Power and Kavvanah in Kabbalah

By Yoni Garb


The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Advisor: Professor Moshe Idel


Janvier 2001



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1. Introduction


A.   Definitions and Limitations


This thesis deals with Power in Kabbalistic Kavvanah (intention). The historical scope of the work ranges from late antiquity up to, and including, the 16th century. The starting point of the thesis lies in the condensed discussions of power in Rabbinic literature. The end point lies in the Kabbalistic Renaissance literature, which as it were summarizes the views presented in the thesis.


Due to the vast scope of discussions of power, the thesis will restrict itself to the relationship between power and another central concept in Kabbalistic writing: Kavvanah. This choice rests, inter alia, on a central model of mystical experience and practice, that of J.B Hollenback. As detailed anon, in this contemporary structure, the “empowerment” enabled by the mystical path is described in terms of concentration and intention.


The major methodological tool for analyzing the discussions of the relationship between power and intention is model-building. Thus, I shall organize these discussions through constructing several models of the employment and deployment of power through Kavvanah. These models will be described by means of a new scholarly terminology, however they are founded on the extraction of deep structures from the Kabbalistic texts themselves. It is also important to note that the issue at hand is that of Kabbalistic views of power, rather than power relations between Kabbalists. In other words, we shall address “Power in texts” rather than “Power over texts” or “Power through texts”.


B.   Major Questions:


The major question discussed in the thesis is the relationship between human power and divine power: in which manner does the mystic experience, create, contain or direct divine power? This question flows from two sources: the centrality of power in Kabbalistic anthropology, and the salience of power in the Kabbalistic/Theosophical idea of God. The second major question presented in this work is: How does Kavvanah operate as a performative practice designed to create or channel power? It seems that this question has not been posed by previous research. The need for a performative understanding of Kavvanah stems from the necessity of understanding Jewish culture as concerned with action and performance more than with contemplation. 


C. Structure:


The order of the chapters of the thesis is as follows:

Chapter 1 reviews the major models of power in Western discourse, both modern and post-modern. At the end of the chapter, I raise the possibility that the extensive discussions of power in 16th century Kabbalah influenced the Renaissance roots of Western thought on this issue. The second chapter reviews the condensed models of power and Kavvanah in Rabbinic literature as well as the magical literature of late antiquity. This review aims to point at the common sources of the various Kabbalistic models of power, as well as suggesting lines of continuity between the Rabbinic and Kabbalistic treatment of this issue. The third chapter reviews existing studies of power and Kavvanah in Kabbalah, and takes up basic methodological questions. In particular, I examine the advantages and limitations of model-building. The fourth chapter deals with a “family” or cluster of models of employment of power: the “spatial” models, which discuss the transmission of power over a spatial expanse. The fifth chapter deals with a contrasting cluster: models of action at a distance. This form of action employs the isomorphism between human structure and divine structure. The sixth chapter suggests a further contrast: between linguistic and visual models of power. In this chapter, I also discuss the power of dreams in Kabbalistic writing. The seventh chapter discusses the large combinatory structures, which merged earlier models into new complex understandings of power. These structures were formed in the sixteenth century Mediterranean. The concluding chapter summarizes the findings presented in the thesis, and shows how they may contribute to a renewed understanding of deep structures in Jewish culture.


2. Power in Contemporary Western Discourse


The question of power is one of the major political, psychological and philosophical themes in contemporary Western discourse. The salience of power is evident in both “high” and “popular” culture. Thus – following the methodology of Raymond Williams – it is one of the “keywords” of  Western culture. In general, one can differentiate between two classical models of power: The “modernistic” model, which originated with Hobbes, is prevalent in Anglo-American discussions, whilst the “post-modern” model – which originated with Machiavelli – is to be found in French discourse. The modernistic model seeks to define power, and this definition rests on views of causality and intention. It assumes an active subject, who fulfills his or her (usually his…) intention, or causes another subject to fulfill it. The post-modern model, on the other hand, critiques the notion of an active/intending subject. It does not include a global description or definition of power, but rather focuses on local and pragmatic expressions of power. Thus, it claims that power has no center – as in the idea of a subject – but rather is a field, comprised of manifold interactions between various shifting sites. This description is especially to be found in the writings of Michel Foucault. Foucault suggests a series of themes in place of that of the intending subject: Discursive, or linguistic practices, which form a “regime of truth”, which controls discourse: The deployment of power in space: The power of vision - as in surveillance - and the “imprinting” of power on the body in punishment and discipline. The first three themes are also central in the Kabbalistic models we shall discuss below. The last theme – that of the body – has also an important, but less central role in Kabbalistic discourse on power.


