Fishbane, E., As Light Before Dawn: The Inner World of a Medieval Kabbalist

As Light Before Dawn: The Inner World of a Medieval Kabbalist. By Eitan P. Fishbane. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. xi + 322 pp. $43.00. *

Eitan Fishbane’s As Light Before Dawn is a pleasure to read. It is lucidly clear in an area in which the material and most scholarship on the material is remarkably opaque. In addition, the book is well conceived and well written. Fishbane divides his book into three parts. Part One presents a survey of scholarship and the historical background to his key figure, Isaac of Akko. Part Two deals with the tension between Kabbalah as a transmissive system and Kabbalah as a source of innovation and creativity. Part Three deals with the nature of theurgical praxis and the techniques used by Isaac of Akko. Given the relative unfamiliarity with kabbalah in the interdisciplinary areas of spirituality, this review will focus on some of the more basic issues potentially significant to Christian spirituality studies.

Fishbane opens Part One with a historical introduction that gives a biographical reconstruction of the life of Isaac of Akko. Isaac lived in Akko when that city was the chief port of the Christian empire. All the spiritual trends of the time existed in Akko and Isaac grew up in this ferment. The conquest of the city by Saladin and the violent destruction that followed proved traumatic for the Jewish and Christian communities, even as it proved triumphant for the Muslim world. After the destruction, Isaac fled along the European littoral of the Mediterranean, arriving in Spain. Fishbane narrates well the situation in Spain where there existed a Kabbalah of Castille and a Kabbalah of Aragon. He also notes the Sufi influence on Isaac in the Holy Land, during his travels across Europe, and at the end of his life, in Morocco. For readers unfamiliar with Isaac of Akko, perhaps even with the diverging spiritual trends amidst this historical period and location, Fishbane’s work invites deeper investigation into specific texts and associated practice in historical and contemporary view.

Part Two contains three chapters devoted to a discussion of the sources of kabbalistic writing, an area of scholarly inquiry in spirituality studies perhaps less familiar to readers of this journal. As reminder, kabbalah is a Hebrew word that means “receipt” or “reception.” It is used in modern Hebrew in the sense of “receipt,” like the one given out by cashiers, and also as a “reception,” as in wedding reception. Kabbalah is used in a religious sense to denote “any tradition that is received on good authority” and can be used in legal settings as well as exegetical or philosophical or mystical settings. In a narrower sense, kabbalah is used to denote the Jewish mystical tradition that is usually dated from about 200 C.E. until the present. In its narrowest sense, kabbalah is used to refer to the Zoharic stream of the Jewish mystical tradition; that is, to the theurgical tradition that reaches its apex in the book called the Zohar, written around 1293 C.E. in Spain. We have, thus, concentric circles of meaning: receipt or reception, a received tradition of any kind, the Jewish mystical tradition and, within that, the Zoharic stream of Jewish mysticism. (See the now classic, two-volume work: Blumenthal, ed., Understanding Jewish Mysticism. Ktav Publishing, 1982)

Chapter Three of Fishbane’s book proposes that: “Kabbalah is more a transmittive (sic) and educative process than it is purely a phenomenon of distinctive doctrine … authentication is the ability to posit a reliable source in the unbroken chain of masters and disciples” (52-53). Isaac of Akko spent a great deal of his energy in collecting and reporting these traditions as, incidentally, was common among medieval authors in law, philosophy, mysticism, exegesis, etc. Chapter Four notes that, despite the strict adherence to reporting legitimate traditions, Isaac of Akko also wrote: “’I was contemplating a passage from our Rabbis of blessed memory, and I saw in it a secret that was correct in my eyes’”(87). He often commented: ““I, the author of this book, say… / I will speak about the secret … write down … ’” (94-100). From this, Fishbane concludes: “A kabbalist who is blessed with a sharp deductive mind capable of original interpretation (that derives from divine inspiration) is here given cultural legitimacy” (99). In asserting his own view within a tradition of authoritative transmission, however, the kabbalist was obligated to make it clear to the reader what part is transmitted tradition and what part is the author’s own innovation (97-98).

