Foreword by Harold Bloom, Yale University Press, New Haven
& London, 2002, 668p.
The absorbing title of an absorbing book. This would be the shortest
invitation for any reader strong enough to face an extremely clear
and perplexing intra-/inter-/metacultural approach
(a first translation, into Romanian, already appears within two months
at Polirom Press, Iassy).
Harold Bloom writes in his Foreword: “I hesitate to
describe the present book as Moshe Idel’s masterpiece, since
his is a life’s work-in-progress, but Absorbing Perfections:
Kabbalah and Interpretation is certainly his most important volume
so far, fulfilling much of the project first set forth in Kabbalah:
New Perspectives (1988)” (p. X). I dare to say from a rather
non-historical and non-progressive point of view that Absorbing
Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation is in itself, irrespective
to anything that comes after, a masterpiece. Whether it is or not
the climax of a previously set project, the book of Moshe Idel is
not only another book, but precisely an other book on Kabbalah.
There is a big danger for the author only: either he remains in the
same circle opened by this very book (for the sake of the important
details) or indeed he “decides” ... to write another masterpiece,
i.e. a significantly different book, an other one (which
is much more difficult now, but not impossible). Of course, the prejudice
of one masterpiece “per life” must be abolished.
I will try to point to those elements, aspects or strata of the book
which, in my opinion, are responsible and sufficient for one describing
it as “absorbing”:
1. The difficulty and the complexity of
the subject itself revealing the many abilities of the author
to deal with both “a vast body of literature designated by its
authors and by modern scholars as Kabbalah” (p. XV) and its
diverse interpretations already existing. The aim is not to offer
a key to interpreting the Kabbalistic texts, but to find out, on one
hand, how the Kabbalists interpreted the sacred text (using specific
techniques of interpretation) and, on the other hand, how should the
modern scholar interpret these Kabbalistic texts (taking into account
the “intercultural situation” and the model of the “strong
reader” as defined by Moshe Idel). The twofold metadiscourse
refers to the hermeneutics of the Kabbalah and to the hermeneutics
of the modern scholar approaching Kabbalistic texts.
2. The method. The book is the
dynamic expression of a dynamic complex and complicated system. The
author graciously relates elements within one paradigm or interparadigmatically.
The key-concept which establishes the centre and the framework of
the discussions is always ‘interpretation’. The reader
may find savoury details as well as general remarks derived from an
attentive analysis. The book succeeds in unfolding the micro-
and macrostructures hidden beyond the huge interpretive phenomenon
of the Kabbalah. Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation
is by no means a hermeneutical treatise, but a treatise of Kabbalistic
hermeneutics meant to uncover new aspects and nuances of the interpretive
process/situation in general.
3. The style. Moshe Idel speaks
of refined matters in a refined, concise and penetrating style. It
is, I would say, the clearest possible exposition of a most difficult,
obscure and fascinating subject.
From the very beginning, in the Introduction, Moshe Idel marks
the major lines of the book. The starting point is a pertinent general
description and analysis of the postbiblical literature from a hermeneutical
perspective in order to focus later on and to have an adequate perception
of the Kabbalistic corpus as belonging to a tradition which influenced
and was influenced by different non-Jewish corpora. Two parallel processes
are to be thoroughly considered: the arcanization of the canonical
texts and the decoding of the arcana via specific, elaborated exegetical
“Two main processes informed most of the speculative hermeneutical
corpora in the postbiblical forms of Judaism. The first is the
expansion of the relevance of the content of the canonical texts
to increasingly more cosmological, theosophical, intellectual
and psychological realms than those ancient texts themselves claimed
to engage. This expansion is often related to processes of arcanization,
secretive understandings of the canonical texts understood as
pointing to this realms in allusive ways: anagrammatic, numerical,
allegorical, or symbolic.
The other main process is intimately intertwined with the
first: it consists in the emergence of complex exegetical systems
that present specific methods to decode the arcana believed to
be concealed within the canonical texts” (p. 1).
Moshe Idel considers that there is a move in the development of the
Jewish (speculative) literature from the exoteric nature of the text
to the esoteric understanding of it. “The process of arcanization
in Judaism reached its peak in the sixteenth century, when the last
comprehensive corpus of Jewish myths and symbols, as presented in
the various versions of Lurianic Kabbalah, became crystallized”
(p. 8). The names of the first two chapters are relevant in this sense:
The World-Absorbing Text and The God-Absorbing Text: Black
Fire on White Fire.
The Kabbalistic literature represents the final most
developed stage of the process of arcanization to which, as it should,
an elaborated techniques of interpretation corresponds, as well as “more
emotional and extreme forms of mystical experiences” (p.11). The
arcanization, the dearcanization, the mystical experience and their
interrelations in Kabbalistic literature is, I would say, the very topic
of the book.
Moshe Idel speaks of three major modes of arcanization analyzed in
their intertwining and overlapping relations throughout the development
of the Jewish hermeneutics: the magical, the philosophical, and the
mystical. The three Kabbalistic models already well defined in other
books and studies are differently introduced here according to their
importance from a hermeneutical perspective, significant nuances being
added: the theosophical-theurgical model, the ecstatic one and the
talismanic one. At the same time, three are the main topics that “constitute
the field of hermeneutics as it is approached in this book”
(p. 15): the author, the text and the reade By introducing new expressions
necessary for understanding different types of experience/interpretation,
like “linguocentric spirituality”, “radical
hermeneutics”, “intercorporal situation”,
or “strong reader”, the contribution of Moshe Idel
also in the field of hermeneutics is obvious.
One should not forget to mention the six appendices of the book pointing
to moments or authors significant for an analysis of the Jewish hermeneutics
in general, from the rabbinic period to the late fifteenth century.
To conclude, the book of Moshe Idel is an indispensable organon for
anyone seeking to understand Kabbalah, as well as an enlightening
reference study for anyone seeking to understand the history of Jewish
hermeneutics and Jewish thought in general.