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  • White Letters:From R. Levi Isaac of Berditchev’s Views to Postmodern Hermeneutics
  • Moshe Idel (bio)

Eighteenth-century Hasidism has exercised a significant impact on the perception of Judaism in many modern intellectual circles. This influence is indebted to the successful efforts of Martin Buber, to the dissemination of hasidic concepts and attitudes in Abraham J. Heschel's writings, to the studies of Gershom Scholem and his students, and finally, to the psychoanalytical-Jungian studies that resorted to hasidic sources.1 Due to these many different studies, this form of Jewish mysticism has affected the scholarship of religion in different ways.2 Less known, however, is the possible, though modest, contribution of some aspects of hasidic hermeneutics to modern and postmodern hermeneutics. As we are now only in the initial state of scholarship regarding this mystical lore, it is hardly possible to assess the main lines of hasidic hermeneutics.3 It is, however, possible to observe that the literature of Hasidism is mainly of an exegetical type that explores various aspects of the theory of texts as found in kabbalistic writings, at times amplifying the importance of some, at times relegating others to the margin, and in some other cases offering new solutions to older questions.

I would like here to address a number of hasidic discussions dealing with the status of the imagined white letters allegedly hidden within the text of the Torah scroll, some of which have already been analyzed by Gershom Scholem. As we shall see below in the last section, several modern scholars of the first rank, such as Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, and George Steiner, have adopted Scholem's understanding of this topic. I believe that this view deserves a more detailed analysis, especially in relation to the sources and meaning of the passage that informed those modern philosophers of the nature of the text. Here the hasidic understanding of the subject is emphasized, while the kabbalistic background is seen as being less pertinent for the point I would like to make. Let me also add that in this context I cannot address the sources of the understanding of the white spaces in texts speculated about by William Blake and Stephane Mallarmé. Their affinities to Kabbalah are plausible, but their existence does not affect our present discussions.4 [End Page 169]

Hasidic masters were attracted by the nonsemantic aspects of the Bible, especially its oral performance as part of the Torah study.5 Unlike the deep concern of kabbalists with the visual aspects of the letters and with the special structure of the scroll of the Torah as a whole, hasidic masters cultivated a strong interest in the sonorous aspects of the canonical texts: the ritual of Torah reading, prayer, and the study of the Torah, which in many cases means the study of rabbinic material as well.6 Let me build on this observation by recalling a comment made by the son of one of the earliest followers of the Besht himself, R. Mordekhai of Chernobyl. Following some earlier teachings in which the Torah letters were described as containers of the divine light, he argued that they are, in fact, "palaces for the revelation of the light of 'Ein Sof, blessed be He and blessed His Name, that is clothed within them. When someone studies the Torah and prays, then they [!] take them out of the secret places and their light is revealed here below. . . . By the cleaving of man to the letters of the Torah and [the letters of] the prayer, he draws down onto himself the revelation of the light of 'Ein Sof."7

The light of the Infinite is an energetic entity, which can be caused to descend and impact positively on the mystic. Penetrating to the core of the letters by the act of cleaving amounts to leaving behind the mental cargo of the word to which that letter belongs and the achievement of an encounter with the divine force imminent within it. Quite emblematic is the mention of prayer and study of the Torah together as producing the same result. This means that what is crucial is not so much the semantic content of the texts to which one...


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