These philosophical and social reflections have not yet been thoroughly integrated in studies of power in Religious studies. However, one can discern the development of an independent, extensive study of power in this field. This “division of labor” reflects the prevailing psycho/physical dualism of Western culture, and – following Timothy Mitchell – one may suggest that it inhibits critical reflection on this issue. Amongst the manifold studies of religious power, such as those of Otto and Eliade, I wish to focus here on the above-mentioned model presented recently by Hollenback. In his Mysticism: Experience, Empowerment and Response, Hollenback suggests that the essence of mystical practice and experience is concentration. Prolonged and continuous mental concentration, “charged” with emotional intensity, empowers the consciousness of the mystic. This empowered mind can achieve paranormal powers, which are not accessible to ordinary consciousness. It is highly significant that Hollenback accepts mystical testimonies as to these powers, and rejects psychological reductionism as an alternative explanation. In a recent review[1], I suggested that Hollenback’s study may yet found a new paradigm in research on mysticism. Yet, I also pointed out several drawbacks in his approach. One central lacuna is his omission of Kabbalah in his otherwise very extensive survey. This disjunction between Kabbalah study and research on mysticism is bi-lateral: Just as Kabbalistic views on power do not find their way into studies such as the above, studies of this nature are only very recently impacting research on Kabbalah.


It is my contention that the study of power in Kabbalah offers one possibility of bridging the gap between sociopolitical and religious/mystical discussions of power. We have noted the similarity between the post-modern model of Foucault and the Kabbalistic structures we shall discuss below. We have also observed that this model originated in the Italian Renaissance, as in the work of Machiavelli. As Frances Yates and others have shown, the world of the Italian Renaissance was strongly affected by the The Overwhelming emotions Aroused by Cabala and its Magico-Religious Techniques”[2]. Thus, one may conjecture that the Kabbalistic astral and linguistic models of power that influenced Renaissance thought were also formative for the roots of Western ideas of power.



3. Rabbinic Views of Power


The classical research on Rabbinic literature has dealt with the views of power that are to be found within this corpus. However, these discussions have underestimated the salience of magical and theurgical elements in Rabbinic writing. This move created a sense of discontinuity between Rabbinic views – which were described as rather rationalistic – and latter, Kabbalistic formulations. However, in recent years, there have been numerous studies of the mythical, magical, theurgical and theosophical strands in the Rabbinic texts. Part of this development is a growing willingness to compare these texts to the magical literature of late antiquity – both Jewish and non-Jewish. In general, my discussion follows this direction. However, following Rebecca Lesses and others, I prefer the term “Ritual Power” to the more general term “magic”. Rather than splitting the analysis of Rabbinic notions of power into several terms drawn from general religious studies terminology, such as “magic” or “theosophy”, it is best to employ the terminology suggested by the texts themselves, which speak of power, or the dynamis (“Gevurah”).

Moshe Idel has adduced several Rabbinic texts, which focus on the strengthening or weakening of divine power, or the “Gevurah”, as result of human activity. A close perusal of some of  these texts points at the possibility that some Rabbis restricted this possibility to an elite of the Tzaddikim or righteous, who possess greater personal power. Yet other texts point at the possibility that there is a relationship of “mutual empowerment” between God and the Tzaddikim. Thus, one can link the Rabbinic descriptions of the magical, paranormal powers of these select individuals to the statements relating to their theurgical effect on divine power. In other words, as we have seen, rather than splitting the Rabbinic view into “magical” and “theurgical” compartments, it is preferable to see these discrete elements as part of a cycle of empowerment, in which God is supported by the Tzaddikim, and in turn confers upon them his own power. This cyclical relationship is suggested by a central Rabbinic phrase[3], which was highly formative in Kabbalistic discussions: “Make God’s will your will, so that he will make your will his will. Negate your will before his will, so that he may negate the will of others before yours”.  

