- Concealment and Revelation: Esotericism in Jewish Thought and Its Philosophical Implications
By tracing the construct of esotericism from the Rabbinic to the medieval period Moshe Halbertal offers an important and illuminating contribution to understanding the course of Jewish intellectual history. He is a professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at Hebrew University and originally published this study in Hebrew in 2001. It follows his monograph on the late thirteenth-century Provencal talmudist and Maimonidean, R. Menahem ha-Meiri. One of the admirable features of Halbertal's current presentation is its scope. He offers substantial selections from significant primary sources, many of which have hitherto not appeared in English. For this reason alone the book is worthwhile for the general readership. It is also greatly enhanced by the accompanying insightful analysis. With equal facility Halbertal edifyingly discusses an impressive panoply of Jewish mystics, philosophers, and exegetes.
Concealment consists of 168 pages of text followed by 21 pages of informative endnotes and is divided into 17 compact chapters and an introduction. With the exception of the last and longest one, each chapter is approximately 10 pages in length. Accordingly, one can easily traverse every section in a relatively [End Page 168] short time. In the "Introduction" Halbertal lays out the pervasive nature of esotericism in society: "Esotericism . . . is a tendency to view canonical texts, social phenomena, or even individual behavior as a form of coded manifestation that intentionally conceals something deeper and more meaningful that only the few can decipher" (p. 1).
As one would anticipate, throughout the book Halbertal is in dialogue with Leo Strauss and his pioneering work, Persecution and the Art of Writing, originally published in 1952. "At the root of the elitist political esoteric outlook, as Leo Strauss developed it, is the idea that social order will collapse under complete conditions of transparency" (p. 3). Ultimately, however, Halbertal's primary criticism of Strauss is that he is too myopic, in that for Strauss the primary motif for esotericism in Maimonides and his fellow travelers is self-defense. "The philosopher protects himself and the society by going underground" (p. 137). According to Halbertal, this overarching explanation is too limited to adequately explain Jewish esotericism in its fullness, which is a much more expansive and complex phenomenon than addressed by Strauss.
In Chapter One, "The Paradox of Esotericism," Halbertal opens with the foundational mishnah from Hagigah 2:1 concerning restrictions on public discussions of both cosmogony and the Divine realm. As the book unfolds it is intriguing to discover that successive luminaries including Abraham ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Abba Mari each highlighted this key text, but interpreted it differently. Initially Halbertal presents two distinct perspectives on esotericism in rabbinic texts. One approach posits the notion that "[t]he secret of God's essence is encrypted in the Holy Scriptures, and the knowledge of these secrets grants man possession of magical powers" (p. 9). A second tack was promoted by R. Akiva, whereby "nonconventional exegetical criteria must be applied to the sacred scriptures, since the text possesses absolute semantic fullness" (p. 10).
Halbertal concludes the first chapter by introducing a seminal theme that is one of his major contributions to the topic, namely what he characterizes as "the esoteric paradox" (p. 12). He convincingly demonstrates that although the purported intent of the esoteric enterprise is to restrict the content of the special realm of knowledge to an inner circle of cognoscenti, it is fundamentally uncontrollable. Anyone can assert that a particular teaching constitutes an authentic esoteric doctrine of the religious tradition. If challenged, the proponent can simply claim that the reason that it isn't commonly accepted is precisely that it has been hidden. Esotericism can even be used to promote doctrinal subversion and heresy. "We should be reminded that, because of the preferential status of the esoteric, heretical positions acquire a status as the inner core of religion and even as the loftiest pinnacle of religious life" (p. 45). [End Page 169]
Chapters Two through Fifteen trace discussions...