From the Middle Ages, Kabbalah is the generic term used to refer to a multiplicity of esoteric currents in Judaism that impart knowledge about God, the self, and the universe. Kabbalistic literature is not a monolithic phenomenon that can be delimited in a simplistic or straightforward manner. On the contrary, the works of Kabbalah comprise a multifaceted and complex set of phenomena that have evolved over an extensive period of time and in many geographical regions. It is commonplace to think of Kabbalah as interchangeable with Jewish mysticism, but in fact the mystical element (whether related to intense revelatory or unitive experiences of the divine) is only one component of the Kabbalistic lore. A more suitable term to characterize Kabbalah in its diversity is esotericism, which conveys the notion that there are inner, secretive traditions that cannot be conveyed except to select individuals. These traditions encompass both speculative and practical matters, theological beliefs and cultic rituals.
A recurring claim in Kabbalistic literature is that the mysteries have been transmitted orally through the generations from master to disciple in an uninterrupted chain. Nothing is more important for understanding the mentality of the Kabbalist than the correlation of esotericism and orality. According to one of the more popular chains of tradition found in a number of sources, the first link in the chain is Elijah, who revealed himself to a particular individual. The choice of Elijah as the one who revealed esoteric truths helped to guarantee the traditional and authoritative status of the content of the revelation, even while tacitly alluding to the fact that something novel had occurred in history. Whether the Kabbalistic traditions were legitimated by prophetic revelation or oral transmission, the presumption of Kabbalists is that these traditions are encoded in the Torah. The master of Kabbalah possesses the exegetical means to draw the mysteries out of the scriptural text. Indeed, a belief widely affirmed by Kabbalists (often expressed in the language used by Maimonides) is that the Torah has two complementary parts: the revealed or exoteric (nigleh) and the hidden or esoteric (nistar). What the Kabbalist discloses through his interpretive powers is the inner meaning of Torah that sheds light on the external meaning as well.
The possession of secret gnosis empowers the Kabbalist, for he alone has the keys to unlock the hidden treasures of the tradition. One must suppose that Kabbalistic circles functioned as autonomous fraternities, laying claim to a secretive knowledge that explained the essence of Judaism but that was not readily available to all Jews in an equal manner. The implicit elitism of Kabbalistic literature is reinforced by the claim repeated by many Kabbalistic authors regarding the inability of human reason to ascertain the esoteric truths. Even after Kabbalistic literature became a greater force in shaping popular religious culture, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is still fair to say that the more recondite doctrines and more intense spiritual practices remained the exclusive property of small circles of initiates. This is the case as well in the Hasidic communities that evolved in the Ukraine, Poland, and Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
There are no discernible historical links connecting the members of the sectarian Qumran community and the medieval Kabbalistic fraternities. Yet, there are interesting conceptual and sociological parallels that make a comparison of the two worthwhile. Both the sectarian community and the Kabbalistic fraternities were organized socially as an elitist, secret society. One major difference is, of course, that, unlike the Qumran community, the Kabbalistic fraternities were never geographically removed from the larger Jewish society. One must presume that in practical matters Kabbalists availed themselves of the religious institutions that served the rest of their extended communities. Nevertheless, the theological calling of both the Qumran community and the Kabbalistic circles is related to a shared sense of being the spiritual elite led by an enlightened leader (maskil, a term used in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in Kabbalistic literature due to the mutual influence of the Book of Daniel). It is also of interest to consider the role of the Kabbalist as the inspired interpreter of scripture and that of the Teacher of Righteousness. [See Teacher of Righteousness.] Just as the sectarian belief was that the Teacher of Righteousness revealed the secrets of scripture to the members of the community, the Kabbalistic literature imparts a similar task to the master of esoteric lore (although in a technical sense there is no genre of the pesharim in works of Kabbalah). More importantly, both the Teacher of Righteousness and the Kabbalist engage in pneumatic exegesis, and thus their interpretations have the status of prophecy. For both the Qumran sectarians and the medieval Kabbalists, authority of interpretation derives from its being divinely inspired. Closely connected to this belief is the hermeneutical assumption regarding the dual nature of scripture as yielding both exoteric and esoteric meaning, which is shared in one form or another by the sectarian community and the Kabbalists.
Another fruitful area of comparison is the strong interest in magic and the occult in both the Qumran community and the Kabbalists. In particular, the Qumran fragments and the Kabbalistic compositions indicate that the magical arts of physiognomy and chiromancy, as well as astrology, were cultivated and considered to be part of the esoteric tradition. [See Horoscopes; Magic and Magical Texts.] Moreover, it is clear that the Qumran sect had an extensive angelology and demonology that is developed in later Jewish magical texts. [See Angels; Demons.] The technical use of hymns and spells to adjure angels or to ward off demons found in the Dead Sea Scrolls bears a striking similarity to techniques elaborated in the practical Kabbalah. [See Psalms, Hymns, and Prayers.]
A final point worthy of comparison is the attitude toward evil and suffering. The Kabbalists did not embrace the idea of predestination and the doctrine of ethical dualism so central in the Qumran texts, but there is a very strong emphasis in Kabbalistic literature on the cosmic struggle between the forces of light and darkness. [See Dualism.] The Kabbalistic notion of the holy sefirot (luminous emanations) competing with the impure sefirot is in some measure reminiscent of the sectarian view regarding the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. [See War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness.] The discussions on evil in Kabbalistic texts are far more complex than the sectarian approach. Nevertheless, there is a similar psychological tendency found in both contexts, which serves as the basis for the assumption regarding the ontological tension between good and evil and the eschatological hope in the eventual overcoming of evil by good.
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Elliot R. Wolfson