Transcending Transcendence: Repentance and Hypernomian Transformation of Law

December 14, 2021
A discussion with Elliot Wolfson took place on Nov. 18.

This lecture by Elliot Wolfson will examine the viability of a kabbalistic ideal of transformation from the vantage point of identifying repentance as the hypernomian foundation of the nomos, the grounding of the law in the ground that exceeds the law of the ground. I argue that the hallmark of religious nihilism is not antinomianism but the promulgation of the belief that impiety is the gesture of supreme piety. I will explore the subject of hypernomianism by a close analysis of the concept of infinitivity and its engendering in Derridean terms the law beyond the law, which he identified further as the nonjuridical ideal of justice, the gift of forgiveness, the aspect of pure mercy in relation to which it is no longer viable to distinguish guilt and innocence.

Annual List Lecture in Jewish Studies

This event is part of the initiative on Transcendence and Transformation

Elliot R. Wolfson, a Fellow of the American Academy of Jewish Research and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is the Marsha and Jay Glazer Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and Distinguished Professor of Religion at University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of many publications including Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (1994); Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and the Poetic Imagination (2005); Alef, Mem, Tau: Kabbalistic Musings on Time, Truth, and Death (2006); Venturing Beyond—Law and Morality in Kabbalistic Mysticism (2006); Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (2009); A Dream Interpreted within a Dream: Oneiropoiesis and the Prism of Imagination (2011); Giving beyond the Gift: Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania (2014); Elliot R. Wolfson: Poetic Thinking (2015); The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow: Heidegger, Nazism and the Jewish Other (2018); Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiesis (2019); Suffering Time: Philosophical, Kabbalistic, and Ḥasidic Reflections on Temporality (2021).




SPEAKER 1: Harvard Divinity School.

SPEAKER 2: Transcending Transcendence, Repentance and Hypernomian Transformation of Law. November 18, 2021.

CHARLES STANG: Good evening and welcome. My name is Charles Stang, and I have the privilege of serving as the director of the Center for the Study of World Religions here at Harvard Divinity School. Welcome to this evening's event, the center's annual List Lecture in Jewish studies co-sponsored by Harvard's Center for Jewish Studies.

We're honored to have Professor Elliot Wolfson with us this evening, whom I will introduce shortly. We invited Professor Wolfson to align his lecture with the center's new initiative on transcendence and transformation, or T and T for short. And as you might have gathered from his lecture title, he kindly agreed. The T and T initiative supports three subseries, one on psychedelics and the future of religion, another on gnoseologies, and a third on the divine feminine and its discontents.

If you're interested in learning more about the initiative or these different subseries, please visit our website and sign up for our weekly newsletter. You might also want to catch the launch event we had in September, in which I introduced the initiative's aims and its scope. And I introduced our five T and T affiliates, who spoke of their individual and shared research projects. That video is available on our website.

The next T and T event will be in the divine feminine series and will take place on Wednesday, December 1, from 5:00 to 6:30. My colleagues, Dr. Hadi Fakhoury and Professor Mohsen Goudarzi will host Dr. Valentina Grasso from NYU, who will speak on The "Daughters of Allah," Goddess Worship in Pre-Islamic Arabia.

So now allow me to introduce our guest. Professor Elliot Wolfson is a fellow of the American Academy of Jewish Research and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He's also the Marsha and Jay Glazer endowed chair in Jewish studies and distinguished professor of religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

His main area of scholarly research is the history of Jewish mysticism. But he has brought to bear on that field training in philosophy, literary criticism, feminist theory, postmodern hermeneutics, Eastern mystical traditions, and the phenomenology of religion.

He's considered to be the leading scholarly interpreter of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, influential former leader of the Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty. In addition to his scholarly work, Professor Wolfson has published two volumes of poetry and has had a gallery show of his paintings.

His scholarly publications are perhaps too numerous to list here and now. But allow me to name some of his most recent. In 2021, he published "Suffering Time, Philosophical, Kabbalistic, and Hasidic Reflections on Temporality." In 2019, "Heidegger and Kabbalah, Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiesis." In 2018, "The Duplicity of Philosophy's Shadow, Heidegger, Nazism, and the Jewish Other." And in 2014, "Giving Beyond the Gift, Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania."

Professor Wolfson's books have won prestigious awards such as the American Academy of Religion's award for excellence in the study of religion in the category of historical studies-- that was in 1995-- and in 2012, the American Academy of Religion's award for excellence in constructive and reflective studies. He has also won two National Jewish Book Awards in the scholarship category.

This evening's lecture by Professor Wolfson will examine the viability of a Kabbalistic ideal of transformation from the vantage point of identifying repentance as the hypernomian foundation of the nomos, the grounding of the law and the ground that exceeds the law of the ground. He will argue that the hallmark of religious nihilism is not antinomianism but the promulgation of the belief that impiety is the gesture of supreme piety.

He will explore the subject of hypernomianism by a close analysis of the concept of infinitivity and its engendering, in Derridean terms, the law beyond the law, which Derrida identified further as the nonjuridical ideal of justice, the gift of forgiveness, the aspect of pure mercy in relation to which it is no longer viable to distinguish guilt and innocence. Professor Wolfson, thank you for accepting our invitation to deliver this year's List Lecture. We are very honored to have you, to host you. The floor is yours.

ELLIOT WOLFSON: OK. Can everyone hear me?

CHARLES STANG: Loud and clear.

