- Giordano Bruno and the Kabbalah: Prophets, Magicians, and Rabbis by Karen Silvia de León-Jones
Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition has become a standard work for the study of Renaissance thought, and it is through her interpretation of Bruno in the tradition of Hermeticism and Lullism that he is generally understood by non-specialists. Karen Silvia de León-Jones proclaims her goal in the present volume to be a new reading of Bruno as a thinker far more affected by Kabbalah than Yates believed, and she expresses herself very sharply against many of Yates’ positions (e.g., 18–23).
The book has appropriately been placed in a series on hermeneutics. It is essentially a detailed interpretation of Bruno’s dialogue La cabala del cavallopegaseo, along with two other related dialogues, Lo spaccio della bestia trionjante and De gli eroici furori. The non-specialist reader is not offered a clear introduction to the structure and content of these dialogues or an explanation of how they fit into Bruno’s thought and the larger Renaissance context. This is not to say that de León-Jones does not introduce her material at all, but the choppy prose and lack of overview, particularly in the early chapters of the book, lend it a certain amount of Bruno’s own famous obscurity for those not already conversant with Bruno’s oeuvre.
I am not in a position to say whether de León-Jones interprets Bruno’s thought correctly, but I will comment on her approach to Kabbalah and its significance in Bruno’s thought. She makes clear that the Kabbalah “practiced” by Bruno is not identical with Jewish Kabbalah; it is rather what I would call “Cabala,” a group of hermeneutical and mystical techniques based loosely on Jewish Kabbalah, which was used by Renaissance and Baroque Christians. The author nicely defines the theurgic Kabbalah as absorbed by Christian savants: the study of the secret names of God, manipulation of [End Page 675] the Hebrew alphabet and numbers by gematria, temurah and notankon, and meditation on the sephiroth (10).
In Bruno’s idiosyncratic theology, or “Cabala-teologia-filosofia” as it is described, Kabbalah has more specific significances. Kabbalah teaches the goal of prophecy and unio mystica; transmigration of souls; the image of God’s relationship to the world through the tree of the sephiroth (he especially emphasizes Hokhmah); the Mors osculi; and manipulation of the divine efflux. Bruno thinks of all Jewish sages who are not pedantic Talmudists as kabbalists, beginning with Moses and Solomon. Biblical wisdom too is Kabbalah. De León-Jones is therefore correct in saying that “Bruno is not a Kabbalist in the strictest sense of [the] word, but instead the example of Renaissance syncretism at its most extreme: in reality Bruno is Bruno; he proselytizes his own philosophy” (181). Going though the book one finds that Kabbalah, or Cabala, which the Nolan clearly learned mainly from Agrippa (as Yates stated), was simply another literature of the prisca sapientia to be manipulated, along with Hermetic writings, Plato, the Bible and many others, as “support” for his own system of thought. Syncretism is indeed the key here, and while de León-Jones is undoubtedly correct that Bruno used kabbalistic hermeneutics and symbols along with everything else in his satchel, I question whether it is meaningful to speak of Bruno and the Kabbalah in the normal sense of the term.
After the author so roundly reproves Dame Yates for various errors, including her alleged narrowness in understanding Kabbalah, it is surprising to find that de León-Jones herself makes numerous mistakes when she talks about the Jewish Kabbalah. Over the course of four pages (12–15) for example, she errs with all the following. She says Yohanan Alemanno “was not a practitioner of Kabbalah but knew it well” (he was one of the great Renaissance Jewish kabbalists); that Pico learned Hebrew from Flavius Mithridates then translated and widely circulated Abulafian...