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NiSAN: The Hermeneutics of R. Isaac of Acre, Part. 3

Professor Boaz Huss

Ben Gurion University,
Israel

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As I suggested, R. Isaac of Acre's interpretative system is a form of mystical hermeneutics  - i.e., the NiSAN method is designed not only to elucidate the interpreted text, but also to approach and experience the divine realm, through the interpretative activity. Before turning to examine this aspect of NiSAN (in my next communication), I would like to discuss in a few words the notion of mystical hermeneutics.  In recent years, several scholars of Kabbalah, especially Moshe Idel and Eliot Wolfson, noted the connection between exegesis and mystical experiences in Kabbalah. Idel discussed this phenomenon in Kabbalah, New Perspectives (pp. 234-249) where he noted that: "Mystical interpretation of a text was thus a function not only of its symbolic or esoteric nature but also of the spiritual state of their reader or exegete himself". (p.234). Elliot Wolfson discussed this phenomenon in "Through the Speculum that Shines" (pp. 326-392) where he noted that: "kabbalistic exegesis, therefore, is a form of revelatory experience, for the study of the Torah not only generates a visionary experience but itself constitutes such a vision" (p. 376).  Forms of mystical exegesis are very common in Kabbalah, but they appear also in Biblical and Talmudic Judaism (see in Wolfson's Speculum, as well as M. Fishbane's discussion in The Garments of Torah. P. 68).  Without doubt this form of hermeneutics appears in other cultures as well.

There are two major forms of mystical hermeneutics that should be distinguished. :

The first is the use of mystical experience in order to understand a sacred text. The notion that underlies such forms of hermeneutics is that because of the sanctity of the text and its close link to (or even identity with) the divine realm, ordinary human understanding can not comprehend it. Only by transcending normal cognition, through some sort of divine intervention and mystical experience, the text can be fully understood. An example for this kind of mystical hermeneutics is the Zohar hermeneutics of the Ari, who achieved his outstanding understanding of the Zoharwith supernatural aid. It should be noted that similar forms of Zohar interpretation were very common in Sabbatianism

The second form of mystical hermeneutics does not use a mystical experience in order to understand the sacred text, but rather uses the interpretation of the text as a mystical vehicle - i.e. the exegesis of the text is a mystical technique. The notion that underlies this form of mystical exegesis is that the divine nature of the text enables the interpreter to experience the divine, through the study of the sacred text.  Several methods of kabbalistic mystical hermeneutics of the second form evolved during the second half of the thirteenth century. Abraham Abulafia's construed a sevenfold mystical method of interpretation (studied thoroughly by Idel).  According to Abulafia the interpreter who achieves the highest level of exegesis becomes a prophet. Zoharic literature offers mystical as well as theurgical perceptions of Torah exegesis, the best example of which is the famous parable of the beautiful maiden. According to this parable the Torah is depicted as a beautiful, teasing maiden, and the kabbalistic exegete is depicted as her lover who unites with her and penetrates her inner levels of meaning. According to Idel, the PaRDeS hermeneutic system is also a form of mystical hermeneutics:

"The PaRDeS system involved a certain version of scala mentis ad deum; gradually immersing himself in the various aspects of the text, the kabbalist was, at the same time fathoming the depths of reality: the Bible became a tool for metaphysical exploration ... exploring the text, the kabbalist entered another, higher spiritual domain." (Idel, "PaRDeS: Some Reflections on Kabbalistic Hermeneutics,"
in eds., J.J Collins and M. Fishbane, Death, Ecstasy, and other Worldly Journeys (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995) p. 255.
As I hope to show in my next communication, R. Isaac of Acre's NiSAN method, that evolved in the same period, is another, highly interesting, form of  mystical hermeneutics.



posted on Donmeh forum
Mon, 19 Jul 1999

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