Unveiling the Veil: Apocalyptic, Secrecy, and the Jewish Mystical Imaginaire

Elliot R. Wolfson

Among the various gifts that Judaism has bestowed upon the spiritual imagination of Western culture, we can include messianism and apocalypticism. Needless to say, even though these two phenomena can be distinguished conceptually and empirically, they have often been closely aligned. The discursive space where the two lines intersect is marked by the sentiment expressed in the words of Jeremiah, “And there is hope for your future, declares the Lord, your children shall return to their boundaries” (Jeremiah 31:17). Both the messianic and apocalyptic sensibilities, which have in varying degrees of intensity infused the three Abrahamic communities through the ages, are rooted in the prophetic promise that forges an indissoluble link between the future and the hope of coming back home. This juxtaposition of hopefulness and homecoming holds the key to understanding the spatial bridging of the temporal distance between present and future that is essential to the apocalyptic imagination.

In this brief essay, I will not review the history of Kabbalistic apocalypticism but focus instead on the philosophical implications of the ontology of time and the hermeneutics of secrecy that can be elicited from reflecting on this phenomenon within the broader framework of Jewish esotericism. Let me begin by echoing the common scholarly distinction between apocalyptic as a sociopolitical movement and apocalyptic as a literary genre. In spite of the soundness of this division, it is obvious that the two cannot be completely separated, since Jewish and Christian apocalyptic movements invariably have gained their inspiration from visions recorded in written (and, most often, scriptural) texts, whereas these visions are frequently thinly veiled attempts to challenge the status quo of current conditions on earth by appeal to an extraterrestrial source of power, the heavenly order that will intervene in the natural course of events and alleviate the suffering of the persecuted. From that vantage point apocalypticism can be classified as theopolitics, since it is predicated on the invocation of the divine being as the counterforce that will topple the imperial oppressors at a given historical juncture and thereby empower the disempowered. This struggle is often depicted mythically as the cosmic battle between light and darkness, the righteous remnant and the corrupt ruler. For this reason, apocalyptic visions are typically suffused in the rhetoric of violence, which bespeaks the profound dissatisfaction with what is perceived as a corrupt religious and/or national authority. To comprehend the concurrence of hope and futurity, one must be sensitive to the inherent disjointedness that underlies what Derrida called the “enigmatic desire for vigilance, for the lucid vigil, for elucidation, for critique and truth, but for a truth that at the same time keeps within itself some apocalyptic desire, this time as desire for clarity and revelation, in order to demystify or, if you prefer, to deconstruct the apocalyptic discourse itself.”

With more than a touch of irony, Derrida viewed apocalyptic—a literary genre usually thought to be entirely mystifying—as that which imparts the desire for clarity and elucidation, a desire expressed most fervently as the vigilance to subject all thinking to critique even to the point of demystifying or deconstructing the genre of apocalyptic itself. Derrida’s exegesis builds on the fact that the term “apocalypse” is from the verb apokalypto (to uncover), as in stripping the veil to reveal the face of the virgin. To heed the philological resonance of the term, therefore, is to discern that the apocalyptic desire is a gesture of unveiling. It follows that apocalypticism is, first and foremost, a discourse about secrecy. In time, the mysteries that were revealed were primarily thought to be the celestial secrets about either historical events or the otherworldly beings. The former has dominated the conventional characterization of apocalyptic literature, but one must bear in mind that knowledge about both the future of the world and of the nature of the supernal beings—whether angelic or divine—were thought to serve equally as the means to help individuals escape looming danger and/or to overthrow an existing political agency. The spatiality of the heavenly abode and the temporality of the eschatological future intersect in a variety of symbolic ways, perhaps most tellingly in the fact that often enough, the secrets pertaining to the end are revealed in the visionary ascent. The imaginary vision, which facilitates the ecstatic journey into the celestial realm, yields foresight into the future. Eschatological salvation and the supernatural plane, respectively the temporal and spatial coordinates, are intertwined branches on one hermeneutical tree.

The secret revealed in the apocalyptic vision pertains essentially to the end, which is marked by the expectation of the final judgment of the wicked and the righteous. Even cosmological secrets of nature or theosophic mysteries of the divine in primeval time before creation revealed in the apocalypse are generally related to the end of the present historical epoch. The intrinsic nexus between the visionary secret and the end is epitomized in the advice given to Daniel by the angelic voice, “Now you keep the vision a secret, for it pertains to far-off days” (8:26), words reinforced by the counsel of God, “Keep the words, and seal the book until the time of the end” (12:4). The seer must conceal the secret until the time of the end, for the secret primarily concerns the end of time. The preservation of the secret until the end, moreover, is accomplished by sealing the secret in a written text. Not only is the act of writing endowed with special significance in the narrative accounts of the apocalypses, but the committing of the secrets in a book also opens the possibility, nay the necessity, that the secrets will have to be revealed through interpretation at the appropriate historical juncture. The form of writing is thus a process of concealing by way of revealing, which secures the need for someone to reveal what has been concealed in proximity to the endtime. Repeatedly in the history of Jewish mysticism, we find examples of individuals that claim for themselves or for their teachers messianic authority based on the proposition that the hidden secrets are now being disclosed, a sure sign of the imminent redemption.

