« χώρα Revue d’Études Anciennes et Médievales:
Philosophie, Théologie, Sciences »,1/2003,
Editura Meridiane, Bucureşti,2003

Moshe Idel, Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation,

Madeea Axinciuc

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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 methods/techniques:

“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.

 

Madeea Axinciuc
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