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Loud and clear. Good. Well, thank you very much, Professor Stang, for that generous introduction and also, of course, for the invitation. And so now I'll unpack what you just heard in the summary of what I'm going to speak about this evening-- for you. This afternoon for me.

Today's lecture, I will examine the notion of transformation from the vantage point of the Kabbalistic doctrine of repentance, which I identify, as you've heard, as the hypernomian foundation of the nomos. That is the grounding of the law and the ground that exceeds the law.

At the outset, let me note that my use of the term "hypernomian" is a response to the view put forward by Gershom Scholem and many scholars of Jewish mysticism who have followed him in addition to some prominent historians of religion and philosophers, including Adorno, that religious nihilism and antinomianism are essential characteristics of mysticism.

By replacing antinomianism with hypernomianism, we can better access one of the more daring paradoxes engendered by the kabbalah. Insofar as annulment of the law is the most pristine compliance to the law, impiety is the gesture of supreme piety. Assaulting the principle of non-contradiction and claiming the middle excluded by the law of the excluded middle, the hypernomian stance leads one to detect that good is indistinguishable from evil and that disobedience is transfigured into an act of obedience.

Significantly, in describing the dialectic of an internal transvaluation of the traditional rabbinic ethos in Sabbatianism, which was the pseudo messianic movement that took root in this 17th century, Scholem referred to the dictum transmitted in the name of Reish Lakish that, on occasion, the nullification of the Torah is its foundation. Notwithstanding the veracity of this observation, I would argue that Scholem's emphasis on antinomianism as an extreme nihilism and depraved mysticism-- those are his precise words-- which led to the subversion of the Torah has obscured the more complex engagement with the function of ritual in Sabbatian ideology.

The term "hypernomian" is better suited to capture the phenomenon at the center of this messianic ideology. Surpassing the law is the means of preserving the law. Precisely by being outside the restrictions imposed by the law does the outlaw remain inside the jurisdiction of the law.

It is a posit to mention here Carl Schmitt's thesis that the paradigm that demarcates the function and the structure of law is not the norm but the exception. The exception reveals the state's authority insofar as the rule is reinforced by the exception to the rule.

In a similar spirit, [? Ya'acov ?] [? Talbos ?] argued that Paul promulgated the principle that termination of the law is the most perfect implementation of the law, the transvaluation of values enacted through the crucifixion, the defamatory death ratified by the strictures of [NON-ENGLISH], Jewish law.

From the specific case of Paul, [? Talbos ?] generalizes about the antinomian nature of apocalyptic messianism. The cessation of the law releases the insurgent energy confined within the law and thus allows for a renewal of the Covenant. The persistence of the law strengthens the provisional status of the law.

While both Schmitt and [? Talbos ?] have something to contribute to our topic, I would contend that the hypernomian motif of fulfilling the law by its abrogation is illumined better in terms of Derrida's law beyond the law, the nonjuridical ideal of justice which corresponds to the Kabbalistic idea of the gift of forgiveness, the aspect of pure mercy in relation to which it is no longer viable to distinguish guilt and innocence.

The transmorality that we may deduce from the kabbalah has its conceptual basis in the rabbinic depiction of the elimination of the distinction between merit and demerit in the messianic future, the axiological tenet that upholds the system of reward and punishment required by biblical law and the Talmudic application thereof. The premise of this lecture is that repentance, which is the anthropological corollary to the theological impetus to forgive, embodies the axiom of transcending transcendence.

Before proceeding to the crux of the argument, let me briefly explain what I mean by this locution. To transcend transcendence implicates one paradoxically in the affirmation of what is negated and the negation of what is affirmed. The double bind of transcending transcendence entails the positing of an imminence that has no recourse to any trace of an unknowable mystery outside the manifold web of the interrelational entities that constitute the world.

From this standpoint, the widely held ontotheological assumption that the nature of being implies that there is an agency of gifting is challenged. In place of the gift, we should speak of an event of giving that yields the apperception of beings cohering extensively in space and intensively in time.

To be divested of the fideistic impulse that has triggered the return to theism in contemporary phenomenologies of religion is to ponder, in Badiou's terminology, the evental occurrence of being in its absoluteness-- that is, to conceive of the event absolved from all dependency on a hierarchical relation between transcendent cause and imminent effect.

Cast phenomenologically, the goal of mystical experience is to be conjoined to and immersed within the formless. But this does not signal the eradication of form since there is no way to the formless but through the forms preserved in the suspension of their formation.

Many scholars have acknowledged the inevitable need of the mystic to express the inexpressible, to communicate the incommunicable. But more profoundly, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, imagelessness is the great refuge of all images. Perhaps even more pertinent is Benjamin's comment that every apparition is a deformation, [NON-ENGLISH], of what has been formed. It is a characteristic of all imagination that it plays a game of dissolution with its forms.

Applying this insight to Kabbalistic theosophy, you could say that the imaginal disfiguration of every configuration of the imageless [NON-ENGLISH], the infinite, implies that there is no mode of givingness this that is not also a refusal to give, no seeing of the face but through the mask of the face-- that is, another mask. The unseen is manifest in the hiddenness of its disclosure.

And the Kabbalistic material, while may elicit the wisdom that, in my opinion, is expressed as well in other mystical traditions, the removal of the veil results in the unfurling of another veil to be unfurled. The final veil to lift implies that the final veil to lift is the veil of thinking that there is a final veil to lift. We can speak of the removal of all barriers once we realize that the greatest of barriers is to speak of the removal of all barriers. Only when it is understood that we cannot see without a veil may the veil be discarded.

