Jewish Mysticism Wrestles with Language

  • Steven T. Katz
Part of the Comparative Philosophy of Religion book series (COPR, volume 1)


This paper analyzes the kabbalistic conception of language with special concern for the issue of ineffability. It argues that, in contradistinction to the other major mystical traditions of the world, kabbalists did not believe that language was altogether inadequate for their purposes. The main reason for this is rooted in the traditional Jewish conception of the Torah as the literal “word of God to Moses at Sinai.” Therefore the secrets of creation, which are embedded in the mystical interpretation of the Torah text, can be learned and passed from teacher to disciple. That is, kabbalists have an authentic and unerring language, provided by God Himself, in which to talk about the secret matters of the upper and lower worlds. If in possession of the correct hermeneutical methods, they can: (a) interpret the Torah text to reveal the true nature of creation as a process of emanation, rather than accepting the more usual interpretation of “creatio ex nihilo”; (b) decipher and appreciate the role of human activity in restoring the “great chain of being” and the unity of the cosmos; and (c) perhaps most importantly, come to comprehend the theurgical role of the mitzvot (God’s commandments). Also of fundamental importance, this conception of the Hebrew text of the Torah makes it possible to create a tradition, i.e., to pass doctrines and interpretations from generation to generation. Not everything can be said in language but, if in possession of the mystical keys, more can be said than is usually thought.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Boston UniversityBostonUSA

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