Esotericism in Classical Rabbinic Culture

Interpretive Problems and Prospects

in Aries
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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.

Esotericism in Classical Rabbinic Culture

Interpretive Problems and Prospects

in Aries




See e.g. ScholemJewish Gnosticism9–13; Gruenwald Apocalyptic 134–145; Kilcher Sprachtheorie 34–39; Idel Kabbalah 88–91.


Stemberger‘Mischna Avot’255–258.


See e.g. HalbertalConcealment and Revelation69–76; 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.


So e.g. SchäferOrigins180–182; 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.


PicoOpera1.80–83; tr. Farmer 344–363. For the quoted text see Pico op. cit. 1.80; tr. Farmer 344–345.


PicoOpera1.107–113; tr. Farmer 516–553.


For the following see PicoOpera1.328–330; tr. Borghesi et al. 250–261. All quotations reflect the translation of Borghesi et al.


Cf. PicoOpera1.329; tr. Borghesi et al. 254–255 with discussion in Wirszubski Pico 121–122.


For a similar assessment see KilcherSprachtheorie101–102. 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.


See PicoConclusiones 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.


On this missive see PriceJohannes Reuchlin127–135. 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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