Messianism in the Christian Kabbalah of Johann Kemper
Elliot R. Wolfson,
New York University
A number of scholars have duly noted the complex and fascinating spiritual odyssey of Moses ben Aaron of Cracow who became Johann Kemper of Uppsala. Kemper’s conversion to Christianity from Judaism would have been interesting enough, but what adds to this intrigue is the fact that all of his compositions, which are written in Hebrew, demonstrate beyond any doubt that he possessed complete mastery over traditional Jewish learning of both an exoteric and an esoteric nature. Indeed, the primary goal of Kemper’s treatises was to establish the truths of Christianity on the basis of the Jewish sources, including most importantly the classical work of kabbalah, the Zohar. With respect to this effort Kemper shared the basic strategy that was adopted by the Christian kabbalists of Renaissance Italy. Following the pioneering research of Chaim Wirszubski, we may distinguish two patterns of Christian kabbalah: the utilization of the older Jewish esoteric teachings to confirm the truths articulated by Christianity, and the Christianizing application of kabbalistic methods of interpretation to construct new ideas and symbols. It seems to me, however, that, in the final analysis, the latter pattern is a species of the former, and thus we can speak of the one overall agenda that informs the Christian kabbalah. Indeed, it is necessary to contextualize the latter in the larger development of the Christian attempt to appropriate Judaism, which can be charted in three distinct stages: The first (evident already in the New Testament and the Patristic writings) is restricted to the use of Hebrew Scripture to prove the truths of Christianity; the second (which becomes prominent in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries due to the increase in the phenomenon of Jewish apostasy) is focused on the use of the Talmud to achieve this end; and the third (which is a central component of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, although it may have an earlier manifestation attested in the High Middle Ages) relates to the use of the kabbalah as confirmation of the Christological presuppositions. Response 1
In a fundamental way, however, Kemper is different from the notable Christian Hebraists who availed themselves of the esoteric lore of the kabbalah such as Johannes Reuchlin and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Kemper’s rabbinic background imposed upon him the need to preserve the nomian framework of the kabbalah even as he sought to undermine that framework by proving the truths of Christianity on the basis of the traditional texts. The literary works composed by Kemper display an astonishing blend of rabbinic halakhah and Christian spirituality, and the bridge that links the two spheres of religious discourse is the kabbalistic symbolism derived primarily from the zoharic corpus. With great exegetical ease and remarkable flights of speculative fancy, Kemper reinterprets the halakhah through the lens of the kabbalah in a Christological light. The intricate weaving of these different strands is reflected in Kemper’s somewhat unusual messianic stance as well. According to Kemper, the esoteric import of Christian messianism cannot be fully appreciated unless one has a grasp on the history of rabbinic culture as expressed particularly in the mystical tradition. Beyond trying to persuade Jews of the truths of Christianity, Kemper is implicitly privileging one whose religious path mirrors his own. His works, therefore, can be seen not only as an ongoing attempt at self-legitimization, but as a more subtle affirmation of the Jewish orientation regarding the innate superiority of the Jew as the real Israel who possesses the knowledge of the truth.
Many examples could be adduced to illustrate the claim that I have made, but for the purposes of this study it will be sufficient to provide one that deals with an issue that divided the religious orientation of Jews and Christians from very early on in their complex mutual histories, the rite of bodily circumcision. In a passage from Beriah ha-Tikhon, which is the second part of the massive commentary on the Zohar that is called Matteh Mosheh or Maqqel Ya`aqov, Kemper interprets the zoharic explication of the rite of circumcision. The thrust of the original passage in the Zohar is that circumcision entails the inscription of the Tetragrammaton as the sign of the covenant upon the flesh of the Jewish male, which corresponds to the phallic gradation of the divine, the attribute of Yesod. The zoharic authorship speaks as well of the supernal waters flowing down upon the sign of the covenant, which justifies the attribution of the term “living soul” (nefesh hayyah) to the baby who has been circumcised. Additionally, a connection is made between that sign and the foreskin, on the one hand, and the distinction between pure and impure animals that Israel can or cannot eat, on the other. That is to say, the foreskin corresponds to the demonic potency, which is related to the impure animals, and the sign that is manifest after the removal of the foreskin corresponds to the divine potency, which is related to the pure animals.
