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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Inner and Outer Meaning are Ultimately Identical

In great measure, as scholars have long noted, the kabbalistic approach to Scripture takes its cue from the analogy in the introduction to the Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides. Maimonides utilizes the image of the apples of gold covered in the lattice of silver (Prov. 25.11 ) to convey the idea that there are two levels of meaning in Torah, the external (zahir) and internal (batin). In Maimonides this approach is not applied to every verse of Scripture. Rather, it is limited to those where the literal meaning contradicts natural reason and it becomes necessary to interpret the text figuratively so that the potential conflict is resolved. To be sure, Maimonides uses an image that conveys a sense of an organic whole, an indissoluble bond between inner and outer: Just asthe golden apples encased in silver settings appear from a distance as silver but from up close as gold, the literal and the figurative must both be preserved even though one comes to discern that the literal meaning is but appearance cloaking a reality embedded within the text. This hermeneutic, therefore, is decidedly hierarchical, clearly privileging the internal over the external as the more appropriate articulation of truth. The external meaning is but a shell that covers and thereby shows the internal meaning.

Many kabbalist exegetes similarly begin by presuming Torah encompasses two layers of meaning, the exoteric and esoteric. In contrast to Maimonides, however, for kabbalists the entirety of Tanakh must be read in this way, not just words or verses that ostensibly conflict with the dictates of reason. In other words, all Scripture yields a twofold meaning irrespective of conformity with what is considered to be rational truth. In content there is clearly a distinction between what is called prophetic kabbalism and theosophic kabbalism. The secret (sod) for prophetic kabbalists is the inner life of God, believed to have been made known to the prophets, reached through the scriptural language contained in the letters of the name, which constitute the ideational forms of the Active Intellect, the repository of the intelligible forms that govern the sublunar world. For theosophic kabbalists the secret is the inner meaning of the text, in which each word has a literal and symbolic sense, the literal dealing with matters of the mundane realm, the “world of differentiation” (ʿolam ha‐perud), and the symbolic expressing the sefirotic realm, the “world of unity” (ʿolam ha‐yiḥud).

Although at times kabbalists do seem to be articulating a hierarchical view akin to that of Maimonides, privileging the figurative over the literal, in fact the mystical perspective is predicated on discerning that exoteric and esoteric, peshat and sod, are indistinguishable. In the philosophical esotericism espoused by Maimonides, the two must be set in binary opposition, for the inner truth might undermine the literal meaning; in kabbalism, there is overlap or convergence of the two and thus the hermeneutic path of kabbalah is more like a circular journey than a linear process, although at times linear language is inevitable. The influence of sequential language is no doubt indebted in part to the well‐known motif of the hierarchy of sciences in medieval scholasticism (shared alike by Muslims, Jews, and Christians): Logic and mathematics are preparatory disciplines at the base, followed by physics or the science of natural phenomena, and culminating with metaphysics, the science of ideal forms (in the Platonic view) or of being as such (in the Aristotelian view). In kabbalah which followed the Platonic tradition, in which the world of unity was perceived to be superior to the world of particularity, the esoteric meaning, corresponding to the world of unity, is privileged since it discloses the truth compared to the exoteric sense, dealing with the world of ephemeral appearance. In kabbalah influenced by the Aristotelian approach, God was the necessary Being and all else is contingent. Whether this influence was present or not, the kabbalists, even when they used linear language, portrayed the goal of the linear process as coming full circle; when one reaches the core at the end and returns thereby to the surface from the beginning, one realizes that where one ended up was where one had begun, and consequently one comes to see that the innermost secret was folded within the initial allusion, leading to the hermeneutical maxim that peshat is sod, the literal spiritual, the exoteric esoteric.

Naḥmanides (Ramban, 1194–1220; see “Medieval Jewish Interpretation,” pp. 1876–1900), the Spanish rabbinic leader, talmudic and halakhic scholar, biblical exegete, and kabbalist, states in the introduction to his commentary on the Torah that the Torah given to Moses had two aspects. The first was the written text (the rabbinic term is miqraʾ from the root q‐r‐ʾ, “to call out,” “to invoke,” “to read,” whence the word qeriʾah, “recitation”), which relates to the “way of our reading,” derekh qeriʾatenu, also described as the “division according to the ritualistic reading,” derekh ḥilluk qeriʾat ha‐mitzvah. The second was the oral text, which is not a reference to the standard rabbinic Oral Torah but an occult reading by “way of the names,” derekh ha‐shemot. There are thus two ways of reading Scripture anchored in the Sinaitic epiphany, the mystical way of shemot transmitted orally and the ritual way of torah and mitzvah inscripted in written form; the textual ground of both is the primordial Torah, which as Naḥmanides describes, citing an ancient tradition (kabbalah), was written in black fire on white fire. This aggadic image conveys the underlying unity of the literal and symbolic, a theme to which Naḥmanides returns on several occasions in his commentary when he discusses the kabbalistic intent marked by his signature al derekh ha‐ʾemet, “by way of truth.”

