Edmond Jabès and Kabbalism after God

by Matthew Del Nevo
Edmond Jabès and Kabbalism after God
Matthew Del Nevo
Journal of the American Academy of Religion
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Edmond Jabband Kabbalism after God

Matthew Del Nevo


EDMoND JABES IS A POET who wrote in French but who stands out- side mainstream French literary culture. As a Jew, his work, most of it written in the second half of his life, is what his friend and colleague, novelist and literary critic, Maurice Blanchot, would call a "writing of the disastern-the disaster being the Holocaust.

Jabes was born into an established Jewish family in Cairo in 1912, and he died in Paris in 1991. His move to Paris had been occasioned by the general persecution of Jews subsequent to the Suez crisis of 1956. Ironi- cally, around the same time as Jabes was leaving his dwelling forever, a volume of his collected early poetry entitled, IBuild My Dwelling (Je bdtis ma demeure), was being published by Gallimard. In 1963 Jabes published the first volume of The Book of Questions, and six separately entitled vol- umes followed over the next ten years. During the seventies he produced the three volumes of The Book of Resemblances and the two volumes of what was to become The Book of Margins. Jabes was still producing his enigmatic, bleak, aphoristic works up until the end of his life: the four volumes of which The Book of Limits is comprised, The Book ofHospi- tality, perhaps the most hopeful of his works, in the last year of his life, and a number of other more minor works, critical essays, and interviews.

Matthew Del Nevo is a free-lance teacher of literature and theology in Sydney, Australia.

It is seldom the voice of Jabes himself we hear in these works but a mul- titude of voices-rabbis and sages to whom Jabes gives a voice, the lovers, Sarah and Yukel, and a few others. It is as id these voices come from a lost world or from the mythological realm of Death itself. The reader of Jabes is presented with a work that has an immediate look of profundity about it, almost like a Scripture, but what kind of writing is this? How is one to understand it? How should one enter into it? Will any reading do, or are these voices trying to jerk us out of the habits and presumptions of our mere subjectivity? Jabes is obviously a difficult writer, for his meanings are never obvious and always require a high level of intuitive rapport with what he is all about-but what (is it) he is all about?

The crux for any interpretation of Jabes, it seems to me, is to enter into a deeper appreciation and appraisal of his work, while at the same time keeping him sufficiently difficult. The aim of this article is to trace the contours of Jabes particular kind of difficulty. Jabes is of broad interest to the study of religion because, in line with Jewish tradition, meditation on God is central to his work. Almost every page either directly or indirectly refers to God. One could almost say that the work of Jabes was a dialogue with God were it not for the fact that Jabes experience of God is the expe- rience of a particular kind of absence. God is not "there" for Jabes, but this is atheism of a religious order. Just because the pole star has fallen from the sky and disappeared-the star by which the navigator across the dangerous seas of existence steers his course-the direction of that ulti- mate point of all orientation, which the star once marked, remains.

In wanting to trace Jabes particular kind of difficulty and, as his read- ers, to orient themselves within his work, I believe we are helped if we rec- ognize the formative influence of Kabbalah in his writing. In this article the obscure subject of Kabbalah is taken up in an introductory way and only insofar as it bears on the writing of Jabes. What we gain, I think, by reading Edmond Jabes and considering God's absence is, paradoxically, a strengthened and renewed sense of God's being.

The idea of "Kabbalah after God" is based on Jabes's statement that his kind of Judaism is "Judaism after God." Speaking of Judaism after God elsewhere, Jabes writes:

It is true, the word, 'Jew,' the word, 'God,' are metaphors for me: 'God,' the metaphor for the void, 'Jew,' the metaphor for the torment of God, of the void. In parallel, I also try to close in as much as possible on the historical sense of the words, 'Jew' and 'God,' joined in one and the same becoming. Do creature and creator not prepare, together, the coming world? (1987c:4)

Further on in the same piece, Jabes writes:

Whether God exists or not is, in fact, not the essential question. It is first

of all to himself-and our tradition has always insisted on the impor-

tance of free will-that the Jew must answer for the fate of the values he

has pledged to spread.

Approaching it on this level, we find what I would call 'Judaism after

God.' (5)

I say "Kabbalism after God" to specify what, from within Judaism, is to be found at the organizational core and deepest intuition of Jabes's writing. This means "the level where the reader rejoins the creator who comes to the intuition of the book the further he enters into writing," and "the site around which the pages he is reading organize themselves" (1980b:118- 119; 1990b:82). In short, I take it that Jabes's understanding of Kabbalah is formative for his writings and for the "reading claiming priority" over his books (1980b:122; 1990b:85). The meaning of these little quotations from Jabes will become clear gradually, as I proceed. Betty Rojtman has previously drawn attention to the affinities of Kabbalah to the most obvi- ously 'Kabbalistic' of Jabes's books, El, or the Last Book (96). She does not go into the meaning of Jabes's saying that this last book comes first; nor does she investigate the meaning of the Kabbalistic parallels she finds, as I shall in this article. Nevertheless, I uphold her basic stance, which is cap- tured in her statements that Jabes underlines rather than derives his own ideas from Kabbalah; and that, for Jabes, Kabbalah offers a structural model and helps him organize his metaphysical premises, as well as being a means of giving specific sensible coherence to universal problems.

Gershom Scholem, the most renowned scholar of Kabbalah this cen- tury, recounts that, in 1924, a learned friend of his went to Jerusalem in search of the true oral source, if one could be found, of Kabbalah. Even- tually he found that the Kabbalist transmission had been kept alive. There was a binding condition put upon contacting it: that the disciple ask no questions. From this Scholem deduces that Kabbalah is distinguished by its being shaped as narrative (87). While Jabes takes up the famous pas- sion of the Jew for the question, seemingly in clear contrast to Kabbalistic forms of narrative and myth, we need to remember that it is a question- ing beyond the traditional faithful vision of God in His presence.

There may seem to be no narrative in Jabes's writings, but this lack of narrative is composed with just deliberation and becomes, therefore, an antithetical narration, even in its form: the continuity of fragments, side by side, 'narrating' brokenness beyond either a narrative thread, on the one hand, or a stream of commentary, on the other. In this regard Jabes's writings exemplify what Heidegger esteemed as a "a thinking that is shattered" (1978:223). The hallmark of thinking (Denken) at the end of philosophy-in the metaphysical sense exposed by the question of Being (Seinsfrage)-is that it is "shattered" as Jabes's work is, as Heideg- geris was not. Narrative and commentary are shattered by the likes of Auschwitz: "that utterburn where all history took fire," as Jabes's literary colleague, Maurice Blanchot, described it (47). The narrative of history, history as narrative, is shattered by an event that must interrupt all our preoccupations. Jabes does not develop a narrative or myth in any tradi- tional sense but lets the disaster have its myth: an anti-narrative of rhetor- ical questions and decapitated meditations.

The Kabbalah remains for Jabes the most nourishing source of the questions of writing and the book, or the Book. Jabes was well read in Kabbalah, and, if, apart from the events of his life and the autonomous processes of the imagination, we were to think of a literary influence upon him, I believe this would be it. In interview on the background to his work Jabes has said:

I believe I did find my way back to a certain tradition insofar as I immersed myself completely in the Kabbalah and the Talmud. I also read much about these books, as they are works one obviously cannot, at first, approach all alone. I also read, in translation of course, most of the Jew- ish spiritual masters.

Being neither a mystic nor a gnostic, it is clearly not the letter of those texts that marked me, but the shape of the thinking, their spiritual depth, particular logic and inventiveness-I am thinking here of the Kabbalah. Those books were in complete harmony with my preoccupations as a writer. Not only did they stimulate my own questioning, they also seemed to prolong it into an immemorial past. (1980b:76; 1990b:48)

Jabes "immersed" himself in Talmud as well as Kabbalah. Although not much attached to the content of the Talmud, Jabes admired the crooked- ness of its logic and the imperturbability of its authority. "It was the implacable logic of rabbinic argumentation that seduced him, rather than the actual content," Jabes says of his fatheris relation to the Talmud, and one could perhaps say the same of Jabes (1980b:107; 1990b372). Jabes's immersion in Talmud came after starting The Book of Questions, "as if wanting to check the intuition I had regarding a certain Judaism . . ."

I must admit that I felt an unexpected pleasure, faced with this incompa- rable text which blends the quotidian and the sacred so intimately that the most insignificant object-a sheaf of wheat forgotten in a field, for example-triggers fundamental metaphysical and ethical reflections. The Talmudists like to compare the Talmud to the ocean. The very dimen- sions of the work corresponding to the idea I myself had of the book. (1980b:lll; 1990b:72-73)

We need to realize, however, that Jabes does not take Kabbalah up in the same way it understands itself-or the way he thinks it understands itself. Kabbalah exists for Jabes in what he calls, as we shall see, a 'deflected' sense. It is this deflected sense of Kabbalah which really lies at the heart of his understanding of writing, the understanding we, his read- ers, need if we are to arrive at "the site around which the pages he is read- ing organize themselves," to glimpse there, that "something else," the writing of Jabes tends always to express. "Writing is never just that. It is always that plus something else ( 1980b: 154; 1990b: 1 1 1).