Kemper elaborates in a Christological manner on these themes and notes that the supernal waters mentioned in the Zohar refer to the waters of baptism, which are the primary means through which one gains access to God. Echoing an archaic theme of Jewish esotericism, Kemper relates that circumcision is the inscribed letter or sign (`ot rashum, which is the Hebrew translation of the zoharic rendering of the biblical `ot berit, the “sign of the covenant,” as `ot rashima’), which is related to the Tetragrammaton. This inscription is characterized further as the “sign of truth” (`ot `emet ), an “inner, spiritual sign” (`ot penimi ruhani) that replaces the circumcision of the flesh (milat ha-basar). I note, parenthetically, that from other passages in his compositions it is evident that Kemper identified the biblical notion of the sign, such as the rainbow revealed to Noah or the head and arm phylacteries, as the Messiah. Analogously, the sign of circumcision inscribed on the flesh alludes symbolically to the messianic figure, an allusion that is transferred to the rite of baptism, the circumcision of the spirit that displaces that of the flesh. As a result of the baptismal immersion, therefore, the person is truly called the “living soul.” Moreover, Kemper notes that when the carnal sign of circumcision is removed, the distinction between Israel and the nations with respect to prohibited and permitted animals will be abrogated since that distinction first arose as a result of the sign of circumcision. Needless to say, the notion that circumcision of the flesh will be nullified is not apparent in the zoharic text, but Kemper presents this Christological position as if it were the standard kabbalistic teaching.
What is so remarkable is that Kemper exegetically relates the overcoming of Jewish ritual to the presentation of that ritual in the symbolic language of the kabbalah. Thus, Kemper focuses on the custom mentioned in the Zohar regarding the throne of Elijah that is set up at the ceremony of the rite of circumcision. In spite of the fact that this was a widespread Jewish practice in his day, Kemper laments that the “deranged Jews” (ha-yehudim metorafei da`at) do not discern that “by way of the secret” (`al derekh sod) Elijah alludes to the messiah, for he is the “Lord the righteous one,” the “archon of peace,” the “angel of the covenant,” who established and fulfilled the covenant that God made with Adam regarding the seed of woman trampling the head of the serpent. The force of Kemper’s logic is that the Jewish ritual, particularly as it appears in the kabbalistic tradition, reflects the Christological truth that the Jews reject. The Jewish people, therefore, preserve a religious custom whose meaning escapes them. The argument comes full circle when Kemper writes: “Know that Elijah numerically is fifty-two ( b”n), which refers to the son (öb), that is, the son of God. But the Jews do not understand, and they do not want to know such matters.” In a similar vein in Matteh Mosheh, Kemper interprets the nexus between the Tetragrammaton, circumcision, and cleaving to the divine attribute called saddiq (the righteous one) in the Zohar, as a clear indication that the kabbalah affirms that the ultimate purpose of circumcision is to facilitate the act of conjunction with God. Through a clever exegetical move, related especially to the verse “And your people, all of them righteous, shall possess the land for all time; they are the shoot that I planted, my handiwork in which I glory” (Isa. 60:21), Kemper concludes that righteousness is linked to Christ (based on the play of words between neser and nosri). Hence, the mystical rationale for circumcision is to occasion the union of the soul with Jesus, the everlasting sign of the covenant that bears the ineffable name.
