the preserve of an initiated elite, the move from the private to the public sphere must be considered as a translation or application of aspects of the mystical teachings to everyday life. Put another way, the moment of crises described in Isaac the Blind’s letter cited above can only come about if there has been a major paradigm change whereby what was esoteric becomes exoteric, where there is a real need for what Kabbalah has to offer. Clearly, the degrees of what was revealed and what remained concealed are different from Kabbalist to Kabbalist, but the emphasise is on the potential of Kabbalistic teachings to address the existential issues at hand. The sociological significance of the texts has to be taken into account, as clearly, the need for written texts goes hand in hand with the growing interest in the Kabbalistic approach to Judaism, and demonstrates the impossibility of restricting the doctrines to an intellectual elite.[19] The form and content of the written texts indicate that their purpose was to inform the larger community as to the general lines of this approach. The theosophy is vital and invigorating and therefore has enormous social and political implications in providing a radically new, but purportedly conservative outlook on Jewish life. However, the importance of the texts is also in what they do not reveal: the esoteric techniques and path to mystical experience which could only be attained if one was a disciple of a recognised teacher. Thus the texts perform two main functions: on the one hand, to inform and enrich the Jewish way of life; and on the other, to emphasise the barrier between the general audience and the initiate.


Nahmanides was one of the leading Rabbinical authorities in the mid-thirteenth century. He was the Jewish spokesman at the Barcelona disputation of 1263, played a major role in what is referred to as the Maimonidean controversy, and was a respected Talmudist, legalist and commentator. However, his worldview and theological outlook was that of a Kabbalist, and therefore, in this context, it would be informative to see whether his use of Kabbalah is exoteric. A general statement of intent is expressed in the introduction to his commentary on the Torah, which seems to stress the esoteric aspects of these teachings. He states clearly that the hints at the Kabbalistic secrets in his writing will only be understood by initiates who receive the teachings from a Kabbalah master; they cannot be understood from a reading of the text alone.[20] However, in a study dealing with binah – understanding and its derivatives, Moshe Idel has shown that this term implies an oral transmission of the secret meaning which cannot be understood from the verses alone.[21] Indeed, for Nahmanides, binah implies esoteric knowledge which is the purview of an elite and seem to pertain to inner secrets of the divine being. Regarding this secret esoteric meaning of the creation, he writes: ‘But if you merit and understand (ve-tavin) the secret of the word bereshit (In the beginning) and the reason why it (the Torah) did not change the order and write elohim bara bereshit (Elohim created Beginning), you will know on the way of truth that the Torah speaks for those below[22] but hints at elevated matters, and the word Bereshit hints at Hochma (wisdom) which is the beginning of all beginnings as I have mentioned…’.[23] This comment follows a long commentary on the first verse of Genesis which refers openly to Kabbalistic exegesis. This would seem to suggest that for Nahmanides, there are exoteric Kabbalistic teachings which can be used for the benefit of the whole community, and there are the esoteric Kabbalistic practices which are the preserve of an elite and which entail a level of understanding fit only for initiates, and it is the latter which cannot be determined from reading the text alone. This reading of Nahmanides’ approach to Kabbalah which would place him directly within his historical context, also helps explain the many references to and discussions of Kabbalistic matters in his writings and the position he took in the controversy over philosophy.[24]

The exoteric potential of Kabbalah becomes clear when we see how it is being used to formulate answers and meet the needs of the community. The theosophy based on the ten sefirot provide answers against the claims of judaised Aristotelianism and Averroism, in particular in demonstrating the immanent presence of the divine. Jacob ben Sheshet of Gerona wrote a whole treatise entitled Meshiv Devarim Nechohim (Replying with Clear Statements) as a rebuttal of Samuel ibn Tibbon's Ma'amar Yikavu ha-Mayim (Treatise on "Let the Waters be Gathered"), a philosophical exposition of the creation by one of the Hebrew translators of Maimonides' works.[25] Kabbalistic ideas are openly used as alternative explanations to illustrate Jacob's three main polemical issues, namely, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, the divinity of the Torah and divine providence.[26] And as Yitzhak Baer pointed out, the main protagonists against the study of philosophy and the use of allegory throughout the thirteenth century were Kabbalists, or those who accepted Kabbalistic theosophy as a viable alternative to extreme Averroism.