The emphasis on manifestation without concealment therefore amounts to being worthy to contemplate the manifestation of concealment-- that is, to utilize Henry Corbin's explanation of what he calls the test of the veil in the Sufi tradition, the one with mystical intuition on Earth that the world is not but the concealment of the divine concealment. And hence through the veil, one sees the veil and thereby discerns that god is present in the very world from which god is absent.

The cosmos accordingly is the mirror whereby the divine light sees itself through that which is allegedly other than itself. From the spiritual topography of the Andalusian mystic and poet Ibn Arabi, Corbin deduces that all creation is an epiphany, the manifestation of the unmanifest the passage from occultation to revelation. And as such, it is an act of divine imagination.

However, the disclosure of the hidden perforce requires that the hidden remains hidden in its disclosure. Otherwise, it is not a disclosure of the hidden. The imagination therefore, as Corbin noted, can reveal the hidden only by continuing to veil it. Once transparency is achieved, the visionary can discriminate between the hidden and the manifest.

But at a deeper level, the imaginal vision transmits the truth of the coincidentia oppositorum such that opposites are identical in virtue of their opposition. And hence there is no manifestation of the imaginative presence that is not at the same time an occlusion. In each moment, the display of the inapparent being in the manifold beings of the universe, or what Corbin refers to as the homologation of the infinite in finite form, assumes a distinct appearance.

Indeed, each theophany is a new creation that is discontinuous with the past and impervious to the causal sequence of outward facts. But the appearance of the inapparent can appear only to the extent that it persists as inapparent. Ibn Arabi does describe the Quranic text as the tablet that contains all cosmic forms that serve as the veils through which god is unveiled. And the concomitant figural representation of the cosmos is the book that comprises the totality of semiotic signs that point to that which cannot be signified.

Unconcealment on this score is not a disrobing of the naked truth but the disposing of the garment in which truth is attired. That there is no truth denuded of the vestment of untruth accords with the assumption that the infinite cannot appear except as inapparent. Hence truth is not visible unless it is enveloped in the shroud of invisibility.

The same logic can be leveled against Scholem's surmise that the extreme expression of mystical nihilism, as we find in the case of Paul in late antiquity or in the radical wing of the Sabbatian movement and, in later Frankism, the early modern period, involves the unequivocal rejection of all authority and the creation of new structures that displace the older ones. There is no epistemological basis for this claim, as it rests on a misunderstanding of the temporal category of newness.

I would counter that there is no novelty in the present that is not a genuine iteration of the past. What is brought forth each moment therefore is a renewal of what has been, albeit from a different vantage point. Time is marked by the perpetual repetition of the altogether otherwise. The mystic visionary experiences this philosophical truism in his or her understanding of time as the measure of the ever-changing appearance of the non-appearance of the divine [? exeity. ?]

Now I move on to a closer look at the idea of infinitivity in the Kabbalistic material and what I call the paleontology of the meta-ontological void. According to Kabbalistic text going back as early as the 13th and 14th centuries, at the apex of the contemplative ladder, one encounters the nothingness of infinity, the originary void that transcends all differentiation, even the difference between infinite and finite, the not other of the other fluctuating between the potential actuality of nonbeing and the actual potentiality of being.

By stating that the ground of the nonground is beyond all distinctions, I do not mean to imply that [NON-ENGLISH], the infinite, is an invisible substance positioned outside the periphery of visuality. What I intend, rather, is that [NON-ENGLISH] is, according to the seemingly illogical utterance in a passage from the Zohar compilation, the light that does not exist in the light, [NON-ENGLISH]. Although the precise phraseology of [NON-ENGLISH] is not used in this passage, the fuller context makes it clear that the author is speaking about the inscrutable origin that remains concealed in its inscrutability.

And I quote a little bit more from the passage. The light that does not exist in the light engraved and issued the spark of all sparks. And it struck in the will of wills, and it was hidden therein. And it is not known.

Lacking the appropriate nomenclature to name the namelessness that is neither something or nothing, the medieval Kabbalist speaks paradoxically about a light too luminous to be characterized as light, a light so incandescent it sheds the garment of light in which it is attired. This light that is not light radiates in but is simultaneously removed from the imminent reality of the cosmological chain.

Insofar as the nameless is declaimed by the way of the name that both reveals and conceals its namelessness, the formless is a vision by way of the form that both reveals and conceals its formlessness. [? Nosis ?] is inseparably bound to agnosia. That is, one cannot know the unveiling of the veil of truth but through unknowing the truth veiled in the veil of untruth.

The Kabbalistic infinite does not betoken a transcendent being beyond being, a [? hyperoceos ?] in the neoplatonic lexicon, but rather the principle falsification of any such being, the signifier of the absence of signification. There is thus no access to the light but through the garment of light. And this is true even in the future, when the light will be revealed without any obstacles or barriers, as I mentioned previously.

To be sure, Kabbalists uniformly insist that the future revelation will be more disclosive. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that even that ultimate disclosure is said to be through the veil of the name, since it is only through the name that one can come to the nameless, the will of the infinite that is depleted of all willfulness, the will that wills nothing but the nothingness of the will.

