The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Secrecy and Different Perceptions of Kabbalah in the Thirteenth Century

In this paper, I will examine how kabbalistic esotericism impacted the manner in which Samuel ben Mordekhai and Meir ben Simeon—two Talmudic scholars active in Southern France in the thirteenth century—evaluated the relationship between Kabbalah and Maimonidean philosophy. These figures were neither Kabbalists nor, in any strong sense, followers of Maimonides, and were, therefore, outside observers of this relationship. They did not view themselves as devotees of Kabbalah, and while both defended Maimonides in the Maimonidean controversy that raged in the early thirteenth century, they were not Maimonideans, if that designation implies a commitment to the details of Maimonides’ philosophy and to the Aristotelianism that underlies it. In fact, their commitment to Maimonideanism did not include much more than a belief in divine unity defined as simplicity. Yet, if in other ways these two figures were ideologically and culturally parallel, they differed in their evaluations of Kabbalah. As can be seen from his letter to Yekutiel ha-Kohen, Samuel argued for the identity of certain Maimonidean and kabbalistic beliefs. In contrast, Meir, as can be seen from his well-known critique of Kabbalah, implicitly sees them as standing in sharp opposition. Samuel’s letter has received scant scholarly attention, while Meir’s critique has been subjected to considerable scrutiny, including recent work by Tzahi Weiss. A fresh analysis of these documents reveals that the differing evaluations were the result of differing conceptualizations of kabbalah, which, in turn, are related to the type of kabbalistic views each figure had access to. Samuel had access only to what I will show were exoteric presentations of kabbalistic doctrine according to which the sefirot are identical to the intellects of medieval cosmology. In contrast, Meir has access to the more esoteric view that the sefirot must conjoin to form divine unity. As such, Samuel was unaware of the difference between kabbalistic and Maimonidean views of divine unity while Mair understood their strong conflict. These documents, accordingly, offer evidence of the way different levels of access to kabbalistic doctrine could shape perceptions of Kabbalah in the early stage of its literary history.