On the Variety of Religious Geniuses in Judaism

 Moshe Idel

  1. Introduction

Someone must be a genius in order to define what a genius is. This is the reason why I am reluctant to define but survey some peaks related to paradigmatic shifts in Judaism.  Let me start with a distinction that will channel the entire discussion in a rather specific direction. A genius is indubitably a person that is gifted with some exceptional qualities, and this is true for a religious genius as for any other genius. Those spiritual qualities are important for his/her success in formulating or articulating a certain sort of messages, just as any writer, poet or artist is. In this context, the imponderable term charisma should be mentioned, though it is very difficult to analyze the components that constitute a charismatic personality. Skeptical as I am insofar as the sustained resort of scholars to too broad categories, including religious genius, as we shall see below, I shall try to contextualize the success of the different uses of the inner qualities of religious individuals, on the social grounds. This contextualization  means that there is, in my modest opinion, a general model for genius, religious or not, but only specific examples, and the extrapolation from the individuals as to the existence of a general paradigm, which is embodied differently in the particular cases, is conceptually speaking, problematic. An abstract model that brings together features of exceptional religious personalities from different religions, from periods of time, active in different languages, is prone include features that played different functions in diverging systems, creating the illusion that the same practice has the same meaning. Or, to put it in other words: I prefer a much less Platonic approach than an Aristotelian one. Instead of helping in building a prototype, I shall strive to identify what were some of the different types that emerged in the history of Judaism. If someone will be able to integrate the details of the different types of genius in a more general scheme that will do justice to the details of the main types, is a matter of the future, which depends on the preliminary detailed scrutiny of what is found in the field. Though I have nothing against efforts to build prototypes, and I hope that the following considerations will help such a project, let me adduce a single example that shows how precarious such an enterprise may be.  Humility seems to be a widespread feature of religious geniuses. Indeed, in Judaism one can find praises of humility in many cases, especially when related to the biblical Moses, described as modest or humble in the Biblical accounts. In principle, he was assumed to be imitated by other religious figures in Judaism or Christianity. However, even when a certain figure emulated humility, we may find also rather obvious megalomanic tendencies, understood as such within the parameters of what is understood in their contemporary society, and my assumption this is not an exceptional situation, as we can find it in Maimonides, in Abraham Abulafia or the founder of Hasidism R. Israel Ba‘al Shem Tov. This is the reason why dealing with isolated values alone may be misleading since it depends on other values with which one of them may be conjugated, and those various conjugations differ from one religion to another, just as from one school in a certain religion from another.

Important as those personal gifts are I am concerned here not with the spiritual or intellectual dimensions of the personality, and not so much with the specifics of the messages, but rather with the main reasons for the impact of the messages. Likewise, provided that there is no major term for religious genius in Jewish texts, like saint in Christianity, neither a formal process of canonization the choice of figures to be discussed in based on my evaluation of change of paradigm and impact. In other words, I am concerned not only with the specific content of the messages, but also with the conditions of the reception of these messages and the issue of dissemination. According to such an approach, the success of a genius is conditioned by the specific type of religion within whose framework he/she works, as well as the specific conditions that generated the beginning of a substantial influence of new ideas on the sociological level. This means that while the internal gifts are indispensable for generating some messages, the external conditions are as crucial for the reception and dissemination of new religious messages, as their content are. To formulate the distinction we drew in other words: genius in religions as well as in other domains is connected to the capacity to formulate new insights, which are also acceptable by a wider audience, which means that a significant change in religion is a sign for the existence  of a religious genius. Though not necessarily constituting a shift in paradigm, religious genius is understood below mainly as related to the success in generating a significant shift in Judaism nevertheless. Nevertheless, let me point out that not every shift in religion, including quite significant ones, should be attributed to the existence and activity of a specific religious genius.

Let me elaborate on the two main conditions for reception of a message: the specific structure of the religion that hosted a genius and the specific circumstances. The former means that changes are occurring within a specific field of myths, beliefs and practices, which allow these changes or a modified by the changes. Let me exemplify these two possibilities: Judaism was a performative religion in its Biblical and Rabbinic stages, namely it was a combination of acquaintance of the instructions dealing with how to perform, and the performance itself. Thus, according to such a view, a certain type of knowledge: either inherited from earlier generations, especially in the Biblical vision of the priest, or the capacity of extrapolating it from earlier traditions and texts by some exegetical methods in Rabbinic Judaism, are quintessential for the details of the performance. With the passage of time, legalistic erudition became more and more important in order to build up a certain type of religious authority that was necessary for the formulation of the detailed instructions of communities that were looking for guidance in matter of performing commandments or customs. Given the fact that the exegetical methods remained relatively stable, and the weight of the earlier texts and discussions was decisive, it was quite difficult to change the course of the behavior in a dramatic manner.

Religious genius, dependent as it is on its impact in a given religion and society, changes with changes in that religion and society, and this is the main reason why I resort to the plural in the title, and in the following discussions. Nevertheless, each society keeps some forms of ideal figures from the past, and negotiates the new forms of figures between its present needs and the exemplary models of the past. We shall be dealing below with medieval forms of genius which should be understood as both attempting to preserve the best of the canonical types and as adding new dimensions. This is the reason why a brief survey of biblical and rabbinic forms of leading figures may help put in relief the medieval types of genius.

