Thursday, 30 March 2017

Tools of the Trade

Some extracts from Professor Moshe Idel’s “Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation.”

Chapter 1: Seciotn VI. Sefer Yetzirah and Linguistic Creational Processes

“...In the Bible and in the midrashic-talmudic literature the implicit assumption is that language was not created but used, that language is coexistent with God. The very question of the production of its elements or the processes of the interaction between them was not addressed at all. Therefore, the little treatise under consideration addresses questions of the origin and organization of language but, unlike the other corpora mentioned above, is less interested in the way ordinary language organizes reality…”

Sefer Yetzirah, being a book of linguistic magic, according to my understanding – attempts to adress where language comes from. This is a major topic of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s commentary on Chapter 1 of Sefer Yetzirah.

“Another cardinal topic that occurs only in this version of the linguistic creation is the description of the extraction of the letters of the alphabet from the second sefira, the pneuma, out of which God has carved the alphabet. After the completion of the emergence of the twenty-two letters, God combined them in all possible permutations of two letters as part of the cosmogonic processes. Given the impact of this book, let me succinctly address some of the maigcal-linguistic elements found therein. In the second chapter God is portrayed as creating Hebrew letters that served as the tools, and perhaps the prima matter, for the creation of the world: “Twenty-two letters, He engraved them and He extracted them and He weighed them and permutated them and combined them, and He created by them ‘the soul of all the formation,’ and the ‘soul of all the speech,’ which will be formed in the future...”

Here we see the importance of engraving, carving, weighing, permutating, etc. the letters. A there that recurs in each chapter and is emphasized in the first and last chapter. These verbs play an important role...

“...The recurrence of these verbs in the first and last chapters of the same book suggest that Abraham’s deeds are understood as a case of imitatio dei...”

That in my understanding is the rcux of how the linguistic magic of Sefer yetzirah works. It’s imitating the process of creation.

“...Thus, by imitating the divine acts, some of the including the operations related to language like permutation and combination of letters, man is able to create here in the lower sphere. In other words, Sefer Yetzirah offers a special kind of imitatio dei, not by means of an act of intellection, as in Jewish Neoaristotelianism, nor by performance of commandments, as in talmudic thought, nor by love or suffering, as in Christianity. It is by exploiting the creative power of language that the perfecti are able to imitate God...”

Please note I am very far removed from whatever a perfecti might be. 

Where does the power of linguistic magic come from? The power is in the language itself. When God said “let there be light” it was not said once, it was something that started (from our time perspective) and that saying has continued from that point onwards. In other words, the act of creation was not a one-off but is rather a continuous process. A process that we can imitate and use.

“...We should also mention in this context that a rather magical view of creation of the world by means of linguistic material – the various letters of the divine name – was also expressed in rabbinic literature. Thus, the magician using the divine names, or some of their letters, not only relies on the inherent powers of those letters but at the same time imitates divine creative acts. Yet unlike the more clear-cut medieval parallelisms between the lower and supernal language, in Sefer Yetzirah and the passage from Berakhot it seems that the same type of linguistic unit is used by both God and the perfect religious persons. The letters were indeed created by God, but they entered the constitution of the world, and the mystic is able to use them. Thus, when imitating God’s acts, the mystic is, according to these two texts, also resorting to His tools...”