Nathaniel Berman on Moshe Halbertal
Moshe Halbertal’s magisterial study appears to situate itself firmly among the decades-long challenges to Gershom Scholem’s most famous grand theses. Scholem argued that kabbalah challenged the foundations of rabbinic Judaism, perhaps even Judaism as such. Opposing the “pantheistic unity of God, cosmos, and man in myth,” he wrote, Judaism originally “aimed at a radical separation of the three realms.” Scholem declared that the “dissociation of Law from myth” played a crucial role in this separation. The kabbalistic upsurge of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with its re-mythification of Judaism, including Jewish law, thus embodied the “vengeance of myth against its conquerors.” To be sure, even Scholem did not insist upon these startling assertions in his countless detailed studies of particular kabbalists. Yet they remain a provocation to those in the field, continuing to inspire both refutation and embrace.
Many scholars have challenged Scholem’s theses on diverse historical and conceptual grounds, including his very use of the word “mysticism” to designate kabbalah—and, I would add, the conflation of “mysticism” and “mythology.” Most would agree that Scholem’s theses find their greatest difficulty when confronted with figures like Nahmanides (Moses ben Nahman, born in Gerona, 1194, died in Acre, 1270).
Nahmanides was both halakhist and kabbalist, as well as Jewish community leader, indeed the Jewish representative in a pivotal 1263 disputation with Christian theologians. He stands in striking contrast to most of the key thirteenth century Spanish kabbalists, characterized by Moshe Idel as members of a “secondary elite”: “authors who did not contribute in a significant manner to the communal Jewish life as leading figures, nor … play a major role in the Halachic literature.” Nahmanides was, by this measure, the very epitome of the “primary elite.” Scholem himself declared that Nahmanides’ stature played a key role in legitimating kabbalah in its classical period.
Halbertal’s book, originally published in Hebrew in 2006, is one of a number of studies which have, over the past few decades, provided novel approaches to Nahmanides’ thought—including those of Moshe Idel, Elliot Wolfson, Haviva Pedaya, and Oded Yisraeli, to name only some of the more well-known. Halbertal’s book is distinguished by several features which make the new English translation a notable event. First, Halbertal displays here his well-established talent for making abstruse ideas accessible to a non-specialist readership. Second, Halbertal’s interdisciplinary background (he teaches both in Hebrew University’s Jewish Thought Department and at NYU Law School) is particularly suited to the very wide range of Nahmanides’ writing. Third, Halbertal deftly casts the thirteenth century Geronese thinker’s ideas in terms familiar from contemporary theory in the humanities. Finally, Halbertal strives throughout the book to relate the various features of Nahmanides’ oeuvre to each other, particularly his legal and kabbalistic visions. This aspiration leads Halbertal to make a number of audacious interpretive leaps—some of which specialist readers may find simultaneously thrilling and controversial. I hasten to add that such leaps are inevitable in any serious grappling with Nahmanides, who often articulated his deepest intentions in laconic and enigmatic language and dispersed them across his writings.
A key issue in Halbertal’s book, highlighted in its subtitle, is the relationship between legal theory and kabbalistic myth. Nahmanides, in Halbertal’s account, confronted two opposed stances on the legitimation of halakha in the face of pervasive legal controversy: that of the Geonim (Mesopotamia, ca. 7th-11th c.) and that of Maimonides (1138-1204) the towering philosopher-jurist under and against whose influence all Spanish kabbalists wrote. The Geonim held that all the legal details of the halakhic system, except those explicitly innovated by the rabbis, were given at Mount Sinai. The existence of legal controversy shows that that these teachings came to be misunderstood over the centuries. Legal legitimacy comes from restoring the original truth given at Sinai.
Maimonides, by contrast, asserted that the Sinaitic teachings have been passed down infallibly through the generations. The fact that controversy besets any given legal provision proves that that provision was rabbinic, rather than Sinaitic, in origin. Maimonides agreed with the Geonim about the criterion for legal truth in relation to Sinaitic law: correspondence with the original revelation. However, committed to the infallible transmission of Sinaitic teaching, he severed “the direct link” between much of “the halakhic system and God’s word.” Such a “severance,” I would add, is congruent with Maimonides’ determination to accentuate divine transcendence to its hyperbolic limit.