The condensed and primary nature of the Rabbinic formulated a detailed description of the manner in which the Tzaddikim  - or perhaps all Jews - enhance divine power. One possibility is that this procedure is effected through Kavvanah. Despite the assertion of some researchers, Rabbinic sources contain a detailed description of the nature and necessity of Kavvanah whilst performing the commandments or praying. These sources suggest that Kavvanah is a combination of emotional modulation and spatial visualization. An example for the latter possibility is founded in several sources, which describe Kabbalah as “directing the heart” towards the Holy of Holies in the Temple[4].

These theurgical, personal, and spatial models of power, as well as others found in Rabbinic writing, suggest a close affinity between Rabbinic views of power and later Kabbalistic developments. There were several possible mediators between these two corpuses: One highly plausible candidate is the corpus of Ashkenazi Hassidism,which preserved Rabbinic theurgical and magical motifs, as several researches have shown.


4. Review of Scholarship and Methodological Questions


Power is one of the “keywords” of Kabbalistic literature. Both Kabbalists as well as researchers freely use this term to designate the Sefirot, demonic entities and other key figures in Kabbalistic discourse. Despite this, most studies which published and analyzed texts which deal with power omitted to organize these discussions within a wider framework of exploration of  the issue of power. Thus, the possibilities contained in such a form of organization were missed. This is especially the case with regard to the foundational works of Gershom Scholem, as we shall see below.

Moshe Idel has indeed dealt more intensively with power. However, in his seminal “Kabbalah – New Perspectives” he also located this issue within the wider framework of Kabbalistic theurgy. Thus, he dealt with a relatively restricted sample of texts, and he himself suggested elsewhere that there is a need for a systematic study of this issue. In Idel’s more recent book on Hassidism, he indeed included more extensive discussions of power, however here too, this issue was subjected to a wider investigation: in this case of magic.


I wish to suggest two main underlying reasons for the relative neglect of power in Kabbalah scholarship, especially in its more classic versions, relative to the importance of this topic in the general study of mysticism and religious anthropology.

One is a sense of discomfort shared by many scholars with regard to the more performative aspects of Jewish culture, and a desire to portray this culture in a more rationalistic and abstract manner. In a similar manner, a pre-existing scholarly agenda which opts to focus on extrinsic factors, such as response to historical events, or alleged Gnostic influences, also contributed to deflecting scholarly attention from the salience of power in the Kabbalistic texts themselves.

A second problem is the above-mentioned tendency to split discussions of power into several diverse frameworks, such as “magic”, “theurgy” or “mysticism”. This move leads to an occlusion of the place of power - as a central organizing framework in much of Kabbalistic writing. This is especially the case for the works of Gershom Scholem, who in several places posited a dichotomy between “mysticism proper”[5] and “degenerate”[6] magic.

These two moves - marginalization and splitting – largely account for the lacuna which this thesis addresses.


In a similar manner, despite the centrality of Kavvanah in Kabbalah and in Jewish practice in general, there has not yet been a single historical or/and phenomenological study of this cardinal topic. Existing studies of Kavvanah, (such as those of Scholem, Idel, Tishbi, Sack and Abrams) have tended to focus more on the divine aspect that Kabbalah is directed towards, and less on how Kabbalah actually works as a form of performance and action.



5. Spatial Models of Power


I wish to commence my discussion of models of operation of Kavvanah in Kabbalah with a basic distinction between two groups or clusters of models: Those describing action at a distance, and those describing transmission of power over a spatial expanse. The first group assumes an operator in the lower world, who has the power to influence or “awaken” the supernal world. This ability in turn relies on the figurative isomorphism between the human form and the divine structure, as we shall see below. The second type of models aspires to form a spatial continuum between the higher and lower realms. This line of connection enables mobilization of power, and its transmission from below upwards, or from above downwards.

The first model of the second type can be termed “hydraulic”: Numerous texts describe the divinity as constant flow from an endless source. Already in the first central Kabblistic book - HaBahir – we can find a “hydraulic” description of power as a water-like influx, which is directed by reservoirs and “pipes”. This formative description in turn influenced numerous subsequent texts in early Kabbalah.