In a fascinating chapter in his History of the Jews in Christian Spain, published in 1945, Baer contextualises the emergence of Kabbalah, seeing its adherents as pushers for social reform referring among others to Jonah Gerondi and Todros ben Joseph Abulafia of Toledo. For Baer, the Kabbalists were the authentic traditional Jews, defenders of the interests of the lower classes, unlike the upper-class Jews who had imbibed “Hellenistic” ideas which led them to despise their co-religionists.[27] He sees this reform in parallel to that going on in the Christian world as an effort ‘to raise the level of religious and moral life’.[28] The Zohar becomes a tract dealing with social reform, but Baer focuses particularly on the anonymous author of the Ra’aya mehemna (The Faithful Shepherd) as being part of the larger context including spiritual Franciscans and apocalyptic speculation. The imagery used in the Ra’aya mehemna and the ideas expressed are so close to those used by the spiritual Franciscans, and while like the latter, this group of Kabbalists may have been a persecuted minority, they did not see themselves as an esoteric elect, but as a vital movement of reform within the Jewish world in preparation for apocalyptic events which they believed immanent.[29]


If, perhaps, Baer put too much emphasise on the reforming aspects and the Kabbalists as the representatives of the down trodden and lower classes as against the rationalist Jewish elite, without doubt, a good number of the Kabbalists were concerned with eschatological matters and apocalyptic scenarios. Again, this is not surprising when seen in the broader political and social context, and again, the Kabbalistic methodology for the reading of the Biblical text provided desperately needed support and answers for a community waiting for redemption whilst living amongst those who claimed that the world had already been redeemed. Thus, one finds the aforementioned Nahmanides in the Sefer ha-geulah (Book of Redemption) and his Torah commentary and Bahya ben Asher in his Commentary on the Torah and Kad ha-Kemah (Jug of Flour) dealing with these issues. More interesting in this context is Abraham Abulafia (1240-c.1290) whose life and deeds, including an attempted audience with Pope Nicholas III in 1280, were based on the premise that the redemption would come in 1290 and that he was the expected Messiah sent to bring Jews and gentiles to the fullness of knowledge of the divine name. This becomes even more fascinating when seen within a broader historical context as it becomes apparent that Abulafia had integrated and adapted teachings of the late 12th century Calabrian abbot, Joachim of Fiore, mediated by the Spiritual Franciscans of southern Italy and Sicily.[30]

Kabbalistic theosophy also provides a rational for the performance of the commandments and teaches how to live an upright and moral life. One of the most popular genre of Kabbalistic writing during the thirteenth century are treatises on the ta’amei ha-mitzvot – explications of the commandments, and these stress the theurgic effect the performance of the commandments has on the Godhead. In other words, there is an emphasise on the immanence of the divine and the close connection between the Jew and God. In this context, the writing of Ezra of Gerona, one of the Kabbalists criticised by Isaac the Blind in his letter cited earlier, is particularly pertinent. His commentary on the Song of Songs was written in the build up to the year 1240 AD, 5000 AM according to the Hebrew reckoning, the start of the sixth millenium when according to Rabbinic tradition, the final redemption would occur. There is an intimate connection in the commentary between the coming redemption and the revealing of the secret teachings emanating from the sefirah of Hochma (wisdom) concealed in the book hidden for many generations, and the expectation of the coming redemption is caught up with the performance of the 613 commandments. Ezra writes: ‘It is incumbent upon us to engage in a detailed enquiry concerning all of the commandments, to find an allusion pointing to them in the ten divine statements revealed at Sinai… we should interpret each and every commandment in accordance with our path, determining from which sefirah it derives’. And in the continuation: ‘an individual who performs the command of his master and fulfils it, does so as a consequence of the attribute of love which is the greatest degree and best attribute, and that corresponds to the category of the positive commandments. And he who desists from doing something from fear of his master, does so from the attribute of fear which is lower than the attribute of love, in the same manner that the negative commandments are on a lower level than the positive commandments’.[31] Ezra is referring here to two different divine attributes of the Godhead which are influenced by a Jew’s correct performance of a positive commandments and care not to transgress a negative one. This places the whole of Jewish life into an easily comprehended framework, which puts the responsibility for the well-being of the divine into the hands of each and every Jew, and also emphasises the intimate connection between the commandments, the sefirotic world and the expected redemption.

