Sunday 17 December 2023

456) The power (and strategy) of maintaining secret religious knowledge



Over and above the traditional, theological and Halachic considerations of Judaism, one cannot help but notice an apparent increase in the use of the word ‘power’ that gets appendaged to almost every contemporary religious discourse. If a certain day falls close to Shabbat, for example, there is an extra power to that day. Tzedaka is no longer a mitzva or chiyuv or an important social responsibility, but a means of attaining power. This strategy is often employed by fundraisers. Local Challa Bakes and Amen Parties become powerful antidotes capable of negating crises on an international, universal and cosmic scale. Powerful days, events, times and prayers have taken the place of holy, Halachic and auspicious times and practices. 

Sometimes one wonders whether natural human frailties and vulnerabilities have perhaps been seized upon, if not exploited, by those who hold the hegemony, to demonstrate that they are still in control of a world that’s gone out of control. 

And yet, more and more attention seems to be placed on the popular and theurgic use and acceptance of these ‘powerful’ devices. 

This article based extensively on the research by Professor Hartley Lachter[1] goes back eight centuries to examine how the Kabbalistic notion of popular power may also have been used in thirteenth-century Spain, to empower Jews who were disempowered and were facing vulnerabilities during challenging times.

“[T]he public appearance of religious propositions”

The study of religion becomes very interesting when a relatively stable and timeless system of theories, rules and rituals suddenly gets disrupted, and the leadership begins to emphasise certain aspects of the tradition over others. 

Professor Kocku von Stuckrad, who studies the history of philosophy and religion, makes a poignant observation: 

“The only thing religious studies should be interested in is analyzing the public appearance of religious propositions.”[2] 

This is exactly what happened in thirteenth-century Spain when the Zohar was suddenly and abruptly published around 1290 and the Tikkunei Zohar, ten years later, around 1300. What prompted the sudden appearance of a whole new genre of Jewish mystical literature? Lachter writes: 

“If a particular kind of discourse emerges abruptly at a specific time and place, it is reasonable to regard this as evidence that such discourse is serving an important strategic purpose for those involved in its production and dissemination” (Lachter 2011:503). 

Religious ideologies, particularly fundamental ones, do not generally emerge in a vacuum or manifest and appear by accident. Instead, these ideologies are carefully crafted to match the circumstances of the times and the target audience. They are also designed to maintain the authority of the perpetuators of the emergent ideologies: 

“[W]hile the production of texts is always, in a sense, informed by its context, such literary activity is also part of an endeavor to project a context in which the proposed worldview is both viable and authoritative” (Lachter 2011:504). 

The intense proliferation of Kabbalistic texts

What happened during the thirteenth century with the emergence of the Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts, was not just a random event of a few texts suddenly emerging after being lost to history for a thousand years (if one takes the view that the second-century Tanna, R. Shimon bar Yochai, authored the Zohar). Instead, voluminous Kabbalistic works and texts were produced on an industrial scale. Besides the lengthy Zohar: 

“the works of Moses de Leon, Joseph Gikatilla, Joseph ben Shalom Ashkenazi, David ben Yehudah he-Hasid, Joseph of Hamadan, Todros Abulafia, Bahya ben Asher, Isaac ibn Sahula, and others were composed and circulated during this period” (Lachter 2011:504). 

These Kabbalistic works were often presented in treatises containing numerous volumes with hundreds of folios per set. This proliferation of Kabbalistic texts does not appear to have been by coincidence. In hindsight, a veritable “kabbalistic revolution” occurred, and mysticism went on to profoundly influence the path of future Judaism. 

The strategy

The tenor of this large corpus of mystical literature was not presented as an alternative,  inspiring and enhancing spiritual pursuit. Instead, it was conceptualised as the essence and core of Judaism itself. Moreover, Kabbalah held the deepest secrets and it taught the spirit of a true Judaism that was simply no longer accessible through any of the previous works of rabbinic literature, including the Talmud. 

The vigorous production of new mystical literature, it can be argued, was no accident of history. It was the result of a skilfully engineered spiritual strategy to counter the approach of Jewish philosophical and rationalist thinkers like Maimonides, who had passed away decades earlier in 1204. 

“To the rationalists who claimed that the mandates of Jewish law and anthropomorphisms of Jewish texts were absurdities that must be allegorized if they were to be tolerated at all, the kabbalists responded that secret tradition stemming from revelation, not rational speculation, provides the most exalted form of truth” (Lachter 2011:506). 

The thirteenth-century Kabbalists asserted that: 

“the content of their teaching is inaccessible to rational speculation, and that through a reliable—and secret—chain of exclusively Jewish transmission, their texts contain matters revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai, or transmitted by Elijah the prophet, or even spoken from the mouth of God” (Lachter 2011:505-6). 

It must also be remembered that Castilian (Spanish) Kabbalah developed immediately after the reign of Alfonso X, who was well-known for “supporting an intellectual renaissance in which Jews played an important role” (Lachter 2011:507). 

Having thus emerged from a period where it appeared that rationalism was becoming a dominant trend in Judaism: 

“it is perhaps unsurprising that kabbalistic texts deliberately align themselves with esoteric tenets such as ‘‘as above, so below,’’ or the doctrine of the human as microcosm, the theurgic efficacy of human actions, and the general preference for revealed, as opposed to rationally derived, forms of knowledge” (Lachter 2011:507). 

This way, Kabbalah was able to provide a strong counter-narrative and alternative to the threat of Maimonidean rationalism. 