Perhaps the most central of these texts was composed by Rabbis Ezra and Azriel of Gerona in the early 13th century: “You should know that the thought expands and rises to its place of origin.. The simile is: A spring of water which flows from its source, and if you dig a dam to prevent the water from dissipating then it will go to the source and no further… The early pious ones would raise their thought to the place of its origin… and through the.. adhering thought the things [Sefirot according to most scholars, Y.G] would be blessed and enhanced and receive from the emptiness of thought like a person who opens a pool of water so that it flows all over, for the adhering thought is the source and blessing and endless flow… and from this emanation and adhering of thought, the things would be increased and multiply, and from the joy they would be revealed to him, and thus was the extension of prophecy, when the prophet would concentrate and direct [Mekhaven] his heart and adhere his thought above, and according to his adherence the prophet would see and know what is going to happen”[7]


In this description, uplifting thought to a state of emptiness, leads to increase and influx from nothingness. This text has been extensively discussed by Scholem, Tishbi, Gottlieb, Liebes, Wolfson and Pedaya. Here, I wish to re-organize and expand their comments in order to formulate the model of power and Kavvanah contained here:

The text in effect describes the empowerment of mind through the connection between human and divine thought. This link is established by the concentration of thought, which returns it to its source in nothingness. Through this nullification, human thought adheres to the powerful divine thought, and is thus enhanced. This enhancement enables thought to retrace the pathway of emanation of divine thought, and to draw down a flow of blessing.


The later descending (or drawing-down) dimension can be found in a second spatial model: The astral model. This model originates in Arabic magical literature, which penetrated Jewish thought through the works of central figures such as Rabbi Yehudah Halevi and Ibn Ezra. Whilst some Kabbalists opted to co-opt this model, and reinscribe it in mystical terms, others chose to critique it. The latter thinkers, such as Nahmanidies, created an opposition between the use of Kavvanah to draw down astral power, and the focusing of intention on God – the power of powers. In general, the Kabbalah of Nahmanidies decentralized power, as part of its general conservative agenda, as described by Idel and Lorberbaum. It is instructive to juxtaposition this reticence with the profuse discussions composed at the same time in Nahmanidies’ city of Gerona by Rabbis Ezra and Azriel. As we have just seen, the latter composed lengthy descriptions of the procedure of drawing down power through Kavvanah. In some sources - such as “The Gate of Kavvanah” - these formulations even have magical overtones. Thus, the issue of power seems to be a major point of difference between conservative and radical forms of Kabbalah during the first explosion of Kabbalistic writing in the 13th century.


6. Models of Action from a Distance


The next two models are based on a theory of action at a distance: unlike the previous two models, they do not require an actual transmission of influx through spatial dimensions. Rather, the very isomorphism between human and divine power ensures that action in the lower, human realm will instantaneously affect the supernal realm. In other words, these are figurative models, which focus on the parallelism between human and divine form-as-power. However, the ability to act without spatial mediation does not entail an abstract or disembodied viewpoint. The converse is true: The isomorphic views rest wholly on the supreme significance of the human form. Thus, they rely on the kind of anthropomorphic theology and anthropology described recently by Yair Lorberbaum. However, it is important to clarify that the Kabbalistic texts do not describe a static form, but rather an active form which belongs to a God who observes the commandments - as elucidated in Bavli Berachot[8] - and thus depends on the power of human action to strengthen his own power. Thus I have termed the first model that of the “Active Form”. One of the most striking manifestations of this model is the system captured by the phrase “A [human] limb supports a [divine] limb”, which was highly prolific in early Spanish Kabbalah, and was later adopted by Italian Kabbalah. In this system, the commandments – performed with Kavvanah - maintain the divine form in place, while sin causes the retraction of divine power and the diminution of the form. Thus these texts go so far as to posit the radical claim that the commandments “make God”! (As shown by Idel and Mopsik). The second model of this nature is that of “isomorphic awakening”. In this system, which is largely prevalent in the Zohar, human action “awakens” latent divine power. Thus, unlike the previous model, we are not dealing with the “making” of divine power and presence, but rather with calling it forth. This process entails drawing down this hidden power so that it may manifest in our world as well. However, as in the previous model, the focus is on the well-being of the divine realm, rather than the more magical applications that are apparent in the spatial models.