  1. From Messengers of God to Erudites

Biblical Judaism only knows two types of religious leaders: priests and prophets. Kings and army-leaders were often tolerated by religious leaders as a necessary evil for leading the nation, especially in times of a military crisis. For the biblical authors, theocracy was conceived of as the ideal even when the reality was different. When Israelite priests turned to God through their prayers, sacrifices or mantic operations, or when God employed men as messengers, or prophets, a vertical and direct relationship was dominant — a type of relationship that was missing from the dominant views of kingship in Judaism, where the king was anointed by the priest or prophet. Although some scholarly interpretations of Israelite kingship emphasize the divine sonship of the king in a manner reminiscent, at least in part, of kingship in Egypt or that in Mesopotamia, in Biblical-era Israel the king was anointed by the religious leaders, indicating that kings were subordinate to these religious figures. The prophets were imagined to have received the divine word, and they were said to be chosen personally by God. Not so the priests, who were chosen by the dint of their tribal and family extraction. Once chosen, however, neither prophet nor priest, nor anyone else, could do much to change their status. External circumstances were much more important than their deeds. It should be pointed out that the prophet was, phenomenologically speaking, closer to the charismatic ideal leader than the figures of either a priest or a king. The prophet’s mission was more directly related to delivering a speech addressed directly to the people. It is the prophet’s claim of having a divine mission that Max Weber defines as being an important characteristic of the charismatic leader, and there are reverberations of this relationship with the divine in the leadership styles of the Jewish sages of the Middle Ages.

In post-Biblical Judaism, human actions become dramatically more important in gaining status in the religious hierarchy. In Rabbinic Judaism, there are few instances in which a seminal figure is formally nominated to a high formal position, such as Nasi’ or Rosh Golah. In the ancient apocryphal and pseudepigraphic texts, such as the books of Enoch, and in Heikhalot literature, leaders were also assumed to be chosen by God, reminiscent of the way in which priests and prophets were chosen in Biblical literature. Still, the members of Heikhalot groups differ from the Biblical priests and prophets in that they belong, in my opinion, to secondary elites, since they do not play the principal role in their societies.

In the Middle Ages, Jews lost all form of centralized leadership, political and religious on national scale. Each community had to rely mainly on its own local leaders, who in turn could appeal to greater authorities on particular matters of Jewish law, but such authorities did not govern the religious affairs of the Jewish people. During this Rabbinic period, the vast majority of these authorities rose to their special status through their intellectual achievements. While such an accomplishment may seem difficult to attain during one lifetime in today’s world, one would think it would be even more of a challenge in the medieval Jewish cultures of the Diaspora, where communication was slower and more limited. However, most of the seminal figures that arose during this period gained their recognition relatively quickly in their careers. This is not only the case for those who lived long lives, such as Moses Maimonides, Moses Nahmanides, R. Joseph Karo or R. Elijah, the Gaon of Vilnius, but also with persons who died quite early, like R. Isaac Luria Ashkenazi or R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto. Elite Judaism, a culture based very much on the merit of erudition, allowed extraordinary geniuses to be recognized early in their lives. The fastest way to get wide recognition was to specialize and excel in the fields that were accepted by all the Jews as central for their religious life: Halakhic literature and commentaries on canonical books such as the Bible or the Talmud. They did not have to invent a new or extraordinary way of life since religious behavior has been codified and explained a Halakhic books, which needed qualifications from time to time, but not especially the embodiment of the performative role in a special manner, which alone could serve as paradigmatic. The detailed codes for religious behavior, especially in the manner they have been formulated in the Middle Ages by Maimonides or Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, created a standard that was conceived of as sufficient for a full-fledged religious life.

  1. Exegetical Ingenuities of Some Jewish Medieval Geniuses

What happened in the Jewish Middle Ages, extra-halakhic or what was called by the late Isadore Twersky as meta-halakhic thought, had been added, in some cases subordinating the performative to some ideitic ideals like philosophy or astrology. Here the new contribution is the result of creating a nexus between more concrete way of life, which was not earlier governed by abstract transcendental principles, and such principles. This was however not a simple task, and hardly done by formulating those principles in themselves, but by an exegetical exercise, that infused those principles within the discourse that governed the earlier forms of traditional literatures: exegetical or halakhic. In other words, we may speak of exegetical genius, which acts as an interpreter of texts and ways of life that had been hallowed, without attempting to modify their details. The ingenuity of inserting the new, mainly non-Jewish forms of thought, as if constituting the hidden meaning of what people did in any case.  That was a shift from a pure performative religion, to a hybrid one, which combines the earlier ethos with new ideals. This has been done by a process that I proposed to call the arcanization of a basically exoteric religion, namely the assumption that the new aspects are actually the secret dimension of scriptures and performance that are revealed now, namely in the Middle Ages, for the first time.