The interiority of that will, or perhaps we should say nonwill, transcends in its nondifferentiation the polarity of guilt and innocence demanded by the yardstick of the law. The access to the infinite will is through repentance, the hypernomian principle par excellence, since it short circuits the system of reward and punishment undergirding the law but, in so doing, provides the foundation of that system.

The teaching attributed to Reish Lakish, whom I mentioned before, [NON-ENGLISH], "Great is repentance, for acts of culpability become for him like acts of merit," intimates that the transmutation of guilt into innocence is based on a hypothesis that opposites are the same in virtue of their opposition. Extending this tradition, Kabbalists depict the Torah to be revealed in the eschaton, the Torah of emanation, which derives from the tree of life, as an expression of the infinite nothingness that encroaches upon the logic of polarities that informs the Torah in the current historical epoch, the Torah of creation, which derives from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Alternatively expressed, the messianic Torah is the law that disavows the demarcation of the law insofar as it is characterized by a unity that overcomes the distinction between permissible and forbidden. In the new Torah, all things formerly banned are sanctioned because the sin of Adam has been rectified and evil as an adversarial force has been neutralized. Normativity, however its ideology is envisioned, it rests on a distinction between admissible and inadmissible.

If the former morphs into the latter, which is the implication of the rabbinic understanding of repentance as the agency that alchemically transposes vice into virtue, then the binarian framework collapses. As jarring as this might seem, Kabbalists who were part of the rabbinic intelligentsia wholly argued that the most recondite layer of textual meaning imparts of crossing a boundary, an esoteric gnosis predicated on postulating the nonduality that supplants the dualistic indexicality of the law.

Kabbalistic lore thus lends support to the description of the mystical way offered by Simone Weil. I could have cited any number of writers and thinkers on this point, but I chose a passage by Weil, where she describes mysticism as the passing beyond the sphere where good and evil are in opposition. And this is achieved by the union of the soul with the absolute good. Absolute good is different, she goes onto say, from the good which is the opposite and correlative of evil.

This breach of boundary is effectuated by the human capacity to repent and the divine facility to forgive. Without the measure that extends beyond the perimeter of law, the metrics of the law could not be maintained. It stands to reason that the Spanish Kabbalists who first developed this conception did so in conversation with the polemical confrontation of Christianity and especially as it pertained to the Pauline argument that under the law's constraints, one cannot be justified. And therefore the law itself must be established on the basis of grace, the criterion that supersedes the law.

From the Kabbalistic perspective, which, as I've already suggested, advances a sensibility attested already in the dicta of some rabbinic sages, repentance fulfills the equivalent role of the extralegal benchmark of grace that surpasses the law and thereby secures the dichotomization essential to fortifying the parameters of the law delineated by a strict dyad of what is deemed respectively as worship that is venerable or as transgression that is deplorable.

According to a Talmudic dictum adopted by Kabbalists, messianic redemption is dependent on repentance. Esoterically construed, the rabbinic teaching implies that repentance is a temporal incident that is not subject to the conventional tripartite delineation of time. To say that redemption is initiated by repentance means that it will transpire, as masters of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty frequently emphasized, in one moment and in one second-- that is, in an interval of time that is not temporal, [NON-ENGLISH].

This, too, is the mystical intent of the adage often cited by Kabbalists that divine salvation comes like a blink of the eye. [NON-ENGLISH]. As one of the earliest Hasidic masters, Menachem Nochum of Chernobyl, put it, salvation that is according to nature requires time, for nature is in time. But the salvation of the lord, which is above time and nature, is something that is called twilight, that which unites the two but is neither day nor night, merely the blink of the eye for which time is not appropriate.

Analogously, the rectification of repentance occurs as if in an instant since it ensues from the state before the world was created-- that is, from a state that is above temporality. And hence everything can be repaired in a blink of the eye without any endurance of time. By cleaving to the source that is above time, the repentant becomes a new creation in time, albeit independent of the division into past, present, and future.

So now I turn to the implications of these ideas for what I call the demarcating of the other within and the other without. So the other within would refer to the Jewish women, the feminine. And the other without would refer to the attitude towards non-Jews.

I will turn now to the implications of the hypernomian measure of justice as the immeasurable excess of measure with respect to the othering of the other, both externally and internally, that is in relation to non-Jews and to Jewish women. [? On ?] [? the ?] [? face, ?] one might presume that the obliteration of binaries would result both ideationally and practically in an egalitarian heterogeneity, a corrective to the gender inequality between male and female and the ethnic disparity between Jew and non-Jew.

Lamentably, the situation is more complex. Kabbalistic literature provokes the counterintuitive conclusion that the annihilation of difference can serve to fortify the very difference sought to be annihilated. Expressed in the celebrated language evoked by Paul in Galatians 3:28, when we proclaim that there is neither male nor female, it may be because the male incorporates the female. And when we profess that there is neither Jew nor Greek, it may be because the Jew is the archetypal human that encompasses the Greek in the one body that is Christ Jesus.

Needless to say, I acknowledge that the baptismal formula can be read in a more genuinely democratic fashion. And this would include the abolition of the socioeconomic difference between the slave and the one who is free. The reading I have proposed, however, is equally plausible. More to the point, I evoke the text as a stratagem to shed light on the predominant, even if not exclusive, view that may be extracted from Kabbalistic sources.