In his Letter to Jacques Derrida on the Question of the Book (1975:41-60, 1993a:36-48),' Jabes distinguishes his own notions of writing and the book, which, in fact, influenced Derrida in the first place, from those ideas of writing and the book which have come to be understood as Derridean. This is an interesting document because it brings before us questions of the meaning of 'writing 'in general and the concept (or poetic image as it functions in Jabes) of the book; and these matters are made contempo- rary-because of the specific address to Derrida-and therefore accessi- ble to critical reflection and extemporization. My discussion of Jabes in this article is intended for general understanding of his writing, yet I will keep his Letter at the center of my focus. This is not because my argu- ments depend on a direct logical relation to the Letter but because by means of the Letter I can conveniently bring into view something of the essential stance of Jabes.

It is commonly supposed, and Derrida does not deny it, that for him writing is the sphere of philosophy, of the question and questionable authority of meaning's decidability. Writing is also the ground (but groundless while essentially lacking authority) of deconstruction. Decon- struction, keeping close to the text, wants "to keep meaning at the point of the exhaustion of meaning" (1981b:14). For Derrida, the book is largely synonymous with the "closure" and "totalization" of the meaning (which in his book is always the undecidable) (Hart 1995:18). For Jabes: "It would be a serious error to connect any part of The Book of Questions with a theory of writing" (1976:28; 1990a:18). There is no underlying didactic purpose. Presumably this warning goes for both what The Book of Ques- tions 'influences' as well as 'interpretations' of it. The 'deflected' sense of Kabbalah with which I am associating Jabes's writing is not a connection of it with a theory of writing: it is way of suspending such a connection. It is Jabes's way of holding meaning and the question of authority that goes

' I have relied on my own translation of this text rather than that of Rosmarie Waldrop.

along with it in abeyance. While authoritative statements on matters of philosophical concern are lost under the deconstructive gaze of Derrida, much as under the deflecting gaze of Jabes the horizons of these concerns are sketched and lost in visionary poetry, the question of authority itself is not lost. Rather, it stands out all the more strongly as a question of the deep words of life. But it is a question in itself-a question that so many of Jabes's thoughts revolve around-as to whether, 'after Auschwitz,' the deep words of life are to be found. Thus, for Jabes, the book is not a metaphor for the totalization and closure of meaning but the condition of any search for the deep words of life: "those headstrong key words for which we are veil and face, sand and horizon" (Jabes 1978535; 1991c:71).

What Jabes puts to Derrida, at the heart of his Letter, are the words of a Kabbalistic rabbi, that is, a rabbi associated with mystical lore within mythical structures of thought (of the Tree of Life), as opposed to a rabbi solely concerned with the eponymous letter of the Law (Scholem:90). What Jabes cites are words "diverted from their original mystical sense,'- here then is Jabes's 'deflected' sense of Kabbalah. The rabbi's words reiter- ate the short poem with which the Letter opened. The words are regarding the Book [the Torah] :"the Book will be that which 'is graven with black of fire on white of fire.' Black fire on white fire" (Tabes 1975:54). The citation is from Rabbi Isaac (c. late thirteenthlearly four- teenth century) and refers to the relation of the written Torah (referred to as black fire) to the oral Torah (white fire) (Idel 1986:145, 154). At least this is the interpretation that most readily presents itself: the white associ- ated with the blank page, the black with the figures of ink which leap upon it.

First I will discuss what this citation means; then I will discuss what it means for Derrida, according to Jabes. We will then be able to distinguish the Jabesian notion of writing more easily and also what he means by the "reading claiming priority" that I have mentioned above.


The symbolism that springs first to mind is that the written Torah has passed through the medium of the oral Torah and is an expression of it. The written Torah is the text of the Pentateuch. According to Gershom Scholem,

The oral Torah is the sum total of everything that has been said by schol- ars or sages in explanation of this written corpus, by the Talmudic com- mentators on the Law and all others who have interpreted the text. The oral Torah is the tradition of the Congregation of Israel, it performs the necessary role of completing the written Torah and making it more con-

Del Nevo: Edmond Jabes and Kabbalism after God

Crete. According to Rabbinic tradition, Moses received both Torahs at once on Mount Sinai, and everything that any subsequent scholar finds in the Torah or legitimately derives from it, was already included in this oral tradition given to Moses. Thus in Rabbinical Judaism the two Torahs are one. The oral tradition and the written word complete one another, neither is conceivable without the other. (47-48)

Yet, if one interpreted Rabbi Isaac's words as the white fire symbolizing the oral Torah, and the black fire symbolizing the written Torah one would be remiss. Another interpretation reverses the symbolism that first presents itself. "The white fire is the written Torah in which the form of the letters is not yet explicit, for the form of the consonants and vowel points was first conferred by the power of the black fire, which is the oral Torah" (49). One of the leading scholars on the subject of Kabbalah, Moshe Idel, a student of Scholem and now a leading scholar in this field, sums up the reversed interpretation by saying: "The real 'written' Torah consists in the white background enveloping the black letters which, para- doxically enough, are said to form the 'oral' Torah" (1986: 145, 154). Scholem's account, however, goes a step further: "What we call the written Torah has itself passed through the medium of the oral Torah." "It was revealed to Moses, but what he gave to the world as the written Torah has acquired its present form through the medium of the oral Torah." There- fore, the "white fire" Rabbi Isaac spoke of is not the written Torah but the written Torah is "hidden" in it. "There is only oral Torah" (50). But going back to my previous quotation from Idel, if what is said to be oral Torah is somehow more primordially constituted by the "written" Torah, then we can with equal legitimacy state the opposite: there is only written

Torah. The two statements spiral around each other like white and black flames; but the fire is one and the same. Written Torah is not simply understood in Kabbalah as the words on the page, nor is the page itself understood in a straightforward way. The Kabbalists had a mystical and occult understanding of the Book, but this is deflected by Jabes into his understanding of the book. For Jabes the book comes after the Book. The Book is a cipher of the source of authority; the book is a cipher for the source of its absence. The Kabbalah already has a sense of this absence, which I shall explain more clearly in what follows; it is an absence that is not simply conceptualized as concealment (in the Heideggerian sense derived from aletheia), nor is it absence as simply not being there (das Nichts); it is the absence of something abscondent. The authority of writ- ing and the writing of authority, which is what the Torah is-and onto-logically constitutes writing as Torah-is an abscondent absence. God's absence is a torment for Jabes as a Jew and a writer, and we shall shortly see that this is true in a 'Kabbalistic' sense.

Writing, interpretation, the whole oral Torah (black and white fire) is an attempt at the evocation (the hope of the restoration) of the written Torah. Therefore, the written Torah as such, becomes, in every interpreta- tion of it, like a Land of Promise that the man of the word (the writer) and the People of the Book (the Jew) will never reach but to which, in their wandering, they are ever drawn. This, in figurative terms-perhaps the only appropriate terms-is what Jabes means by writing and the book: that authority which is never really 'with us', but always 'on the way' in the sense of an advent.

As attested by the final volume of Resemblances, for Jabes to write means to put the ineffaceable, the unperceived, to the pen. That meant making authorship (writing), something authoritative, or to make a Book of the book. To write what comes to have sacred authority is the ultimate calling of the writer and what alone can verify the existence of the Jew. While Jabes distinguishes writing and Judaism, he cannot conceive of one without the other. For Jabes, the book is only a cipher of authority, because authority itself is absent. The move from 'Book' in the upper case to book in the lower case is not only a mark of Jabes's deflection of words from their original mystical sense but shows his perception of the change from the certainty of God's presence to His people, to the experience of His absence; from possession of authority's horizons to their obscurity and loss.

The parallels between what the Kabbalistic rabbi has said about the Book and what Jab& has said about the book should stand out immedi- ately. Jabes has said the book is always what "slips away," never quite what one is writing (1980b:119,1990b:82). Jabes aims what he is writing toward the evocation of the book that slips away: the writing that might bear authority in its pages. Jabes attempts the evocation of the book by questioning and resembling the book that slips away in the book beneath the pen. The book that slips away is accurately questioned or resembled when the book beneath the pen is 'graphomorphic' with the book to come; that is, "a divine page. A human page. And in both cases the author is God, in both cases the author is man" (1985:88). I use the word 'graphomorphic' because the writing of the book and the sacred and authoritative writing of the Book would form a homology. The page on which the writing is both human and divine in one and the same words would be the page on which the reader with eyes to see would encounter "bursts of authoritative Speech" (1985:83), a page in which would be inserted "the eternal Book in the metamorphoses of the mortal book (1982:50). The one is the interi- orization of the other; or the face of one is the face of the other.' Such a


On the intdriorisation and dddoublementof the Face, see Corbin 1983:247f., 301f.

Del Nevo: Edmond lube5 and Kabbalism afrer God

page sacralizes the book and transfigures kcriture (writing) into Ecriture (Scripture). Therefore, insofar as we are to consider the sacred activity of writing, it is not just a question of the book, but a question of the book and the Book; the two constitute a synergy.' As theologians of several religions have always recognized, not only do oneness and duality presuppose each other, but they constellate a third. The plentitude of writing is not covered by the diversity or synergy of the book and the Book or especially the ques- tions of these, but these questions can only perfect or complete themselves in sharing. The plentitude of the absent Book of authority is not just found in the authority of the book of questions put to this absence, but also in the brimming over of ideas from such an authoritative book into the rdcit or commentary in which, such as this article, these matters find their reflec- tions and refractions.This idea was famously developed by Rabbi Elie of Vilna in which Book, book, and commentary come to signify a hierarchi- cal order of descent by which the infinitely unknown manifests itself in the world (Moses:53). The truth of writing and reading in the world is graded according to the extent to which the infinitely unknowable lies before the mind's eye.