The specific example of circumcision is illustrative of the more general position that Kemper takes with regard to the status of normative Jewish law. That is, Kemper offers a symbolic interpretation of biblical rituals, even though he accepts the standard Christian critique of the law (traceable to Paul) and urges his Jewish readers to recognize that it has been surpassed. In his own language from another passage in the aforementioned composition: “Thus is the essence of the rationale for the ritual commandments that have been abrogated and nullified in the New Testament inasmuch as all of them were merely an image (defus) and a shadow (sel) of that which was to come.” Kemper’s main effort is to remove the stumbling-block that prevents Jews from believing in the truths of the New Testament, which he thinks is related to the implicit antinomiamism of the Christian viewpoint. The polemical strategy that he adopts to convince the Jews is to argue that the commandments possess an enduring spiritual value but that their practical application is limited to a specific time in history. The awareness that the commandments are to be interpreted typologically would facilitate the acceptance of the New Testament on the basis of the simple logic that if the rituals are merely an image of the true form, then once one possesses the latter the former is no longer necessary. In order to make this argument cogently, however, it is necessary for Kemper to extol the symbolic virtue of the commandments. Only one with intimate knowledge of the rabbinic tradition could mount such an argument with rhetorical success.
Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, this form of argumentation is not characteristic of the Christian kabbalists; it is distinctive to a figure like Kemper who was capable of living with one foot in both worlds. Even other Jewish apostates who utilized kabbalistic symbolism to advocate on behalf of Christianity, such as Ludovico Carretto, do not exemplify this tendency. The polemical tool employed by Kemper may be stated in the following way: the subversion of the tradition was possible only by recapitulating the tradition. This posture is exemplified, for instance, in Kemper’s comment in another passage in Beriah ha-Tikhon that all those who believe in Jesus “are called Israel (yisra’el), the just ones (ha-yesharim) who believe and have faith in the just God (`el yashar ), and He brought these ones out from the iron furnace, the side of impurity, and they ascended to the Son, which is the Shekhinah. This is alluded to in the commandments of circumcision and the paschal sacrifice.” The true nature of Israel—what it means to be a Jew in the spiritual as opposed to carnal sense—is linked to the belief in the just God, that is, Jesus, who is also identified with the kabbalistic symbol of the Shekhinah, for the letters of the word larcy are transposed into the expression rvy la. Appropriating the Johannine tradition, moreover, Kemper explicitly identifies the Messiah as the Torah or the Word, the “mystery of the bread of the New Testament.” Kemper extends this older notion and links Jesus symbolically to the holiday of Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Passover, which in the rabbinic imagination celebrates the giving of Torah at Sinai. Having identified Jesus in this manner, Kemper is able to apply the kabbalistic interpretation of Pentecost to the Messiah. That is, according to the standard symbolism affirmed in works of theosophic kabbalah, Pentecost is identified with the third of the ten gradations, which is called most frequently Binah, the attribute of God’s understanding. This gradation, moreover, is depicted by the symbol of the mother. The identification of Jesus and the Torah, and the further linkage of the Torah and Pentecost, facilitates the correlation of Jesus and Pentecost, which is interpreted in light of the kabbalistic association of Pentecost and Binah, which is characterized as the divine mother. The merging of the kabbalistic and the Christological symbols thus leads Kemper to a fascinating application of the female image of motherhood to Jesus (Response 2)
In several contexts, Kemper reiterates and explains this symbolism in slightly different terms: Jesus is identified as Wisdom or the Word, which is related to the second rather than the third of the ten sefirot, and by virtue of this function Jesus produces and sustains everything that is created in the manner of a mother that gives birth and nourishes the infant. For our purposes it is not necessary to attempt a resolution of these ostensibly conflicting explanations. What is far more important to the discussion of Kemper’s hybrid of kabbalistic and Christological messianism is the fact that the adaptation of the kabbalistic symbolism facilitates the application of feminine images to Jesus, a position that is reflected as well in the identification of Jesus as the Shekhinah, as we have already noted in passing. For Kemper the ascription of the feminine symbols to Jesus is of supreme theological significance insofar as it articulates in a metaphorical way the foundational tenet of Christian faith, the belief in the incarnation of the divine in the flesh of a mortal human being. The point is underscored in the following passage in Matteh Mosheh wherein Kemper remarks that the characterization of Jesus as the son must be complemented by that of the daughter:
“Son” and “daughter” are mentioned with respect to that supernal gradation. He is called “son” when he sits to the right of the Father. “[The Lord established his throne in heaven,] and his sovereign rule is over all” (Ps. 103:19), before him “every knee shall bow down” (Isa. 45:23), and then he is the son that inherits the property of his father. … Do not be astonished by the fact that he is contained in the name “mother” and that of the “son,” for with respect to the ten sefirot as well he is comprised in the right side and that of the left, Hokhmah on the right and Binah on the left. He is called “daughter” when he descends to the earth, “impoverished and riding a donkey” (Zech. 9:9)… then his power is weakened like a female, and with regard to this aspect it is possible to apply to him the name “daughter,” that is, the daughter does not inherit in the place of the son. … For that very reason he is called as well Ze`eir `Anpin, for he diminished and lowered himself to bear the sufferings on behalf of human beings to atone for their sins.
