Standing on the Heads of Philosophers: Myth and Philosophy in Early Kabbalah

Dissertation, New York University (2004)

Jonathan Dauber
Yeshiva University
This study examines the role of myth in Kabbalah against the backdrop of a critical investigation of the often-repeated, supposedly sharp, dichotomy between Kabbalah and philosophy. Specifically, it considers the traditions and writings of the early Kabbalists of the twelfth and first half of the thirteenth centuries in Provence and Catalonia. These include the traditions attributed to R. Isaac the Blind as well as the writings of R. Asher b. David, R. Ezra, R. Azriel, and R. Jacob ben Sheshet. Prominent place is also given to Sefer ha-Bahir. The study's central contention is that through a seamless binding of mythic and philosophic themes, the early Kabbalists were able to use myth to advance a notion of God that did not seek to overthrow philosophic conceptions of divine unity and simplicity, but that was, rather, complicit with a fascinating attempt to preserve these conceptions. ;Chapter one demonstrates that the writings of the neoplatonic Jewish philosopher Abraham bar Hiyya, who influenced the early Kabbalists, provide a useful theoretical vantage point from which to locate the place of myth in early Kabbalah. ;In building and adding breadth to the view that Sefer ha-Bahir was edited by Kabbalists familiar with early Kabbalah, chapter two shows that a key aspect of this editing was the framing of earlier mythical passages with contemporary discussions, heavily imbued with neoplatonic thought, about the problematics of apprehending God. This act of framing, it is shown, was intended to circumscribe the explanatory force of the earlier mythic passages. ;Chapter three discusses early kabbalistic sources regarding proper intentions during the recitation of the shema prayer. These traditions are seen to include important ruminations about the place of mythic discourse in Kabbalah in relation to understandings of Divine unity. ;Chapter four, which focuses on the writings of Asher b. David, demonstrates that R. Asher employed mythic themes as a way of accounting for the problem of the emergence of the many from the one. ;Finally, the conclusion suggests that the interweaving of the mythic and the philosophic remains characteristic in later thirteenth-century Kabbalah
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