The question of authority always bears back upon the infinitely unknown: for the book in question can never establish the book of authority but vacillates before it, because the book beneath the pen is only ever an equivocation of the authority that words through the strength of their evocation and their life grant to it. This is the grant of the Book, of absence. Absent, because the question of authority always commands the book and the Book.' The Book only commands authority under the aus- pices of idolatry or what we now call fundamentalism. It is this question

'I agree from a literary point of view with Stamelman (1987, 1989) that Jabes work is characteris- tically "allotropic" (oriented to the other) as he calls it, but I disagree that this is fundamentally true from a philosophical viewpoint. Philosopically, orientation to the other, as Plato's Eleatic stranger points out, presupposes both. Anyway, I would avoid trying to hang Jabes's "philosophy" on either point. From a philosophical and literary point of view Jabes's writing keeps the unknown before it. As Renk Char as said: "It is right for poetry to be indistinguishable from what is foreseen but not yet for- mulated (51).

'Stephanie Mosks has pointed out that in the Kabbalistic Sefer Etsira (Book of Formation). It says: "He created the world by three books: the Book, the book, and the commentary (rect)" (53).The question of the Book and the book must include the recitin which this reflection is made and which authorises the equation.

I am talking here of authority as a metaphysical question at the core of allphilosophy. It is authority at this level which is absent, which Jabes denotes as the Book. In this authoritative sense of the ques- tion of authority Jabes's question of the book and the Book takes up an essential matter of both Greek and Jewish metaphysics. It is not, in my view, simply a case of Jabes asserting a "Jewish metaphysic against a supposedly "Greek metaphysic; if these matters we hear so glibly spoken of as "Jewish rather than "Greek,"or vice versa, were really nzetaphysiral,as we are told they are, we should not be so easily able to comment upon them from some unspecified but neutral place apparently outside them, or aside from them. This fallacy about speaking about metaphysics, logos or mythos, as though writer and reader shared some neural vantage point from which to authoritativeydge these matters

of authority as the most authoritative ofall questions that the synergy of the book and the Book constellate throughout the work of Jabes. In what follows I want to take up my interpretation of the citation of the Kabbal- istic rabbi in terms of Jabes's poetic image of the blank page and then go on to discuss what Jabes supposes this means for Derrida. This will lead us back into the meaning of the citation from the Kabbalistic rabbi in a discussion of what Jabes calls ABSENCE.


For the Kabbalist absence is mystical. The absence of the written Torah turns it into a purely mystical concept. Also it is another instance of the iconoclasm of the Jewish tradition. The Torah, which has been so loved and glorified by the People of the Book that it has become equated with the pre-existence of the Most High before the Creation of the world, can- not, therefore, be said to be something seen without the greatest sacrilege of idolatry. Jabes resembles this pre-existent Book in a reflection on his own volumes where he speaks of the last volume that "all books are con- tained in, and were drawn from, the last. Book before all books" ( 1980a, 1992:jacket-note) The "inexhaustible last book, ineffaceable, comes before all the others" (1980a:7; 1992:l). Its real absence, since the inexhaustible and ineffaceable cannot be 'contained' in a mere volume, resembles the absence of mystical possibilities in a world so demystified as our own. It also resembles the absence of any certainty over where the writer and the Jew are to begin with respect to the really great problems and question-marks of existence, after the di~aster.~

All metaphysical premises have been demystified it would seem. But, if so, this is the mys- tery of our time. Jabes's cipher for the prevailing mystery of our time, the absence of metaphysical premises out of which poetry might, once again, issue forth and certain values re-establish ruptured communities, is that of the desert or the blank page: metaphors that become synonymous for

is found wherever metaphysical discussion turns on the so-called gulf of difference between Greek and Jew. The truth is that one is unthinkable without the other. Jabes is not a "Jewish" writer as opposed to a "Greek" writer, nor is this "difference" nvery helpful for reading Edmond Jabes. For instance, 'Zepo~ntsur L'un" by Fran~ois Laruelle, while admirable for taking a metaphysical approach to Jabes, falls foul of this GreekiJew, ontologylheterology fallacy (1989). But even if this objectifying stance is correct, the Jabesian question must still be asked: upon what authority? And the place of this question is not neutral. How can academic formulations about alterity suffice to reading Jabes, let alone that to which Jabes writing would suffice, namely, the disaster? It is to the credit of Rosemarie Waldrop that she translates "L'Autre est l'au-dela personnifie de l'Un," as: "For the One, the other is a personified beyond" (Jabes 1969:29; 1991b:136). Such a translation as this does not treat either the One or the Other as concepts in a mataphysical agenda, but gives a poetic sense of both.

6This phrase "the really great problems and question-marks" of existence is borrowed from Niet- zsche's Gay Science, aphorism 373 (334).

the spacious wandering of his pen (Del Nevo). Like the absent written Torah of the Kabbalists, the blank page, for Jabes, is the template of all beginnings. The difference here between Jabes and the Kabbalists is the difference between the idea of the Book as an invisible absence and an invisible presence. According to Helena Shillony in her study of Jabes, the word that Jabes bequeaths to us, should we have to choose only one, would be le blanc. This is one of those deep words of life I referred to above. Shillony writes: "Leaving the last word to Jabes, and this word will be blank (le blanc)" (1991:69). The blank means that into which all the deep words of life disappear in the disaster and from which, on the page, beneath the pen, they will rise again.

While Shillony brings us to the heart of Jabes's work with this word, what it means is left unthought by her. To give some preliminary eluci- dation of it here will help bring into view the 'Kabbalism after God' that issues from the deepest intuition and organizational core of Jabes's writing.

The blank is not nugatory-it is the element of Creation, icon of the nihil out of which Creation will be brought and out of which the writer creates. All our writing is held in it, and that which is written is written in it. The blank has no beginning or end. The blank, more historically, is the cipher of authority lost and found: because what has been written as Law has been wiped out by lawlessness in the disorientation of the absolute, by the disaster; and because blank is how the light of authority now looks. The blank page is an image of the imageless. The great iconoclasts who would brook no image of God, who would deconstruct all anthropomor- phism (and therein lies deconstruction's true genealogical origin), who would uphold a conceptual theology of abstraction purified of myth, became themselves the burnt offering. Nothing materialized to help them because there was nothing-a blank page. The People of the Book, "after God," are not a race but those who belong to the blank page. The blank page is an icon of the difference between 'then' and 'now.' All the words that once were there now are wiped out. The utterness of this wiping- out-the blank page-is an unforgettable difference. And the blank page straddles this difference at the same time. It is also a bridge between then and now. It remembers the prohibition of images (the God that is ques- tioned is an image of God). The blank page is the measure of every pic- ture words decide to trace; thus, it is an icon (of iconoclasm, of the blank slate, the new creation, the beginning.)

As an icon, the blank page has a particular kind of significance for writ- ing. All writing on the blank page is not literal or symbolic but icono- graphic. Iconographic writing is tied to this idea of symbolism as its negation: rather than the word calling forth the unfathomable soul of itself, its image, to presence, the word is a window onto infinity. The page is an image of the blanc, icon of this infinity, of which symbols are the most fruitful words; negative because it can harbor no word in particular.' The blank page, like the desert, is the image of fruitlessness. Yet out of these arid literary and historical circumstances of death and disaster, love, hope, and orientation after the disaster are wrested. Intimations of a Book resound within the book. One can hear Jabes draw breath in words "irri- gated with his blood," (1987a:51; 1989b:35) in works "which impose silence" (1987a:46; 1989b132). Thus, Jab& does not consider the criteria of authoritative writing from the outside, as it were, but writes authorita- tively of what is most qualitatively interior to questions of writing and authority: of "the text which engenders all texts to be written and which, though ever elusive, will not leave ofihaunting us" (1987a:5l; 1989b:35).

The word itself, symbolically speaking, is a symbol of its own efface- ment, and we hear this throughout the writings of Jabes in what Shillony calls the rhetoric of subversion and in what I would call Jabes's philoso- phy of silence and poetics of absence. "A kind of white writing inside of writing," JabPs says (1980b375; 1990b347). It is because the word is a sym- bol of its own effacement that we can speak of these things. Therefore, in a key passage on this question of writing Jab& muses:

Writing, or being written, then means passing, sometimes unawares, from the visible-the image, figure, representation which lasts the time of an approach-to the invisible, the non-representation against which things put up a stoic struggle; from the audible, which lasts the time of listening, to silence where our words obediently come to drown; from sovereign thought to the sovereignty of the unthought, remorse and supreme torment of the word. (1985:86; 1986: 356)

This kind of writing, if we are to call it iconographic writing, is only such as an icon of iconoclasmic writing: writing that breaks the image in the name of its underlying absence.