Chapter Five, by contrast, details the sources of innovative insight used by Isaac of Akko, particularly dreams and insights that appeared when emerging from sleep: “‘I was still sleeping in my bed and I dreamed a dream’; ‘I awoke from my sleep and I saw the secret’; ‘And in the state of being asleep but not asleep, I saw the meaning of this verse…’” (104-08, 109-12). Prayer was yet another source of original insight: “‘I was praying … and I saw…’; ‘I was reciting … and I suddenly saw …’; ‘ reciting .. and I saw in it a meaning according to the way of truth that was correct in my eyes’” (115-117 with many examples). Encounters with nature are yet another source (117-21). Strangely, Fishbane (or Isaac of Akko) excludes human interaction as a source of insight, perhaps as follows: ‘I was talking to such and such a person and I suddenly saw’ or ‘I observed my grandchild and I suddenly saw.’

Part Three delves into theurgy, mystical techniques, and asceticism, prophecy, and mystical union. The theurgical tradition in rabbinic perspective teaches that God is composed of ten dimensions called “sefirot.” These are not just descriptives (attributes) but real aspects of God. Each is divine and is a part of the Whole which is also divine. Theurgy in Fishbane’s analytical context refers to “the power of human action and intention to affect the divine realm” (125). He distinguishes between the “gravitational” mode of theurgy in which divine energy is drawn downward into this world and the “countergravitational” or “elevational” mode in which energy is sent up to the realm of the divine to unify the forces within it (134-37). He gives many good and clear examples (134-376). Finally, Fishbane notes that “theurgical activity culminates in a state of illumination or heightened intimacy with the deity” even though that is not the goal of theurgy (168). Chapter Seven presents many of the techniques espoused by Isaac of Akko: the diagram of the ten circles, the heavenly shrine in which the kabbalist acts as a priest, sections of the liturgy with kabbalistic “intentions” (Fishbane expounds these in clear detail), the ladder on the head of the mystic, the erasure of earthly consciousness to attain ideal thought, the book written in black fire on white fire, the giant letters, the visualization of the Name and its various permutations and variegated vowel notations, etc. In all these, Fishbane points out that the kabbalist must be very careful not to worship one of the sefirot, which would be an act of heresy, but to be sure to, simultaneously, keep his mind focused on a specific sefira and its complement, and/or on the specific sefira and the sefirotic realm as a whole.

At this point, readers of Spiritus may find generative for their own tradition’s resourcing an article I published years ago entitled, “Three is Not Enough: Jewish Reflections on the Trinitarian Thinking.” I speculated that the use of ten sefirot, each and all of which are in substantial and experiential unity, was not a step beyond the Trinity [Ethical Monotheism, Past and Present: Essays in Honor of Wendell S. Dietrich, ed. T. Vial and M. Hadley (Providence, RI, Brown Judaic Studies: 2001) 181-95]). The contribution here was to say that these real, divine dimensions of God have a certain similarity with the persons of the Trinity that are also divine, parts of God, and still one with the Whole.

Fishbane draws his study to a close with a discussion of the link between medieval philosophy, ascetic praxis, prophecy, and mystical union. After decades in which modern scholars separated the realms of philosophy and mysticism, the link between them is now accepted. (On this, see also my Philosophic Mysticism: Essays in Rational Religion [Bar-Ilan University Press: 2006].) Fishbane expounds this clearly, noting that devequt is clearly a term for unio mystica. He adds, however that, in the view of Isaac of Akko: “It is through his act of devequt that the non-elite are able to achieve a degree of devequt on their own” (275). The true kabbalist must maintain “an unbroken and constant connection to the supernal realm, one that directly implies a constant separation and detachment from the physical realm” – Hebrew, hatmadah tedirit (280), a term taken directly from Maimonides.

This is Eitan Fishbane’s first independent book and, while the apple in the orchard owes something to the trees that are its source (beautifully acknowledged at the beginning of the book), it is a very fine book on its own. I find Fishbane’s accumulation of the data and his exposition very clear and compelling. His explanation of the complexities of the kabbalistic tradition is lucid and his ability to situate this material in a modern scholarly context admirable. As Light Before Dawn: The Inner World of a Medieval Kabbalist is a must for all scholars and libraries, not only in fields of Jewish historical-textual interpretation but also interdisciplinary fields of inquiry such as Christian spirituality.

David R. Blumenthal

Emory University, Atlanta, GA

* This appeared in Spiritus 11:1 (Spring 2011) 133-35.