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Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism.

Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism. By Elliott R. Wolfson. Princeton: Princeton University, 1994. Pp. x + 452 $49.50.

For more than a century the preponderant scholarly portrayal of Judaism has been of a tradition primarily auditory rather than visual. The notion that in Judaism from time immemorial the godhead has spoken only in words is now cogently and compellingly challenged by Wolfson in this broad ranging, carefully analyzed and trenchantly argued study of the revelatory function of vision and imagination in the central texts of Jewish mysticism during its formative and classical periods.

With a balance that gives weight both to personal experience and to the interpretive background provided by the tradition of the mystic, W. in instance after instance shows that "The visionary experience itself is shaped (and not merely interpreted in light of) certain theoretical assumptions" (7). Hence, his richly suggestive first chapter, drawing from biblical, apocalyptic and rabbinic sources, clearly sets out the paradox already present in the Bible itself. "From one perspective it is clearly impossible to speak of seeing God, since it is axiomatic that God does not possess a material form; yet from another it is precisely such a claim to visionary experience that must be upheld" (51). (Cf. Exodus 24:10 AND 33:20.)

Ever appreciative of Gershom Scholem's invaluable contribution in making Jewish mysticism available to this age, W. nonetheless qualifies certain of Scholem's assertions, among them the latter's tendency to prefer mysticism of the introvertive type, "a formlessness that overcomes all forms," over the cognitive, "the beholding of the ultimate form - a vision of God in gleams of ecstatic vision" (61-62). Affirming the role of imagination "hermeneutically as an agent of meaning in the production of symbols" (63), W. then proceeds to analyze typologically, phenomenologically, and historically visions of God in the early Hekhalot literature, some important medieval pre-Cabbalistic figures, and more extensively the German Pietists of the 12th-13th centuries, and the array of Provencal-Spanish cabbalists whose work culminates in The Zohar.

This bare listing, though impressive enough in the scope of material covered, fails to convey the energy and excitement that burst forth from page after page of this remarkably wide-ranging yet tightly argued work. Biblical verses gain new significance. "And through the prophets I was imaged" (Hosea 12:11) is repeatedly cited as warrant for the imaging of the divine in various forms. Images of the divine involving chariot, throne, light, fire, name, crown, face, phallus, and hieros gamos tumble from nearly every page, yet always in phenomonological and historical context and carefully directed to advance W.'s central thesis, the centrality of the visual in medieval Jewish mysticism, with ample biblical and classical rabbinic support.

Certain of W.'s arguments, however, are more intriguing than convincing. E.g., the chain of reasoning and symbolic interpretation on behalf of the claim that "the Shekhinah is the protruding aspect of the divine phallus, the corona of the penis" (339) seems both strained and constraining. Such a restricted concretization of Shekinah, apart from questions about the validity of some of the symbolic equivalencies, makes difficult the visualization of Shekinah as participant in the clearly heterosexual hieros gamos, another central cabbalistic image. W. himself speaks elsewhere of the "fluidity" of the motif of coronation imagery (367). More generally, I would argue that a unique strength of a nonrepresentational iconic tradition (that is, one which validates images but refuses to give them concrete material rather than verbal form) is precisely this fluidity of form with its possibility of a simultaneity of valences for any given image. Despite this caveat, W.'s overall argument for an ocular phallocentrism is surely an intriguing one that invites, I think, a possibly fruitful comparative inquiry into the phallus of the Anthropos and the Shiva lingam typologically and dynamically.

W.'s work is scholarship in the grand tradition - sweeping in scope and references, precise in analysis and argumentation - with a range of primary and secondary citations that are all the more accessible because they are printed in footnotes to each page rather than as endnotes. Yet W.'s work is not only for scholars; it has value for religious seekers and practitioners as well. While not easy reading, it is clearly presented and evocatively rich in its wealth of source citations. The discussion of prophecy, poetry, and the mystic with respect to imagery is quite suggestive, and the judicious selections of poetry (173-81) would enrich any religious service or meditation. The emphasis on the experiential, together with the excitement of textual confrontation that for the mystics provided "the occasion for visionary experience" (326) might have comparable if mild effects on the reader as well.

Technically speaking, W.'s book is a speculum that does not shine (from intrinsic divine light). It does, however, manage to provide considerable illumination by virtue of the light that it collects and refracts from a variety of visionary and critical sources. Erich Neumann once wrote: "The godhead speaks in colors and symbols. They are the core of the world of feeling and truth.... Only the flame ... can reveal the secret of the world and its divine heart." If Neumann's words are true, we have all the more reason to be grateful to W. for so generously stoking that flame.
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Author:Gendler, Everett
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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