The blank page is not a theological abstraction, however, but abstracts the meaninglessness of abstraction, its indifference and disastrous inhu- manity. It is abstraction as such and as a whole that is meaningless- abstraction as presupposition and system behind thinking; particular abstract propositions in terms of others whose relative meaning may be perfectly demonstrable remain of course as meaningful as ever; it is only

-I agree with Massimo Cacciari where he says, "The writing of Jabes renounces not only every symbolic value, but likewise every allegory. The desert does not signify something else, has no value by virtue of signifying anything other than itself. It is precisely this sign, pure and naked, never sim- ply metaphor" (76).The idea of "precisely this sign'', however, would be my definition of a symbol as opposed to an allegory. It can be said that with this symbol, Jabes renounces every symbolic value; for we have yet to value this symbol!

that now, with this question of writing, they are under suspicion Abstrac- tion as a human process cannot survive disaster, assuage pain, bring about solidarity on earth, touch the earth.

To a material age the blank page is a material thing on which the cre- ative process can be materially carried out. The blank page is an icon to the future: of what will be written. The blank page is about possibility. It holds out a hope-only one we have to fill. "Judaism after God," is about turning to this page; it is the page at the end of one book and the begin- ning of another-the end of a book that is finished and the beginning of a book that must be begun. The disaster marks the break between the two. The Book of God's presence closes when His absence becomes mani- fest and 'He' becomes a myth unto himself ("the metaphor for the void," as I quoted Jabes above); the book of God's absence is the book to come. Yet through this transition from one book to the other the Authority that put the question becomes the question of itself.

To sum up, the blank page recalls the Kabbalah because, in a sense, it replaces the Kabbalah's main mythological symbol of the Tree of God. The Tree of God symbolized the mythical structure of God's creative powers that could be named and known (Scholem: 91); the blank page calls on man's creative powers that he has always owed to God but that he now owes to himself. God is no longer in the Book. I will delay my discus- sion of theurgy, which arises from this particular point about man's cre- ative powers, until later where I discuss ABSENCE. The idea that God is no longer in the Book means that the Book of God is in man (Jabes, 1989a:105). But the obvious circularity between man and God that makes them so inseparable has not been erased. Nor can it be erased unless man erase himself. It has always been this way:

-In citing the Book, the Jew cites himself.

-The Jew is nothing, is he not, but the citation of the Book?

-The Jew does not cite the Book. He is cited by himself. (Jabes 1989a:83)

Thus, "after God," theology does not end; it becomes all the more crucial. Jabes faces this fact in every fragment, and he never defaces it; that is his seriousness. For Jabes our time does not lead to an abstract questioning of God or to a foray into mythological thinking (whether this derives from a fabulous sense of reality or a fictive sense of authority). Nor does Jabes indulge in a new wave of iconoclasm in the vindictive sense (the icon of the blank page saves him from this). For Jabes our time leads to a hard questioning of humanity and its ways. But these are not the ways thought has been already, or humanity, but ways humanity has not been, ways of unthought: "the opaque, translucent, cursed unthought which saps, abases and depraves us" (1976:141, 1990a:109). This way of thought- which the genius of Jabes's writing shows is no aporia-in which God is as unknown as the nature of man, points to what Jabes faces and repre- sents as the religious paradox of our time:

I said that at the farthest, boldest, most daring point of his quest the Jew ceased to be Jewish to the Jews, and that this paradox was one of the keys to Judaism, the promised key to the Book which all books, presuming on the promise, claim to hold. (1 976: 139; 1990a: 107)

The "Jew" in this quotation, as a metaphor for the torment of the void, means all those whose Faith is of the Book. Thus, Kabbalism after God does not just refer to an obscure area of philosophy only relevant to Jew- ish studies but to a contemporary 'religious' sensibility with implications for more than one world religion. A sensibility that the work of Jabes will ensure has a future.

Given images of what has not been thought and the paradox just referred to, new ways are not novel-they resemble old ways. Many of Jabes's sayings present themselves as the lost voices of the past who have only come to the book "over the centuries" ( 1963; 199 1a:dedication). The lost voices reappear in the inspired memory and imagination of the writer after the disaster as fragments only, as figments of possibility, inklings, experimental beginnings, shelters in the debris of language and being. "0perpetual day in the ephemeral day," writes Jabes in the Letter to Derrida: words to evoke this very ethos of a Kabbalism after God.

Why does Jabes put these words of a Kabbalistic rabbi about black fire on white fire to Derrida? What does he want him to hear? What do we hear from the words addressed by Jabes to Derrida, about Jabds? What do we hear about his writing; about the site around which the pages we are read- ing organize themselves? Let us look at these questions now. These ques- tions will lead us into the discussion of what Jabes refers to as ABSENCE.


The writings of Jabes could be seen, and not unjustly, as an extenuation of the words of Rabbi Isaac. The image of fire is equated with the ques- tions of writing and the book by Jabes in the poem at the start of the Let- ter to Jacques Derrida. This image of fire points to the passion of what is at issue (writing and the book), to their primordial nature and the difficulty of language with respect to them: for fire is an unstable and insubstantial element, unlike the word with its traditional tendency to fix representa- tions and hold them steady. The extenuation of one writing by another, of book by book, is what Jabes calls desire. "Fire is virginity of desire:' he says

Del Nevo: Edmond Jabb and Kabbalism after God

at the end of the poem (1975:47). Derrida's work is described by Jabes as "the propagation of innumerable fires to the spreading of which your philosophers, your thinkers, your favorite writers taken back to their writ- ings, contribute" (55). "Thus your books mutually reflect each other, and they reflect your privileged examples, back-to-back" (55).

Ultimately, for all its creative motioning, which Jabes evokes with some warmth, Derrida's understanding of the question of writing and the book is set in epistemological terms of meaning and interpretation. Derrida's "positions," which are without position as such, his transgressions and subversions, seem unable to bring anything into sight beyond the aporia-Derrida has in fact said that his work has all been a labor "in aporetology or aporetography" (1 993: 15). "An aporia is a non-road" (1990: 16)-with Derrida's understanding of questions of writing and the book do we only ever wind up down dead ends? To Jabes, it seems so. Without an orienting star Derrida's word-plays lack the reverential sense, "the consecrated gesture,)' of Jabes's (1978:69; 1990c:56). Derrida's word- plays are the boast of a "dislodged and dislodging writing" (1981b:42). Jabes, by contrast, seeks the metamorphoses of the word for ends that are neither a travesty of traditional justice nor ideologically bound up with non-r~ads.~

Near the end of the Letter Jabes takes up a synonym of Derridean difer- ance: the word mine (mine, as in mining), which has multiple meanings (58). Diferance is lost in a poetic synonymy, as if Jabes with his sure cre- ative touch wished to deconstruct diferance. At the same time he begins to delimit the physiognomy of diferance. The point Jab& makes, how- ever, is Kabbalistic: "The single letter is able to contain the book, the uni- verse" (59). The "pyramidal silence" Jabes quotes at this point of the Letter is from Derrida's early essay "Dife'rance" (l981a:3-27) which, with seem- ing Kabbalism itself, announces its subject as the letter a. From Jabes's point of view, when Derrida changed a letter without altering the vocal- ization of the word in French, he enacted something more ancient and radical than he calculated and than it is possible for the rhetoric and labor of deconstruction to take up. While making a Kabbalistic move to start with, Derrida stuck to a theoretical stance in which the letter 'a' is made an object, and his essay an object lesson for Heideggerian ontology. Derrida's essay attempts to inaugurate what, in this contrived spirit, he calls "play"

7assert this despite the fact that in a much later writing than the context of Jabes's Letter to Derrida, Derrida has boldly asserted the connection between aporetology and deconstruction as operat- ing on the basis of an infinite "idea of justice" (1990:24-25). Gillian Rose takes issue with Derrida about writing and law (1984:131-170). Elsewhere she criticizes Derrida's association of deconstruc- tion with the undeconstructability of justice as leaving the authority and legitimacy of its claim a mystery-and a mystery that therefore, constellates the need "to represent, to formalize, to think, to know, to judge" (1993:87).

(198la:4-5; Heidegger 1991:84,111-112). This is the play that, for Jabes, is superficial; and his Letter suggests that the objectification of the letter in Derrida's philosophical stance has only led up the non-way of ideology and academicism(49). It is not by virtue of differance that the single letter is able to contain the book, the universe; nor is it by reason of the playful undecidability of Derridean writing. The Kabbalists suggest to Jabes a more magnificent and magnanimous concept of writing altogether, and this is what he wants to suggest to Derrida by way of the Letter. This Jabesian notion of writing depends upon a number of Kabbalistic ideas working in concert, all deflected of course from their mystical sense. I will proceed to unfold the Jabesian notion of writing by reference to the most important of these Kabbalistic ideas and then by a discussion of what Jabes calls ABSENCE. At the end of this discussion we will be in a position to see writing in the way Jabes wants Derrida to see it.

We need to recall to start with that the idea of inarticulate sound is a powerful motif of Jewish tradition. Scholem points out that, in the Guide to the Perplexed of Maimonides, "wherever in passages dealing with the revelation on Mount Sinai, the children of Israel are said to have heard words, it is meant that they heard the (inarticulate) sound of the voice, but that Moses heard the words (in their meaningful articulation) and communicated them" (30).Nearer to our own time, the Kabbalistic Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov said that only thefirst letter of the alphabet, the aleph, was revealed to Israel on Mt.Sinai. Scholem comments:

The aleph may be said to denote the source of all articulate sound, and indeed the Kabbalists always regarded it as the spiritual root of all other letters, encompassing in its essence the whole alphabet and hence all other elements of human discourse. To hear the aleph is to hear next to nothing; it is the preparation for all audible language. (30)

When Jabes tells Derrida that, "The single letter is able to contain the book, the universe," he is also reiterating what the great teacher of Mish- nah, Rabbi Meir told Rabbi Ishmael when the latter asked him about writing. He was told that "if you omit a single letter, or write a letter too many, you will destroy the whole world" (Scholem:39). Jabes is not merely alluding here to Derrida's change of an 'e' for an 'a' in difference. For the Kabbalist the single letter was able to contain the book, the uni- verse, because for them the Torah was the organ of Creation (Scholem:73).

