R. Eliyahu Kohen: New Torah (Torah de-'Atsiluth)
from G. Scholem: On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism
(Schocken, 1965,1996)

Nowhere, I believe, has this mystical 'relativization' of the Torah been expressed in more outspoken terms than in a fragment from a book of Rabbi Eliyahu Kohen Ittamari of Smyrna (d. 1729), the manuscript of which was available to Hayim Joseph David Azulai, who quoted from it. This Rabbi Eliyahu was a celebrated preacher and Kabbalist, known for his asceticism and piety, although his theology is strangely shot through with ideas that originated in the heretical Kabbalism of the followers of Sabbatai Zevi, the false Messiah. In this fragment an attempt is made to explain why, according to Rabbinic law, the scroll of the Torah used in the synagogue must be written without vowels and punctuation. This, says the author,

is a reference to the state of the Torah as it existed in the sight of God, before it was transmitted to the lower spheres. For He bad before Him numerous letters that were not joined into words as is the case today, because the actual arrangement of the words would depend on the waj in which this lower world conducted itself Because of Adam's sin, God arranged the letters before Him into the words describing death and other earthly things, such as levitate marriage. Without sin there would have been no death. The same letters would have been joined into words telling a different story. That is why the scroll of the Torah contains no vowels, no punctuation, and no accents, as an allusion to the Torah which originally formed a heap of unarranged letters.' The divine purpose will be revealed in the Torah at the coming of the Messiah, who will engulf death forever, so that there will be no room in the Torah for anything related to death, uncleanness, and the like. For then God will annul the present combination of letters that form the words of our present Torah and will compose the letters into other words, which will form new sentences speaking of other things. This is the meaning of the words of Isaiah 4]: 'A Torah will proceed from me,' which was already interpreted by the ancient rabbis to mean: 'A new Torah will proceed from me." Does this mean that the Torah is not eternally valid? No, it means that the scroll of the Torah will be as it is now, but that God will teach us to read it in accordance with another arrangement of the letters, and enlighten us as to the division and combination of the words.

It would be hard to conceive of a more daring formulation of the principle involved in this theory. It will scarcely come as a surprise that Azulai, pious rabbi that he was, should have protested in horror against so radical a thesis. Yet in his protest, curiously enough, he invokes Nahmanides' doctrine of the original character of the Torah in opposition to the doctrine of Eliyahu Kohen, which, he said, was without foundation in authentic Rabbinical tradition and hence without validity. Clearly he was unable to discern the unbroken line of development leading from Nahmanides to the doctrine of Eliyahu Kohen, who merely drew the ultimate logical consequence of Nahmanides' position. In any case it strikes me as highly significant that a celebrated rabbi, enjoying great prestige and high moral authority,3 should have been able to accept so radical a thesis and that a radically spiritualist and utopian conception of the Torah in the Messianic Age could be built up upon a general principle widely accepted in Kabbalistic circles. It is also interesting to note that the same Azulai who was so indignant over the mystical extremism of Eliyahu Kohen should himself in one of his books have formulated a thesis that is scarcely less radical. There is an ancient midrash to the effect that anyone who spends the whole day reading the verse (Gen. 36: zz): 'And Lotan's sister was Timna,' which strikes the reader of the Torah as particularly meaningless and irrelevant, will attain eternal beatitude. Azulai offers the following explanation of this aphorism:

When a man utters words of the Torah, he never ceases to create spiritual potencies and new lights, which issue like medicines from ever new combinations of the elements and consonants. If therefore he spends the whole day reading just this one verse, he attains eternal beatitude, for at all times, indeed, in every moment, the composition f the inner linguistic elements] changes in accordance with the condition and rank of this moment, and in accordance with the names that flare up within him at this moment.'

Here again the unlimited mystical plasticity of the divine word is taken as a principle, illustrated in the present case by what would seem to be about the most insignificant words of the Torah. All in all, this is perhaps the only way in which the idea of a revealed word of God can be taken seriously.

What strikes me as still more remarkable is that a formulation of this principle, very similar to that of Eliyahu Kohen, should be attributed to Israel Baal-Shem, founder of the Hasidic movement in Poland and Russia. In a work from the early period of Hasidism, emanating from the circle of his younger contemporary and friend, Pinhas of Koretz, we read:

Indeed it is true that the holy Torah was originally created as an incoherent jumble of letters. In other words, all the letters of the Torah, from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy, were not yet combined to form the words we now read, such as 'In the beginning God created' or 'Go from thy land,' and so on. These words, on the contrary, were not yet present, for the events of Creation that they record had not yet taken place. Thus all the letters of the Torah were indeed jumbled, and only when a certain event occurred in the world did the letters combine to form the words in which the event is related. When, for example, the Creation of the world or the events in the life of Adam and Eve took place, the letters formed the words that relate these events. Or when someone died, the combination 'And so-and-so died' came into being. So it was with all other matters. As soon as something happened, the corresponding combinations of letters came into being. If another event bad occurred in its place other combinations of letters letters would have arisen, for know that the holy Torah is God's infinite wisdom.

Tabul, a disciple of Isaac Luria, preserved in the beginning of Abraham Hazkuni, Shtei Yadoth, Amsterdam, 1726, ; Here we read, among other radical statements, that the Torah was originally meant to be composed of six books (as the oral Law, the Mishnah, still is). The sixth book, however, which was to be the Torah de-'atsiluth, has become invisible to our eyes and has been removed from the beginning of our Torah. It is now revealed only to the adepts and the initiate, but in the Messianic Age it will become part of the visible Torah.       [ p.74 ]