7. Other Models


Until now, we have differentiated between spatial models and those that assume action from a distance. At this point, I would like to introduce a further distinction: Between “representational systems”. In these terms, one can discern a linguistic/auditory model of power, as distinct from a visual one. The first model is grounded in the Rabbinic understanding of language as performance and action. This approach was extensively developed in Kabbalah, and increasingly displaced the visual model, which held reign in earlier Kabbalistic writing as well as the Jewish mysticism of late antiquity. It is worth noting two major variants of the linguistic model: One is a synthesis between language and form: Drawing on Rabbinic formulations, Kabbalistic works such as Sefer Hatemunah envisioned God’s form as comprised of letters, forming a kind of “verbal icon”. The second is the atomistic move: In this text and others, The power of language was seen as residing in the “atomic” level of letters and vowels, rather than in the semantic level of words and sentences. The linguistic model was especially prevalent in Renaissance Italy. As we have seen, it had significant impact on conceptions of power in general Renaissance culture. A major Renaissance figure – R. Yohanan Alemanno – combined the linguistic model with a further model: that of the power of dreams. This model draws on early techniques of incubation and regards the dream-world as a source of power. In this sense, it is similar to Shamanic and Tibetian practices. Alemanno also synthesized these two models with the astral model we described above. Thus, the eclectic and encyclopedic nature of Renaissance thought manifested itself in a propensity for large, synthetic and combinatory structures. In this sense, later Kabbalah merged the earlier, discrete strands of though that we have described into more comprehensive systems. As we shall now see, this process greatly accelerated in the 16th century.


8. Combinations of Models in the 16th Century


The larger synthetic structures characteristic of the sixteenth century are of cardinal importance for the continued history of Kabbalah, which lies outside the scope of this paper. In this period, the discussion of power in Kabbalistic writing was greatly intensified. This enhancement was part of a larger move, in which several of the themes surveyed in the thesis – such as the power of the individual, the centrality of action and the potency of language – were significantly embellished. These processes formed a new Zeitgeist, which has its own unique place in the history of Kabbalah. Finally, as mentioned above, the Kabbalistic discourse on power in this period nurtured the Western understandings which germinated in this century.


From a historical viewpoint, the intensification of discourse which occurred in the sixteenth century was enabled through a series of encounters between previously discrete Kabbalistic centers, which was facilitated by the enforced mobilization of Mediterranean Jewry as result of the expulsion from Spain. These contact situations led in turn to the consolidation of new and powerful centers, such as the mystical circles in Safed. The discussion below shall focus on four major corpuses hailing from four centers which developed in the Mediterranean basin in this period: The writings of R. Ibn Sayah of Jerusalem, the works of R. Moses Cordovero in Safed, the texts composed by the circle surrounding R. David Halevi in Dar’a, (Morroco) and the works of R. Meir Ibn Gabbai in the area between modern-day Turkey and Greece.

The first three groups are characterized by a marked openness to the more magical models discussed above. They shared a willingness to incorporate linguistic and astral models of power, which are partly indebted to the Sufi ideas which they encountered. Through consultation of the writings of Sayah and the Dar’a Kabbalists, which are largely extant in manuscript, one can trace lines of influence and transmission of information between these three centers. Thus, Ibn Sayah had a notable influence on the Safedian center, and on Cordovero in particular. This seems to be the case with regard to an unique variant of the feminine model of power, shared by these two writers. The feminine model of power has its roots in late Rabbinic texts, which speak of “The Power of the Sekhinah”. It played an important role in Spanish Kabbalah – especially in the writings of R. Joseph Gikatilla. However, in most Kabbalistic formulations, the feminine power receives its vitality from higher, male forces. The fragility of the feminine aspect of power is also apparent in its vulnerability to the demonic powers. Against this background, Sayah and Cordovero are distinguished by presenting a variation on this model, in which the feminine aspect of God is a source of power. They both portray the mystic as being strengthened and nourished by the Sekhinah. Furthermore, Sayah even suggests that the human female – as a manifestation of the divine feminine power – is a source of potency and blessing.


