November 16, 2022
Tzvi Langermann on the Sefer Yetsira: Cosmology, Science, and Kabbala
‘History is not a science; it’s literature which answers to certain scientific standards.’
We are delighted to speak with Tzvi Langermann on the reception-history of that most ‘generative’ of books: the Sefer Yetsira.
Our interview begins with a sweeping survey of the earliest surviving commentary-tradition on Sefer Yetsira, Hebrew and Judæo-Arabic works beginning with the commentary of Sa‘adia Gaon in the tenth century and reaching at least as late as Yudah Barceloni, writing in Iberia in the twelfth century; this stratum of commentary treats the Yetsira as a work of scientific cosmology.
We then turn to the book itself, discussing its internal structures, both numerical and thematic, possible datings, possible influences, and possible redaction-history, to get a better idea of what these scientific commentators were working with.
We then turn to the Sefer Yetsira commentary of Isaac the Blind, which brings the text into the purview of Kabbalistic hermeneutics and cosmology, while keeping the earlier, scientific approach; the later Kabbalistic commentary-tradition would run with Isaac’s alphanumeric, sephirothic insights, while largely ditching the earlier cosmological tradition of interpretation. The Sefer Yetsira had been rebranded as a work of Kabbalah. This history culminates, notionally, in the extraordinary work of Aryeh Kaplan – twentieth-century physicist and Kabbalist – whose work brings science back in through the side-door, finding in the Sefer Yetsira the esoteric insights of the kabbalists alongside non-Euclidean geometry and quantum theory.
A further exegetical level is added as we consider the foundational scholarly work of Paul Kraus, Shlomo Pines, Gershom Scholem, and others, who attempted to frame historicist understandings of this work. The interview concludes with some reflections on where the kabbalistic hermeneutics might end and the scholarly work begin, and how to trace the difficult, liminal space ostensibly dividing the two enterprises.
Tzvi Langermann is Emeritus Professor of Arabic at Bar Ilan University, a codicologist of note, and a historian of science active in the academic and public spheres. You need to check out his Academia page. Trust me. His draft article ‘Who Owns the Sefer Yesira’ can be found there, and puts in writing some of the findings discussed in this interview.
Works cited in this interview and recommended reading:
Prof. Langermann has gone above and beyond the call of duty and compiled a luscious, detail-rich bibliographical exploration for us. No sense in cutting-and-pasting it here, but please download the Notes and Bibliography for Sefer Yesira Podcast and have a read.
Alphanumeric Speculation, Amulets, Arithmology, Aryeh Kaplan, Christian Kabbala, Elements, Esoteric Hermeneutics, Gershom Scholem, Golem, Interview, Isma‘ilism, Jewish Kabbala, Lettrism, Occultism, Pseudo-Clementine Literature, Sefer Yetsira, ʿIlm al-Ḥurūf