For Jabes the intuition is homologous, and the reason is analogous; only the mysticism is deflected. For Jabes, contra Derrida, writing means that, because "the act of writing would appear to be a consecrated ges-

Del Nevo: Edmond Jabes and Kabbalism after God

ture" (1978:69; 1991c:56). The letter is venerated accordingly, with hu- mility, in "handing man's power over to the utterance of the book, equiva- lent to sacrificing the word to its power of absence, allowing it only its immediate, ill-timed manifestation" (1978:69; 1991c:56). "Ill-timed" because the world is never on the watch for the utterance of a book such as this. A book of man and God, of "undefinable presence and infinite absence" (1978:67; 1991c:80), "a single promised book of fire,'' a book in which "God is, with me, this vocable" (1975:47). So that, to take up a pre- vious metaphor, the blood with which the writer irrigates his words, is God's blood (1987a:51; 1989b:35).

By contrast, for Derrida the meaning of absence has always seemed to confront him with the dynamics of negative theology, a bloodless God; even though, ironically, Derrida has always been aware of negative theol- ogy and at pains to distinguish what he means, from it:

What differance, the trace, and so on mean-which hence does not mean anything-is before the concept, the name, the word, something that would be nothing, that no longer arises from being, from presence or from the presence of the present, nor even from absence, and even less from some hyperessentiality. (1989:9)9

Negative (apophatic) theology is that discourse on God that proceeds by way of saying what God is not, rather than stating positive (kataphatic) attributes in the manner of anthropomorphism and a metaphysics of presence. In this passage Derrida is speaking of (how to avoid speaking of) negative theology, and while acknowledging the resemblance of nega- tive theology with his discourse (18-19), he points out differences, one of which is a dissociation from esotericism and another of which is the incipient influence of Heidegger in his discourse (53ff.).

The point here, however, is not to reduce either Derrida's and Jabes's ways of thinking and unthinking to a theoretical issue of negative theol- ogy, or vice-versa, for this would be untrue to both of them. I am speak- ing of Jabes in particular and arguing that Jabes lies closer to Kabbalism (deflected from its mystical sense) than to negative theology. My view agrees with what Kaplan has called Jabes's "atheistic theology" (1987,

'Kabbalah differs from negative theology because whereas the former is mythological and poetic, the latter is conceptual and bound to the dynamics of reasoning, for instance, to binary oppositions (or their opposition by deconstruction). I should state, however, that by mentioning Jabes in relation to Kabbalah, I am not interested in correlations, as if the fact that Jabes can be related to Kabbalah gives what he has to say any special credence. Derrida's ideas have already suffered being correlated with rabbinic thought, and I would not wish to extend this allegorizing, for it can lead to the kind of misconstrual that I think we have in Susan Handelman (1982) of both the rabbis and Derrida.

1989). In other words, Jabes's theology (should we care to speak of such a thing) is not conceptual but imaginal. The logic of his imaginative work is Kabbalistic because, like Kabbalah, it finds its meaning in myth and is essentially mythical. My view agrees with what Max Bylen has called the "mythical comportment" of Jabes's writing (1987).1° Myth here means an account of reality that only poets can produce by which man is put in touch with the world and himself in an encompassing and thorough- going manner. Paul Celan puts the point like this: "It is not communica- tion between man and man that matters, but communication between man and cosmos. Put men in touch with the cosmos and they will be in touch with one another" (Hamburger:79). Myth is therefore an ontologi- cal account of being and dying. In short, myth, as I am referring to it here, occurs when poetry is cosmological or world-defining. The myth can be considered dead when people are self-consciously aware of it as but a tale told; however, the myth is living and true when people believe that is how the world really is. There are at least three other important Kabbalistic aspects of the language and writing that inform Jabes's own work, which I would like to introduce now, for they will enable us to understand what Jabes means by writing: the mytho-poetical sense of the word's image and expression.

First, in one important and long-standing tradition of Kabbalah the entire Torah and tradition, the textus (living texture), could be resumed, it was thought, into the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, the divine Name of God (YHWH). In Kabbalism this Name is synonymous with the Creation of heaven and earth (Scholem:4lff.; Cohon: 156- 161). Jabes's conception of the book in some fragments explicitly thinks of the book as if it were the Tetragrammaton, containing within it the birth and death of everything in heaven and earth: "If God is, it is because He is in the book (1963:32-33; 1991a:31-32). For Jabes all originates in the book through its naming: "naming gives existence [ ... ] nothing exists outside the book" (1978:92; 1991c:76). How Jabes makes these seemingly aggrandizing views bear a contemporary purpose will become clearer in my discussion below of God as ABSENCE and book as place.

Secondly, the Kabbalists spoke of the vowel-point-pen touched to parchment-as the rbumt of creation. "When God, El, wanted to renew Himself, He appeared as a point" (1973:7; 199b1341). Of course a wis- dom of God was needed to know just where and in what way to point the text. It is not that this wisdom is esoteric or secret but that it is a

loAlso, Shlomo Elbaz (1987) finds Jabks's writing thoroughly modern in its multiple meanings, deliberately conflicting significations and hermeneutical impossibilities, but nonetheless he finds it also intimately related to the anteriority of mythic Jewish imagination.

Del Nevo: Edmond Jab& and Kabbalism after God

world away from the foolishness that its absence constellates; it is from knowing how to point the text that "the prophet" in man emerges (Idel 1986:144). In an epigraph to the most explicitly Kabbalistic of his books (the seventh volume of Questions),there is the same symbolism of black on white as in the words of the Kabbalistic rabbi in the Letter to Derrida. The epigraph is from Wittgenstein's Tractatus logico-philosophicus. The point precedes being black or white, Wittgenstein says. Furthermore, "we can indicate a point on the paper even without knowing what black or white is" (1973:17; 1991b:351). This strikes Jabes as a Kabbalistic idea. Not only does Jab& write that, "When God, El, wanted to reveal Himself, He appeared as a point," but a point is given as the title of the seventh volume of Questions. Thus, it is from this point that writing and au- thority issue, that the word to come and the book to come, will be enabled to come: "From this point . . . ," writes Jabes (1973:17; 1991b:351). And: "From this point we have conceived the book (1973: 121; 1991b:351). "We": the writer and the Jew; the author and the reader; God and man. For Jabes, this idea of a point would precede even the Derridean trace and the binary concept of decidabilitylundecidability itself. The idea of the point becomes the symbol for Jabes of the book that is ineffaceable and unperceived, the "mythical" book "before all books" as he describes it in the jacket-note of the third volume of Resem

blances. God appears as a point. That means God, nothing in Himself, is only in every interpretation. This kind of ontology is shared alike by Jabks and Derrida. It is not a fundamental ontology like Heidegger's in Being and Time but ontology as a matter of writing, a covenant with the word, a question of the book and the Book. This kind of ontology is what makes the idea of "the reading claiming priority:' a puzzling prospect, yet one I shall address shortly.

My third point about the ways in which Kabbalistic ideas of language and writing inform Jabks's thinking is this: The pointing of the text of the Torah was considered by Kabbalists a desacralization of it. Because of this, the unpointed scroll of the Torah, that is, the Torah in which the vowel sounds were omitted, meant the consonants could be vocalized differ- ently, shifiing the meaning of the text both within and between every word. The possibilities of interpretation of the Torah were literally infinite because there could (literally speaking) be infinite Torahs (Idel 1986). This Kabbalistic notion is radical even by Derrida's standards of undecidability of texts, because it would unbind the logical opposition between decid- ability and undecidability, text and context, Same and Other. But it is pre- cisely at this point, when undecidability gains the absolute upper hand, that "the reading claiming priority" comes back into view. Interpretation either has to become impossible or it has to become a function of wis- dom. Wisdom must be defined by having come to "a true intuition of the text" (Jabks 1980b:118; 1990b:82)-to that point, without knowing what it is, but in which God reveals Himself. Thereafter it becomes possible to "point" the text, to allot to it readings claiming priority.

In Kabbalism, as in reading Jabes, a "true intuition" of the text suggests a superior, more authoritative interpretation. The rabbi's interpretation of the Torah is more authoritative than that of the tradesman, the teacher than the pupil. The analogy holds for reading Edmond Jabks. Yet the "true intuition of the text" that distinguishes the wise interpretation from the mundane or mistaken means "nothing that would resemble a closure, nothing that would lock [the texts] in on themselves" (1980b:57; 1990b:33). The reading claiming priority, as we shall come to see, does not refer to an interpretation or something that has to be decided but to a place prior to interpretation: a starting point. Jabes's writing can be duly understood as carrying the reader to the threshold of such a place. Before bringing together the notions of book, place, and readings claiming pri- ority, I need to say something about ABSENCE.


The question of the book is primarily a question of meaning and authority's absence defined by the Scriptum Absconditum (the written Torah) and the Deus Absconditus (God in the disaster and aftermath, that is, in our time)-in other words, the presence of absence-death-and the absence of presence-God-in the disaster and its aftermath.