This exegetical exercise was not a simple one, since the very introduction of the new elements created tensions with the more conservative type of Rabbinic elites and critiques were leveled against the exponents of the new hybrid versions of Judaism. This happened already in the late antiquity, when Philo of Alexandria had offered the first large-scale hybrid form of Judaism, interpreted in accordance to Platonic, Pythagorean and Stoic philosophical concepts. As Harry Z. Wolfson has duly pointed out in several of his studies, this synthesis of scriptures and philosophy had a deep impact on the development of the Western culture. However, in Rabbinic circles, this religious genius and his writings have been almost totally ignored, both because of the novelty of his abstract approach and perhaps also because of the fact that he wrote his writings in Greek. This ignorance becomes more obvious when compared to the strong impact Philo’s writings had in Christian thought.

However, even when some medieval Jewish masters, or what I call the exegetical geniuses, wrote in Hebrew, and eventually also in Arabic, languages used by Rabbinic authorities, the context of their messages was debated and controversies exploded rather soon after the new messages have been committed to writing. This is the case of Rabbi Sa‘adya Gaon, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Abraham ibn Ezra, and especially Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides). All of them wrote in an exegetical manner, though not only in this genre, and their new interpretations encountered opposition sometimes even sharp ones. However, in the specific circumstances of the Middle Ages, when astrology and philosophy were part and parcel of the approach of elites: Christian and Muslim, the shift toward the hybrid versions of Judaism constitutes what I call the exegetical genius. Despite the above-mentioned controversies, those exponents of new forms of Judaism became in time accepted by wider audiences and generated new versions of Judaism that were adopted in print by larger parts of the Jewish people. Though in those cases conceptual originality is hardly the great contribution of those thinkers, since they imported in Judaism from the non-Jewish world systems, like Kalam, Neoplatonism, astrology and Neoaristotelianism, respectively, their mixture of philosophy and scriptures had a wide echo in a religion that was preponderantly performative. The exegetical ingenuity, with its persuasive dimension, was more important that the depth of the conceptual systems they adapted and adopted. All these Jewish thinkers flowered in centers of culture where the systematic thought was en vogue, Irak or Spain, and I assume that they were convinced that they indeed uncovered secrets found dormant within scriptures, which enforce the validity of the commandments by offering the unknown or neglected rationales. Thus, conservative as the literary genre of exegesis was, it could forwards new conceptual vistas, that emerged because of the contacts with new environments and those vistas were adopted since part of the audiences resonated with the propensities found in the centers of cultures where the contacts took place. Without these consonances, the achievements of the exegetical geniuses would hardly be acknowledged in the past or attract the attention of scholars in the present.

There is no doubt that Maimonides had quite a limited audience in mind in his famous book. This is obvious from his own introduction, and from the language in which the Guide of the Perplexed has been written: Arabic. The very use of this language excluded a significant part of the Jewish intelligentsia from being guided in their alleged perplexity. In fact, the extent of the audience Maimonides had in mind was one that had access to some forms of Greek philosophy and could read it as dressed in Arabic garb. This assumption excludes, again, many of the European intelligentsia who were not exposed to what Maimonides believed was the true understanding of God and reality, formed so strongly by the literatures he consumed in Arabic works or translations. Using Arabic was certainly not something that began with Maimonides: he was preceded by Sa`adya Gaon, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Bahya ibn Paquda and Yehudah ha-Levi. Maimonides is one of the last major figures in Judaism to use Arabic to write a theological book that became a classic. Like the other authors mentioned above, the longevity of their work as philosophers has been assured by their translation into Hebrew. This means that the authors’ audience changed dramatically: for a variety of reasons, the Arabic speculative writings intended for Jews living in the Islamicate regions flowered only after passing through the filter of Hebrew. This way they also had a dramatic impact on other regions of the world, which Maimonides hardly had in mind. In the places where the writings of Al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes arrived much later and in smaller quantity than Maimonides’ writings, the Guide served not only to correct perplexities, if at all, but actually became some form of introduction in philosophy for those who did not read Arabic.

This transition from the Islamicate to the Christian regions is part of an irony of history and it owes much to what I called above the Andalusian internationale. They imposed a new type of intellectual culture in regions where the philosophical orientation among Jews and non-Jews was minimal. This import of Greek philosophy in Arabic-Jewish garb in Provencal, and later on in French and German Jewish communities, is a fascinating phenomenon of influence and has created the huge tensions that crystallized in the sharp controversies between Maimonides’ followers and his numerous detractors. Aware as I am of recent tendencies to relegate the term “influence” to the margin, I hardly understand some aspects of the cultural history of medieval Jews without assuming that they consumed neo-Aristotelian tendencies found earlier among the Muslim thinkers. The sequence in time is quite evident since Al-Farabi, writing in Turkey, first influenced other Muslim thinkers – including Andalusian ones – and only then the Jewish thinkers. Even more manifest is the influence of this trend in non-Islamicate territories, which did not share the Islamicate regions’ concern with neo-Aristotelianism. Influenced by recent nomenclature stemming from cultural studies without a proper critique, some scholars subscribe to a non-historical vision of cultural developments. The controversies in Judaism (and to a certain extent already in Islam concerning Islamic philosophy) that surrounded the Greek-Arabic influence on Jewish philosophy, especially the disputes concerning Maimonides’ thought, are the best proof for the perception dominant in some traditional circles as to the radical nature caused by this sudden influence.