The key to this unique turn in the path of Kemper’s thought is the awareness that the kabbalah preserves a foundational truth about the Christian faith. The appropriation of the archetypal symbols of mother and daughter from the language of the kabbalah to depict Jesus is based ultimately on the ancient belief regarding the nature of the Messiah as the incarnation of the Torah. The mystery of Jesus assuming bodily form for the sake of atoning for human transgressions is framed more specifically in terms of the technical terminology of the kabbalah that is related to the feminine attributes of the divine. Most interestingly, Kemper interprets the zoharic idiom, Ze`eir `Anpin, literally, the “small face” (qesar `appayim), as referring to the feminine aspect of Jesus, for in his view this expression denotes the diminishing of his stature by entering the corporeal world, which is set against the exalted state when he is enthroned to the right of God in the heavenly abode. The upper status of divine wisdom, therefore, is related to the metaphorical image of the son occupying a throne alongside the throne of glory, whereas the lower status is expressed by the image of the daughter. Elsewhere in Matteh Mosheh Kemper attributes the title Ze`eir `Anpin to Metatron on account of the fact that “he diminished himself” (Response 3).
To appreciate this comment it is necessary to bear in mind that Kemper repeatedly notes in his compositions that Metatron is identified as Jesus. (Indeed, the third part of Matteh Mosheh is called sha`ar metatron ). This identification stems from the fact that in the kabbalistic texts themselves Metatron is characterized both as the glory of God and as the highest angel. This dual role is appropriated by Kemper to express an ancient belief in Christianity regarding the status of Jesus as the glorified angel, that is, the angel that is the divine glory. From the Christological vantage point this implies that the glory is embodied in the form of an angel that is manifest in the physical world. The technical designation of God as Ze`eir `Anpin is another way of conveying this basic idea. What is of most interest to point out is that in recent years it has been suggested that originally the symbol of Ze`eir `Anpin in kabbalistic sources from the period of the Zohar (late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth centuries) did indeed refer to the feminine Shekhinah, which was contrasted with the masculine potency designated as `Arikh `Anpin, the “long face.” It appears that Kemper’s Christological orientation led him to recover what may have been the original intent of this symbolic locution.
The specifically rabbinic character of the tradition regarding the incarnation of Jesus is highlighted in another passage wherein Kemper demonstrates his astonishing exegetical prowess by interpreting the biblical notion of the two loaves of bread connected to sacrifices as a reference to the rabbinic dual Torah: the Written Torah refers to the Old Testament and the Oral Torah to the New Testament. Such a symbolic interpretation would have been unthinkable for the standard exponents of the Christian kabbalah. Only one who had lived within the nomian framework of halakhah could identify the foundational text of rabbinic law, the Oral Torah, as the New Testament, which, in Kemper’s own view, espouses a decidedly antimonian perspective. The dialectical relationship that pertains between the two poles is such that one cannot speak meaningfully of the one without the other. The New Testament represents the departure from the law of the Old Testament, but this departure is itself encoded in the symbolic identification of the New Testament as the Oral Torah of the rabbinic tradition. The paradox of this identification entails the recognition that breaking away from the law in the most complete sense is the means to fulfill it.