The kabbalist strategy of reading relies on the recognition that signifier discloses the nature of signified, and signified the nature of signifier, precisely because the two are, though different, identified with one another. Even Abraham Abulafia (13th century kabbalist of Spain)—who contrasts the Written Torah as a compendium of commandments with the Oral Torah as the names of God that are all contained in the Tetragrammaton, which is further identified as the Active Intellect—makes a point of emphasizing that the truth of both the revealed (nigleh) and concealed (nistar) dimensions of Torah must be upheld. Thus, Abulafia articulates the matter after attempting to affirm, in a blatantly acknowledged challenge to the Aristotelian law of contradiction (Sitrei Torah, MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, fol. 149b), the veracity of both the traditional account of creation and the philosophically sanctioned view of eternity, the former conveyed by the literal sense of Scripture and the latter by the allegorical: “With regard to the Torah its revealed aspects without doubt are completely true (ʾemet gamur) and its concealed aspects are absolutely true (ʾemet muḥlat), and both of them are one unified matter in truth” (ibid., fol. 150b). Reiterating the dual meaning of the text at the conclusion of this section, Abulafia writes that it would be a “complete heresy” (kefirah gemurah) if one were to deny the literal facticity of Torah on account of the figurative interpretation (the example he gives is the splitting of the Reed Sea). The assault on the law of contradiction maintains the paradox that both the exoteric and esoteric meanings are true even if they seem to be in conflict. In Abulafia's own words:

The truth is, as I have indicated to you in the secret previous to this, the secret of the creation of the world, that the Torah in its truth comprises two types of existence, and the two of them are equally good, and they are the revealed and the concealed, and both are true. And this you may understand from the matter of the existence of the body [and the soul] together, for they are two, the one created and the other eternal, the one revealed and the other concealed, and it is as if the one is the exemplar (mashal) and the other the exemplum (nimshal), but the two are found together (ibid., fol. 151a).

In other treatises, Abulafia employs different exegetical classifications. For example, in ʾIgeret Zoʾt li‐Yehudah and ʾOtsar ʿEden Ganuz, he distinguishes seven paths of interpretation (literal, halakhic, homiletical, and allegorical, letter‐permutation, restitution of letters to their primary matter, and prophecy or the way of the divine names), whereas in Mafteaḥ ha‐Η̣okhmot, he demarcates three levels of meaning (literal, allegorical, and prophetic, which correspond respectively to the righteous, pious, and prophets). As he states in ʾIgeret Zoʾt li‐Yehudah, in the final analysis, scriptural reading is not possible unless one minimally possesses both “knowledge of how to read” the written text, yediʿat ha‐mikhtav, that is, the “literal reading,” ha‐keriʾah ha‐ peshutah, and “knowledge of how to interpret,” yediʿat ha‐perush, “for this is like a matter of the dream itself, as a dream needs an interpretation, and any dream that is not interpretedis like a parable and an enigma that are written and not explicated” (Adolph Jellinek, Philosophie und Kabbala: Erstes Heft [Leipzig: Heinrich Hunger, 1854], p. 13 ). The meaningfulness of the text resides in the interstices between the literal and figurative, the document that is to be read and the reading that is to be interpreted. Tellingly, in the description of the seven paths, Abulafia resorts to the image of the sphere to describe the relationship of one path to another, beginning with the “sphere of the literal,” galgal ha‐ peshat, and culminating with the seventh path, which is compared to the “all‐encompassing sphere,” galgal ha‐makif (ibid., pp. 2–4). The use of the standard medieval image of the concentric heavenly spheres to describe the hermeneutical paths is meant to convey that the linear progression of the paths and the hierarchical stratification that they imply gives way in the end to the mystical insight that breaks the binary opposition between literal and figurative, exoteric and esoteric, revealed and hidden.

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