  1. The Religious Virtuoso

None of these figures was known for a special type of religious behavior, different from what has been accepted in their respective communities. Their achievement should be understood as paramount in the domain of the exegetical appropriation of conceptual approaches and it was achieved by means of written documents with only little direct contact with persons they attempted to persuade, which means that they were virtuoso writers, who did not create groups, even not small ones. This is the reason why one can hardly discern a hagiographical literature written about them stemming from their immediate followers. However, since the 16th century we may discern the ascent of another category of religious geniuses: those related to someone’s behavior, which turns to became paradigmatic. This is not a matter of observing carefully the complex commandments, which were respected in principle by all the traditional Jews, but of introducing extra forms of behavior, which are conceived as customs, which turned in some few years almost commandments. This means that the additional forms of behavior left a strong impression on his immediate followers, and through their writings on later generations. This manner of changing the pattern of behavior is done by first implementing them by those figures and by explaining them in accordance to some more general principles, basically Kabbalistic ones. The most important example is Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, known also as the divine Ari, who was active in Safed in the Galilee for less than two years, between 1570-1572. His immense success in the larger public has to do more with his specific manner of behavior, but also with his prestige as endowed with special powers, especially knowing the past transmigrations of people and capable to advise them how to repair their sins. Though Luria changed the paradigm of the Kabbalistic theosophy dominant in Safed before him, the details of those changes remained unknown to the vast majority of Jews, who adopted details of his behavior, chanted his poems, and revered his figure as it transpired in hagiographical accounts of his activity in Safed. His special status as a guide for behavior is evident when we compare it to the status of one of his teachers in matters of Kabbalah, and a genius of Kabbalistic thought, Rabbi Moses Cordovero. Despite his vast opus, which includes substantial exegetical parts, and his original Kabbalistic thought, he did not enjoy the same impact as his pupil Luria did, no hagiography, and no custom of his was recorded and followed by larger audiences, despite the fact that Cordovero had many outstanding students. In fact his most important work, his vast commentary on the Zohar, ’Or Yaqar, has been printed only in the last generation. His extraordinary erudition in matters of Kabbalah and his exegetical ingenuity did not attract the attention of vaster audiences, as did his compendium of Kabbalah.

Let me point out that Luria himself did not perform special forms of religious acts, like ascetic practices but lived a religious life of a regular traditional Jew, though enriched by additional customs, and a preference of Ashkenazi propensities. Given the democratic nature of Rabbinic Judaism on its performative level, and the absence of sectarian organizations like orders, or monasteries, elitist phenomena are much more a matter of the meta-Halakhic speculations.

  1. Eschatological Geniuses

A religion expecting the advent of the redeemer in the future, the Messiah, Judaism developed a variety of messianic mythologies. Rabbinic Judaism that elaborated on the figure of the Messiah was, at the same time, quite reticent as to the few messianic movements in the history of Judaism as well as insofar as messianic figures. However, the very fact that such movements emerged shows that a certain figure was capable of overcoming the reticence or even the sharp opposition of Rabbinic figures, and offered an option of an eschatological interpretation of Judaism. This was done by means of exegetical ingenuity that decoded biblical verses as if hinting to the name of the Messiah or to the date of his advent. However, beyond the exegetical tricks, there can be no doubt that the personality of the messianic figure is of outmost importance, whether we resort to the category of charisma or not. In the cases of these figures, like the Kabbalists Abraham Abulafia or Sabbatai Tzevi it is hard to discern an importance of values like humility, attributed to religious geniuses. Their leading assumption was that they discovered the ultimate secrets which are the only true Judaism, and such a revelation constituted a change of the existing religious paradigms.

  1. Abraham Abulafia’s Linguistic Turn

A new form of understanding Judaism as consisting in a secret doctrine of divine names, and as preserving the real, original language by its consonants and theory of combination of letters has been formulated by Abraham Abulafia [1240 – c. 1291]. Following, on the one hand, Maimonides’ mental reinterpretation of Judaism, and some linguistic speculations found in the late Antiquity Sefer Yetzirah and its commentators on the other hand, he believed that he can offer a path, in fact several similar methods, to reach a sublime type of experience, he called prophecy, or a redemptive experience on the individual level, which consists in an enhancement of the intellectual operations and a union with cosmic intellects, namely the Agent Intellect and God. He proclaimed himself a prophet and Messiah and in fact his writings, which survived in many manuscripts, are the most voluminous texts written by someone who declared that he is a prophet and Messiah, extant in post-biblical Judaism.