However, besides the rationalists, there was another group that the Kabbalists were opposed to. This was the community of Christian Friars. These Friars claimed that the Jews had misunderstood the biblical texts which, they contended, pointed to Christological conclusions. To these Friars, the Kabbalists could respond (probably better than the non-mystical rabbis) that Kabbalah provided the correct formulation and interpretation of biblical texts. 

Kabbalah was extremely successful in its strategy even though erudite rabbinic readers immediately noted that while there was some limited similarity to previous rabbinic motifs, many new kabbalistic ideas could not “be found in sources commonly regarded as authoritative in traditional Jewish circles” (Lachter 2011:505). If this was the case, then how did this new mysticism become so acceptable and widespread? 

How did Kabbalah gain momentum so quickly?

Besides the strategy to counter Maimonidean rationalism, there must have been something far more pervasive about the context of late thirteenth-century Spain that allowed such a successful mystical revolution to hold so much sway over the psyche of so many people. 

Lachter reminds us that an important component of Kabbalah, and something that went hand-in-hand with its mysticism, was secrecy. These were secret teachings! Secret teachings have more allure than sacred teachings. In addition to this elitist appeal of being privy to secret teachings, there was a certain political component as well: 

“Any assertion of secrecy is inherently political. Laying claim to restricted knowledge is a gesture of power and superiority over those who are excluded from such knowledge and its method of transmission” (Lachter 2011:505). 

Only certain people hold the keys to this secret knowledge. Because of this, these people become powerful, authoritative and influential. Ramban (Nachmanides 1194-1270) writes in the Introduction to his Torah Commentary that while all knowledge is indeed contained in the Torah, however, only certain leaders who have special knowledge can access this wisdom locked in the Torah texts. This special knowledge is held only by those proficient in Kabbalah.[3] 

R. David ben Yehuda heChassid writes that only a few have access to the ultimate truth:

“[T]he Holy One, blessed be he, revealed secrets to them that have not been revealed to any other people.”[4] 

In 1274, R. Yosef Gikatilla similarly wrote in his Ginat Egoz that only through mysticism are the secrets of true knowledge revealed.[5] Those who know these exclusive and alluring secrets are part of a clandestine mystical chain and they become influential and extremely powerful leaders. The true depths of knowledge: 

“cannot be obtained through the exercise of reason alone, or through knowledge of the literal language of the biblical text. Only those who occupy a privileged place in the Jewish chain of secret transmission can count themselves among the fortunate few who have access to ultimate truth” (Lachter 2011:506). 

The Kabbalists’ trump card

There was one feature, perhaps more than any other, that allowed Kabbalah to become the dominant trend for future Judaism. The Jews of Spain were living “within a context of limited political agency” (Lachter 2011:509). They would not have felt equal to the majority of the population. 

Kabbalah offered an alternative self-perception for the Jews. Kabbalah placed the Jew in the centre of the cosmos. Furthermore, the Jew was responsible for maintaining the very existence of cosmic order even while living, in reality, within a larger and increasingly repressive non-Jewish society: 

“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” (Lachter 2011:509). 

While the Jews were to be expelled from Spain in 1492, the tide was turning against them already a century earlier, culminating in the massacres of 1391. This indicates that around the time of the intense proliferation of Kabbalistic literature and ideology, the negative surrounding cultural climate was already beginning to close in on them.


The overall strategy is brilliant. It allows for a win-win situation. Through the sudden proliferation of multiple Kabbalistic texts in the thirteenth century, the Kabbalists could wrest the power of rabbinic authority from the threatening advances of the Maimonidean rationalists, and also keep the Christian Friars at bay. By owning the secrets, the mystical rabbis could maintain and perpetuate their hegemony and control, while limiting the authority of the Christians and the Jewish philosophers and rationalists.  At the same time, they offered and ascribed cosmic significance to the simple everyday activities of their followers who would never challenge their teachers who are the ultimate keepers of the secrets. Thus the mystics dispense the spiritual power to all the people while retaining their own political and authoritative rabbinical power. 

Lachter, however, is quick to point out that these explanations do not necessarily include all the factors that were at play. History is a complicated process. Understanding context is important but he cautions us not to over-contextualise; or in the words of Elliot Woolfson, not to fall prey to the “essentialization of context.” Political, theological and historical context is important but reality has many hidden components. 

Certainly, Kabbalah was not entirely an innovation as it also drew from various traditional sources however, what Lachter does say, is that the strategy of offering the people unprecedented cosmic power through simple observances probably does explain how Kabbalah managed to become so dominant so quickly. The allure of being part of the transmission of secret knowledge, coupled with the Kabbalist’s promise of cosmic power in one's everyday activities, was likely to gain more traction among the populace than a Maimonidean rationalist’s sober and less exciting theory suggesting the negation of practical supernaturalism. 

[1] Lachter, H., 2011, The Politics of Secrets: Thirteenth-Century Kabbalah in Context, The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 101, no. 4, 502-510.

[2] von Stuckrad, K., 2003, ‘Discursive Study of Religion: From States of the Mind to Communication and Action’, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 15, 268.

[3] See Perush al ha-Torah le-Rabenu Moshe ben Nahman, ed. H. Shavel (Jerusalem, 1984), 4.

[4] See David be Yehudah he-Hasid, The Book of Mirrors: Sefer Mar’ot ha-Zove’ot, ed. D. C. Matt (Hebrew; Chico, Calif., 1982), 193.

[5] See Ginat Egoz (Jerusalem, 1989), 340–41.

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