The antinomianism is related more specifically to his understanding of the universal and spiritual nature of the messianic redemption, which he also deduces on the basis of an intimate knowledge of rabbinic and kabbalistic sources. Thus, for example, in Beriah ha-Tikhon, Kemper interprets the zoharic claim that on the feast of Tabernacles the Messiah will come, alluded to in the biblical name hag ha-‘asif , the “festival of gathering,” in terms of the rabbinic tradition that during this festival the goodness of God overflows to all the nations. Kemper links this notion to the baptismal formula adopted by Paul, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Kemper interprets the zoharic reworking of the rabbinic motif as an allusion to the eschatological soteriology of Paul, the universal application of messianic salvation to the point that there is a breakdown of cultural, socioeconomic, and gender binaries. Again we see the complex exegetical strategy that marks his way of thinking: the nomian impulse of the rabbinic tradition, which ostensibly is at odds with the antimonian tendency of Christological messianism, is turned against itself to yield its very opposite. The key to this hermeneutical inversion is the reading of the rabbinic texts through the filter of the hypernomianism of the kabbalistic symbolism. The symbolic explanation of the Jewish liturgical cycle that Kemper deduces from the Zohar allows him to assert that the Sabbath and all of the festivals allude to Jesus. The complexity of his position should be readily apparent: the messianic truth of Jesus is encoded typologically in Jewish law. Kemper’s kabbalistic understanding of Christian typology is such, however, that it is not necessary for one to abrogate the law in order to express that truth. By fulfilling the halakhah with the proper kabbalistic intention one can live a faithful Christian life.
The point is well illustrated in another passage wherein Kemper sets out to interpret the custom recorded in the Zohar, which can be traced to the German Pietists, regarding gazing at one’s shadow on leil ha-hotam, the eve of Hoshanah Rabbah on which one’s fate for the upcoming year is sealed. Kemper relates that in his time there were Jews who mistakenly interpreted the meaning of the zoharic text in terms of a folkloristic practice of looking at one’s shadow by the light of the moon. The correct explanation of the custom recorded in the Zohar involves the recognition that the shadow refers to Jesus, who is the image of the Father. The superstition that Kemper attributes to the Jews, which is the historically and philologically correct explanation of the custom, is rejected in favor of the Christological interpretation, which is presented as the true meaning of the zoharic passage.
The extent to which Kemper reinterpreted the kabbalistic tradition in light of his Christian messianism is evident from his remark in Matteh Mosheh concerning the custom to say “for the sake of the unification of the Qadosh barukh hu’ and his Shekhinah,” which was instituted by kabbalists in the sixteenth century. According to Kemper, this formula “comprises all of the threefold unity (shilush ha-yihud) … the Qadosh barukh hu’ refers to the Father … and in the expression `his Shekhinah’ they comprehended the Son and the Holy Spirit, for both of them are comprised in the word Shekhinah.” It would be ludicrous, of course, to assume that Kemper imagined that the Jews who utilized this liturgical formula actually understood it in the Christological way that he proposes. What is essential is his opinion that the symbolic meaning of this formula relates to the Christian belief in the unity of the threefold hypostases of the divine. Unwittingly, therefore, the Jews affirm the fundamental dogma of the Christian faith each time they utter this kabbalistic introduction prior to saying a blessing or performing a ritual action. Halakhic observance is thereby transformed into an act of giving witness to the truth of the Trinity.
