jewish new historicism: magid and lachter

From its inception, Chakira has devoted inordinate energy to the idea that paradigm shifts are overrated. Why not have actual insights rather than methodological coups de grace? Why conquer Iraq with shock and awe only to get ground down in a civil war? That kind of thing.

A striking example of a methodological pincer which surrounds nothing is called the New Historicism. While this trend has generally exhausted itself after a multidecade run, that means that on Jewish time is voguish and in fashion. Much like the dress shops in Crown Heights which need to Jewify last season’s clothes in time for them to be outdated, Jewish Studies contents itself with the market tested, shopworn terminology just as it veers off the precipice of cliché.

A spate of publications on cultural poetics, discourses and “the ways that the production of texts is part of a strategy for imagining and constructing identity within cultural contexts in which identity itself is always fluid and contested” have now come my way from all precints of the Jewish academy. In the field of Kabbalah, the shift was marked by From Metaphysics to Midrash which opens with an introduction called “Kabbala, New Historicism, and the Question of Boundaries.” There, Shaul Magid tells us that

The historical perspective of this book is “New Historicist” in orientation. I am reading Lurianic Kabbala as literature, suggesting that it both reflects and constructs historical narratives. The interpretations of biblical narratives in this literature can be viewed as windows to view communal dilemmas and struggles, and to regard its cosmology a reification of new social conditions. Moreover, this exegetical literature evaluates anew Judaism’s understanding of itself and the “other” that confronts it. Here I assume an exegetical construction whereby a text both reflects the reader and the imaginative desires of what the reader wants to be read into the text. Lurianic metaphysics, built from Scripture, also serves to reimagine Scripture in its own image in a way that addresses the dilemmas of its local culture and context.

So texts are complicated negotiations about the nature of identity and otherness. Luckily, otherness is subdivided into a few categories by Magid, just to make sure we cover all the others.

The five main instances of “otherness” explored in this book are: (1) sin, (2) conversion, (3) gender, (4) Gentile prophecy (that is, the status of Gentile religion as a prophetic tradition), and (5) incarnation, traversing the ostensibly opaque barrier separating the human and the divine. In each of these cases, Lurianic exegesis exhibits resonances of either Christianity or Islam without ever mentioning either religious tradition or culture. In constructing a new Judaism in light of the cultural and theological challenges in the presence of both “others,” Lurianic Kabbala absorbs and transforms the others into itself, refashioning them as a part of its dialectical and redemptive metaphysical worldview.

The great interpretative weakness of this schema is the equivocation of sin, conversion, gender, gentile religion and incarnation as types of “otherness.” What New Historicists seem to mean when they refer to complicated negotiations seems like splitting a tab in a restaurant. Look; it was a wild night and we ordered lots of drinks and no one really remembers the sixteenth century that well anyway. Let’s just call it even.

While Magid dealt with the 16th century, a new example of calling it even emerges in the 13th century as reflected in the imaginative desires of Hartley Lachter. According to his new article in JQR, the 13th century was an exciting time,

Castilian Kabbalah took shape during and immediately following the reign of Alfonso X, famous for supporting an intellectual renaissance in which Jews played an important role. This period in Castilian culture also witnessed an increasing interest in esoteric texts and ideas, forming a pastiche of Neoplatonic, Gnostic, Hermetic, and Pythagorean ideas and formulations.

Still, we need to proceed with “caution”

Kabbalists, of course, also took issue with a number of Hermetic and esoteric ideas, especially those regarding astrological determinism, and it would be a mistake to understand the relationship between Kabbalah and other esoteric discourses as a simple matter of influence or cultural borrowing. Instead, it is more useful to appreciate the increased interest in and production of esoteric literature in late thirteenth-century Spain as an indication of an opening created by a shift in the intellectual and cultural landscape in which revealed secret traditions from antiquity were attributed prestige and regarded as a reliable source of truth. By presenting their conception of Judaism in terms of the esoteric, kabbalists may have been seeking to tap into an existing modality within the broader culture whereby claims for legitimacy could be authorized.

So a lot of secret stuff happened in the 13th century. And Kabbalah is secret stuff too. And also, we have added some caveats like “it would be a mistake to understand the relationship between Kabbalah and other esoteric discourses as a simple matter of influence or cultural borrowing” which describe supposed old paradigms which are not actually susceptible to simple one sentence dismissal.

It is true that the Kabbalistic imaginary ontologizes the performance of mitzvot of the male Jew. Lachter tries to say that this is a response to the limited political agency of the Jews in real life.

Statements such as these…indicate a way of imaging Jews that placed them at the very center of the cosmic and divine drama. Through the rituals of prayer and practice of Jewish law, the Jew is able to bring unity to the Godhead and sustenance to the universe. In an ironic reversal of historical reality, Jews are depicted not as an embattled minority in an increasingly complex and tenuous social and political position but rather as the linchpins of being who sustain the cosmos through the practice of Jewish law and the contemplation of secretly transmitted mysteries. Joseph of Hamadan even makes the argument that God designated Ruth the Moabite as the progenitor of the messiah as a kind of bribe to the gentile nations, “so that they will not prevent them [the Jews] from taking individual gentiles and converting them and bringing them under the wings of the Shekhinah. By merit of this, the world is sustained.”In this striking image, based on an ontology in which all reality is connected to God through the medium of the Jewish self, the continued existence of the cosmos, and the apparent power of the gentiles, is attributed to their connection to the Jews, established covertly through occasional conversion. In the highly polemical context of medieval Castile, images such as these provide Jews with a mechanism for imagining a secret or esoteric triumph of Jewish power and authority within a context of limited political agency.

This one paragraph summarizes the argument of Lachter’s article, which seems to end prematurely without fleshing out his claims. Secrecy is a political negotiation of complex issues. One issue I have with this is that there is no secret triumph of Jewish power right now. Zoharic and 13th century Kabbalah are replete with the Shekhinah “lying in the dust” and trampled by the nations of the world. But she doesn’t cash out her claim on them until the end of days. It seems to me like deferment to the end of days means an infinite deferral of the political and a shirking off of political agency rather than a cryptological involvement in political life.

Lachter’s insistence on the conversion narrative seems to me to highlight an atypical aspect of 13th century Kabbalah. The issue of conversion was rightly highlighted by Magid because of the conversion anxiety of the 16th century. But just because conversion was a major issue then, doesn’t mean that there is an underground politics of identity centering on conversion in the 13th century. I would need to see more evidence of this specific context, which Lachter seems to conjure out of thin air, to believe it.

In any case, in its oscillation between the trivial (“Greater emphasis on the issue of context can thus help shed light on the question of why kabbalists writing in late thirteenth-century Castile produced these particular texts, and why those texts were so enthusiastically embraced.”) and the caveat (“ I would not argue that the historical and sociocultural contextualization of this phenomenon implies that the kabbalists were simply addressing current political anxieties, or that noting the possible strategies at play in kabbalistic discourse somehow “explains” the phenomenon in its entirety.”) Jewish New Historicism could inspire us to just split the bill five ways. It was a wild time and Alfonso, Hermes, Gnosis, Plotinus and Pythagoras might’ve gotten a bit out of hand. But thanks to New Historicism, it can all remain thankfully hazy.

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