These and other similarities between the models of power developed respectively by Sayah and Cordovero may be explained by historical evidence of the influence of the former on Safedian Kabbalistic – as well as Halachic – writing. A similar claim may be made with regard to the Dar’a center. Rachel Elior has already shown that a migration of Kabbalists from this center was a factor in the consolidation of the Safedian center. This historical evidence may be embellished by considering the similarities between the astral/linguistic model found in Dar’a and those developed by Sayah and Cordovero. Thus, these three centers can be seen as part of a greater development, which foregrounded rather magical understandings of power, and thus subtly displaced the more classical mystical or theurgical formulations of Spanish Kabbalah. Thus, relatively radical Kabbalistic works, which are extensively discussed in the thesis – such as “Brit Menuchah” or “Sefer Hameshiv” – played an increasingly significant role in 16th century Kabbalah.

This claim can be abundantly demonstrated with regard to Cordovero. By analyzing the structure of his magnum opus – Pardes Rimmonim – Moshe Idel has pointed at the manner in which he constructs this work so as to lead up to more magical and ecstatic models. These come to displace the theosophical-theurgical systems which are presented in the earlier parts of his book. In terms of models of power, Cordovero constructs an elaborate synthesis, in which hydraulic and figurative models are fused into a structure which privileges astral, personal and linguistic models of power. Thus, in a fascinating text[9] which presents his theory of the structure of Kabbalistic knowledge, Cordovero constructs a hierarchy, in which a magical theory of language (based on “Brit Menuchah”) holds place of pride. The pinnacle of Pardes Rimmonim is the “Gate of Kavvanah”. Cordovero constantly refers his reader to this concluding discussion, which in turn is presented as an introduction to his more practical commentary on the prayerbook. In this gate[10], Cordovero spells out the superior status of the Tzaddik, who is able to employ Kavvanah to draw down the power of the Sekhinah. Thus the Tzaddik becomes a talisman which captures feminine power. However, Cordovero mitigates the elitist implications of this description by constructing a “double-tiered” model. According to this structure, the Tzaddik indeed holds superior theurgical, mystical and magical power. However, due to the potency of the very letters of the Hebrew language, as described in the linguistic model of power, even an unlearned Jew can arouse divine power and draw it down. This sociological theory was fleshed out in later historical developments, such as Hassidism.


As opposed to the three centers which contributed to a rise of more magical and radical structures, we have the corpus of R. Meir Ibn Gabbai. Like Cordovero, Ibn Gabbai constructed an elaborate, encyclopedic synthesis, in which power and Kavvanah play a central role. However, in this structure, the central position is granted to the classical formulations of Spanish Kabbalah. Thus, Ibn Gabbay foregrounds the model of isomorphic awakening, as found in the Zohar. He merges the more mystical, hydraulic formulations of R. Ezra and R. Azriel into this construct. Thus, Ibn Gabbai conducts a similar, yet opposite operation to that performed by Cordovero. While the later writer  subjects mainstream Spanish writing to magical, talismanic works, the earlier Ibn Gabbai co-opted more mystical formulations into a theosophical-theurgical framework. The distance between Ibn Gabbai and the three other corpuses we have surveyed is nowhere more apparent than on the issue of personal power. Whilst, as we have seen, Cordovero emphasized the personal benefit accruing to the Tzaddik as result of his ability to draw down power, Ibn Gabbai staunchly maintains that one should seek no personal benefit from the theurgical process. This operation is solely “Zorech Gavoah” – for fulfilling the needs of God.


9. Concluding Remarks


The findings of the thesis point to the centrality of power in a very large number of Kabbalistic works, which in turn belong to a variety of centers and schools. (However, one should also refrain from over-estimating the salience of power in Kabbalah. Power is not as essential to Kabbalistic writing as it is to systems such as Tantra or Shamanism: We do not find a literary genre of writing on power, as we do in the case of the Sefirot or the commandments. Furthermore, some Kabbalistic schools – most notably that of Nahmanidies – rather marginalized the issue of power, as we saw above). The findings also demonstrated that the concept of power is of great importance for understanding the manner in which Kavvanah operates, as a performance and form of action.