The extent of Kabbalistic exotericism can be seen in the works of Ramon Llull (ca. 1232-1315) and in his approach to the conversion of the Jews. As someone far less interested in authoritative texts than in open dialogue, albeit on his own terms, with his Jewish (and Muslim) contemporaries, he was able to appropriate Kabbalistic ideas and use them as stepping stones for demonstrating the inherent truth of the Christian articles of faith. He was able to show how the existence of sefirot in the Godhead must imply a Trinitarian structure within each of them, and for the entire divine being, otherwise there would have, at a moment in time, had to be change in God for creation to have taken place. He implied that the Kabbalists had almost comprehended the real essence of the divine, but needed to go one little step further to realise the inherent truth of Christianity.[32]


It is impossible to speak about the Kabbalists as if they were one monolithic group. There were different groups of Kabbalists with divergent traditions and teachings, each propagating their own world-views. However, their appearance on the historical stage can only be understood in the greater historical context, as a Jewish minority in a Christian world bordering and still influenced by Islamic thought, attempting to find the balance between esotericism and exotericism. The travails of the times are the catalyst for members of these different schools for re-interpreting inherited traditions in light of rapidly changing social and political contexts, and adapting them to the needs of the their communities. The Kabbalists try to use the power of revealing what was secret to force political, social and religious change, and by doing so, create a platform for communal reform and deliverance from exile.


[1] This is not to say that my understanding of the issue is not also coloured by ideological concerns. Yet, it is to be hoped that at this moment in history when the dangers of all encompassing beliefs and ideologies are all apparent, we are able to examine the past without writing solely from the perspective of this or that ideology or belief.

[2] I have compared between Ms. Vatican Ebr. 202, ff. 59a-60a and G. Scholem's transcription in 'A New Document for the History of the Origins of the Kabbalah' (Hebrew), in J. Fichman (ed.), Sefer Bialik, (Tel Aviv 1934) p. 143-4. A translation of part of the letter is to be found in Scholem's Origins of the Kabbalah, (Princeton 1987) pp. 394-95. My translation and interpretation differ somewhat from Scholem's in both the aforementioned places. For different evaluations of this letter, see G. Scholem in the studies cited above and Moshe Idel, 'Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman: Kabbalah, Halachah and Spiritual Leadership' (Hebrew), Tarbiz 64, (1995) pp. 542-48. A version of the latter appeared in English as ‘Nahmanides: Kabbalah, Halakhah and Spiritual Leadership’, in M. Idel and M. Ostow (eds), Jewish Mystical Leaders and Leadership in the 13th Century, (Northvale, New Jersey, Jerusalem 1998) pp. 15-96 (particularly pp. 28-38).

[3] G. Scholem, Reflections on Modern Jewish Studies, in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in our Time and Other Essays, (ed.) A. Shapira, (Philadelphia and Jerusalem 1997) p. 66. For the discerning, it is clear that Scholem was also guilty of the same thing he accused the adherents of the Wissenschaft of, namely, scientific research with a political agenda. As he writes in the continuation of the chapter: This was a charged atmosphere, an atmosphere electrified by the powerful vision of a renewed discipline which would draw its power from the roots of the national renewal, from the Zionist awakening, and from the constact contact with the atmosphere of rebuilding a nation, p. 68

[4] See G. Scholem, What Others Rejected: Kabbalah and Historical Criticism, in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism, pp. 75-7

