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Competing Voices and Textual Traditions in Thirteenth Century Kabbalah

Mon, December 17, 3:00 to 4:30pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Harborview 1 Ballroom

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


In reference to the task of editing medieval sources of Jewish mysticism from manuscript, Gershom Scholem remarked that, “the kabbalistic literature appears to turn only its most forbidding face toward researchers.” An equally forbidding facet of kabbalah research is the related task of interpreting its often piecemeal literature. Much to the chagrin of colleagues and students seeking simple answers to questions about “what the kabbalah teaches,” researchers appreciate how the interpretation of this complex literature often requires that readers suspend a synthetic paradigm, in favor of an analytical approach—one which seeks to extricate and localize the multiple authorial voices and textual traditions of which the sources are woven. This AJS session will highlight new approaches to disentangling such voices and textual traditions in the service of understanding key themes—esotericism, emanationism, gender, and the representation of Christianity—which have long occupied scholarship on thirteenth century kabbalah. The goal of the session is to demonstrate how adopting a hermeneutics of disaggregation can yield new results for how we interpret perennial themes in Jewish mysticism.

Jonathan Dauber of Yeshiva University will present a paper entitled “Theoretical Approaches to Esoteric Writing in Nascent Kabbalah.” By examining the writings of the early kabbalists R. Asher ben David and R. Ezra ben Solomon, Dauber will demonstrate the importance of disentwining the multiple theoretical motivations which led these authors to employ techniques of secrecy within their writings. Another paper, by independent scholar Sandra Valabregue, explores the challenging prospect of extricating the amalgam of philosophical and mystical factors in the discourse of emanation developed by the early kabbalists of Provence and Catalonia. Her paper is called, “Abstraction and Representation in Medieval Neo-Platonist Philosophy and Kabbalah.” Jonatan Benarroch of UC Berkeley offers a third paper, which charts the historical development of a zoharic discussion of the Pascal sacrifice, and lays bare its relationship to contemporary Christian representations of Easter. It is called, "From the Abomination of the Egyptians to the Rite of the Christians”: The Metamorphosis of a Zoharic Homily." Lastly, a fourth paper delineates the competing voices addressing the problem of female mystical agency preserved within the kabbalistic "rationales of the commandments" literature composed in late 13th century Castile. In particular, it brings to light a heretofore unknown textual fragment which challenges longstanding assumptions about women and kabbalah. The paper, presented by Jeremy Phillip Brown of McGill University, is entitled, “Woman as Theurgical Agent: On the Gendered Distribution of Legal Subjectivity in Medieval Kabbalah.”

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