Imagining A Jew

Maimonides, Philosophy & Qaballa

Maimonides (1135-1204), whom we call Rambam after the abbreviation of Rabbi Moshe Ben-Maimon, causes as much controversy now as in his own day. Modern mystics tend to recognise Rambam as a mystic; academics are less certain. It’s hard for the modern academic mind to accept that philosophy embraces mysticism; Rambam’s theology is also uttery rationalist: how can a rationalist be a mystic? Let’s find out.


First among the Rishonim as the principal codifier and commentator, Rambam was prolific. He wrote the first systematic code of all Jewish law, Mishneh Torah; he produced one of the great philosophic statements of Judaism, The Guide to the Perplexed; he published a commentary on the entire Mishna and disagreed with the Gemara where he felt appropriate; he wrote medical textbooks, served as physician to the sultan of Egypt, and his hereditary line in Egypt was house of the Nagid, the official Jewish administrator of Moslem Egypt.

Rambam’s opinions carried great weight in the Orient, but in Europe he was controversial, and his works were banned in 13th century France. Rambam’s primary controversy? His rationalism – Torah’s supernaturalness is allegory, not allusion. This bothered many in his generation and it bothers many still.

Was Rambam a mystic? It remains a question. He was a mystic, I think, but he was foremost a rationalist and Aristotelian philosopher; these are not contradicions: mysticism is mythic a way to understand phenomena, philosophy is a scientific way to do the same. The medieval mystics were generally neo-Platonic philosophers if inclined to philosophy at all. Many were not so inclined, even if they were influenced by Plato’s notions of spheres; this theory remains at the heart of Qabbala even today.

What is Qabbala?

Qabbala originally meant all traditional law and lore other than Torah. It included the prophets and wisdom books of Jewish scripture. But Qabbala is not among the wellsprings of Torah. It is a particular spring that only few drank from and the Mishna prohibits Qabbala transmission: “do not teach Ma’aseh Bréshit, to more than two; nor Merkaba at all unless to one person who is wise, understanding and profound.”(Mishna Chagiga 2:1). The list is actually more extensive, and TB Chagiga 14a more extensive still, for it includes “that which we only whisper about.” Qabbala is called also merkava (chariot), a type of pun which at once defines nearness (qarov) and distance (rachov). Among adepts it may be called hokmah nistarah “hidden wisdom.”

The basic early texts are Midrash deRebbe Nehunya Ben-Ha’Kana (Ha’bahir) and Sefer Yetzira. Both are from the times of the Tannaim. The Yetzira is a very short book, just 1600 words in its longest version. The Bahir is longer, some 12,000 words. For perspective? A First Course in Jewish Tradition has about 23,000 words. The biblical book of Daniél (12:10) takes a dim view of widely transmitting mystical ideas: “We do not explain to rasha‘im; the wise will understand.” Rasha (“wicked”) is an inversion of a word that implies entering and exiting: sha’ar (“gate”).


According to Jubilees, which is not part of the Tenakh, many of our ancients were mystics These include Adam (Br 2, 8), Qénan (Br 5, 12), Yered (Br 5, 18), Noah (Br 5, 32), Avraham Avinu (Br 12, 26) and Betzalél (Sh 31, 2). Avraham Avinu, in Sefer Yetzira, has the wisdom of the alef-bét. Aqiva,who had his own ideas about the alef-bét, and other heroic tanna’im, are not mentioned. The past is mystical; the present, much less so.

Talmudic Teachers

Speculative traditions are known among the earliest Tannaim Let’s look at Chagiga 2:1 completely: “Do not teach Ma’aseh Bréshit, to more than two; nor Merkaba at all unless to one person who is wise, understanding and profound. All who envision four things would better contemplate why they have come into this word – What is above, what is below, who is before them, and who is after them.”

This esoteric statement teaches that students do not contemplate Heaven, Earth, the past or the future. It occurs in the Mishna tractate which discusses the chagiga (festival offering) in the Temple. Why? Because the holy days are cyclical: you want to see what was past will be future if good and what was past will not be future if bad.

R Yohanan, the first amora, refers to the mystical traditions of the creation in which Adam Harishon, as Adam Qadmon, is part of the mystical union with God (TB Avoda Zara 22b). Rav Yehuda taught in Rav’s name (Brakhot 55a) that Betzalél knew the mysticism of the alef-bét. R Yohanan taught: Haqadosh Barukh Hu gives wisdom only to those who already possess it and quotes Daniél (2, 11). When R Abbahu heard this in Israel he quoted the appropriate proof text from Humash (Sh 31, 6) because proof from Torah is best.

We’ll learn of the Mishna’s mystics in the next section.