The Rabbinic claim of the cessation of prophecy, which created the necessary space for the development of rabbinic intellectual and independent activities and generated a certain type of ideal figure that is based primarily on writing, commenting, expanding or organizing knowledge. Abulafia, however, worked with a totally different assumption; he regarded the return of prophecy as something quite possible, imminent, and very much related to his own engagement with eschatology and messianic aspirations. The combination of the intellectual understanding of Judaism together with a radical linguistic emphasis, which includes ingenuous sorts of exegesis of a variety of Jewish texts from the Bible to Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, a book that inspired many of his definitions of prophecy in Abulafia’s writings, represents his contribution special from the point of view of the conceptual paradigms that were found in Judaism. By his combination, Abulafia altered both the philosophical structures he appropriated and the linguistic speculations he adopted.  He forged a new anthropology that assumed that by overloading the consciousness with combinations of letters and other technical elements by a special rhythm of breathing, someone may attain a prophetic experience which he conceived to be available in the present.

Many of Abulafia’s special contributions reflect rather recent developments. His messianism a eschatological prophecy are related to the impact of the rumors on the invasions of Mongol tribes in 1240 and 1260, since they were misunderstood to be the ten lost tribes returning as part of the imminent eschaton. His combination of intellectual speculations and linguistic techniques reflect the new situation of the arrival of Ashkenazi masters and materials, immersed in linguistic speculations, to the Spanish territories in the second half of the 13th century. However, it needs a special religious genius in order to bring together potential developments that no other thinker combined earlier.

In his most important handbook for reaching an ecstatic experience Hayyei ha-‘Olam ha-Ba’, Abulafia enumerates one of the three principles of Kabbalah as follows:

“The third principle is that the Holy Spirit and it moves this sphere of the Torah, and its action is found in vowels which move the consonants…letters, combinations [of letters] and vowels. Their acronym is ’[otiyyot]TZ[eruf]N[equdot], which can be permuted as Tzo’N …The combination turns the letters and the vowels turn the combinations and the spirit of man, given by God, turns the vowels until they will cause the emergence and the illumination of the concept that is proper to any intelligent Kabbalist.

The assumption is that the intelligent Kabbalist leads the flock, Tzo’n, namely in the linguistic material constituted by letters, namely consonants, their combinations and their vocalizations. For the ecstatic Kabbalist this is the highest form of leadership: combining various linguistic elements as a technique to bring about a mystical experience. Therefore, Abulafia takes Maimonides’ vision of the prophet embodying intellect as the highest human achievement and adds his own speculations about the linguistic permutations, all of which have little to do with Maimonides’ thought. Moreover, Abulafia understood the combination of letters as a technique to more mundane type of leadership, which reflects his own activity of disseminating orally his paradigm in both Jewish and Christian audiences. In his longest book ’Otzar ‘Eden Ganuz written in 1285/6 he articulated an original vision of triple leadership:

“The issue of leadership should refer eminently to the guidance of someone who has a potential intellect, despite the fact it stands for someone who leads a living being, and someone who leads someone who has a potential intellect. But the word leader should not be used according to the way of truth but for the instance in which the relationship between the leader and the leaded one is like that of the shepherd and the flock, even if the flock is a man….And behold the prophets who are referring in their parables to the vulgus [benei ’adam ha-hamoniim] as a flock…And behold the sages were called shepherds because those whom they lead are called in their parables by the name flock…And according to all the parables of the prophets the Torah is referring to the sages and the prophets by the name shepherds and it is not necessary to mention all the instances because they are many and they are all known. And indeed it is said [Exodus 3:1] ‘Now Moses kept the flock of Yitro his father in law the priest of Midyan; and he led the flock far away in the desert and came to the mountain of God,’ is a faithful testimony to all of them that it is the place of the revelation of the Torah…And the leaders of men are of two kinds: the first one leads those lead by him in accordance to the guidance that testifies the order corresponding to the well-being of the body. And the other is the leader of those lead by him according to the order of the well being of the souls. The first points to the king who suffices for the well-being of the human community. And the second refers to the prophet or to the sage, dealing with the true essence of the soul. However, the perfection of this guidance is when the two mentioned issues are found together in one individual, like David and Solomon.”

There is a clear hesitation between the well-known Maimonidean twofold theory of well-being: the corporeal and the spiritual, and a threefold theory of leaders. I assume that Abulafia conceives of the two Israelite kings not as prophets but as sages, and thus they comprise in their personalities the first two types of leadership. If this is the gist of the passage, it is easier to understand the emergence of the third type of leadership, the prophet, as distinct from the two leadership qualities of the two kings which was then added to Maimonides’ concepts of leadership. Abulafia contrived a new structure of threefold leadership based upon Maimonidean elements but absent in the latter’s writings, and most probably his addition has much to do with the complex role he imagined he himself will play.