Needless to say, according to Kemper, the Jews are ignorant of the Christological essence of their ritual practices. On occasion Kemper even employs a rabbinic text in his effort to discredit the Jews of his time, as we find, for example, in the following passage that concludes a discussion of the essential connection between the Shekhinah and the community of Israel, which is clearly based on the kabbalistic perspective: “However, the Shekhinah has departed from the Jews in this time in accordance with their dictum in the Talmud, ‘The Shekhinah journeyed ten times,’ and hence neither the name ‘Israel’ nor the ‘community of Israel’ applies to them, and they `are like the beasts that perish’ (Ps. 49:13), ‘they have eyes, but cannot see’ (ibid., 115:5), and they do not pay heed to discern words of the tradition (divrei qabbalah) like these with a balanced mind and on a just scale (lishqol be-shiqqul ha-da`at u-ve-kaf mo`znei sedeq), but rather they grope like a blind person in a chimney.” In the course of his writings, Kemper provides specific examples of Jewish ritual that demonstrates both the implict mystical (i.e., Christological) meaning of the rituals and the ignorance of Jews regarding the spiritual intent of their own tradition. Thus, in the section on the trinity (sha`ar ha-shilush) in his Matteh Mosheh, Kemper elaborates on a number of Jewish customs that allude symbolically to the trinitarian belief. In that context, he addresses the larger hermeneutical question that we have been pondering:
The matter is that their mentioning of the three patriarchs [in the standing prayer of eighteen benedictions] instructs about the Trinity (shilush), and the fact that they end [the blessing magen `avraham] by referring to one [patriarch, i.e., Abraham] instructs about the unity (yihud). Do not wonder at the fact that I presented to you in this place that one may find in their prayers many secrets. … He who has a brain in his head will conclude that the patriarchs point to the Trinity, and by way of this deception they denied and contradicted all belief in the Trinity, and Satan assisted them in this matter, until the point that the wisdom of kabbalah was also lost. But know that even today they have very ancient and just customs that instruct about the Trinity, but they cover their faces with a mask.
Rabbinic ritual, especially when it is refracted through the prism of kabbalah, attests to the elemental truths of Christianity. Thus, in another passage from Beriah ha-Tikhon, Kemper relates that the “Jews have an ancient custom of eating a meal on Saturday night, which they call the melawweh malkkah, that is, to escort the Sabbath that is departing from them.” Kemper then relates that the eating of this meal alludes to the rabbinic tradition regarding the bone that will survive whence the body will be reconstructed in the eschatological future. From his perspective the Jewish practice of eating this meal is indeed “precious,” for “it alludes to the bread that is the body of the Messiah, which is the just Sabbath in which all of the believers shall take rest. He is the master of Sabbath and when it departs he shall give bread to those who believe in him, for they are his bride and he is the bridegroom, the ‘bridegroom of blood’ (Exod. 4:25-26), for he gave his blood on behalf of his bride. … You can find this custom in a book that is called Tiqqun Shabbat Malkhata’ , but the Jews presently destroy the custom and this tradition (qabbalah) as is their destructive way.” The Jewish ritual symbolically comprises the Christological truth and thus it points beyond itself. The Jews are unaware of the spiritual depth of their own actions, but there is always the potential that they shall discern the messianic impulse that lies beneath the external layer of their tradition (Response 4).
Kemper’s theoretical position naturally reflects the split consciousness of his own existential situation. He cannot divest himself completely of his rabbinic upbringing even though he is a fully committed Christian. On the contrary, the veracity of his Christian affiliation is confirmed most precisely by the rabbinic and kabbalistic sources. Another fascinating example of the spiritual pull inside Kemper’s heart is found in his explanation in Matteh Mosheh of the custom mentioned in the Zohar of shortening the letter `alef in the utterance of the word `ehad, “one,” in the recitation of the liturgical affirmation of the monotheistic faith, shema` yisra’el yhwh `elohenu yhwh `ehad, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). The Pharasaic/rabbinic tradition (transmitted in the name of Aqiva) to elongate the word `ehad is presented by Kemper as a response to a Jewish-Christian practice, which alludes to the mystery of the diminution of Jesus. Even in this case where the rabbinic custom is set in opposition to an alleged Christian practice, Kemper relies on Jewish texts to establish the facticity of the latter. The zoharic text serves as the pretext to establish a supposedly original context to account for this liturgical gesture. When viewed from that vantage point it is clear that this example, like countless others that could have been provided, illustrates the point that, according to Kemper, the halakhah itself contains symbolic references to the basic tenets of the Christian faith, although it often takes the spiritualized reading of the Zohar to cast light on the messianic potential of Jewish ritual. The dissemination of this belief represents the distinctive element of Kemper’s messianic teaching.