Turning to the other within, the status of the Jewish female, let me state clearly that Kabbalists endorsed the containment of the masculine right in the feminine left as much as they subscribed to the containment of the feminine left in the masculine right. The mandate is to amalgamate the attribute of day and night and the attribute of night and day with the goal of attaining the state in which there is neither day nor night insofar as the day subsumes the nocturnality of the night in its diurnality.

To mention one of many relevant Zohar passages that articulate this point, the union of Isaac and Rebecca is said to symbolize the unity of judgment and merit so that there will be perfection. In the same passage, we read that the task allotted to the tribunal of the Sanhedrin, the high court, was to join merit and judgment in order to prevent the demonic force of the other side prevailing in the execution of the divine decree. This is also offered as the mystical significance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.

I chose this passage because, typically, the feminine is aligned with judgment. But it appears in this case Rebecca is connected to the right side and Isaac to the left side. We should not be surprised, however, because gender attribution is not correlated entirely with anatomical taxonomy, hence Rebecca is somatically female. But symbolically, she can depict a masculine trait, whereas Isaac is somatically male. But symbolically, he can depict a feminine trait.

Assuredly, the passage validates the idea that perfection of the mystery of faith requires the pairing of the left and the right and of the right and the left. The agency accorded to the female figure of Rebecca should not blind us from ascertaining the irreducible asymmetry between the two kinds of containment.

The ultimate goal is to ameliorate judgment by its inclusion in mercy and not to transform mercy into judgment. The onus is on us to make the female male and not the male female. And this applies even-- nay, especially-- to images that depict the future as the ascent of the female from the bottom to the top of the head of the male.

To avoid misinterpretation, although that is very difficult to do, I will emphasize again that I'm not denying the possibility of Kabbalists affirming a transgendering of the male into female. Indeed, I recognize that this is the eschatological telos that emerges from their theosophic speculation. The preference on the part of the male Kabbalists, however, is the transgendering of the female as male so that judgment is ameliorated and converted into mercy rather than transgendering of the male as female, whereby mercy is denigrated and converted into judgment.

Examination of the sources unfettered to identity politics and the need to anchor contemporary social change in a textual landscape produced in a vastly different environment, no matter how worthy that mission is, reveals that the empowering of the female is specularized from this vantage point. And there is scant evidence for the privileging of the women in this body of literature.

The feminine accorded agency is transvalued as masculine. In the end, the female is restored to the position of the diatom atop the head of the male. Based on the scriptural metaphor, the woman of valor is a crown for her husband. And on the egotic image of the righteous in the world of [? Khan, ?] sitting with their diatoms on their heads, the transproposal is also a transvaluation. And thus the process of the elevation of the feminine is describing various technical symbols.

The most remarkable representation of this eschatological reversal, the female encircling the male, is a depiction of the ascent of malchut, the tenth of the emanations, to the head that is not known-- that is, the return of the kingship at the base of the world of emanation to the head that is not known at the summit. These attempts to mark the transvaluation at the end are the logical outcome of the assumption that in the beginning, the female was absorbed in the male as the diatom of the covenant and was not yet a discrete entity.

So the elevation of the feminine from the bottom to the top and the overturning of the order that it portends are still operating within the semiotic framework of the phallus as the ultimate in scriptural space of signification. The dynamic that applies to the other from within can be applied equally to the relation to the other from without.

In spite of strict ontological barriers separating Jew and non-Jew rooted in Hebrew scripture and augmented by rabbinic jurisprudence, Kabbalists have been cognizant of the theoretical and actual possibility of the boundaries being trespassed by conversion. The non-Jew becoming Jew is a realignment of the Jewish soul with a new body, whereas a Jew becoming a non-Jew is a descent of the godly spark into the snare of the satanic.

Interestingly, both processes stabilize rather than subvert the esoteric truth that may have served as a pathway for the potential convert to venture to the other side. The very secrets that impel the individual to assume an ostensibly different identity are curiously sustained in their subversion. The eschatological underpinning of the social practice of conversion portends the effacing of difference and a narrowing of the chasm separating the Jew and non-Jew.

The transmogrification is realized most theatrically in the soul of the Jew assuming the material garment of the non-Jew, as the descent is the means to achieve the ascent, the liberating of the sparks from the demonic, and the restoration to the divine. On a deeper register, one understands that the descent is the ascent and, deeper still, that the bridging of difference enhances the difference that is bridged.

This is the esoteric import of the Talmudic maxim that in the days of the messiah, proselytes will not be received. That is, they will not be received because the surmounting of the boundary buttresses the boundary that is surmounted. The rectification will be complete only in the future when there will be no more distinction between Jew and non-Jew because the latter will be reincorporated into the post-human form that, like the prelapsarian Adam, is neither [? Adon ?] nor Israel insofar as there is no autonomous evil in opposition to the good.

The future Torah, which consists of the true light that is no longer subject to the dichotomy of holy and unholy, embodies the hypernomian margin that demarcates the center of the nomian, the limit beyond the law that is the foundation of the law, the meta-ethical destabilization that grounds the possibility of an ethical imperative. Just as the female is encompassed in the male that is both and neither male nor female and the non-Jew is submerged in the Jew that is both and neither Jew nor non-Jew, so the unholy is integrated in the holy that is both and neither holy nor unholy.

