On “Messianism in the Christian Kabbalah” by Elliot Wolfson

Kris Lindbeck
Trinity College

This essay is so rich that it is impossible to do justice to in any short response, so instead of speaking to the text as a whole, I will address some points which occurred to me while studying it.

First, I am struck by a question about nomianism and anti-nomianism and what it means to be faithful to/concerned with law. I still remember a discussion I had with my mother, a professor of comparative religion whose specialties are Christian ethics and Buddhism, in which she said that she easily understood Augustine’s point when he said that the ritual law of Torah was never meant to be observed literally, and that she had a much harder time understanding the ritual laws of the Torah as religious observances, rather than matters of “anise and cumin.” I, on the other hand, as someone who has studied Judaism for two decades, find it easy to understand how fulfilling ritual commandments brings one closer to God, and rather wish that Christianity had more of them. This conversation made it clear to me that nomian and antinomian perspectives are more than conventions and more than theological systems which may be understood as mathematical systems are, with the intellect alone. They are, in a real sense, lenses for viewing the universe, lenses which cannot easily be exchanged.

Thus, it does not surprise me that Johann Kemper, once he became Christian, continued to study the ritual law, and could not drop the conviction that even if the laws were not actually meant to be observed, they nonetheless have something profound to say about God and God’s plan for creation. (On the same subject of law, I would be very grateful if someone could speak about what Dr. Wolfson means by hypernomianism—which I understand is expressed in part by deliberate abrogation of Jewish Law for messianic/ritual purposes, thus intensifying the power of the concept of Torah law—and metanomianism, which he says is found in Paul—and which I do not understand at all.)

Another point which the essay made me ponder is the nature of Johann Kemper’s antecedents in ancient times. As a student of Ancient Judaism with some knowledge of New Testament, I was struck by his resemblance to Philo in seeking typological readings of Jewish law. I am honestly not sure whether this is a superficial or a deep resemblance, but it is a compelling one, and one which may help explain why Philo was popular with Christians rather than Jews.

Another apparent antecedent of Kemper is the Epistle to the Hebrews. In chapters nine and ten, for example, its author takes the High Priest and his duties as a type for Jesus as the priest-and-sacrifice who inaugurates the new covenant. Chapter ten begins: “Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year by year, make perfect those who approach” (NRSV). It is not improbable that Kemper took some inspiration from Hebrews after his conversion to Christianity, particularly in that it takes Jewish ritual practice very seriously as a type and “shadow” (a term also used by Kemper) of Christian truth, unlike Paul, who sees in Christ the end of the need to be concerned with ritual law.

This brings me to the third and most serious issue raised for me by Dr. Wolfson’s essay. On the first page, he writes “Indeed it is necessary to contextualize the latter [the “Christianizing application of kabbalist methods of interpretation”] 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) is restricted to use of Hebrew Scripture to prove the truths of Christianity” while the second and third involve the use of Rabbinic and kabbalistic writings.

What does appropriation mean in this context? I do not believe that there would be any Christianity without the first stage of appropriation, because “the use of Scripture to prove the truths of Christianity” has been an integral part of Christianity since it was still a Jewish sect. While there is a kind of appropriation which is supersessionist and arrogant, may there not be other kinds? Is it possible for Christians to celebrate Jewish insights into God the Blessed Holy One, Muslim insights into God the Merciful and Compassionate, using them to better their own insights into the nature of God the One in Three? I hope and think so. But this adventure is not without its dangers. Arrogance remains a temptation, as do superficiality and vagueness for those who overcome their pride, and those who deeply and seriously engage the truths of other faiths must realize that their own faith will be challenged and may be changed.

Finally, I want to turn to the subject of the essay, the brilliant and driven man born Aaron of Cracow who became Johann Kemper by way of Sabbatian messianism. Was he speaking of his own struggles when he describes the tragedy of the Sabbatian Jews in a scornful third person? “What a great confusion there was amongst the Jews. They emptied their homes and sold everything… they prepared and established the way of the Messiah to Jerusalem with security and trust.” He embraced Christianity, but remained deeply involved in a Jewish esoteric system that only a minority of Jews and a handful of Christians understood. Even his take on kabbalah was different from that of other Christian Hebraists. I cannot help but suspect that he was a lonely man, as is any person whose religious system is unsupported by a community of discourse.