08/06/2010 03:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Two Models of Jewish Tradition: Vertical-Hierarchical and Horizontal Pluralist

Jewish tradition is characterized by the different ways in which it reads its sacred scriptures. In the hermeneutical traditions that emerge in Jewish history, two dominant strains may be identified.

The first strain, which my teacher Jose Faur has called the horizontal, is predicated upon an interpretative modality that stands in stark contrast to classical Western modes of reading.

At the pre-twilight stage of humanity, man had the faculty of speech and understanding. Those on top could dictate "the truth" to those below, and the way for "spiritual becoming." Communication, however, was not possible. Discourse of any kind, warrants a Cosmic Book, permitting a common situational reference, as well as a ketab [alphabetical] system by which to apprehend the code, together with a mikhtab [hermeneutical] system of interpretation. The Torah that Moses brought down to earth addresses post-twilight humanity. It not only pre-supposes the Cosmic Book, but also the ketab and mikhtab systems, accessible to all; in the absence of which, neither communication nor meaning is possible ... To an alphabetic public "writing" and "book" are instruments of communication and self-expression. For the non-alphabetic mind they are magical devices pertaining to the paranormal and mysterious.

According to Faur's analysis, the Jewish model of horizontality allows for an open dialogue of ideas based on what he has called "alphabetical Judaism." The neo-pagan model, preserved in the Platonic tradition, never completely eliminated from Jewish culture, reflects what he terms "analphabetical Judaism": a construct based upon a static hermeneutics which stem from the occult and mystical. Analphabetical Judaism promotes not only a hermetic value-system, but a verticality that privileges the interpreter at the expense of the religious community.

The second model is that of Kabbalistic mysticism. A fine example of the occult tradition in Judaism can be found in the work of Kabbalah scholar Moshe Idel. In his seminal 1988 book Kabbalah: New Perspectives, which has served to redefine the way the Jewish mystical tradition has been read, Idel presents us with a startling text from the martyred messianic pretender Solomon Molcho which provides an excellent opportunity to see the way in which Jewish occultism views the hermeneutical process:

Sometimes in these days I see the celestial academy of sages, and the books are open before them and they study the Torah and they discuss [issues concerning Torah], and they comment upon verses and statements of our sages, blessed be their memory, and from their discussions I hear and learn something. And since I did not learn [Hebrew], nor was accustomed to the holy language, and [!] I did not comprehend all their discussions. But from what I was taught there in the Holy Academy, I answer people who ask for interpretations of verses and statements, which are seen as difficult to understand to the sages of [our] generation. And whoever wishes may ask me whatever he wants, to comment on recondite verses and statements, [for] with the help of God, I was confident that I may answer everyone who asks me in a satisfactory manner, sublime things which are sufficient for any intelligent person, which are not [written] in books, [but in] which I was instructed from heaven. But I never learned science from the mouth of a mortal master or colleague. And whatever anyone will ask me, I am allowed to answer, regarding the twenty-four [books of the Jewish biblical canon], except the book of Daniel."

[Bracketed remarks are Idel's.]

In this extraordinary passage we see a Jewish formulation of the analphabetical modality in an occult key. The interpreter is technically illiterate and is enabled to read only by the magic of God's personal intervention. Reading here is a hermetic act devoid of any rationality. Science is not in the hands of human beings, but rests in mystical communiqués from heaven. Importantly, human beings are forced to come to the mystic interpreter in order to understand the text.

As Idel approvingly remarks, "We again perceive that human capabilities are insufficient to penetrate the secret meaning of the Torah; hence the paranormal states of consciousness -- here the descent of divine forces -- are of paramount importance in decoding these secrets."

This Biblical hermeneutics forms a vertical axis which places the reader at the mercy of an interpreter who has occult access to the "truth" which is now not dialogical/human, but pneumatic/paranormal.

Faur expertly comments on this phenomenon in the following manner:

The knowledge that the Hasid [mystical initiate] possesses and seeks to impart is heroic knowledge -- a knowledge that he uses like the legendary chevalier to combat evil and promote good. This knowledge flows from a cosmic truth, awarding its possessor the ability to manipulate and subdue demonical and paranormal forces. To advance this ideology, it was incumbent to re-make the past. Thus began a process designed to transfigure the past sages of Israel into heroes of quasi-divine dimensions. To facilitate kabalistic interpretations, the text of Scripture was tampered with and rabbinic works doctored. Glosses, interpolations, and textual changes were freely introduced into the works of celebrated authorities. Some works were abolished; others were taken out of circulation; while compositions of uncertain background were given superlative prominence.