[5] See A.N. Wilson, Gods Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization, (New York 1999)

[6] See G. Scholem, The Historical Development of Jewish Mysticism, On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism, p. 121

[7] That Kabbalah was really either Christian, Greek or Persian and not Jewish at all was a view held also by most 18th century scholars. See G. Scholem, Kabbalah, (Jerusalem 1988). On Scholem’s attitude towards Christianity see A. Raz-Krakotzkin, ‘”Without Regard for External Considerations” – The Question of Christianity in Scholem and Baer’s Writing’ (Hebrew), Jewish Studies 38, (1998) pp. 73-96 and A. Green, ‘Shekhinah, the Virgin Mary and the Song of Songs: Reflections on a Kabbalistic Symbol in its Historical Context’, AJS Review 26:1, (2002) p. 27 n. 104.

[8] G. Scholem in Davar, 9th Tammuz 5694 (1934) p. 56, cited in Y. Baer, The Historical Background of the Raaya Mehemna, Zion 5, (1940) p. 1


[9] G. Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 403-10

[10] See G. Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah 1626-1676, (Princeton 1973) p. 20. Cited in D.N. Myers, Reinventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish Intellectuals and the Zionist Return to History, (Oxford 1995) pp. 165-66. In another essay, Scholem wrote: Thus, Spanish Kabbalah forged for itself an entire world-view of Judaism as it appeared in the eyes of these mystics. However, except for certain isolated attempts, especially during the second half of the thirteenth century, the Kabbalists chose to forgo their wish to influence and to bring their contemplative world-view into the everyday life of the Jewish community on all its levels. See The Historical Development of Jewish Mysticism, in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism, p. 148

[11] For an interesting analysis of Scholem’s attitude towards Abulafian Kabbalah, see M. Idel, ‘The Contribution of Abraham Abulafia’s Kabbalah to the Understanding of Jewish Mysticism’, in Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism: 50 Years After, pp. 117-43 and in the same volume R. Kiener, ‘From Ba’al ha-Zohar to Prophet to Ecstatic: The Vicissitudes of Abulafia in Contemporary Scholarship’, pp. 145-59 who using the figure of Abulafia as an example, traces the emergence of Kabbalah as a ‘maturing discipline’. On Abulafia’s tendency to reveal rather than conceal, see M. Idel, ‘Transmission in Thirteenth-Century Kabbalah’, in Y. Elman and I. Gershom (eds), Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality and Cultural Diffusion, (New Haven and London 2000) pp. 146-49.

[12] It is interesting that the same generation which experienced the expulsion also saw the start of the Christian appropriation of Kabbalah. In an article first published in 1954, Scholem suggests that Pico della Mirandola was the first Christian to really utilise Kabbalah and integrate it into his worldview. However, he notes that from the thirteenth century, there were Christians who used Kabbalah in their anti-Jewish polemic. Many of them did not refer to it by name, and even where they do, as the convert, Alfonso de Vallodalid (Abner of Burgos) does, it remains very marginal in their writings and thought. Scholem’s denial of any serious use of Kabbalah by Christians before the late fifteenth-century is both an affirmation of Kabbalah as something integrally Jewish and pre-Christian, but also continuing the esoteric underpinnings of Kabbalah. Christians were not interested in Kabbalah before the count of Mirandola because they were unaware of it. Scholem marginalises Arnaud de Vilanova and claims that Abraham ibn Ezra or Judah ha-Levi are far better sources for his speculation on the Tetragrammaton, and Abner of Burgos’ “isolated references” as not constituting Christian Kabbalah because ‘he was chiefly concerned with other examples of Jewish writing’. See G. Scholem, ‘The Beginnings of Christian Kabbalah’, in J. Dan, The Christian Kabbalah: Jewish Mystical Books and their Christian Interpreters, (Cambridge, Mass. 1997) pp. 17-39, for the quote p. 28. Scholem’s attempt to distance Kabbalah from Christianity and defer Christian Kabbalah to much later meant that he gave Kabbalah an internal history in which the larger historical context, both Christian and Muslim, were missing.