... for what I was confronted with was the absence of God and not of the concept of god. This absence slowly became ABSENCE, our absence to ourselves, the absence of origin which is the root of all creation. The abyss, in fact. (1980b: 106; 1990b:72)

This matter of ABSENCE is what I want to discuss now. Jabks's sense of ABSENCE, his isomorphic understanding of the relation between the Book and the book is not atheistic. In the conventional sense an atheist does not believe in the existence of a God, but at the outset of this article I established that the existence, or otherwise, of God in the conventional sense was not the issue. The issue has to do with the fate of certain values symbolized by what I have called the deep words of life. The absolute anchor of the deep words of life, in humanity, has been disoriented by dis- aster. "The thread has been cut:' between man and man, between man and God (1980b:92; 1990b361). In this situation the book comes to stand for the condition of any search for the deep words of life. As I have indi- cated above, it would be wrong simply to interpret Jabes's atheism under

Del Nevo: Edmond Jabes and Kabbalism after God

the heading of negative theology. As I have argued, most essentially, Jabks's atheism is Kabbalistic. Kabbalistic atheism starts with the Scriptum Absconditum and Deus Absconditus as mythical pretexts on the basis of which man's essential origin and end is thought out. Kabbalistic atheism mythologizes being. Its myth (of the Tree of Life) is now only of historical importance since the only true myth is living myth. Analogously, Jabes raises the question of the book through poetry in a shattered narrative into something approaching myth. This is not myth in the historical sense of some pre-scientific mode of belief, but myth we have yet to recognize as such: living myth-myth in the making: literally Creation theology because the creation oftheology, of the word to come (le vocable a venir),

"the writer being unable to express himselfexcept in the future" (1987a:52- 53; 1989b:36).I1

As Betty Rojtman has pointed out, Jabes's metaphysical premises are not conceptual but mythical (96).This is the myth of ABSENCE. Man is configured not by some idol or image of absence (God or Book) but by the ineffaceable, the unperceived (subtitle of the last book of Questions and Resemblances). This is not an abstract absence, a theoretical positing of absence, but real, like pain, like screams: God is abscondent-a contemporary experience in the aftermath of disaster but also a Kabbalistic idea (Lurianic, after Isaac Luria, 1534- 1572) which was called tsimtsum (Scho1em:l lOf.). Lurianic myth originally grew out of a great massacre and dispersion of Jews (from Spain) as an attempt to take account for the world again in circumstances of great pain and disorientation. Tsimtsum means God's withdrawal into Himself-His contraction and hiding. The crisis in the world is the result, the outcome, of a crisis in God. The world will only be restored to God's powers and command when God has been healed and made pure again (the tikkun) by the prayer and exemplary justice of man. It is in this Kabbalistic way, deflected from its mystical sense, that Jabes calls himself an atheist. Jabes's atheism is not merely the logical negation of theism; it is Lurianic. Thus, it is not a contradiction in terms for Edward Kaplan and others to speak of Jabes's "atheistic theol- ogy,'' for Jabes atheism follows from the logic of a myth which is true: that God has withdrawn and is hidden from the world. The myth is atheolog- ical and bibliosophical according to Didier Cahen (61).

Above, where I said the blank page calls on humanity's creative powers, I mentioned theurgy. Jabes is a theurgicpoet. Just as the Lurianic Kabbal- ist had to invite God to presence, so does the Jabesian poet, starting with Jabes himself in our time, after the disaster. Edward Kaplan draws atten-

" Italics in original. Of the word to come: "Aword of solitude and certainty, so buried in its night that it is barely audible to itself" (1987a:9; 1989b:l).

tion to what I also consider an important page of Jabes in this regard, for it strongly shows that all Jabes's atheism and talk of absence is not nihilism or some ideologically inspired poetic agenda. The passage I am referring to comes from Le Parcours and is entitled "The Book Read; Here, First / The Reading of the Book." It begins as follows:

To negate Nothingness (Nier le Rien). By this phrase I have wanted to

build the book; because that is what it means to live, to negate Nothing-

ness. (1985: 105)

In Jewish tradition, when God is abscondent, He is sought by theurgy; by means of fervor, prayer, petition, evocation. The word was considered an instrument of creation, especially the name and most especially the name of God, the four letters of the Tetragrammaton (YHWH). The Kab- balists worked magic by means of those names discovered to be homolo- gous with elemental powers. For the Kabbalist everything in the world was significant in some occult manner. This is not the kind of theurgy we read about in Iamblicus or Proclus, or in Heidegger for that matter (1976); it is not a matter of calling down the gods from on high to save us.

Jewish theurgical anthropology strikes utterly different chords; the prob- lem is basically the need of the Divinity for human help, or human power, in order to restore the lost sefirotic harmony. The focus of Kabbal- istic theurgy is God, not man; the latter is given unimaginable powers, to be used in order to repair the divine glory or the divine image. (Idel 1988:179)

The ancient Jewish idea of theurgy is quintessential to Jabks, for after the disaster, the divine glory and image are almost in need of creation, so dire has their lot become. While Jews needed God's help in the Holocaust, now, in the aftermath, God needs humanity to save Him. God needs man to intercede on His behalf. This is why creation is important in Jabks: writing as a mode of intercession, a form of prayer (Kafka:743). What an author creates must be authoritative indeed, if it is to restore the deep words of life, God and man included, to some resemblance to their former glory; but the voices of the rabbis in Jabks's books recall such authorita- tive saying. What it means for the deep words of life to suffice to the disas- ter is what Betty Rojtman, citing the Kabbalistic notion of Tikkun, has called, "the possibility of Reparation" (102). This is not a political notion of what the aggressors owe the victims but a metaphysical notion of healing. It is a religious idea of which the age-old emblem was the lion lying down with the lamb, the hope of a time when all manner of thing would be well and God's promise fulfilled.

Theurgy is the work of the word in the mythical situation of ABSENCE. This mythical situation is that of the time of the death of

Del Nevo: Edmond Jabes and Kabbalism after God

myth, our time. For Jabes, the writer and the Jew, the word is the theurgi- cal instrument by means of which the writer intercedes on God's behalf. Warren Motte, following Agnes Chalier and Joseph Guglielmi, and a liter- ary (rather than philosophical) interpretation of Jacques Derrida, con- nects word-play with Kabbalah and would have this be "the basis of Jabes's poetic enterprise" (167).Why Jabes should want to "play" with the discursive function of words, or why Kabbalists should have wanted to, is left unsaid, unless we are to suppose, as Motte thinks, taking Derrida as his authority, that this is worthwhile for its own sake.

The notion of the word is suggestive in the work of Jabes in several senses, two of which are worth a brief mention. First, the word means the element of authority. The word for Jabes does not mean logos. Logos means a general sense of discourse and "making manifest" that can be signified in a variety of proclamatory senses (judgment, reason, definition, ground, or relationship). Word as element of authority means it is the locus of authority, the word is that which has the power to authorize. On this view, the author stands in a unique relation to both the word and the philosophical and poetical question of authority. Yet this (Jabesian) view is not one more viewpoint on a par with infinite others, for the introduc- tion of the philosophical and ontological question of authority ranks every viewpoint on the basis of its authority. In other words, writing becomes a matter of the more or less essential, and the commentary on that writing with it. Secondly, for Jabes the word means a material means of creation. Creation does not mean a lost and abstract origin but is what ties writing, as a form of prayer, and creating, together. Where writing is a form of prayer, the word is the means at hand that invests myth with its power and symbolism. The word is the material of image and the image of the material with which the writer works. The word is what creation is done with and by which the writer is in turn made. The first sense of the word I have mentioned here means the word is essential to authority and the authoritative to the essential; this would have ramifications for Hei- deggerian ontology as well as the post-modern practices that have taken their impetus from it. The second sense of the word I have mentioned here shows that it is integral to any idea of creation. Authority and cre- ation (of the myth which most fundamentally bespeaks man and the world) are the strongest strands woven into the writing of Edmond Jabes.


The person is no longer in the image of God after God has gone; rather, at such a time the writer is the man of the image: the image-maker. But he will be known by the images he makes. The one who writes will be the one who is written. The image in personhood-as the matter of his being (and it is always at this level the deep words must strike and the great images reflect)-this image means something ontological with respect to imagi- nation; as Alexander Koyre put it: "imagination, magical intermediary between thought and being, incarnation of thought in image and pres- ence of image in being" (1955:218, n.4; 1977:60, n.2). Imagination stands between the word that evokes it and the evocation that it materializes. The word of the past has evoked a quality of imagination that has materi- alized in disaster. Theurgy recovers its lost or obscure importance, because it is no longer evocation that the writer demands of the word- or perhaps which the word demands of him-but invocation. When God is not there, imagination must be invocatory, the word incantatory. Invo- cation in this sense (like incantation) binds what is homologous (God and Man, Book and book). This is another Kabbalistic idea. It is an idea that Jab& deflects from its theosophical premises because for him "the thread has been cut" between God and man, between past and future, between the man of the word and the word of authority. Perhaps the thread never truly connected God and man to begin with. Jabes reflects upon the writer's art in this juncture between a time lost (when God's words had a significance) and a time to come (when such words might be resembled once more) in an address to Yael:

Yael, when I, at the end of my pains, denounced writing as a God-given

and God-begetting lie because it is loyal to the claims of the signs, I was

floundering between two expressions of one truth lived in relation to a

vast reality. So that the word changed nothing, but interpreted things

with a name, in terms of an image, a sound. The object remained out of

reach even when grasped, when shown in its failure to show.

