- The Speech of Being, the Voice of God: Phonetic Mysticism in the Kabbalah of Asher ben David and His Contemporaries
Eitan P. Fishbane, Provençal Kabbalah, R. Asher ben David, sefirot, Sefer ha-yihud, French Jews, France
These words only came into the world after difficult birth-pangs . . . They flashed suddenly like lightning, and with a single flight they illumined an entire world.Haim Nahman Bialik1
The Place of R. Asher in the early Kabbalah
The literary emergence of Provençal Kabbalah was bound up in the transformation from extreme esotericism, with an emphasis on orality in the transmission of theological secrets, to a more exoteric and systematic written exposition of kabbalistic symbology.2 Integral to this transition [End Page 485] was R. Asher ben David, grandson of the Rabad of Posquières3 and nephew of R. Isaac the Blind, the first Provençal kabbalist who sought to explain and clarify the theosophical doctrine of the sefirot in an unhindered and uncryptic manner.4 While his uncle and master R. Isaac was opposed to public discussion and exposition of the mystical doctrines, R. Asher devoted himself fully to the exotericization of kabbalistic teachings through the composition of his magnum opus, Sefer ha-yiḥud. This book constitutes a major break in the literary history of the early Kabbalah, serving as a virtual primer of sefirotic symbolism blended with more traditional modes of ethical teaching and discourse.5 The project of writing Sefer ha-yiḥud opened the hermetically concealed symbolism of prior generations of kabbalists and inaugurated an entirely new form of kabbalistic discourse in southwestern France. When compared to other early Provençal sources, such as R. Isaac the Blind’s Commentary to Sefer yets-irah, R. Asher’s work appears to be a model of clarity and systematic thought. While R. Isaac’s Commentary is extremely dense, laconic, and obscure, Sefer ha-yiḥud provides complete definitions of the emerging kabbalistic symbols.
This transformation from secrecy to public exposition seems to have been stimulated by external forces as well. We know from the sources collected by Gershom Scholem that students of R. Isaac the Blind in the Spanish towns of Gerona and Burgos had already been far freer in their exposition of kabbalistic rhetoric and had consequently caused much confusion among uninitiated audiences in those locales. It was apparently the [End Page 486] exposition by these disciples of R. Isaac’s teaching that engendered R. Meir b. Simon of Narbonne’s vehement response preserved in the exchange of letters published by Scholem.6 It is evident from the sources that R. Isaac was greatly displeased with the degree of exotericization practiced by his students in Gerona, and he seems to have first asked R. Asher ben David to serve as his diplomatic envoy to the Spanish kabbalists. The Geronese scholars had requested that R. Isaac himself make the journey, in order to clarify ambiguous matters of doctrine and heal the ideological rifts, but this proved to be impossible. Instead, R. Isaac appears to have selected R. Asher as his spokesman in Spain. As R. Isaac wrote to Gerona:
I cannot perceive any decree of heaven according to which I would now have to leave my place of residence and come to you. But when R. Asher, the son of my esteemed brother, the learned R. David, may his memory be blessed, comes to you, follow every counsel that he gives you, for I will let you know my will through him. He also knows my position and he saw throughout my life how I conducted myself with regard to my companions.7
This passage from R. Isaac’s letter to Gerona reveals the extent to which R. Asher enjoyed a privileged and prominent place in the kabbalistic school of his uncle and master. R. Isaac testifies here that R. Asher was an intimate witness to the inner workings of R. Isaac’s circle of mystics, and that he was privy to discussions and events that were presumably not shared with the mystics outside of the family of the Rabad of Posquières. The implication of the passage quoted above is that...