[13] This is perhaps one of the reasons why there is little serious study of Kabbalah in the context of modern day Israel (Dr. Boaz Huss in the Department of Jewish Thought, Ben Gurion University, is an important exception to the general rule). Scholem stopped his research in the nineteenth century and with the revival of Zionism felt that there was no authentic Jewish mysticism in the 20th century. His disciples and others, who all stand on Scholems shoulders, have adopted phenomenology as their methodology and hence are more interested in text than context.

[14] Moshe Idel was not directly a student of Scholems which perhaps allowed him to develop his own ideas and understanding of Kabbalah. His book, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven and London) caused immense controversy when it appeared in 1988 (after Scholems death) largely because of the methodology adopted and the conclusions reached. The book casts doubt on many of Scholems conclusions and adopts new perpsectives for looking at and understanding the development of Kabbalah. One of the reviewers, a colleague of Scholems went so far as to characterise the book as one which belonged on the shelves of primary sources of Kabbalah rather than on the shelves of scholarly works on Kabbalah.

[15] Kabbalah: New Perspectives, pp. xii-xiii


[16] It has to be said that although the basic methodology remains phenomenological, in tens of articles on thirteenth-century Kabbalah, historical context is taken into account. However, Idel is inward looking, prefering to locate a Jewish source for a particular idea, even if this means leaping a thousand years rather than looking at the broader contemporary context.

In this context it is crucial to mention another important scholar Eliot Wolfson who also adopts the phenomenological approach to the study of Kabbalah, but also advocates a ‘modified contextualism’ writing: ‘the interpretive framework of a mystic’s particular religion shapes his or her experience at the phenomenal level and not merely in the description or narrative account of the experience’. See E. Wolfson, Through a Speculum that Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism, (Princeton 1994) p. 54

[17] For all the quotations in this paragraph, see M. Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, pp. 250-56

[18] Even in his latest magesterial work on messianism and mysticism, Idel negates the influence of Christian phenomena in the thirteenth-century, such as Joachimism, on Jewish messianic ideas. If there is a Christian influence, it is from the fifteenth century onwards. See M. Idel, Messianic Mystics, (Yale 1998) pp. 29-30, 55-7

[19] For the function of the written text in spreading teachings, see B. Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, (Princeton 1983) pp. 88-240. The place of the text in the spread of heresy has been discussed by R.I. Moore, ‘Literacy and the Making of Heresy c. 1000 - c. 1150’, and R.E. Lerner, ‘Writing and Resistance among Beguins of Languedoc and Catalonia’, both the latter in P. Biller and A. Hudson (eds), Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530, (Cambridge 1994) pp. 19-37 and 186-204 respectively.

[20] See Namanides, Commentary on the Torah, (ed.) C.D. Chavel, 2 vols, (Jerusalem 1959) vol. 1, p. 4, 7. For Nahmindes approach to Kabbalah see M. Idel, 'We Have No Kabbalistic Tradition on This', in I. Twersky (ed.), Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (Ramban): Explorations in His Religious and Literary Virtuosity, (Cambridge, Mass. 1983) pp. 51-73 and his 'Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman: Kabbalah, Halachah and Spiritual Leadership' (Hebrew), Tarbiz 64, (1995) pp. 535-80. See also E. Wolfson, 'By Way of Truth: Aspects of Nahmanides' Kabbalistic Hermeneutic', AJS Review 14, (1989) pp. 153-78.

[21] M. Idel, Secrecy, Binah and Derishah in H.G. Kippenberg and G.G. Stroumsa, Secrecy and Concealment: Studies in the History of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Religions, (Leiden 1995) pp. 330-31. (This article is particularly difficult to understand as it does not read very well one has to be an initiate!). However, see E.R. Wolfson, Beyond the Spoken Word: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Medieval Jewish Mysticism, in Y. Elman and I. Gershoni (eds), Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality and Cultural Diffusion, (New Haven and London 2000) pp. 193-206 who claims that Nahmanides orality is actually a hermeneutical reading and decoding of the Torah because it contains everything, and that the oral and written intersect and are not opposites.