Then I said to myself that I had perhaps half-opened the soul of things

with my words-which were now their soul-and had anticipated their

future in their blossoming dreams. (1967:116; 1991b:84)

The writer still seeks the key to creation. Creation is only a slow dawn (Jabes 1987a: 142; 1989b: 100). Jabes's creative writing founders on a negative dialectic of book and Book, man and God.12 Yet it is a magnificent foundering that may one day render obsolete whole libraries of more articulate expositions of the really great problems and question-marks of existence.

When he realized that the Word had a face and that Silence had one like-

wise, he understood that man, in what he introduces or keeps unsaid, has

now the face of God, now that of his absence. (1969:26; 1991b:134)

"I have the post-Shoah groundlessness of the late Adorno in mind with this italicized phrase, but other commentators on Jabes have used it. See Adolfo Fernandez-Zoila (107). Also, Helena Shillony speaks of "le paradox Jabesian" between the "reality of nothing" and "the irreality of everything" (1989:29).She cites Jabes: "I write from two limits. Outside there is nothing. Within, the horror of Auschwitz. Real-limit. Reflection-limit. Nothing left but inability to found equlibrium" (1989:29,my translation).

Writing as a theurgical form of prayer means the operation of a medi- atory power, or in old-fashioned language, an intercessory power. "You write in a solitude where only the word joins you," Jabes writes (1987a:50; 1989b:34). This "solitude" is not a reference to an ivory tower but to the depth of the poet's imaginative work, I mean his visionary work, where word is the material of image. For Jabes what words mediate and what his writing envisions are poles apart: God and man; Book and book; divine page, human page; words and silence, absence and ABSENCE (the Absconditus). Yet this mediation, this invocation, this incantatory writing and mythical book act upon us, the readers, even if, as Jab& suggests, his audience is really God and his public reader secondary to Him (1975:47). Yet Jabes also says in the first pages of The Book of Questions "you are the one who writes and the one who is written." This "you" might be me the reader, or you, God. I would suggest it is both. This means, if what the words mediate in the being of the book does not concern us as much as it concerns the writer, we are discrepant readers. Jabes makes the utmost demand on the reader, for his writing attempts, in Blanchotis phrase, to suffice to the disaster (2). The reader is called to a reading at this suficing level, a level at which "the reader rejoins the creator" in "the intuition of the book" (1980b:118-l19,1990b:82).

The level at which writer and reader see eye-to-eye in an intuition of the book, that is, the site around which the pages organize themselves, is a Kabbalistic idea. In the words of Rabbi Mordekai of Chernobyl, writer and reader form "a cleaving of spirit to spirit" (Idel 1988:245). Thus, the Kabbalists understood that "a prophetic state of mind is necessary to the proper decoding of the Bible" (Idel 1986:144;1988:134ff.; Corbin 1983:41ff.). Likewise, a Jabesian state of mind is proper to the decoding of the book formed by the question of it. A book such as the Book: "the place in which all books resemble-also, all places" (1976:7; 1990a:l). And it is significant that we are talking here of a Jabesian place, not merely a viewpoint (on a par with endless others). The Kabbalistic notion of writing and reading is appropriately a hierarchical notion, in which writer and reader meet where they see eye-to-eye; not any reading will do. What kind of reading will do? I will begin to elaborate this question here, but only to elaborate it, for the question in itself we shall see is unanswerable. Both the question and its impossible answer are tied up with the inten- tion of Jabes's Letter to Derrida and what Jabes wanted in that Letter to bring to Derrida's attention.

Jabes calls man a "written bond and place" (1963:17; 1991a: 19). Also, he equates the book with the place of truth's first dawn (1987a:142; 1989b:lOO). For Jabes, truth is a matter of the word's authority and what the author authorizes; words derive their authority from the extent to which they suffice to the disaster. Now I want to say that this word place is important for Jabis because it has a meaning which relates every reader along with himself; to God's ABSENCE. In an interview with Marcel Cohen Jabes has stated:

Think also about the word book. The book, where everything seems pos- sible through the language that one thinks one can master and that finally turns out to be but the very place of its bankruptcy. All the metaphors the word can inspire lie between these two extremes. None of them really gets to the heart of it, but, between this all and this nothing, the unfathomable opening takes place, which in the end is what every reader is confronted with [assuming, that is, every reader can achieve this "end"]. Moreover you know that one of the Hebrew names of God is Hammakom which means Place. God is the place-as the book is. (1980b:34-35; 1990b:15)

The book is the image of place and God. The question of the book is the question of God by the same token (of the word). Hence, as I have already pointed out, writing is "the consecrated gesture of handing man's power over to the utterance of the book" (1978:69; 1991~56). But this is not a handing-over to a God who is present and waiting but a handing-over to a God who has absconded and left behind His absence. Jabes describes "the consecrated gesture," therefore, as "equivalent to sacrificing the word to the its power of absence" (ibid.).Writing is a consecrated gesture not despite God's absence but because of it; because the question of God is now all the more sachlich (substantial and thought-worthy). The question of the book, of God, is what in Albert Camus's famous phrase may truly be called "thought at the meridian" (243). The "rebel" in Jabes's books, however, is not a representative person but God. God has rebelled by departing. At first it was thought He was dead. This was perhaps a some- what rash speculation. God has gone wandering. The writing of Jabes resembles this wandering, and God's ABSENCE is made poignant by it. But every question recalls Him, goes out to Him to the spaces He has vacated:

Is God, whom man allowed to enter eternity in his place, the beginning and end of an irreverent meditation on the human condition which would tend to prove that any place where people die is a latent source of anguish?

The hope to be saved by writing would then be born of the word received as revelation of a non-place, born of the book as of a space sum- ming up incommensurate reason. (1967:87; 1991b:64)

In such a thought at the meridian God's ABSENCE is not His utter unimaginability but existence screaming for us to use our imaginations. "You are the one who writes and the one who is written" implicates writer, reader, and God in one and the same words. Each page of Jabes, each fragment almost, is a place, where once again, writer, reader, and God are brought together. God here, it must be remembered, is Jabks's metaphor for the void-the writer, the Jew, Jabes's metaphor for the tor- ment of God, of the void; which leaves but the readers to work out their own reading, if they can, with diligence.

Jab& has taken Kabbalistic ideas of writing, God, the book, deflected them from their mystical sense, and made authoritative matters of them in our time after the disaster. Jabes still upholds the whole theurgic nature of the poetic word, its power to invoke as well as evoke, that governs the poetic word and makes of writing a sacred activity, a "consecrated ges- ture." This is what, in the Letter to Jacques Derrida, I believe Jabts wants him to see. Derrida, who hung his writing on the act of diferance that Jabes could not, but who nevertheless derived this act from Kabbalistic thinking, shares Jabes's feeling for ontology as a question of writing and being (rather than the Heideggerian Being-itself). Writing is a creative activity for Derrida, as it is for Jabes, but for Jabes this creativity recalls a sacred authority.


I shall conclude this article with a note on each of these three dimen- sions of the question of the book: the sacred, the authoritative, the cre- ative-the three staples of Jabes's books, hedging the site around which his pages organize themselves: the place of the reading claiming priority.

Starting with the sacred. This is a matter, as I said earlier, of passing from the visible to the invisible, "from the sovereign thought to the sover- eignty of the unthought":

The sacred remains what is unperceived, hidden, protected, ineffaceable.

Hence writing is also the suicihal effort to take on the word down to its


last effacement where it stops being a word and is only the trace-the

wound-we see of a fatal and common break: between God and man,

between man and Creation. (Jabes 1985:87; 1986:356)

The sacred dimension is best symbolized by the graphomorphic and theographic concept I mentioned earlier in the piece: "A divine page. A human page. And in both cases the author is God, in both cases the author is man" (Jabes 1985:88); a page in which is inserted, "the eternal Book in the metamorphoses of the mortal book (Jabes 198250)-a page on which tcriture (writing) becomes Ecriture (Scripture). But this presup- poses the creative power of writing. It also presupposes authority that is metaphysical, by virtue of which one kind of writing can bear transposi- tion into the other. The grounds for such presupposition is in each case the Kabbalism after God of the blank page, the black fire on white fire, the point, and ABSENCE. These grounds, philosophically speaking, are of both an epistemological and ontological order. They do not arise except as a (Kabbalistic) "cleaving of spirit to spirit" between author and reader (Idel 1988:245). First there is a silent dialogue between author and reader that Jabes depicts as "a deepening inner speech face to face with the unde- cipherable text" (1985:90); eventually this leads to a conjunction at the limits of readability (1985:78). This would be the authoritative point reached or place arrived at. This Jabesian stance differs from overly episte- mological theories (which reduce the ontological matter of being to that of knowing) in which either the author or the reader are subjected or objectified according to the rational protocols of implicitly ideological stances as, for instance, are found in Ricoeuris hermeneutical theories (146). The Absconditus (God or written Torah) is the pretext for the ellip- tical relations between God and man, writer and reader. The myth of ABSENCE suffices to the disaster, for, like the disaster, it imposes silence. The silence that this myth of ABSENCE enjoins on the writer and the reader is the "secret," which is for Jabes the essence of the sacred (1985:87;


Coming now to the matter of authority. We might question the au- thority of this view of writing as Scripture in potentia. Has it to do with what Scholem calls "nihilistic mysticism," or "mystical nihilism", in which "all religious authority is destroyed in the name of authority"? (1 1,28).