It is with respect to this orientation, moreover, that Kemper’s Sabbatian background becomes crucial. Various scholars have noted this connection and, most recently, Kemper has been described as a disciple of the Sabbatian prophet, Zadoq of Grodno who appeared between 1694-1696. The precise historical and literary connections are of less importance to me than the general impact that this relationship had on Kemper’s attitude toward the messianic potentiality of traditional Jewish law when interpreted kabbalistically. On an historical note, however, it is important to remark that in Matteh Mosheh Kemper relates that in 1695 there was a messianic upheaval in the Jewish community. He writes: “What a great confusion there was amongst the Jews. They emptied their homes and sold everything… they prepared and established the way to go up by foot with the Messiah to Jerusalem with security and trust. There was one particular person in Vilna whose name was R. Zadoq, and he was the principal and chief cause for this confusion.” Although Kemper does not make this connection explicitly, one may conjecture that the messianic disappointment occasioned by this event in 1695 may have served as a catalyst for his conversion to Christianity one year later. The path of Sabbatian messianism apparently led to a dead-end for Kemper—yet another false start, but it did open up a new path for him expressed in his embrace of the Christian faith. One may conjecture that the decision to convert allowed Kemper to preserve the religious impulse of Sabbatianism while still moving beyond the spiritual gridlock that he may have felt by remaining an observant Jew (Response 5).
Contrary to the general attitude adopted by many scholars, antinomianism of an absolute and unqualified sense is not characteristic of either Sabbatai Sevi or most of his followers. Even those who accepted the breaking of normative halakhah as an expression of their messianic belief, the break with tradition was not viewed as unconditional and permanent. The example of the Dšnmeh is the exception to the rule, although the portrait offered by scholars turns the exception into the rule. The antinomianism exemplified by the pseudo-Messiah and his adherents is a form of hypernomianism, which should be contrasted with the metanomianism that characterized the attitude of St. Paul in relation to Pharisaic Judaism. To be sure, in the writings of the Sabbatians themselves there is much debate concerning the question of the temporary or permanent abolition of traditional religious laws and customs. One thing, however, that the extreme and moderate Sabbatians shared in common was the view that antinomian acts, the ma`asim zarim, are endowed with religious significance, for they are dialectically related to the halakhic tradition. That is, breaking the law is for the sake of fulfilling it. Indeed, the literary evidence suggests that even after the apostasy Sabbatai Sevi himself continued to live a conflicted life, manifesting, as Scholem put it, “double-faced behavior as a Jew and a Muslim.” One is here reminded of what may be called the “Marrano complex,” a spiritual affinity that was already noted by Abraham Cardoso, who wrote in one of his letters: “In the future the King messiah will don the garments of a Marrano, and on account of that the Jews will not recognize him. In short, in the future he will be a Marrano like me.” Indeed, the dissemination of the paradoxical ideology of Sabbatianism can only be understood in light of a widespread spiritual disposition in communities of the Sephardi Diaspora brought on by the duplicity that was essential to the Marrano existence, Jew on the inside and Christian on the outside.
