theory in augustine and the bahir

The status of theory in Jewish mysticism remains to be parsed out. While others have teased the proto theoretical attitude from other mystical texts, the relationship of the Kabbalah to the nascent scientific method remains to be seen. Without offering a comprehensive theory of Kabbalah and theory, we can search for certain Kabbalistic texts which especially resonate with texts commonly seen to open the door to modern scientific searching.

One prerequisite for the theoretical attitude is the rejection of the anti-cosmic attitude characteristic of Gnosticism. In his blistering attack on the category of Gnosticism, Michael Allen Williams provides a useful definition of anticosmism (notwithstanding that he finds the idea to be bullshit). Williams divides the anticosmic accusation into the rhetorical and the phenomenological. “It is not so much the mere fact that a given myth seems to say bad things about the physical cosmos that interests us” rather, “how do we imagine that such persons went about rejecting the world?”

The focus on human needs if not the inattention to rhetoric is common to Williams and Blumenberg. Dividing the Christian attitude toward the starry skies between its Stoic and Gnostic urquellen, Blumenberg characterizes the Gnostic heavens as “the scene of a deceitful spectacle.” Drawing on Spengler and Jonas, Blumenberg suggests that Gnostics form the very notion of space into a “demonized…cavity charged with forces” where the firmament is an “iron wall” preventing all human entreaties from ascending beyond. Contra Kant, the heavens mark the terminus ad quem of all human strivings, which must remain appearances and never truly mean anything as experiences.

If for Williams, world rejection seems like an implausible thing to go around doing, for Blumenberg the rhetoric reveals the opposite: the world has rejected us, no matter how hard we try to embrace it.

Looking at the heavens under such conditions would fill man with ever increasing despair rather than ever increasing awe. The short circuiting of the theoretical attitude that Gnosticism engenders stems from the world rejecting our observational overtures like a bad organ transplant.

While this is not the place to argue over Scholem’s ascription of a Gnostic origin to the Sefer HaBahir, the description of the contemplator of the heavens given in that early work of Kabbalah reveals a personality strikingly weighted down by the concerns of the inimicality of the cosmos.

Bahir 68 (not using ed. Abrams) begins with a description of the prayer of Habakkuk described in Habakkuk 3.

The students asked R Rehumai, what does it mean “the prayer of Habakkuk the prophet on the Shigionoth?” It should say the psalm of Habakkuk. Rather, anyone who frees his heart from the matters of the world and gazes on the works of the chariot, is accepted before the Holy Blessed one as if he had prayed the entire day.

Habakkuk gets repurposed here as a proto-Kabbalistic figure. He self-consciously rejects the world in favor of contemplating the chariot. For our purposes, it is less important to draw parallels between contemplating the chariot and nascent astronomy, although doubtless these exist to be revisited soon.

The Bahir in 71 continues its discussion of Habakkuk explicating the meaning of “Oh lord, when I heard of your renown, I feared” with a typical analogy of a king.

To what can this be compared, to a King who is very discreet and hidden who retreated to his house and commanded that no one should ask after him. Thus, the seeker is afraid lest the kind realize he has trespassed his law. Thus he said “I feared”

Much as the cosmos is inimical to the Gnostic astronomer’s gaze, God is inimical to the gaze of Habakkuk, who cannot accurately praise God, but is just praying for some apprehension of God “in these years” of a limited human lifespan.

One important difference between the Gnostic anti cosmic attitude and the Kabbalistic frustration of Habbakuk is that the latter’s inability to plumb the depths/reach the heights doesn’t result in the fencing off of those extreme precincts. For Blumenberg in the Legitimacy this occurs with Augustine, who turns away from Manicheanism but preserves its anticosmic fulminations as a defense against a previous jilted lover, philosophy.

Augustine’s God denies himself to those whose curiosa peritia wants to count the stars and the grains of sand and to calculate the extent of the heavens and the paths of the stars…Augustine pits philosophy against Gnosticism but does not turn the field over to the victor…The critical autonomy of philosophy is thus neutralized by a critique of philosophy itself…the lasting benefit of the confrontation of Gnostic cosmology with philosophical astronomy can be admitted.

In Augustine, curiosity is a sin. In the Bahir, it is something we can’t help but transgress.

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1 Response to theory in augustine and the bahir

  1. Did Nicolas of Cusa read the Bahir?

    Actually, I’d like to ask how it is you think Judaism insulates itself from the destabilizing (at least to Blumenberg) forces of curiosity and Gnosticism both. Is it because of the tight-knit Gemeinschaft?

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