Here I will mention one of the more striking examples from the sixteenth-century Kabbalist Hayyim Vital. In the introduction to his massive treatise in which he committed to writing the teachings of his master Isaac Luria, which he called Es Hayyim, Vital privileges Luria’s rank by emphasizing that he received the secrets through a revelation of Elijah, an ecstatic experience that was necessary to reopen the chain of tradition that terminated with Nahmanides in the thirteenth century. Vital relates this to a tradition he cites from Menah . em Recanati that the first Kabbalists received a revelation from Elijah but also with a passage from the introduction to Tiqqunei Zohar to the effect that Elijah, the souls of the departed righteous, and all the angels joined Simeon bar Yoh . ai when the composition (hibbura) of the Zohar was written. Even more poignant is a second passage from this work cited by Vital according to which the zoharic composition will be revealed in the final generation by Moses, or more specifically, by the manifestation of Moses appropriate to that time. Vital clearly identifies the Mosaic figure as Luria, which imparts to him a messianic comportment. Extrapolating from a passage in the Zohar, Vital assumes that the whole anthology was written by R. Abba, the scribe of the mystical fraternity, who recorded the oral discourses of Simeon bar Yohai. The latter gave him permission to write down the zoharic homilies because he knew through the holy spirit that R. Abba had the acumen to garb and to conceal the esoteric matters in the cloak of enigma (hiddah) and allusion (remez). Indeed, R. Abba wrote down the secrets in such a “great concealment” (he‘lem gadol) that “it was as if they were not written at all.” Only Luria, the Moses of the final generation that is in close proximity to the messianic era, had the ability to bring those hidden mysteries to light. Vital thus justifies his own literary effort in decidedly apocalyptic terms: those engaged in the study of the mysteries disclosed by Luria will hasten the advent of the redeemer.

True to its philological roots, apocalyptic is a form of revealing secrets, but the mode of revelation is concealment. The doubling of secrecy—the secret occluding itself as secret to be disclosed as secret—is, as I have argued in many of my studies, a salient feature of Kabbalistic esotericism. Leaving aside the historical and literary complexities surrounding the compositional and redactional history of the Zohar, it is instructive that Vital perceptively noted that the form of writing in this work is a form of erasure insofar as what is revealed is revealed by being concealed. Read through this prism, the zoharic compilation is inherently an apocalyptic text. The apocalyptic imagination that has shaped the messianic impulse in Jewish mysticism envisions the unveiling of the unveiling of the veil at the end, the final seeing without a veil, which consists of seeing that there is no seeing but through a veil. To apprehend the secret about the end, the secret disclosed at the end, is to attain the gnosis that there is no secret but the secret that there is no secret.

In that sense, the end and the secret belong together, for the end can only be imagined as the terminus that can never be terminated. From beginning to end, the end is the mystery that marks the horizon of our envisioning and delineates the limit of our language. The apocalyptic secret orients one to the decisive point in time, the end that is close at hand, the tomorrow that is today because today it is tomorrow. Ingrained in the texture of Jewish apocalyptic is this structure of secrecy, for the mystery is connected to the future that is revealed in the present as not being present. The secret of the end, which must always be manifest in a present, is of the future that originates in the past. What is yet to be, accordingly, reverts to what has already been, but what has already been issues from what is yet to be. I thus disagree with those who argue that the linear eschatology of the apocalyptic orientation is opposed to the cyclical view of time of the doctrine of eternal recurrence. The paradoxical nature of time in apocalyptic symbolism entails that what recurs is what has never been. The delay of the end’s materialization is precisely what secures the potency of its constant instantiation. The continual stay of the moment, the not-yet that is resolutely yet not at hand, is what eternalizes the temporal and temporalizes the eternal. The exposure of the eschatological secret in the present thus bridges the rupture between past and future by imparting hope in the return of what is to come.

The path of thought winds back to the prophetic utterance with which I commenced these reflections: “There is hope for your future,” yesh tiqvah le-ah. aritekh, that is, the future is dependent on the not-yet that already is what-is-to-come. Apocalyptic hope—the hope of the dream that renews itself sporadically as the hope that is deferred perpetually—stems structurally from the infinite negativity of time, the impossible possibility that makes it always possible that the future that is coming threatens not to be the future for which one has hoped. To plumb the depth of the apocalyptic spirit, one must be attuned to the hopelessness of the hope that ensues from the fact that the future for which we are constantly awaiting can never transpire in time. Rather than fostering despair, the inevitable nonoccurrence of the messianic event—in Derridean terms, the apocalypse without apocalypse—secures the expectation of its unremitting occurrence, the end that is always the beginning that is yet-to-come and therefore must have already been. The perpetual motion of the temporal torrent, we might say, is an expression of the expectation engendered by a future that infinitely transcends any finite actualization. The Messiah, Kafka famously wrote, will come on the day after he has arrived, not on the last day but on the very last. The very last day—the day that can never come to pass in the wavering of time, the day that succeeds the last day. Anticipation of that day requires, as Levinas put it, the pure patience of awaiting without something awaited. On this score, there is a radical subversion of the apocalyptic belief: if there is no end for which to wait, then, at best, we are waiting to wait no more, albeit a no more that is interminably not yet. For the one enlightened in this wisdom, redemption would consist ultimately of being redeemed from the desire to be redeemed.