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

The Significance of the Single Letter

Kabbalistic interpretation sees every unit of the text as significant, including individual letters; this builds upon a method of inter‐ pretation of some of the classical Rabbis (see “Classical Rabbinic Interpretation,” pp. 1844–63). As an example, an explanation (attributed to R. Ḥiyya) is offered for why the first letter of Torah is bet, ·, the second letter of the alphabet, a query that appears in classical rabbinic literature: This letter signifies the dual Torah, oral and written, a doctrine that is also used in this context to explain the plural in “Let Us make Adam in Our image,” that is, Adam was created by means of the oral and written Torah, reflected in the mentioning of image and likeness in tandem with his creation, the former correlated with the masculine and the latter with the feminine. According to R. Isaac, the orthographic structure of bet as the letter that is opened on one side and closed on three sides, already attested in older mystical sources, is interpreted as a sign that Torah receives those who seek to be conjoined to her but she is closed from the other side in relation to those who close their eyes and turn away from her. It is at this point in the homily that, for our purposes, the critical passage appears:

R. Judah said: Bet has two sides and one that connects them. What do they come to teach? One for heaven, one for earth, and the holy One, blessed be He, connects and receives them. R. Eleazar said: These are the three holy, supernal lights bound as one, and they are the totality of Torah, and they open an opening to everything. They open an opening to faith and they are the abode of everything. Thus they are called bet for they make up the dwelling (beitaʾ). And thus the beginning of Torah is bet, for it is the Torah, the remedy for the world. Therefore, whoever is occupied with Torah it is as if he were occupied with the holy name…for Torah is entirely the one supernal holy name. And since it is the holy name, it begins with bet, for it is the totality of the holy name in three knots of faith. Come and see: all those occupied with Torah are conjoined to the holy One, blessed be He, and they are crowned in the crowns of Torah, and they are beloved above and below (Zohar 3:36a).

According to R. Judah, bet means heaven, earth, and God who unites them. The further, theosophic explication is offered in the name of R. Eleazar. The three lines of bet refer to three holy, supernal lights that are bound as one, and they are the totality of Torah (kelalaʾ deʾoraitaʾ).Insofar as the three potencies are the opening for faith, which may here denote the lower seven emanations, they are characterized as the abode (beitaʾ) of all that exists, and hence they are the three lines that make up beit, the letter that is the “totality of the holy name in three knots of faith” (kelalaʾ dishemaʾ kadishaʾ bitelat kishrei meheimanutaʾ). All of Torah is the name and thus its first letter must encompass the totality of the name; the three lines by which the letter is drawn are the knots of faith. The three knots of faith—faith is the fourth side that is the opening created by the three closed sides—may be the three letters, YHV, contained in the four‐letter name, YHVH. Alternatively, the knots of faith may allude symbolically to Η̣okhmah, Binah, and Tifʾeret, “Wisdom,” “Understanding,” and “Beauty,” three configurations of the divine that are imaginally depicted in some zoharic passages as father, mother, son and demarcated as YHV; the last letter of the name, the fourth party of the quaternity, the daughter, Malkhut (“Sovereignty”) or Shekhinah, is represented by the second he, the letter that has already appeared, a duplicate of the second.

The beginning of Torah, therefore, is the letter that marks the mystery of the threefold unity, the totality of the name, the secret abode of faith. The trinitarian resonance in the zoharic locution telat kishrei meheimanuta, “three knots of faith,” has been noted by Yehuda Liebes. Reinforcing this, the author of the homily has combined the motif of Torah as the incarnation of the divine name and the trinitarian symbol of the three knots of faith. In this matter, as with regard to a number of crucial themes, the kabbalists whose ideas and interpretations are preserved in zoharic literature reflect a complex relationship to Christianity, which was viewed as the major competitor in the arena of salvation history: This is an instance of the perennial struggle between synagogue and church, Jacob and Esau, with its concomitant attraction and repulsion. On one hand, zoharic kabbalists adopted a harsh stance and portrayed Christianity as an earthly manifestation of the demonic potency, the idolatrous religion that seduces Jews (men are especially vulnerable) both in the form of spiritual enticement (particularly in the guise of magic) and sexual temptation. On the other hand, these kabbalists were duly impressed with aspects of this faith, including trinitarian and incarnational symbols, as well as imagery derived from devotions to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and attempted to appropriate them as authentic esoteric tradition, perhaps even modeling the fraternity of Simeon ben Yoḥai and his comrades on the pattern of Jesus and his disciples. Medieval kabbalists sought to divest christological symbols of their Catholic garb and re‐dress them as the mystical truths of Judaism. The zoharic understanding of text as body, which provides the mechanism by which the body is understood as text, is a stunning illustration of this strategy.