Halbertal portrays Nahmanides’ alternative to both these views, an alternative both conservative and innovative. Nahmanides the conservative affirmed Sinaitic authority for the teachings of the “Rishonim,” the “First Authorities,” whom he envisioned ended with “the Rif,” Isaac Alfasi (1013-1103). He could not, however, ignore the legitimacy problem raised by pervasive halakhic controversy, highlighted by Maimonides. He therefore propounded, in Halbertal’s terms, a “constitutive theory,” in which halakhic interpretations in the present “constitute” the meaning of past texts.
Halbertal provides a “weak” and “strong” understanding of this theory. The former will be familiar to those conversant with modern interpretive theory in law and literature, which Halbertal implicitly evokes with his terminology. Imperatives in written texts will necessarily generate controversies when it comes to application in future cases—a proposition both explicitly declared by Nahmanides and taken for granted in modern American legal theory. The solution to this textual indeterminacy lies in vesting hermeneutic authority in designated interpreters. Accordingly, Nahmanides declared that God gave the Torah “in accordance with [the sages’] construal of meaning,” citing Deuteronomy 17:11.
In its “weaker” sense, this proposition commands obedience to the sages even if they are wrong. Halbertal, however, also advances a “stronger” sense, linking this legally oriented passage in Nahmanides to a seemingly unrelated kabbalistic passage on the nature of the Torah. In the latter passage, Nahmanides declared that the Torah originally was written without any breaks between words. It can, therefore, be read in different ways depending on how the letters are divided. According to the familiar reading, the Torah consists of stories and commandments; according to an alternative, esoteric division of the letters, it consists entirely of divine names. As Halbertal explains, this conception rests on a vision of the Torah primarily as the emanation of divine essence, not as communicative of a determinate message. And just as divine essence is infinite, the “current division of letters resulting in our Torah is merely one of the kaleidoscopic manifestations of the divine essence” itself.
One can draw two conclusions from this vision, one “nomian,” legitimating of law, the other “antinomian,” relativizing law. If the biblical text contains “no single, fixed meaning,” the power vested in designated interpreters is not only legitimate, but necessary to yield a specific meaning. Yet, any such specific meaning is necessarily contingent, one selection out of an infinite range of meanings, making controversy and historical change inevitable. In this “strong version” of the “constitutive theory,” Halbertal declares, the “interpreter not only clarifies the words of the text but also retroactively constitutes their meaning”—but only until the next authoritative interpretation.
The legitimacy of these shifting interpretations, however, comes not merely from the positivist authority of rabbinic authorities, but from the divine itself—and specifically, from a moment of purest “myth,” in the sense I cited from Scholem above. Halbertal cites a passage from Nahmanides’ commentary on Numbers 11:16, concerning the “seventy elders” assembled by Moses to serve as intermediary judges of the Israelites. Nahmanides associates this group with the seventy-member Sanhedrin. He declares that “this number includes all opinions since it comprises all the powers,” the latter term bearing a metaphysical import. The “glory of the Shekhinah” would rest upon such institutions for they would be assembled “just as it in the supernal camp, for the Israelites are the hosts of Yahweh on earth.” Nahmanides associates this “supernal camp” with Ezekiel’s vision of the divine Chariot. Moreover, with the addition of Moses and the Shekhinah, the desert assembly was composed of the same number, 72, as the “Great Name” of God. Nahmanides’ depiction reaches its climax with his proclamation that such institutions embody the vision of the verse: “Elohim stands in the congregation of El, judging in the midst of the Elohim (Psalms 82:6).”