The Exodus 3:1 verse points to a secret meaning: the mountain of God, a sublime issue, occurs together with the mundane flock. This uncanny juxtaposition points to a secret that is interpreted by the ecstatic Kabbalist as an esoteric description of humans as the flock of the shepherd – the spiritual leader. This leader is described as someone who is capable of guiding people to a revelation. Abulafia is not only referring to Moses in this text, but to any spiritual leader. Moses becomes, therefore, an allegory for the intellectual or prophetic leader, just as the flock is upgraded to the status of human disciples. The innocent verse about Moses the shepherd underwent a special metamorphosis under Abulafia’s hand, pointing allegorically to the paradigm of leadership.  Abulafia intended to offer a shift in the extant Maimonidean paradigm, where the spiritual and the corporeal achievements are complemented by a higher one, the intellectual as understood as having a peak in prophecy as an ideal that is possible to be achieved in the present, Maimonides’ rejection of this possibility nonetheless. While the Great Eagle drew from the reservoir of the Greek thought as to the peak that may be achieved in the present, Abulafia attempted to restore an earlier Jewish paradigm by attributing a new role to a series of linguistic operations.  This return of ancient Jewish prophecy, dramatically reinterpreted to be sure according to values dominant in some forms medieval Judaism, was done by proposing techniques which appropriated elements found in Greek Hesychasm, in Hindu Yoga and probably also Sufism. He reorganized some forms of religious ideals in ways that were new in medieval Judaism as for example, writing prophetic books and handbooks for achieving ecstatic experiences.

Last but not least: in my opinion, Abulafia displayed a critical approach to the common understands of religions, namely the historical manifestations, including Rabbinic Judaism, and he was concerned with formulating a what he would consider to be a more universal version of religion based on an universal language and the primacy of the intellect.

  1. The Hasidic Genius: The Shift to Orality

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as Ba‘al Shem Tov, namely the Master of the Good Name, or by the acronym Besht, [c. 1698 – 1760] is well-known as the founder of East European Hasidism. A diversified popular and mystical movement, which includes a variety of schools, each having its own founding figure, and recognizes the seminal role played by the Besht. However, beyond the inspiration that he inspired his immediate followers, whose disciples built this movement, the Besht offered a series of new readings of Judaism, which attracted much admiration as well as sharp critiques. In both manners, his teachings contributed to a restructuring of Judaism, and this is the reason why he should be regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of Judaism. The new understanding of Judaism has been appropriated also beyond the boundaries of Hasidic schools, like in modern Jewish theologies like those of Martin Buber, Abraham J. Heschel and more recently of Arthur I. Green. There can be no doubt that they attempted to speak from within tradition across tradition.

Unlike some of the major founders of religions or of religious movements, who left articulated writings, often written by those figures themselves, the Besht belongs to those thinkers who did not do so, but propagated his views orally, and they were reported in his name in a variety of Hasidic sources, most of them belonging to the Besht’s disciples or the disciples of his disciples. This creates a certain problem of reconstructing the Besht’s own views given the strong propensities of Hasidic authors to hagiography and to aggrandizing the stature of the founder. Even more so when the original language of those teachings was Yiddisch while the disciples preserved them almost exclusively in Hebrew. Those teachings consist in short commentaries on biblical verses or Rabbinic dicta, in his own dicta, and in a series of tales, some of which he invented, some other adopted from a variety of sources, Jewish and non-Jewish ones. The fragmentary manner in which the Besht’s teachings reached us, constitutes a problem in understanding his view, as well as the fact that there are divergent attitudes to the same topic in the extant teachings. In those teachings, the importance of oral religious activity is paramount, as well as the need to perform it with a strong emotional investment. The emphasis on orality, which means also a direct contact between people, resonates with the direct contact between the religious leader, described as the righteous or the Tzaddiq, and the disciple, the Hasid that became a landmark of Hasidic religiosity.

This verbal restructuring of traditional Judaism was both unexpected, and very complex a project, since Judaism gravitated for centuries around the centrality of the study of the sacred scriptures: Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic literature, and some Kabbalistic texts, and it emphasized as quintessential for the understanding of the details and the meanings of the performance of the commandments. Now, however, it seems that the written texts may become an obstacle, as we learn from a legend related to the founder of Hasidism, preserved in his widespread hagiography: Shivehei ha-Besht:

“There was a man who wrote down the torah of the Besht that he heard from him. Once the Besht saw a demon walking and holding a book in his hand. He said to him: “What is the book that you hold in your hand?” He answered him: “This is the book that you have written.” The Besht then understood that there was a person who was writing down his torah. He gathered all his followers and asked them: “Who among you is writing down my torah?” The man admitted it and he brought the manuscript to the Besht. The Besht examined it and said: “There is not even a single word here that is mine.”

Legendary as this account is, it displays however, a deep impulse in the Besht’s religious orientation. This shift toward orality in Judaism that generated a specific movement whose impact transcended the frontiers of East Europe, and the special circumstances that nourished the flowering of this movement, as well as the first generations of the Hasidic masters, can be easily exemplified by adducing many salient teachings. In my opinion, this is a major line of thought in the Beshtian traditions, which best illustrates his anthropocentric turn that simplified the complex theosophical structures of Kabbalah, turning some of the Kabbalistic concepts and symbols into instructions of a daily, intense religious life. Crucial for the success of Hasidism was the broadening of the range of occasions for reaching a high religious experience, from some specific ways of behavior, the commandments, to any activity, that may serve as appropriate moments for a devoted worship. The holiness is therefore not inherent so much of what traditional Judaism attempted to preserve as sanctified modes of behavior, but in the ability to transform human activity, especially the verbal ones, into moments of adherence to the divinity, by an inner spiritual, effort.