Faur's analysis dovetails nicely with Idel's citation from Solomon Molcho. One of Idel's central premises in his scholarship is to barrage the reader with a plethora of citations designed to present a unified understanding of the occult-theurgical tradition as determinative in Jewish hermeneutics. In the case of Solomon Molcho, the historical context is left absent. We are not told who Molcho is. For that, I present a short description from Heinrich Graetz's History of the Jews:

Molcho was the victim of a phantasmagoria, a delusion, into which, at feud with reality, he allowed himself to fall. The rich gifts bestowed on him by nature -- a handsome person, glowing imagination, quick perception, ready enthusiasm -- which would have been steps on the ladder of fortune for any character less fantastical, only served to ruin him, because, swept into the vortex of the Kabbala, he fondly hoped to accomplish the work of redemption.

Part of vertical thinking is the suppression of rational thought that, in the case of Graetz, has turned into an ongoing battle over the place of Kabbalah in the Jewish tradition. From the time of Gershom Scholem and on through Moshe Idel and his school, Graetz's History has been marked as a prime example of the hostility of Jewish scholars to mysticism and the occult. But if we see the matter through the analysis provided by Faur, we will understand that the polemic is actually characterized by the two models of Jewish tradition that we are tracing: the vertical and the horizontal.

Kabbalah is predicated upon a form of Judaism that is authoritarian and not dialogical. This tradition valorizes the magical nature of reality and rejects the scientific and the humanistic. It seeks to appropriate Talmudic orthodoxy by setting out an occult process of hermeneutics that eliminates the possibility of an "alphabetical" analysis of Scripture.

Naturally, the mystical occultism of Kabbalah (in the following passage labeled as the "Rabbis of France") clashed with the horizontal-rational teaching of Moses Maimonides.

Faur explains this clash in the following manner:

Let us consider the following three points. First, the authority of the "Rabbis of France" may not be questioned, even in matters entailing the commission of heinous crimes. Second, it is a self-justifying pronouncement warranting no corroboration. It suffices for someone to utter: "Rabbis of France" or for an anonymous hand to write it on the margin of a text, to render their view inviolable, thus excluding nasty questions such as: who they are, what evidence is there that they actually issued such a verdict, where can it be found, when was it issued, and under which circumstance. Such inquiries, standard in rabbinic legal tradition, are to be put aside in deference to the "Rabbis of France." Third, they are inerrant. Although the Supreme Court of Israel is prone to error, the "Rabbis of France" are infallible and standard consideration must be put aside in deference to their rank.

It is Faur's contention that the Kabbalist rabbis, seen through the filter of the vertical model, transform the Talmudic tradition -- based on a pluralistic dialogue and formal legal strictures -- into an occult hermeticism creating a Judaism that is sealed off from critical reading and rational science. It is an authoritarian Judaism that places all power in the hands of the interpreter who is believed to have direct communication with God and thus may not be challenged.

The two models of Jewish tradition that we have presented reflect the clash between the Sephardic tradition of religious humanism and the Ashkenazi tradition of magical-occultism. Over the course of time, the magical-theurgical tradition was able to dominate Jewish life the world over, forcing the more strenuous and demanding rational model to become suppressed and marginalized. With the re-emergence of Jewish life in the state of Israel, we would have thought that the rational model would have been resurrected, and yet the occult process of the magical and the analphabetical has dominated Jewish tradition in our day. Kabbalistic tradition dominates Judaic scholarship as Ashkenazi hegemony remains the norm in socio-cultural terms -- both in Israel and the Western Diaspora.

The two models allow us to see Judaism in diametrically opposed ways: The vertical-authoritarian model reflects an atavistic, anti-modern approach that relies on superstition and magic to express Jewish values, while the horizontal-dialogical model encapsulates the wisdom of Talmudic-Maimonidean tradition in a form of critical inquiry which seeks to empower human beings to free themselves of the shackles of magical irrationality.