Sanford Drob, Kabbalah and Postmodernism
Although Drob states that it would be a good idea to have some previous knowledge of the Kabbalah and postmodernism before reading this book – naturally, while also plugging some of his previous work – I don’t think it’s really necessary. Pretty much everything is quickly explained and contextualised with a relatively detailed background, although sometimes it is slightly lacking. Drob mostly analyses things through the ideology of Chabad Hasidism which was chiefly psychological and therefore is quite suited to a comparison with Derrida’s grammatology. I suppose the crux of Drob’s arguments involve viewing the journey from Ayin (nothing) and Ein Sof (endlessness) via Tzimtzum (contraction), Sephirot (archetypes) Shevirat (shattering) to Tikkun (rectification) as similar to Derrida’s concept of différance. Essentially, the Tzimtzum and Shevirat create space for a dialogue where both humanity and god contain part of the other and, most importantly, continually restructure each other. Interestingly, Drob highlights the creative aspect of Ayin in providing the space for relationships within Ein Sof, similar to the empty space in atomic relationships.
Since most Kabbalists believe this space is created by the written word, i.e. the Torah, and that this can have a huge and possibly infinite amount of interpretations, this has some similarities to Wittgenstein’s language games. For example, gematria and various other devices can link otherwise unrelated words, the lack of vowels in Biblical Hebrew can alter pronunciations, while the hermeneutic readings Kabbalists continually propagated forged furthermore links. However, once again, this is related back to différance as much of the book is structured around Derrida’s views, this time by reversing the traditional dialectic between the signifier and the signified, i.e. a person and the Torah.
Derrida always resisted calling différance the “absolute” which his system pretty much makes an impossible thing to classify, comprehend and so on. In this way, Drob highlights what he thinks is one of the key differences between Kabbalistic and postmodern philosophy: namely that Kabbalism generally has some kind of unificatory endgame whereas postmodernism is stated to endlessly proliferate. However, Drob also speculates that Derrida’s attempt to avoid Hegel’s dialectic (thesis – antithesis – synthesis) is a failure, as everything must contain something of its opposite in a way similar to each of the Sephirot containing a fragment of all the others. Drob also analyses Derrida’s later messianic contentions of pushing the boundaries of language to arrive at the “monstrous”, what Drob terms a ‘pre-linguistic’ state – which he describes as the kind of non-duality of Ayin and Ein Sof – but which is again contracted/shattered when it is inevitably classified by language. This latter contraction/shattering is also similar to Wittgenstein’s analysis of how a simple vocal outburst that literally means nothing would still not escape retroactive linguistic representation.
Regarding the coincidences of opposites, Drob’s views can be summed up by the following paragraph:
For the Kabbalists, the mystical, “higher” ranges of thought are absolutely necessary for making sense of our ordinary, “lower” ways of seeing and experiencing, and vice versa. Kabbalistic thinking is perhaps best understood in musical harmonic, or “counterpoint” terms. There is a melody line, for example, that is theistic, that exists in counterpoint with one that is atheistic; a line in which God creates humanity, in counterpoint with one in which humanity creates God; a line in which the past is the cause of all that is present and future, and one in which the future constructs both the present and the past. For the Kabbalah, a true view of the world must evolve thinking two or more, seemingly incompatible thoughts at once; it is the simultaneity of these thoughts that brings about beauty, harmony (Tiferet) and truth.
Aside from the aforementioned occasional lack of detail, the only major criticism of the book is that Drob’s definition of the Kabbalah is essentially that of the Chabad school of thought. However, he doesn’t make this as clear as he probably should have, and so his interpretations of older Kabbalistic texts, while not incorrect, do have an inherent bias. For example, Luria’s predominantly cosmographic system is psychologised, essentially unquestioningly. I would assume that there are similar issues regarding the various postmodern philosophers mentioned, but I simply don’t know. However, despite its slight shortcomings, I really enjoyed this book, it’s very thought-provoking.
'Oh Krishna, restless and overpowering, this mind is overwhelmingly strong; I think we might as easily gain control over the wind as over this.'