In matters of religion, genius is therefore, a contextual achievement: it is the finding of a solution to a specific situation or crisis, which emerges out of the convergence of religious traditions, historical circumstances and individual quests or aspirations. Obviously, what works for a certain religious group, may turn to be irrelevant for another group living in its immediate vicinity, in the very same period. This is the reason why understanding the religious genius is not only an a posteriori judgment, namely an evaluation based on discerning what worked in history, but also an effort to  learn what were the precise coordinates of one’s activities. From this point of view a religious genius must work with traditions that are already known but he/she is able to reorganize them in a new manner. This principle of reorganization is naturally more important in the belated forms of religions, and Hasidism is such an example. In fact reorganization is a way of creativity, in religion as well as in science, as the change of paradigms as described by Thomas Kuhn.

Genius is often related to elitism, and this is the case of the much younger contemporary of the Besht, R. Elijah of Vilnius. He and his followers was the main opponent of nascent Hasidism. However, if we use the criterion of efficacy of a certain solution, genius may have something to do with what form of religious activity may be pertinent also for masses. This resurge of orality as the main modus of a direct relation to the divine, has its Kabbalistic sources which cannot be dealt with here. Nevertheless, the Besht moved these earlier traditions to the center, by simplifying them. In such a manner the elitist and esoteric traditions of Kabbalah, mainly embedded in complex books, became now much simpler and thus more suitable to broader audiences, especially when delivered in vernacular, Yiddisch, a language which was not intended from the very beginning to convey complex technical messages. Now the performer of the verbal ritual creates the locus for the encounter with the divine power, which is induced within the humanly created sounds. In a manner reminiscent of the much more recent linguistic turn of mid-20th century, the 18th century Hasidic shift to performed language assumed a retreat from the more classical concentration on books and systems, philosophical, Kabbalistic or Halakhic, and a concentration of a concrete form of activity, imagined to have immediate and rather strong results. The simplification, which means also reorganization of previous types of knowledge – those two main features of the Besht’s religious geniality – allowed access to more intense forms of religious experiences to wider audiences, in a manner reminiscent of the Protestant reform, especially Calvinism, in the 16th century and of the renaissance of the Christian Orthodox technique of Hesychasm during the second part of the 18th century. Moreover, the central role played by a certain human figure in a small community or group is reminiscent of the contemporary movement of the staretz, that developed in Eastern Europe in the same period. Unlike Abulafia’s elitist paradigm, based on synthesis, which means basically a complication, that was operative only for elite Kabbalists, the Besht’s simplication had a huge impact in wide Jewish audiences.

The Best is phenomenologically closer to Luria’s virtuous performance than to the Maimonidean/Abulafian emphasis on the primacy of the intellect. In fact we may draw a distinction between the Greek-oriented geniuses in Judaism, and the performance-oriented ones. The former operates within a rather stable universe, the other assume a more dynamic and magical universe.

  1. Genius and the Pitfalls of Historicism

A superficial reader of the above pages may consider my approach a historicist, as I conditioned the success of a religious genius on specific social circumstances. However, such a reading is incorrect. In my opinion Genius by its very definition is both dependent of and defying historicism. I assume, in the way presented above, the possibility to transcend the limited parameters of its initial success, both in an intra-religious and inter-religious dialogue. The specific conditions of Judaism in Egypt of the 12th century, the 13th century background of Abulafia, or of Safed in the 16th century, or of Eastern Europe in the 18th century, which hosted the above-mentioned developments, contributed fresh elements to the new paradigms, but those elements continued to have an impact far beyond the specific centers where they were adopted. The continuing relevance of specific elements of a new paradigm in new circumstances is the result of those geniuses that articulated it, as relevant to some groups living in different circumstances rather than the historical moment of the emergence of that paradigm. This relevance depends upon the new roles attributed to general human faculties in the religious life: so, for example, the more philosophical-rationalist interpretation of Judaism as offered by Maimonides remained relevant for Jewish individuals and communities interested in a rationalistic understanding of Judaism like the 18th century adherents to Jewish enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn or Solomon Maimon, for example, despite the quite different circumstances: economic, social or political. However, the common denominator, namely the cultural situation of the flowering of non-Jewish philosophy, is in the Muslim world in the case of Maimonides and in Central Europe in the late 18th century.

