Esotericism in Classical Rabbinic Culture

Interpretive Problems and Prospects

In: Aries

This essay addresses the function of the Talmud and other classical rabbinic writings in the study of Western Esotericism. It begins with an overview of the Talmud with reference to other postbiblical Jewish texts occasionally cited by contemporary scholars as ostensible witnesses to the esoteric practices of the ancient rabbinic sages. Next, it asks whether these texts actually support such a thesis. Finally, it considers how the Talmudic sages were misunderstood to be esoteric exegetes by Christian Kabbalists, such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin, so as to validate their respective pursuits of the prisca theologia, a revelation of pre-Christian divine secrets. The contribution thereby proposes a revised empirical basis upon which to assess the contributions of the Talmudic sages to discourse about Western esotericism.

  • 17

    See, e.g., Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, 9–13; Gruenwald, Apocalyptic, 134–145; Kilcher, Sprachtheorie, 34–39; Idel, Kabbalah, 88–91.

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  • 29

    Stemberger, ‘Mischna Avot’, 255–258.

  • 39

    See, e.g., Halbertal, Concealment and Revelation, 69–76; Elior, Three Temples, 208–213; Scholem, Origins, 45–46; Gruenwald, Apocalyptic, 111–119. Scholem’s more expansive treatment of this tradition in idem, Jewish Gnosticism, is based on subsequent rabbinic commentaries on the Mishnaic ruling preserved in the Babylonian Talmud.

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  • 40

    So, e.g., Schäfer, Origins, 180–182; Halperin, Faces of the Chariot, 23–25. Compare the rabbinic restrictions on the public translation of similarly distracting scriptural passages in Mishnah Megillah 4.10, Tosefta Megillah 3.31–38, and Babylonian Talmud Megillah 25a–b, with discussion in Schäfer, op. cit., 178–180.

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  • 47

    Pico, Opera, 1.80–83; tr. Farmer, 344–363. For the quoted text, see Pico, op. cit., 1.80; tr. Farmer, 344–345.

  • 48

    Pico, Opera, 1.107–113; tr. Farmer, 516–553.

  • 54

    For the following, see Pico, Opera, 1.328–330; tr. Borghesi et al., 250–261. All quotations reflect the translation of Borghesi et al.

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  • 55

    Cf. Pico, Opera, 1.329; tr. Borghesi et al., 254–255, with discussion in Wirszubski, Pico, 121–122.

  • 63

    For a similar assessment, see Kilcher, Sprachtheorie, 101–102. Compare von Stuckrad, ‘Christian Kabbalah’, 11–13, who detects an inchoate move toward cultural pluralism in Pico’s appeal to Jewish knowledge. While I agree with von Stuckrad’s assessment in principle, I would hesitate to recommend Pico as an advocate of Jewish culture in view of his frankly abusive attitude toward the Jewish religion.

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  • 65

    See Pico, Conclusiones 11.21 in idem, Opera, 1.109; tr. Farmer 528–529. Pico would go on to engage “the Talmudists” more extensively in his 1489 commentary on the creation narrative in Genesis. See Pico, Heptaplus 7.4 in idem, Opera, 1.51–55; tr. Wallis et al., 157–163, with discussion in Black, Heptaplus, 214–232.

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  • 76

    On this missive, see Price, Johannes Reuchlin, 127–135. Reuchlin published his letter the following year as part of his pamphlet Augenspeigel, for which see idem, Werke, 4.17–168. An annotated English translation of the relevant portions of the latter document appears in O’Callaghan, Preservation, 105–198.

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