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Alef, Mem, Tau

Kabbalistic Musings on Time, Truth, and Death

Elliot Wolfson

Publication Year: 2006

This highly original, provocative, and poetic work explores the nexus of time, truth, and death in the symbolic world of medieval kabbalah. Demonstrating that the historical and theoretical relationship between kabbalah and western philosophy is far more intimate and extensive than any previous scholar has ever suggested, Elliot R. Wolfson draws an extraordinary range of thinkers such as Frederic Jameson, Martin Heidegger, Franz Rosenzweig, William Blake, Julia Kristeva, Friedrich Schelling, and a host of kabbalistic figures into deep conversation with one another. Alef, Mem, Tau also discusses Islamic mysticism and Buddhist thought in relation to the Jewish esoteric tradition as it opens the possibility of a temporal triumph of temporality and the conquering of time through time.

The framework for Wolfson’s examination is the rabbinic teaching that the word emet, "truth," comprises the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, alef, mem, and tau, which serve, in turn, as semiotic signposts for the three tenses of time—past, present, and future. By heeding the letters of emet we discern the truth of time manifestly concealed in the time of truth, the beginning that cannot begin if it is to be the beginning, the middle that re/marks the place of origin and destiny, and the end that is the figuration of the impossible disclosing the impossibility of figuration, the finitude of death that facilitates the possibility of rebirth. The time of death does not mark the death of time, but time immortal, the moment of truth that bestows on the truth of the moment an endless beginning of a beginningless end, the truth of death encountered incessantly in retracing steps of time yet to be taken—between, before, beyond.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: Taubman Lectures in Jewish Studies

Title Page, About the Series, Other Works in the Series, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-x


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xviii

...This book is based on the Taubman Lectures that I delivered at the University of California, Berkeley, February–March 2001. I wish to express my gratitude to Professor David Biale, who first approached me about preparing these lectures, and to Professor Daniel Boyarin, who followed up by extending an o‹cial invitation on behalf of the Program...

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1. Thinking Time / Hermeneutic Suppositions

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pp. 1-54

...In my time, many a time, I have heard myself and others speak of a lifetime. This compound dis/plays the juxtaposition of life and time so elemental to our way of being in the world: what most impresses our thinking about the life-that-ispassing is the passing-that-is-life, a passing that lies at the root of our rootlessness. We are perpetually cast in the mold of temporal beings, always, it seems, being in time for the time being. Time...

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2. Linear Circularity / (A)temporal Poetics

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pp. 55-117

...In Judaism specifically, numerous opinions, spanning many centuries, geographical localities, intellectual influences, and literary genres, have been expressed about time. Accordingly, I make no attempt here to provide a comprehensive overview of the understanding of time in the variegated history of Judaism...

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3. Before Alef / Where Beginnings End

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pp. 118-136

...A translation of the passage that has served as the basis for my reflections is followed by a philosophical analysis of its content that links the salient images to other statements in the bahiric anthology. The intent of this chapter is to shed light on the hermeneutical dilemma of the beginning: How does the beginning begin without having already begun? If...

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4. Within Mem / Returning Forward

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pp. 137-155

...Concerning the beginning, we have learned that it cannot begin if it has not already begun. To speak of the beginning, therefore, is to begin always in the middle, to begin at the beginning that is not beginning. But how do we speak of the middle? Surely from the middle. But what can be spoken from the middle? By what sign do we mark the spot in the middle where beginnings end and endings begin...

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5. After Tau / Where Endings Begin

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pp. 156-174

...In the end, we come to where one cannot come except by not-coming, the manner in which many have come before and others will come after. We arrive at the terminus delimited as the limit always yet to be delimited, the limit beyond which there is no limit, and hence the limit of what cannot be delimited. Death, Jean-Luc Marion perceptively remarked, is “a phenomenon that can be phenomenalized only in its coming to pass, for...

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pp. 175-178

...In an effort to pave the way to this possibility, I have explored the nexus of time, truth, and death as it emerges hermeneutically from the symbolic world of medieval kabbalah. I have not adhered to the familiar methodology adopted by scholars of Jewish mysticism, focusing on a particular historical period or individual personality; I have organized my thoughts instead around the letters alef...


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pp. 179-262


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pp. 263-308


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pp. 309-327

E-ISBN-13: 9780520932319
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520246195

Page Count: 342
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Taubman Lectures in Jewish Studies

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Time -- Philosophy.
  • Time -- Religious aspects -- Judaism.
  • Cabala -- History.
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