[22] This is the principle of accommodation dealt with in detail by A. Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century, (Princeton 1986) pp. 213ff.

[23] Namanides, Commentary on the Torah, vol. 1, p. 14.

[24] See also the short, but important study by H. Pedaya, ‘Image and Picture in the Kabbalistic Commentary of Nahmanides’ (Hebrew), Mahanaim 6, (1994) pp. 114-23 where Nahmanides’ hermeneutical approach is compared with Hugh of St. Victor’s.

[25] See Ya'aqov ben Sheshet, Sefer Meshiv Devarim Nekhohim, (ed.) G. Vajda, (Jerusalem 1968) pp. 97, 132, 184 among others. See Ma'amar Yikavu ha-Mayim, (ed.) M.L. Bischiles, (Pressburg 1837). See also G. Vajda, Recherches sur la philosophie et la kabbale dans la pensée juive du moyen âge, (Paris 1962) pp. 13-31.


[26] Meshiv Devarim Nekhohim, pp. 67-70. See also his Sefer Sha'ar ha-Shamayim, in Otzar Nehmad 3, (1860) pp. 153-65, an exposition of the ten sefirot written in a poetic style.

[27] As D. Myers explains, Baer was very critical of rationalism and the apologetic tendencies of the Wissenschaft which were deeply connected with the enlightenment. Therefore, like Scholem, Baer was attempting to recover and revitalise Jewish history which he viewed as having been severely mistreated. Hence, his suspicion of modern rationalists carried over into his portrayal of both the German and Spanish communities in the Middle Ages. See D. Myers, Re-Inventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish Intellectuals and the Zionist Return to History, (New York and Oxford 1995) pp. 112-27

[28] Y. Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, 2 vols, (Philadelphia 19922) vol. 1, p. 243

[29] This claim is set out in detail in Y. Baer, ‘The Historical Background of the Raaya Mehemna’ (Hebrew), Zion 5, (1940) pp. 1-44 as well as in A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, vol. 1, pp. 261-77. Baer’s reading of the Zohar and Raaya Mehemna has been, in my opinion, dismissed to summarily as being based on false premises by I. Tishby, Wisdom of the Zohar, vol. 2, (Jerusalem 1961) pp. 692-702. It is interesting to note Baer’s opinion of Scholem: that he was ‘by propensity a metaphysician, and against his will a great historian who has enriched the study of Jewish history more than anyone else in our generation… a realistic historian by force of his transcendentalist tendencies’.[29] Baer emphasises in this brief quotation the main elements that dictated the way that Scholem wrote history from a Jewish viewpoint. See Y. Baer, ‘The Doctrine of Original Natural Equality among the Ashkenazi Pietists’ (Hebrew), Zion 32, (1967) pp. 129-136 (especially p. 129).

[30] On Abulafia in Rome, see M. Idel, 'Abraham Abulafia and the Pope: The Meaning and Metamorphosis of an Abortive Attempt' (Hebrew), Association of Jewish Studies Review 7-8, (1982-3) pp. 1-17. See also H. Hames, ‘Three in One or One that is Three: On the Dating of Abraham Abulafia’s Sefer ha-Ot’, Revue des Etudes Juives, (forthcoming 2004).

[31] See Rabbi Ezra ben Solomon of Gerona, Commentary on the Song of Songs and other Kabbalistic Commentaries, (ed.) S. Brody, (Kalamazoo 1999) pp. 80-1 (both the quotations) with changes in the translation made with reference to the Hebrew text printed in C.H. Chavel (ed.), The Writings of Nahmanides, 2 vols., (Jerusalem 1963) vol. 2, pp. 496-97. See also Jacob b, Sheshet, Meshiv Devarim Nekhohim, pp. 82-3

[32] See H. Hames, The Art of Conversion: Christianity and Kabbalah in the Thirteenth Century, (Leiden 2000)