For Halbertal, Nahmanides thus ascribes “a quasi-prophetic quality to the number of judges on the Sanhedrin,” setting “the Sanhedrin’s adjudication within a kabbalistic framework.” By “creating symbolic structures on earth that parallel supernal ones,” human beings “draw down God’s presence into the world”—a key kabbalistic vision, most elaborately articulated in relation to the desert Sanctuary and the Temple, but often extended even to the most familiar ritual performances. The scene Nahmanides depicts is thus precisely the kind of “unity of God, cosmos, and man in myth” that Scholem portrays pre-kabbalistic halakhic Judaism as having rejected—and here serving precisely to provide the highest legitimation to law.
This “mythical” legitimation of halakha is a quite paradoxical achievement if we accept Halbertal’s explication of Nahmanides’ “constitutive theory.” Legal decision-making would be both absolutely legitimated and historically contingent. Its choice of one among the infinite number of “possible opinions” would be, literally, divine!
Of course, the potentially “antinomian,” or what Halbertal often calls “anomian,” dimension of this depiction lies in the very contingency of each particular interpretation. But his exposition also reveals a far more totalizing antinomian/anomian potential. The contingency of the current division of letters of the entire Torah relativizes not merely particular legal decisions but the halakhic system as as such.
In highlighting this potential, Halbertal places heavy emphasis on one enigmatic passage in Nahmanides Torah commentary.
…And so it has been for the entire Era of the Torah [זמן התורה], so [human beings] can be awarded merit for doing good, and punishment for doing evil. In the Days of the Messiah, however, the choice for good will come to them naturally, their heart will not crave what is inappropriate and shall not desire it at all [Nahmanides on Deut. 30:6].
Halbertal reads this passage as stating that the Torah, with its legal imperatives, is only binding in the post-lapsarian world, a world fallen due to Adam’s Original Sin. The translator’s capitalization of “Era of the Torah” (not possible, of course, in Hebrew) highlights the crucial importance Halbertal attributes to this passage. For Halbertal, the passage declares that the Torah (presumably, the Torah as contingently read in our era’s division of its letters) is only valid for a determinate amount of time: from Adam’s Original Sin until the coming of the Messiah (i.e., human history as we know it). Only during this period do human beings desire to do evil, for the Original Sin brought about the emergence of individual free will. This individuation of human beings also made them subject to death, a byproduct of their “estrangement from their original, eternal nature, the wretched outcome of Original Sin.”
Halbertal thus interprets the passages as embodying a particular conception of halakha: a necessity only in the fallen world of autonomous, mortal individuals. Before the Original Sin, Halbertal explains, “Originary Adam lacked autonomy and his own will.” He, therefore, “did not fall under the Era of the Torah, and the commandments did not apply to him.” This immortal being was in a constant state of “cleaving” to the divine, and thus became “identical to Shekhinah.” This pre-lapsarian state will be restored in the messianic age, when the “Era of the Torah will end,” because “free will will be absent from it.”
The inextricable relationship for Nahmanides between Original Sin, free will, death, and law—indeed the Torah as we know it—forms the passionate core of the book. Halbertal acknowledges the resonance of this claim with some of the basic theses of St. Paul, from which he tries to partially distinguish it. Halbertal’s pathos and terminology here also evoke the discursive world of modern Existentalist philosophers, though he does not explicitly cite them. He does, however, stress the striking nature of this vision of halakha, as a contingent feature of a fallen world, when we remember that it was “propounded by the greatest halakhist of the thirteenth century.”
Halbertal’s reading here requires a number of leaps in interpreting Nahmanides’ texts and departs from other scholars’ readings. In particular, Halbertal notes its contrast with an influential 1983 essay by Bezalel Safran. For Nahmanides, Safran argued, Adam could not have fallen from his elevated, prelapsarian, spiritual state
[u]nless God wanted him to fall; that is, unless God wanted worship not only from spiritual automatons, but also from … people with fleshly bodies and free will who have to struggle to serve God.
Safran thus concludes, astonishingly, there was actually no sin in the Garden! Indeed, the “Eve” who gave Adam the fruit was none other than the Shekhinah Herself, helping Adam become a being with free will.
