The Mysteries of a Founding Text of Jewish Mysticism

Sefer Y’tsirah (“The Book of Creation”) is one of the oldest works of Jewish mysticism, the first to introduce the doctrine of the ten emanations (in Hebrew, sfirot) of the godhead, and a major influence on all later kabbalistic works. Tradition attributes it to the biblical Abraham, and a book with the same title is mentioned in the Talmud. But among academic scholars there is no consensus about its authorship, except that it was composed no later than the 9th century CE. Reviewing a new book by Tzahi Weiss about Sefer Y’tsirah’s origins, Shai Secunda writes:

[Sefer Y’tsirah] was creatively read against the grain by determined rationalists such as the 10th-century Babylonian rabbi Saadia Gaon, who understood it as disciplined cosmological speculation. And it inspired Gentiles, too, from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco.

What attracted this readership of kabbalists, philosophers, writers, and dreamers? For one, it was the book’s arresting thesis that the basic components of mathematical and verbal language, the letters and numbers that make up human speech and equations, are the very elements through which God fashioned the universe. At least as important is Sefer Y’tsirah’s idiom, which helped this obscure and extremely concise text—it weighs in at just a couple thousand words—secure a permanent place in the canon of Hebrew literature. . . .

[A]s Weiss demonstrates, classical rabbinic literature does not share this text’s alphabetology, where all of the letters, from aleph to tav, make up a kind of divine periodic table. In the religious writings of late antiquity, this [sort of thinking] can only be found in the Syriac Christian literature of northern Mesopotamia, where an ancient interest in the generative powers of the divine alphabet flourished, having overcome earlier opposition by Neoplatonists and Church Fathers.

Weiss contends that Sefer Y’tsirah applies the Syriac Christian alphabetology to the singular language of Hebrew. He argues that the text emerged from a barely known northern Mesopotamian Jewish community at some remove from rabbinic Babylonia, located to the south. . . . The thesis seems compelling, and Weiss may indeed have finally solved the problem of Sefer Y’tsirah’s original context. Yet, one cannot avoid the sense that Weiss’s straightforward scholarly detective work is a poor interpretive fit for a text that revels in mystery, repeatedly invoking its “ciphers of restraint” and “substance from Nothing.”

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: ancient Judaism, Babylonian Jewry, Kabbalah, Middle East Christianity

While Israel Is Distracted on Two Fronts, Iran Is on the Verge of Building Nuclear Weapons

Iran recently announced its plans to install over 1,000 new advanced centrifuges at its Fordow nuclear facility. Once they are up and running, the Institute for Science and International Security assesses, Fordow will be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for three nuclear bombs in a mere ten days. The U.S. has remained indifferent. Jacob Nagel writes:

For more than two decades, Iran has continued its efforts to enhance its nuclear-weapons capability—mainly by enriching uranium—causing Israel and the world to concentrate on the fissile material. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently confirmed that Iran has a huge stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent, as well as more enriched to 20 percent, and the IAEA board of governors adopted the E3 (France, Germany, UK) proposed resolution to censure Iran for the violations and lack of cooperation with the agency. The Biden administration tried to block it, but joined the resolution when it understood its efforts to block it had failed.

To clarify, enrichment of uranium above 20 percent is unnecessary for most civilian purposes, and transforming 20-percent-enriched uranium to the 90-percent-enriched product necessary for producing weapons is a relatively small step. Washington’s reluctance even to express concern about this development appears to stem from an unwillingness to acknowledge the failures of President Obama’s nuclear policy. Worse, writes Nagel, it is turning a blind eye to efforts at weaponization. But Israel has no such luxury:

Israel must adopt a totally new approach, concentrating mainly on two main efforts: [halting] Iran’s weaponization actions and weakening the regime hoping it will lead to its replacement. Israel should continue the fight against Iran’s enrichment facilities (especially against the new deep underground facility being built near Natanz) and uranium stockpiles, but it should not be the only goal, and for sure not the priority.

The biggest danger threatening Israel’s existence remains the nuclear program. It would be better to confront this threat with Washington, but Israel also must be fully prepared to do it alone.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S. Foreign policy