The Unique Cherub Circle: A School of Mystics and Esoterics in Medieval Germany

By Verman, Mark | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Unique Cherub Circle: A School of Mystics and Esoterics in Medieval Germany


Verman, Mark, Shofar


by Joseph Dan. Texts and Studies in Medieval and Early modern Judaism 15. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999. 296pp. DM 168.00.

In The Unique Cherub Circle Joseph Dan offers a groundbreaking study of a dozen treatises that constitute a seminal and intriguing corpus of medieval Jewish mystical writings. Thirty years ago Professor Dan identified the Unique Cherub Circle (hereafter UCC), and it is therefore fitting that he publish the first scholarly monograph devoted to these texts. Some of these treatises had been previously ascribed to members of the hasidei ashkenaz and specifically R. Eleazar b. Judah. Dan successfully demonstrated that in contradistinction to the theology of the hasidei ashkenaz, the UCC uniformly placed special emphasis upon a celestial figure that they referred to as the keruv hameyuhad, the Unique Cherub "who resides on the Throne of Glory, receiving divine emanation from the Shekhinah". The UCC originated in late twelfth-century Western Europe and constitutes an important stage in the evolution of proto-Kabbalah. Dan characterizes the significance of this group as follows: "This circle of writers probably was the first in Medieval Jewry to present a theology which postulated a view of the divine realm as a series of divine emanations, in which several divine powers have distinct functions in the celestial and material worlds". Accordingly, this represents a conceptual forerunner of the doctrine of the ten sefirot, which would become the centerpiece of the Kabbalah and by extension, medieval Jewish mysticism.

Professor Dan divides his discussion into fifteen well-defined chapters. He also appends a trenchant essay, "The Language of the Mystics of Medieval Germany." This serves as an intriguing foretaste of a forthcoming expansive study of the mystical language of Jewish luminaries throughout the ages. One of the distinguishing features of the UCC is its utilization of pseudepigraphic attributions. Central to its worldview is the fictionalized biblical lineage of the prophet Jeremiah, his supposed son Ben Sira and grandson Joseph b. Uzziel. The latter is the pseudepigraphic author of The Barayta, a short text that constitutes the heart of the UCC. Another important treatise of the corpus is falsely ascribed to the protean Jewish philosopher, Saadia.

Chapter One sets the stage for understanding the emergence of various protokabbalistic and kabbalistic groups in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. Dan identifies three key elements. The first is the transition to Hebrew as the language of expression (as opposed to the reliance upon Arabic by many of the twelfth-century Jewish sages). Secondly, there evolved identifiable schools of transmission from teacher to disciple (as opposed to individual theoreticians operating in relative isolation). Finally there was a proliferation of pseudepigraphy as a means to authenticate novel formulations, by attributing them to ancient authorities. Dan's discussion of pseudepigraphy is rich and nuanced. One of his many insights is the contention that the medieval mystic assumed that the religious truths that he espoused were most certainly known to the ancients, as well. …

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