The authority of Jabes's writing has to do with his use of the word, as I explained above where I spoke of the word as the element of authority But it also has to do with the historical necessity of the question (in the after- math of the disaster) and the ontological depth (of human beings) at which the questioning strikes. The disaster strikes an ontological depth for Jabes in which the absolute is disoriented for man. Writing must attempt to strike depth enough to suffice to the disaster It is this kind of depth that Jabes finds in Kabbalah, in the vertigo of its concept of the Absconditus, in its reversals of symbolism, in the movement of life and death inherent in its motif of fire and the sadness inherent in its motif of ashes-a motif that has haunted Derrida no less (1987). After the disaster it is not man who needs God, or, if he does, he cannot have Him, because God has absconded; it is God who needs man. Writing, for Jabes, (and this is also what he would have Derrida know) means taking up his unimaginable powers (which he owes to the word) in order to repair the divine glory or the divine image.

God's dereliction of His duty requires of man what Derrida has called, a "community of the question," to re-establish the covenantal terms that are lost to both (1978:79-80). To Jabes a community of the question means the experience of kinship with every "victim of injustice," because the hard questions arise at the margins of (philosophical or social) sys-

Del Nevo: Edmond Jabes and Kabbalism after God

tems, not from the safe seats at the centers of complacency (1980b:68; 1990b342). For both Jabes and Derrida (who began, at least, by identifying himself with "the margins of philosophy") a community of the question stands out against "an answer that wants to be absolute" (1980b:lll; 1990b:75) that is, against any authoritarian stance. Certainly, as Jabes puts it, "this questioning lies at the core of the most important texts written since Auschwitz" (1980b:93; 1990b:62). And Jabes writes, "The essential in the throes of our crisis: to preserve the question" (1973: l23,1991b:442). For Jab& authority is absent, but for this reason it is not simply a negative term, and even less is it a matter of nihilism. The question of authority lies behind every question in God's absence. The question of authority lies unanswered, and thereby preserved like the photograph by its nega- tive, whenever the deep words of life (God, stranger, law, love, name, death, book) are matters of thought and writing. God has disappeared and left us authority as the question of it. This is the hidden sign of our times. Jabes articulates the question of authority in his writing as the question of the book and the Book. A community of the question, as Der- rida suggests, "may not yet [have] found the language it has decided to seek,"but it can afford to live in hope (1978:80). The absence of authority, the absence of God, the absence of the Book, haunts us: "the text which engenders all texts to be written and which, though ever elusive, will not leave off haunting us" (1987a:51; 1989b:35).I3 Perhaps this ghost is the modern concept and experience (deflected from its mystical sense) of the Shekinah (the holy spirit of Kabbalistic lore). The Shekinah, which once used to be identified with the mystical ecclesia of Israel, now comes to be associated with a community of the question whose task it is to keep the Shekinah alive. This is not purely rhetorical, perhaps, given that I have interpreted Jabes in terms of Kabbalism after God, the blank page and ABSENCE; for, according to Kabbalah, the Shekinah "is purely receptive and has nothing of its own" (Scholem:107). Little wonder then such a notion should come back into view, pertaining to Jabes's poetry.

Finally, on the matter of creativity. Given the absence of authority intrinsic to Jabes's writing, how can he speak of "a reading claiming pri- ority" or "the intuition of the book or "the site around which the pages he is reading organize themselves"? This question seems especially diffi- cult given, as we have seen, that Jabes also thinks that no intelligent read- ing of him "would resemble a closure." The answer lies with the idea of the book (and God) as a place. As place, the book is not just any place, or some arbitrary place, but the templum of the question: a sacred place, a precinct. The templum is a cipher I am using here for the site around

"Italics in original.

which the pages of Jabes organize themselves. Such a site (a templum),as Henry Corbin reminds us, is not a merely subjective view-point, but the viewing-point. Templum originally meant "a vast space, open on all sides, from which one could survey the whole surrounding landscape as far as the horizon. This is what it means to contemplate: to set one's sights on" (Corbin 1980:386). In this name contemplation I think we characterize Jabes's creativity. Reading Edrnond Jabes may always mean something dif- ferent, perhaps something fairly relative, or perhaps a perspective that opens him up to what is considered understanding (from that perspec- tive). However, what he calls "the intuition of the book or "a true intu- ition of the text" does not refer to seeing him from a viewpoint (a perspective) but to seeing one's own perspective from his viewpoint; such that the reader is "the one who writes and the one who is written." I put inverted commas around his in the previous sentence to convey irony, because Jabes has always identified his work with voices older than his own, and wiser: "I could at best manage to adjust my voice pitifully to the undatable echoes of theirs" (1980b:57; 1990b:33). Of course, this goes against modern sensibility, but that is a sacrifice one has to make, for it is contemplative sensibility that reading Edmond Jabes demands more than anything else.

If Jabes is the most contemplative of poets, he demands as much of his reader. The reduction of Jabes's poetic work to a theory of writing or concept of the book is the destruction of the templum. For "the intuition of the book is this templum where reader rejoins the creator at the point where the horizon can properly be seen and perspectives really open out. Being and writing come together there. To explain Jabes in this way through the cipher of the templum is admittedly somewhat forced. But the equation of templum and contemplatioremind us that contemplation is about disengaging with wordiness and entering oneself upon the silence and absence that are the matters at stake.

The relation of reader and writer in any reading claiming priority, as Corbin reminds us from another context, is tautegorical. "That is to say, it should not be understood as concealing the Other whose form it is. It is to be understood in its identity with that Other, and as being itself the thing which it expresses" (Corbin 1980:267). The Other in the context here is God and the book. "God, at the other side of my table:' as Jabes puts it to Derrida, as if to show writing's true proximity to the absent Other (1975:47). "The deepest intuition" of the book (on Jabes's side of the table), presupposes the identity of reader and writer: "you are the one who writes and the one who is written," referring equally to both. A reading claiming priority, whatever it should be, arises from this conjunction. Thus, "cleaving spirit to spirit," as the old Kabbalist put it, reader and

Del Nevo: Edmond Jabb and Kabbalism after God

writer see the same Other. What Jabb tells us "always slips away" from the pen (1975:47), as God does, as the book does, both of which remain absent as the infinity confronting reader and writer and infinitely under- mining every reading, every word (1980b:SO; 1990b:51). Yet between the two, the book beneath the pen and the book that always slips away from it, is formed an imagined trajectory of resemblance. And, as Jab& says in The Book of Dialogue, this is an extremely solitary book of listening. It starts by saying that questions are the foothills of dialogue. The intimate dialogue of two silences: the reader shares the writer's silence, the writer shares God's silence; God is silent because He has wandered out of our earshot. The silence of the Book, of the word of authority, is confronted by the book, not in words and petty human theories but in godly silence of this poet whose words only try to impress such a silence upon us. Within this intimate dialogue of silences, the trajectory of resemblance swells and spills into first words, such as these of Jabes, on the nature of the trajectory itself:

The trajectory of the book to the absolute Book, silently-an unchanging speech would not be able to be other than silent-is the personalised speech of the impersonal Speech; as the trajectory of the absolute Book to the book is the Speech of fire to the speech in flames. (198255)

These are the flames of Kabbalistic myth and of what Jabes, borrowing the motif, calls "eternity of the book, of fire in fire:' in the poem that introduces the Letter to Derrida (1975:47). These same flames, in the final paragraph of the Letter, divide into black and white, in order for "the familiar face" to be revealed (60). Is this the face of she who sustains the meditation of the soul by lavishing light upon it and who is witness of its contemplation? These flames are a poeticization-more than that, a kab- balization-of the ungovernance determinative for Derrida who has tried to restage philosophy in scenes where it is ungoverned (JabPs 1975:41; Derrida 1981b350). These are the flames where, for JabPs, following Blan- chot, philosophy loses its way (1975:61). For the ancient faith, like that of the community of the question today, is that "it is only in the desert, in the dust of our words, that the divine word could be revealed" (1980b:lOl; 1990b368). "What will my book become:' asks Jabes, "but a little ash on the pages of His?" (1975:47).


No adequate conclusion can be given with respect to the writing of JabPs or in terms of the Kabbalism that is integral to it. However, four items are worth remembering. First, this Kabbalism after God is deflected from its mystical sense. Second, Kabbalism after God means a radical constellation of absence, one in which God is not merely dead but abscondent, and the writing of authority with Him. Absence is not con- stellated with presence, nor is absence merely a concept: absence means death and the fate worse than death-the disaster-and the torment of the word that must suffice to them. Third, the negative dialectic of absence (of God and Book) is only fore-shadowed by questions and resemblances. The fore-shadowing is not an intellectual exertion over conceptual grounds and about natural origins; it is a call for creativity, a search for authority, writing as the exercise of contemplation, bringing the deep words of life to be; Lastly, the idea of Kabbalism after God helps us not to understand the site around which the pages of Jabes organize themselves, for this would merely be to literalize and concretize a poetic verity; rather, Kabbalism after God enables us to enter the sacred precinct of contemplatio, which no words of our own would permit.


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