One final zoharic text demonstrates the subtle and complex relationship that pertains between kabbalistic and christological symbolism:

“As for the tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth” (Exod. 26.1 ). Here is the mystery of unity, for the arrayment of the tabernacle was from several gradations, as it is written with respect to it “and the tabernacle was one” (ibid., 6). This is to illustrate that all the parts of the body are all the mystery of one body. In a man, there are several upper and lower parts, the ones interior and the others revealed on the outside, and all of them are called one body, and the man is called one composition. So here, all the parts of the tabernacle are in the pattern of what is above and when all of them are joined as one, then it is written “and the tabernacle was one.” The commandments of Torah are all parts and limbs in the mystery above, and when all of them are joined together, then all of them add up to one mystery. The mystery of the tabernacle, which consists of the parts and limbs, all compute to the mystery of Adam in themanner of the commandments of Torah, for the commandments of Torah are all of them the mystery of Adam, male and female. When they are joined together, they are one mystery of Adam (Zohar 2:162b).

In this homily, the images of the Tabernacle, the human body, the androgynous Adam (created “male and female,” Gen. 1.27 ), and the Torah are linked together like pearls in a necklace of symbolic equivalences. The thread that ties these images together is the linguistic conception of embodiment, that is, what the four compositions share in common is the assumption that they are constructed from the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In older rabbinic sources, one can find the notion that the Tabernacle, the earthly residence of the divine glory, which is depicted as a microcosm of the universe, was built by means of the letters (b. Ber. 55a). What the zoharic author has added is that the Tabernacle assumes the shape of an anthropos. The Tabernacle symbolically stands for the totality of the divine pleroma, a secret alluded to in the hyperliteral rendering of the verse that dictates the making of the Tabernacle from ten strips of cloth, which correspond to the ten emanations. The mystery of the Tabernacle's construction, therefore, imparts the wisdom that the multiplicity of divine powers cohere in a unified whole, that is, God's unity may be represented organically, as a composite of discrete elements the infinity of which denies the possibility of fixed enumeration.

The organic unity of the Tabernacle is illustrated further by comparing it to the human body. The anthropomorphic representation is illumined by a similar characterization of Torah, for the commandments are the limbs of the body of Torah, which is envisioned as the mystery of the androgynous Adam, the positive commandments being masculine aspects and the negative commandments feminine ones. The conjunction of the two facilitates the constitution of the mystery of the divine anthropos, which is envisioned both as the textualization of the Tabernacle and the materialization of Torah: Parallel processes in the hidden disclosure of the divine name. The secret of poetic incarnation imparted by masters of Jewish esoteric lore, beholding the luminous flesh from the word, may be seen as a counter‐myth to the Christian image of the word/light made flesh in the prologue to the Gospel of John, which played an inestimable role in fashioning the hermeneutical aesthetic of medieval Christendom. In the history of Christian devotion the incarnational theme also expressed itself in terms of textual embodiment, but the basis for this form of embodiment in Christianity is always the incarnation of the Word in the person of Jesus. As a consequence, medieval Christian piety has been informed by the exegetical supposition that incarnation of the word in the flesh had the effect of removing the veil of the letter, the literal meaning that kills the spirit, the carnal law that obstructs the true knowledge of the Last Things. By contrast, in the kabbalistic wisdom that materialized in the course of the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, incarnation of the flesh in the word preserved the veil of the letter. The only credible means to apprehend the inner meaning of the law was thought to be through its outer covering, to behold the mysteries of Torah underneath the garment, to see the image of God embodied iconically in the text that is the textual embodiment of the name. The ultimate secret of Scripture in the kabbalistic imagination embraces the paradox that the revealed word is the mirror whose visibility consists precisely in its invisibility, and, as such, the task of revisioning remains constant, as the invisible can never be seen once and for all. Since the task of scriptural reading is presented primarily as the eye‐centered image of lifting the veils to see the face hidden beneath, it can be said that this task is never complete, as the mandate to lift the veils does result in discarding all possible veils; indeed, there can be no “final” veil to lift as there is always another veil through which the nonmanifest will be made manifest. Therein lies the soteriological hope (the hope concerning salvation) fostered by the sotericapproach to Scripture advocated by kabbalists. The uncovering of secrets by their recovery, and their recovery by uncovering, infuses the act of reading with the redemptive mandate to see again and hear anew, interpretive gestures that have the potential to transform text and reader to the point that the latter may adopt the mantle of writer and study provides the quill, ink, and tableau for rewriting the text that is yet to be scripted through the hermeneutical glance.

[ELLIOT R. WOLFSON]

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