Notwithstanding the logical and historical reasonableness of this claim, it must be pointed out that the dialectical relationship of antinomianism and traditional observance in Sabbatian ideology strikes an even more paradoxical chord than the Marrano situation as well as the general antagonism toward Jewish law that lies at the heart of Pauline Christianity. For Sabbatai Sevi and his supporters, acts of breaking the law were considered themselves religious rites. The point was well understood and succinctly expressed by Scholem whose words unfortunately have not been well heeded by subsequent scholars: “And this and nothing else is the true heritage of Sabbatai Zevi: the quasi-sacramental character of antinomian actions, which here always take the form of a ritual, remained a shibboleth of the movement, not least in its more radical offshoots. … The performance of such acts is a rite, a festive action of an individual or a whole group, something out of the ordinary, greatly disturbing and born from the deep stirring of emotional forces.” Perhaps even more paradoxical than the notion of the holy sinner is the idea of cultic sinning, which in some cases even involved uttering a blessing or a liturgical formula before a transgression was committed. In Sabbatian ideology, the overturning of Jewish ritual is itself a ritualistic performance, and thus transgressing the Torah yielded the invention of new forms of ceremonial behavior. From the perspective of Sabbatian messianism, then, redemption does not imply the complete abrogation of the halakhah. On the contrary, redemption is predicated on keeping the faith, which involves fulfilling the will of God through the commandments, even if that may entail an action that ostensibly appears to be an abolition of the law. To put the matter somewhat differently, the dialectic of Sabbatian spirituality is based a reversal of the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction, that is, a thing is both itself and its opposite. This logic of the paradox is highlighted by the identification of the holy messiah with the impure serpent, which is expressed through the numerical equivalence of the two relevant Hebrew terms jyvm and vjn (both equal 358). How could the identity of opposites be expressed more powerfully? When this is applied to the question of ritual action, then we can conclude that transgression is the ultimate fulfillment of the law. The acceptance of this dialectic should mitigate against the notion of the definitive abrogation of the law and the unqualified departure from the nomian framework. To obliterate the halakhic world entirely would be to erase the very context that affords one an opportunity to realize the paradox of messianic spirituality.
It is precisely this dialectic that best captures Kemper’s approach. On the surface his goal was to convince both Jews and Christians that classical rabbinic and kabbalistic literature contain allusions to the secrets of Christianity, the recognition of which necessitates on the part of Jews the acceptance of the messianic claims of Christianity and the concomitant rejection of the legalism and ceremonial formalism of the Jewish traditions. Beyond this aim, however, is another one that is somewhat more subtle and daring: the nomian tradition itself preserves hints that point toward the truths of the Christian faith. Ostensibly, the latter surpasses the former, but from the esoteric perspective, which is provided by the kabbalah in particular, even the halakhah comprises the mysteries of Christianity. Kemper’s messianic calling is related to the task of exposing these elements of Judaism (Response 6).
Kemper expressed his messianic role particularly through a commentary on the Zohar by rendering explicit the Christological secrets he thought were encoded in that text. Indeed, from Kemper’s vantage point, since the Zohar was written several years after the crucifixion of Jesus, for political reasons it was necessary for Christological matters to be written in that work in an esoteric manner (be-lashon nistar). In another context, Kemper cites and analyzes one of the more overt messianic passages in the Zohar, which offers a detailed account of the advent of the Messiah in the Galilee. In the course of his analysis, which includes a comparison of the zoharic text to parallel accounts in the New Testament, Kemper notes that this section was undoubtedly one of the “ancient writings” that made its way into the zoharic text, which he describes as “a book assembled from the manuscripts of R. Simeon ben Yohai.” Even before the incarnation of the Messiah (hitgashmut ha-mashiah), therefore, the Jews had a tradition about the messianic age related to astrological phenomena and the sign of the covenant in the form of the rainbow. On several occasions wherein he discerns references to Jesus, Kemper states that had the Pharisees read the words of the Zohar they would not have persecuted Jesus. The essential point from my perspective is that these examples (and others that I could have cited) demonstrate that Kemper viewed the zoharic anthology as a repository of messianic secrets that were deliberately concealed on account of their Christological orientation. On occasion he extends this viewpoint to the unusual legends (haggadot meshunot) in the Talmud: the intention of the rabbis in these seemingly bizarre aggadic passages was to relate in a concealed manner truths about Jesus. If one does not embrace this hermeneutical principle, then the language of these texts would appear to be ridiculous. Kemper’s own messianic role was to expose these very secrets, to reverse the code of esotericism, as it were, by uncovering what he considered to be the true messianic intent of the aggadic and kabbalistic symbolism. The exegetical process itself, therefore, is imbued with messianic significance. In spite of his conversion to Christianity and the apparent repudiation of Judaism, in his mode of argumentation, Kemper remained faithful to his rabbinic training, for the most meaningful way that he expressed his Christian faith was through textual interpretation. In particular, the hermeneutical act of disclosing the mysteries hidden beneath the surface of the Zohar is for him the true sign of messianic conviction and the primary means by which one attains the ultimate salvation of mind and body.