And evil is incorporated in the good that is both and neither good nor evil. And with this, I return to Derrida. In "Avowing, The Impossible, Returns, Repentance, and Reconciliation," he writes, the excess with regard to the laws of nature as well as to the laws of culture is always in excess with regard to the whole. And I do not take the difficulty lightly. It is almost unthinkable, very close to impossible, precisely. And can declaring oneself Jewish in whatever mode-- and there are so many-- grant the privileged access to this justice, to this law beyond laws?

Why would Derrida ask if the Jew is granted privileged access to the justice of the law beyond law, which he identifies with repentance? To comprehend his attention, we must bear in mind that for Derrida, the demarcation of the Jew as other, the [NON-ENGLISH]-- in Hebrew, that is interpreted as the one from the other side of the river-- implies that the alterity associated with the Jew is not only in relation to the other but also in relation to himself or herself.

Derrida alludes to this point when he writes, quote, "I am Jewish in saying the Jew is the other who has no essence, who has nothing of his own and whose own essence is to have none." If the Jew possesses no innate properties and has no essence apart from the essence of having no essence, it follows that to be a Jew of necessity incorporates being other than the Jew by virtue of not being the being that one is.

Derrida speaks about the paradox of the identity of non-self-identity adduced from his experience as a Jew becoming more Jewish by being less Jewish. To cite one passage that illustrates this sentiment, quote, "I still feel at once, at the same time, as less Jewish and more Jewish than the Jew, as scarcely Jewish and as superlatively Jewish as possible, more than Jew, exemplarily Jew, but also hyperbolically Jew."

Derrida professes to feel concurrently less Jewish and more Jewish than the Jew, as scarcely Jewish and as superlatively Jewish as possible, more than Jew, exemplarily Jew, but also hyperbolically Jew. The dissociation from self that renders the Jew at once as less Jewish and as most Jewish was predicated on the perception that the otherness of the Jew perforce comprises its own other, a universal that transcends the particular in which it is comprised, the cut of circumcision that is the mark of difference, the grammatological destruction of the logocenters of Western philosophy.

The justice of the law beyond the law enacts this paradox of exemplarity. The more we assert a particular identity, the more we do so in the name of a universality that undermines the particularity. With this, I come to my conclusion.

Derrida's position can be profitably compared with the claim embraced by Levinas that Jewish ethnocentrism is the condition that safeguards the viability of a genuine alterity since the notion of an absolutely universal, the principle that grounds the sense of respect for an obligation toward the other, quote, "can be served only through the particularity of each people but particularity named in rootedness."

To understand Levinas's position, we would do well to recall that in his critique of Heidegger, he duly noted that to comprehend the particular being is already to place oneself beyond the particular. To comprehend it is to be related to the particular that only exists through knowledge, which is always knowledge of the universal.

The corrective to this quandary is to validate the universal on the basis of the particular-- that is, to particularize the universal rather than to universalize the particular, which in Levinasian terms means to ground the universality of reason in the ethical duty that ensues from opening the face to one's neighbor, the epiphany of the other that occasioned the discourse that compels entering into discourse.

Levinas placed the burden of bearing the encumbrance of this universal particularism at the heart of Israel's messianic mission, that the consummate stranger, the Jew, is the figural token of the alterity that comports the nature of human subjectivity. The Jew stands as witness to the fact that we are similar by virtue of our unassailable dissimilarity, that what is essential to our being is the refusal to allow ourselves to be tamed or domesticated by a theme, that proximity to the absolute exteriority of the other is achieved through relationship with a singular interiority that is always in excess of the mediation of principle of ideality, the element in consciousness that is not posited by consciousness, the difference which is non-indifference, the transcendence that is transcended. Thank you.

CHARLES STANG: Thank you so much, Professor Wolfson. Well, our guests managed to put their questions into the Q&A function at the bottom of their screens. I will presume to ask one or two questions, if you don't mind.

So first of all, the first is really just a clarification. About halfway through your lecture, maybe even earlier, you made a distinction between the Kabbalistic [NON-ENGLISH] and the neoplatonic [NON-ENGLISH], god beyond being. And I confess I fail to understand the contrast you were drawing there, why specifically the god beyond being was inadequate to the task at hand. So could you just, for my sakes-- forgive me [INAUDIBLE] question-- run through that for me?

ELLIOT WOLFSON: OK. Well, let me first kind of recoil a bit. In other words, so the neoplatonic structure or concept can probably be interpreted in a way that would align itself more with what I elicit from the Kabbalistic sources with regard to the [NON-ENGLISH].

But what I was assuming was that maybe here, I'm beholden a little bit to Derrida's earlier critiques, although I also recognize that he shifted a bit his own thinking. That is to say, the beyond being is a being nonetheless, whereas in the Kabbalistic literature, we find really, from quite early on, the exact language of it is neither being nor nonbeing. So the infinite can be reified even as the being that is beyond being. Maybe it's closer to Levinas's otherwise than being.

CHARLES STANG: OK. All right, that's helpful. So I'm thinking of Derrida and Derrida's, what is it, "How to"-- "Denials of How to--" where he feels that the [NON-ENGLISH] is already a predetermined addressee, if I'm not mistaken, right? But it's not, in fact, an open-- it's fixed. OK, that's very helpful.

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Right. But I'm willing to engage in a dialogue about that because I could shift my thinking on this.


ELLIOT WOLFSON: Because I think the material is very-- obviously, as you well know. Yeah. It's slippery.

CHARLES STANG: It certainly is. And I think a lot of it has to do with what we take [NON-ENGLISH] to mean, [NON-ENGLISH]. And I've been wrestling with that myself. So I appreciate your leaving the door open for a dialogue on that.