This is not the place to determine which of these readings is better supported by the texts, but Safran’s reading, no less than Halbertal’s, requires a number of audacious extrapolations from Nahmanides’ words. As I noted at the outset, Nahmanides expressed some of his deepest kabbalistic mysteries in laconic, enigmatic, and dispersed passages. The radical divergence of interpretations may, therefore, simply be inevitable – perhaps not unrelated to the inevitable divergences in biblical interpretation according to Nahmanides.
Whether or not we accept Halbertal’s interpretation of the “Era of the Torah,” we know that Nahmanides embraced another myth with the potential to relativize the Torah as we know it: the “doctrine of the cosmic cycles” [Torat Ha-Sh’mitot]. In this myth, cosmic time is divided into seven cycles of seven-thousand years each, each governed by one of the lower seven of the ten kabbalistic archetypes, the Sefirot. After the seven cycles, all of being returns to its divine source, the third of the kabbalistic “Sefirot,” associated with the “Supernal Mother.” Haviva Pedaya sees this myth as central to Nahmanides’ vision, as expressed in the title of her own study of the Geronese kabbalist: Nahmanides: Spiritual Ascent – Cyclical Time and Holy Text.
In later, fourteenth century, versions of this myth, each cosmic cycle is associated with a different reading of the Torah, in accordance with the Sefirah that governs it. Rules and prohibitions necessary in our cosmic cycle, the cycle of “Judgment [Din],” are absent in cycles of Lovingkindness [Hesed] and Compassion [Rahamim]. This antinomian potential rendered this myth very congenial to seventeenth century Sabbateans. Nahmanides himself, however, does not point to these potentially antinomian consequences of this myth. Nonetheless, the “Era of the Torah,” as Halbertal reads it, might point in that direction.
In light of Halbertal’s understanding of Nahmanides’ “Era of the Torah,” we can see his nuanced relationship to Scholem’s grand theses with which I began. Nahmanides was both halakhist and kabbalist, yet the tension between the two was perhaps all the more acute as a result. In Pedaya’s formulation, Nahmanides was one of the kabbalists who most sharpened the tension between the “dimensions of Time and Torah” and the “dimensions above Time and Torah.”
But Nahmanides may also be giving his own expression to a far older theme. As Yehuda Liebes, Moshe Idel, and others have argued, Scholem’s broadly stated theses ignore the ways the tension between nomianism and antinomianism, as well as between myth and anti-myth, are perennial themes within the Jewish tradition, long before kabbalah. Indeed, one might well argue that a notion like the “Era of the Torah” is already implicit in the dicta of some Talmudic-era sages: from the declaration by one that “the commandments will be annulled in the Time-to-Come” to the assertion by another that there were “orders of time” that preceded the Creation in Genesis.
The relationship between legal theory and kabbalistic myth is my focus, but Halbertal’s book ranges far beyond these topics. Miracles, prophecy, the reasons for the commandments, esotericism, and the Catalonian Nahmanides’ situatedness “between Ashkenaz and Andalusia” all receive the kind of clear and bold treatment as the topics I have discussed.
Those familiar with the basic structure of kabbalistic mythology from more well-known texts such as the Zohar may be surprised to learn how much of that structure is already present in Nahmanides—even if marked by many crucial differences, as well as expressed in a radically dissimilar literary form. In short, no reader can come away from Halbertal’s study without an understanding of Nahmanides’ vital importance to Jewish thought and spirituality at a crucial turning-point in Jewish history—as well as his unique contributions to perennial themes in the history of kabbalah and Jewish religiosity as a whole.
Nathaniel Berman is the Rahel Varnhagen Professor in Brown University’s Department of Religious Studies. His work focuses on the construction of alterity in discourses ranging from early 20th century international law to 13th century kabbalah. Among his publications are Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of The Zohar: the “Other Side” of Kabbalah (The Hague: Brill 2018) and Passion and Ambivalence: Colonialism, Nationalism, and International Law (The Hague: Brill, 2011).