On the other hand the interest in Abraham Abulafia’s thought in the last generation, in the writings of Umberto Eco or Jacques Derrida, is the result of the ascent of a linguistically oriented mode of thought, interested in the nature of language and text. Like reason, language is a fundamental human capacity. To turn to the emotional articulation of 18th century East European Hasidism in the recent phenomena of Neo-Hasidism, either in the revival of the Lubavitch Hasidism or of the cult of Nahman of Bratzlav more recently: they are part of the restructuring of Judaism in some circles, in a period when the rationalistic interpretation of this religion formulated earlier in the history of this religion lost their attraction, at least for some Jews. The dramatic ascent of means of communication, like helped immensely the impact of Menachem Mendel Shneursohn, the last Rabbi of Lubavitch, to re-enact the direct and oral contact with his followers, in a manner reminiscent of early Hasidism. Also the renascence of a series of other groups in Hasidism after the Shoah: Sanz, Vijnitz, or Ger, and their increasing flocks in recent decades prove that the model of human model that in envisioned as source of inspiration is still relevant. All this means that some situations return in the history of a certain religion, which resuscitate paradigms already found in the store of this religion, but were relegated to the margin for a longer or shorter period, but in new and salient circumstances they are adopted though always also adapted.   Moreover, there is no reason to assume that in a certain religion only one type of a religious genius is possible at the same time. For example, one of the Besht’s contemporaries was a towering figure known as the Genius of Vilnius, R. Elijah, whose anti-Hasidic campaign generated a new trend in Judaism, known as Mitnagedim, the Opponents, which was grounded in a renewed emphasis on the studies of canonical texts.

These intra-religious recurrences may point to the possibility of an inter-religious relevance of the different forms of geniuses found in other religions. Given the fact that similar situations may occur in different religions, there is, in principle, the possibility of transposition of insights of a certain type of religious genius from one religion to another, especially when the more technical aspects are involved, namely the appropriation of specific techniques for reaching mystical experiences. Such translations have a long history, as the translation of Patanjali’s Yoga from Sanskrit to Arabic by the 12th century thinker Al-Biruni, the spread of Buddhism from India to Tibet, China and Japan, or the spread of Christianity and Islam in a variety of languages and countries. The widespread Hindu and Buddhist religious ethical literatures translated in the Middle Ages in Arabic and Hebrew, and later on in European languages, is quite another important example. Also the spread of Buddhism in the West in the 20th century shows that translation of originally different religious universes in languages and religious diverging backgrounds in possible. This happens in my opinion, in situation of crises of traditional forms of religion in a certain cultural region, and the needs to import other spiritual options. This is part not only of the decline of the Enlightenment, but also of the weakening of the religious authorities and communities on the one hand and the ascent of the centrality of the individual, who may choose his/her religious life amidst different religious communities, on the other. The recent new religious openness or the greater availability of several religious options in a trans-linguistic situation is, however, prone to encourage a much less mono-zoic life, namely sticking to a certain path for a long time. Most of those transitions are basically adaptations, in many cases simplification, of originally much more complex religious structures. Though I certainly do not fear syntheses and hybridism, as I presented above many of the geniuses as importing substantial conceptual structures from non-Jewish circles, and combining originally divergent types of thought, in modern time this hybridism is much more evident and done with significant efforts to transform them in a sustained way of life, as part of a spiritual shopping.

Moreover, translation of a traditional text means not only transition of the content from one religion to another, namely from one structure with its specific background to another, but also the inherent and inevitable distortion – expressed in nuce in the famous pun traduttore- traditore.  The loss of the original linguistic and conceptual background, with its puns and associations, when associated with search for instant results and shifts in religious interests, are prone to create a superficial or vulgar appropriation. Transcendental meditation, for example, is a transformation of a religiously oriented ancestral practice, cultivated by virtuosi for decades during their life, but adapted in the West for brief moments during a day, as a physiological exercise. It suffices to see the avatars of Kabbalah in recent decades in both Israel and abroad in order to understand the problem.

Those obstacles nonetheless it is obvious that a modern openness toward other forms of religions becomes more evident even in traditional circles in many religions. In a manner predicted by Mircea Eliade two generations ago, an encounter between East and West took place, and it happened on many levels due to the emergence of new technologies: flights, telecommunications, and easy translations. This encounter was Eliade’s agenda he followed since the thirties of the 20th century and, concomitantly that was a central part of the agenda of the Eranos Encounters in Ascona since 1933. However, acquaintance with achievements of the others is one story, while actually learning from the others and integrating some insights is quite a different one. The present project attempts therefore to accomplish something fresh: not just academic dialogues but more substantial exchanges between some vital elements found in different religions. In my opinion, it would be important to analyze the conditions that allow exchanges, not only the details of the possible exchanges themselves.

Two observations at the end: The above discussions do not take in consideration the category of religious genius in Judaism in general, but only some examples. I ignored, for example, figures like Baruch Spinoza, Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto and R. Nahman of Bratzlav, and literatures like the Zoharic one, whose impact of the vision of religion in Judaism, and sometimes even in Europe, was considerable, contributing much to a shift of paradigm. Moreover, I refrained from dealing with the conceptual depth of the religious geniuses mentioned above: I was not concerned with Maimonides’ transcendental move and his appropriation of negative theology, or with the Besht’s adoption, sometime in his later years, a more pantheistic approach. In my opinion, their impact does not depend on their greatness in systematic thought, and scholars hardly agree on the actual views of each of the figures mentioned above. None of them was an icon of clarity in the theological domain.