Well, as you well know, I'm very interested in Corbin. So I was very happy to see him make an appearance in your talk. And I know that you've been engaging with Corbin for many, many years deeply.

This is a fairly unformed question. Well, I'm trying to decide whether I should go with my unformed question or a question someone has texted me. I'm going to go with the one that someone's texted me because it's a little bit better baked than mine.

So you cited Corbin's test of the veil. And you spoke of the veiling function of imagination. What is the role of the imagination in the transcending of transcendence and in the act of repentance?

ELLIOT WOLFSON: What's the role of the veil?

CHARLES STANG: What is the role of the imagination?

ELLIOT WOLFSON: What is the role of-- well, in Corbin's terms, I mean, my thinking here would be very much aligned with Corbin, which incidentally is, on this point, very indebted to Heidegger. Namely, there can be no bestowing that isn't at the same time a withholding. There can be no epiphany that is not at the same time an occlusion. There can be no manifestation that is not at the same time a concealment, no unveiling that is not at the same time a veiling. So all of that is at play in my own thinking.

CHARLES STANG: And insofar as you-- I'm going to pivot to my fairly unbaked question, which is about Corbin's early work on time and whether and how that relates to your own meditations on time in this lecture. So do you take any inspiration from Corbin's theory, especially of Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis and Mazdaism in relation to your own work?

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Yeah. OK, for a moment, I wasn't sure exactly what you were referring to. But now, that helped. Now I know what you mean.

Not exactly, because my own thinking of time, which is very much based on the sources I've studied, has yielded the structure of what I call the linear circle or the circular line. So it's more of a swerve.

So in his early work, I think he's still operating with too much of a binary between the linear and the circular. And so but I have found some statements in his work, specifically when he talked about Ibn Arabi, that do come closer to my own thinking, which is predicated on kind of the paradox of returning to where one has never been so that each moment is a return but in a way that is otherwise, altogether otherwise, I said at some point.

The line in Heidegger, which I was echoing, Heidegger says repetition is that which is altogether otherwise. And so some of his statements about Ibn Arabi do venture toward that paradox. But I'd have to go back and look at the early work. Unless do you recall from the early work he embraces a paradox of that nature?

CHARLES STANG: No, I don't think he does. No. No, I can't recall that. All right. I'm going to take-- we have a question in the queue. And it's an anonymous question, but I'm going to read it out. I don't know if you have access to the Q&A. So you might be able to see it, too. But I'll read it out for the purposes of our audience.

Thank you for this elucidating talk. Even though we are reading the godhead as androgynous, it strikes me that its, quote unquote, "sharing of the phallus and thus quintessential maleness of the godhead" is important and that brings the female aspect significance. The sharing of the womb is not made meaningful. The eschaton has more to do with the female becoming elevated to the male, not the equality of the two.

Are we worried about what this means the Kabbalists thought of women or, rather, that they did not think of women until these women became men? Is this a meaningful androgyny or just another way of reading maleness?

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Yeah. Well, it's an anonymous, so I thank the person behind that. So much of my work has articulated precisely what is implied in that question and for which, of course, I've endured quite a bit of criticism because, indeed, I have argued that-- I've used a term that I first came across in Wendy Doniger, the male androgyne, in her work on Hinduism.

And I said I find something very similar in the Kabbalistic material. It's a male androgyne. And perhaps the easiest way to explain that, and I always use this with my students, is if you take the two accounts of the creation of the human in Hebrew scripture.

So Genesis 1 says that god created Adam. Male and female, he created him, or them. And then Genesis 2 speaks of the woman being constructed out of the man.

Now, since the Kabbalists didn't have any way of reading scripture except in a holistic manner, they read Genesis 2 as an explication of Genesis 1. So Genesis 1 yields the androgyne motif. But insofar as the woman is constructed out of the man, it basically amounts to a male androgyne. And so the questioner got the point exactly correctly.

CHARLES STANG: Could you say something about, if you don't mind, the sort of criticism you've endured by holding that position and why?

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Yeah. Well, because, I mean, there's a lot of identity politics at play here, I suppose. I mean, of course, I recognize the really dramatic and radical transformations that Judaism has undergone even since I was a child. So in some sense, the work has been done. It's not complete, but it's been done, the kind of transformation culturally of Judaism and the role accorded to women.

But as someone who was trained philologically and also as an intellectual historian, in reading the sources, I had to offer what I thought was a more honest assessment of what I found in those sources. And many scholars are not happy with it. They feel that my emphasis on the male androgyne or phallocentrism is more my imposing of a model on these texts monolithically and that I don't recognize the possibility for a much more positive role accorded to women, even, according to one scholar, privileging of the feminine.


ELLIOT WOLFSON: Yeah. That's the short of it.

CHARLES STANG: Got it. Thank you. I was wondering if I could ask you to reflect a little bit on how you think of your own work. And here's what I have in mind. In introducing you, I get to say things like, your scholarly contributions are in the history of Jewish mysticism, but you bring to bear all these other fields-- philosophy of religion, phenomenology of religion, literary criticism, gender studies, continental philosophy, Eastern mystical traditions.

I could keep going on and on. I wonder how you think of your work today, including what you've just offered to us. Do you understand yourself as a philosopher of religion? Do you understand yourself as a philosopher? Do you understand yourself as doing some kind of mystical philosophy in and of itself?

