Thursday, August 14, 2008

Judah Messer Leon on Kabbalah

The fifteenth century Italian scholar, Judah Messer Leon, in his Epistle to the Jews of Florence had this to say about the use of intermediaries in prayer and Kabbalah:

It is clear from the articles of Faith that anyone addressing his prayers to an intermediary between himself and the Creator is behaving in a false and evil manner. Shun, then, the tents of the Kabbalists, buried beneath the evil they do themselves by multiplying their invented attributes of God [a clear allusion to the Sefiroth], not hesitating in their ravings to attribute materiality, change, and multiplicity to the Creator, blessed may He be. They grope forward through the darkness of their misunderstanding of the purposes of the founders of their Doctrine, which, as far as I can see, is definitely in partial accord with the doctrine of the Platonists, a doctrine not of course without its sweetness. (Robert Bonfil, Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy pg. 182-83.)

For Messer Leon, the prohibition against praying to intermediaries is not something simply to denounce pagans or even the Catholic veneration of saints. It also applies to practices that are generally viewed as being within the boundaries of traditional Judaism. If one is going to accept Messer Leon then all Kabbalists that operate within the framework of Sefirot along with a hefty percentage of other traditional Jews are heretics. I have no problem with this, this would remove certain problematic elements from any sort of contention as Jewish authority figures. How many Haredim today would pass Messer Leon’s standard for being a believing Jew?

Unlike Kabbalists, Messer Leon had a certain affection for Platonism. It would seem then that it would be better for a believing Jew to spend his time becoming a classicist and studying the work of thinkers like Plotinus than to learn in a Haredi yeshiva where one will certainly be exposed to heretics who parade themselves around in beards and black hats and call themselves religious Jews. While one will likely also be exposed to heresy while studying classics, since it is in Greek and Latin and written by gentiles, it is not nearly as dangerous. One is not likely to confuse Greco-Roman philosophy with Judaism.

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