Another motif which recurred throughout the thesis is that of the power of humanity, or the relationship between Kabbalistic ontotheology and anthropology. It seems, that even if one was to set aside the specific model of personal power, one can find in almost every model a strong claim as to the power of the mystic to create, direct and channel power. This emphasis on human power extends to the very radical claim that the mystic “makes” divine power. The emphasis on human agency and potency is especially characteristic of 16th century Kabbalah. As we have seen, in this period Kabbalistic writing displaced the more theocentric concerns of Spanish Kabbalah, and foregrounded the needs and capacities of the individual. This move led to a greater interest in issue such as language, gender and sexuality, as well as sociological questions.


A. Cultural Issues


From a cultural studies perspective, the Kabbalistic concern with spiritual power can be seen as masking the actual lack of physical/military/political power in the Exile. This claim, which has also been made by Charles Mopsik and Yaron Ezrahi, can be reinforced by numerous Kabbalistic texts, which are replete with fantasies of magical revenge, which will “break” the power of the Gentiles. This is especially true of radical works such as “Sefer Hameshiv”.

On a more profound level, the Kabbalistic, as well as Rabbinic, concern with power can be seen as indicative of deep structures of Jewish culture. One such structure is the emphasis on performance and action. In the past, research has opted for a more philosophical and abstract description of Kabbalah, and as we have seen, this was one reason for a relative overlooking of the importance of power. This move created an artificial split between the study of Jewish mysticism and the overall nature of Jewish culture, which is focused on performance of the commandments. However, in recent years scholars such as Moshe Idel, Yehudah Liebes and Eliot Wolfson have moved to narrow this gap and produce a more action-centered description of Kabbalah. It is my hope that this thesis, through underlining the place of power, will contribute to such a re-assessment of Kabbalah as an organic facet of Jewish culture.

Furthermore, this thesis has shown the important role of Kabbalah in the constitution of Western reflection on power – as one of the “keywords” of Western culture. This is especially true in the case of the intensified discussions of power in the sixteenth century. These formulations resonated with emergent Western sensibilities as to the role of human and individual agency and power. One striking example of this intercultural interchange is Machiavelli. Researchers who have discussed the more mythical and magical facets of his thought have pointed out his indebtedness to astral magic, as well as the relationship between feminine power – “Fortuna’ – and male power – “Virtu” – in his work. However, they have not noted the marked similarity between these aspects of his writings and contemporary Kabbalistic models.


The salience of individuality and agency in Renaissance Kabbalah differentiates Jewish mystical models of power from those developed by Michel Foucault. Despite the similarity between Kabbalistic views of visual, spatial and linguistic power to the structures developed by the French philosopher/activist, marked differences stand out. The annulment of the individual and agency in Foucault’s work markedly contrasts with the trajectory of Kabbalistic thought on these issues.


B.   Future Directions for Research


Throughout the thesis I noted similarities between Kabbalistic discussions of power and comparable mystical formulations in other religions. However, there is still a great need for a wide ranging comparative study of the phenomenology of power in religious life and mystical experience. In this context, one major question is the link between Sufi views of power and those Kabbalistic corpuses which evolved in Arab-speaking areas. A further question is the relationship between the ideas contained in Byzantine Kabbalah (as in Sefer Hatemunah) and Eastern Christian thought, where power is far more central than in its Western counterpart. Finally, there is room to reflect on the more “Shamanic” aspects of Kabbalistic writing on power. This is especially pertinent with regard to the experience of possession by power, which informs what I have termed the “passive” model of power in Kabbalah.

[1] Y. Garb, ‘Paths of Power’, Journal of Religion 78 (4) (1998), pp.593-601.

[2] F. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Chicago 1964,  p. 156.  

[3] Mishnah Avot 2, 4.

[4] See Mishnah, Berachot, 4, 5.

[5] G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York 1941, p. 145.

[6] Ibid, p. 78.

[7] Translated from the Commentary on the Aggadah of Rabbi Azriel, as published by Y. Tishbi, Jerusalem 1983, [p. 39-41] with parallels from the commentary of Rabbi Ezra, as published by H. Pedaya (Tarbitz, 65, 1996).

[8] 6A-B

[9] Pardes Rimmonim, Jerusalem 1962, Gate 27, Chapter 1.

[10] Ibid, Gate 32, Chapter 1.


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