And to what degree do you understand that as scholarship-- and it's a poor distinction, but scholarship or, again, something like constructive philosophy? And do you slot different things you write into those different categories?

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Do I have to choose?

CHARLES STANG: No. You can answer that one however you wish.

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Because I guess, in some way, I'm trying to be all of the things that you suggested. I mean, I certainly recognize that, over time, the constructive dimension became more and more salient, more prominent. But I do think it was there actually from the beginning. But it was more hidden in the philological, textual, historical analysis. But I think really, from the beginning, there was a constructive dimension to my work.

So I don't know if I'm a philosopher. I mean, my training was in philosophy, and I think that's really where I feel most anchored. I think you gave-- one of your taxonomies, was it mystical philosophy, did you say?

CHARLES STANG: Yeah. I don't know what that means.

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Yeah. No, well, how would you characterize Corbin?

CHARLES STANG: Oh, great question. I would characterize Corbin as a constructive theologian drawing on the resources of comparative philosophy. And I mean, in many ways, I could give a version of Corbin that echoed what I said about you-- a historian of Islamic mysticism who brings to bear all these different methodologies.

But I think his beating heart is actually a constructive-- in his case, I think I would say constructive theology. Although perhaps if pressed, that would also collapse.

ELLIOT WOLFSON: No, I don't think so, although I think he would think of it as philosophy in his very unique idea of what Islamic philosophy is from the East and Orientalism, Oriental philosophy.

CHARLES STANG: Oriental philosophy or theosophy.


CHARLES STANG: Right, to lay claim to that. Yeah.

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Yeah. But I think where-- obviously, I'm not comparing myself to Corbin. But I think there is a lot of affinity there. But he's probably more of a true believer.

CHARLES STANG: OK. Well, that brings me to another question. And if there has been a constructive thread in your work from the beginning, and maybe it's become more pronounced, for whom are you constructing something? Who is your imagined audience, specifically on that constructive thread?

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Yeah. Well, it certainly is imagined.

CHARLES STANG: Some of the best readerships are imagined.

ELLIOT WOLFSON: I really don't know. I know that something has driven me all these years. And I guess we write into a future that we don't really know.

I don't really know my audience. I mean, I could say the obvious things, scholars of Jewish mysticism. But I don't think, for the most part, scholars of Jewish mysticism have really understood the project, certainly not to the depth that you described it. So I don't I don't really consider them as my primary audience.

So I don't know. I think it remains to be seen. It's a story to be written.

CHARLES STANG: No, no doubt remains to be seen.

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Yeah. Somebody once introduced me with the proverbial, he doesn't need an introduction. And I said, yeah, but I need a conclusion.

CHARLES STANG: That's good. Well, it doesn't sound like your conclusion's anywhere near happening. So one way to-- I don't want to belabor this point, so if this is tedious, don't feel you need to answer it. But I wonder whether one way to explore that question would be to ask if there's a sort of-- if you've been pleasantly surprised by a reader or an audience or a reception and what might that be a sign of an imagined or an emerging audience.

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Yeah. So that's also an excellent question. I mean, I don't go looking too much. But occasionally, I get emails. And it's usually from non-academics. I have to be honest. It's usually from non-academics who are more appreciative of the work.

In terms of scholars, perhaps there are things out there. I don't know. I don't really invest a lot of time checking on this, to be candid. But I hope that the work is making its mark in places that I'm not normally identified with.


ELLIOT WOLFSON: Because I try, in my work, to be comprehensive and to engage in many different conversations.

CHARLES STANG: Well, I know you didn't want to compare yourself to Corbin. So I will. Well, one thing that we noted in this seminar that I taught on Corbin last year with my colleague here at the center, Hadi Fakhourym is that some of the most interesting reception of Corbin has been entirely outside of Islamic studies and entirely outside of academia.

So we've been wrestling with how to metabolize his audience among poets, painters, and playwrights. So there, too, a comparison may be drawn.

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, one of the nicest messages I got, it was from a poet whom I don't know. And she said, may you live to be 120. Actually, more. May you live to be 150 because we really need you. That really got to my heart, that somebody would say that. Yeah.

CHARLES STANG: That's better than a good book review, isn't it? Well, Professor Wolfson, I want to thank you so much for this lecture. It was very rich and demanding, which is exactly what I was expecting and exactly what I was hoping it would be. I'm going to pick you up on the invitation at some point to explore that question of whether the [NON-ENGLISH], the god beyond being, is as rebarbative to the [NON-ENGLISH] as Derrida says it is.

But that can be a private conversation. But I appreciate you leaving the door open for that because-- and I don't have a stake in it. It may be that he's-- it haunts me. The question haunts me, I guess is what I should say.

Wonderful. Well, thank you once again for doing this. And for those of you who have gathered and are still with us, I'm grateful for your joining us. And please stay tuned for the next event in this initiative and all the other events that we host. And join me in, at least virtually, thanking Professor Wolfson.

ELLIOT WOLFSON: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks again for having me.

CHARLES STANG: It's a pleasure and an honor. Take care.

ELLIOT WOLFSON: All right. Thank you.

CHARLES STANG: Bye, everyone.

SPEAKER 2: Sponsors-- Center for the Study of World Religions and the Center for Jewish Studies.

SPEAKER 1: Copyright 2021, the president and fellows of Harvard College.