The Apocalyptic Secret of Judaism and Olga Tokarczuk’s “The Books of Jacob”

Elliot R. Wolfson             

The acclaim for Olga Nawoja Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob is demonstrated in its receiving the Nike Award, Poland’s top literary prize. Tokarczuk, the first Polish female prose writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2018, has been praised for “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” My review will investigate more carefully the nature of this crossing of boundaries that one may elicit from Tokarczuk’s novel as it relates specifically to the relationship between fact and fiction in both her own text and the historical phenomenon that it theatrically and artistically dramatizes.   

The Books of Jacob is an epic novel that spans many centuries and countries. However, the core of its narrative revolves about the eighteenth-century Polish Jew Jacob Frank, born Jakub Lejbowicz (1726-1791). This extraordinary and admittedly eccentric figure spearheaded a messianic movement based principally on the claim that he was the reincarnation of the Turkish Jew Sabbatai Ṣevi (1626-1676), the self-proclaimed savior of the seventeenth century, designated by Tokarczuk as the “forbidden prophet.” Just as the true believers, who accepted the messianic pretense of Sabbatai Ṣevi, believed in his apotheosis, so too with respect to Frank, his adherents avowed his divine status by identifying him as part of the Trinity. Historically, the ground for the Frankist movement was laid by the proliferation in Eastern Poland (now Ukraine), especially Podolia and Galicia, of secret societies of Sabbatians, known as the Dönmeh, the crypto-Jews who, following their redeemer, converted outwardly to Islam but inwardly preserved Jewish practices and beliefs. 

Moreover, in emulation of Sabbatai Ṣevi’s conversion to Islam, the heretical act par excellence understood by his followers to be the ultimate sign authenticating his messianic calling—the descent to the realm of demonic shells to liberate the sparks of holiness entrapped therein—Frank, whose father reportedly was a Sabbatean, alleged that his messianic piety was expressed in the conversion to Catholicism and thus the Frankists were encouraged to exhibit their allegiance by being baptized as Christians and renouncing their ties to Judaism, exemplified in the taking of new names that would erase their past. The messianic pretext of Frank is established on the basis of the dialectical inversion of opposites, a principle buttressed by the following words cited in the name of the Zohar, “Salvation is located in the worst place.” The principle is elucidated by the talmudic legend that the Messiah sits at the Gates of Rome, the “dark place, the entryway into the abyss into which we must descend in order to free the Shekhinah imprisoned there.” The kabbalistic rationalization for this tenet is encapsulated in the novel’s maxim, “in order to go higher, we have to fall as low as possible; the darker it gets the lighter it gets, and the worse the better.” In her “inconceivable formlessness,” the divine presence exists in matter as a “glimmering diamond in a lump of black coal.” On this point, the blasphemous predilection of Sabbatianism and Frankism is in accord with the monistic teaching of the Ba‘al Shem Ṭov that there is only godliness and hence evil itself is good and darkness itself is light. The “sixth sense,” the inner sight, perceives that the more ignoble the place the more fervently does the spark gleam and flicker therein. The husk obscures the inner core until one fathoms that the husk itself is nothing but that inner core; when the coverup is exposed as a coverup, it is disclosed that the Shekhinah is “hidden in the smallest particle of matter, in the stone, in the wing of an insect, in this leaf, in this drop of water.” 

By all accounts, Tokarczuk’s novel is a work of historical fiction, that is, she weaves a story based on what she assumed to be facts of history, indebted especially, as she tell us explicitly in “A Note on Sources,” to Aleksander Kraushar, Frank i frankiści polscy 1726-1816: Monografìa (1895), the dicta of Frank published as Księga Słów Pańskich: Ezoteryczne wykłady Jakuba Franka, edited by Jan Doktór (1997), Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1956), Pawel Maciejko’s The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816 (2011), as well as the introductory essay in his critical edition of Jonathan Eibeschütz, And I Came this Day unto the Fountain (2014). Tokarczuk offers the following qualification: “It’s a good thing the novel has traditionally been understood as a fiction, since that means its author is generally not expected to furnish a complete bibliography. In this case in particular, that would take up entirely too much space.” The underlying assumption in this disclaimer is a distinction between the writing of history and the writing of fiction; the former demands a degree of textual substantiation that the latter foregoes. The author, as I have noted, offers a minimal list of scholarly resources. My concern is not to criticize her on this point, but to use her words as a prism through which to speculate on the relationship of fact and fiction.

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk: 9780593087503 | Books
Olga Tokarczuk. The Books of Jacob. Wydawnictwo Literackie. 2014. pp. 992. $23.99.

If we accept the classification of The Books of Jacob as historical fiction, a taxonomy that seems undeniably appropriate, then we would be wise to label the alleged factual sources upon which it is based as fictionalized history. To be sure, the deliberation over the factual reliability about the historiographical writing of history is an old one amongst academic scholars of the humanities. After decades of debate we can say it is prudent to avoid the extreme positions of either positivism or skepticism; the truth, it seems, lies in the space between uncritically presuming that historical records provide incontestable objective reliability versus uncritically assuming that these records should be regarded as purely imaginary. The gap between fact and fiction is not to be measured simply by the metrics of the passage of time. Common sense might dictate that closer proximity to the event that is described by the human observer secures a more accurate account of what really happened. Upon reflection, however, this assumption is dubious as we repeatedly discern that ambiguity and ambivalence are coterminous with the eventality of what has transpired and not a feature of temporal deferral. Historical analysis is inescapably circumscribed within the paradox of the simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous, and this is so irrespective of the propinquity of the one doing the analysis and the incident being analyzed.

A meticulous reading of The Books of Jacob compels to reader to confront the philosophical truism that the chronicling of history as a meaningful construct—in contrast to the metaphysical concept of history that is linked to linearity and an entire system of implications regarding teleology, eschatology, accumulation of meaning, traditionality, and continuity—implies a logic of repetition whereby the trace marks the recurrence of the similar that is entirely dissimilar. Time, most assuredly, is what defines history as a discipline. But what is crucial is the historian’s understanding of time, and this cannot be extricated from one’s hermeneutical assumptions. What is achieved by the philological insistence on a rigorous constriction of the heuristic value of utilizing analytic models of the present to uncover meaning in the past? Is there any exegesis that is not concurrently eisegesis? The assumption that the historian can retrieve meaning of the past divested of the veil of the analytical patterns and terminological typologies cultivated in the present is highly questionable. To the extent that historiography, as the gesture of reading and writing more generally, presupposes a timeflow that consists of the recurrence of the same in which the same is the recurrence of difference, it is judicious to consider the construal of any event as an historical fabrication that is predicated on the compresence of the three temporal modes such that the past is anticipated from the vantage point of the present that is recollected as the future.

Here it is worth noting that the pagination in The Books of Jacob reverses the standard procedure by enumerating the pages in descending order. What did the author intend by this break with convention? Perhaps the import of this eccentricity was to give expression to the dynamic that I have identified as the linear circularity or the circular linearity of the timeswerve. Implied in this conception is the hermeneutical possibility of inverting the timeline such that it is not delineated as a sequence of now-points that considers the present as the bridge connecting the past that is no longer to the future that is not yet. Prejudiced by the assumption regarding the irreversibility of time, we privilege viewing the structure of narrative unidirectionally. However, the meaning of a text suggests a reversibility of time corroborated by the fact that—as the experience of the dream attests—we can follow the plot line when the story unfolds in reverse order such that an event that would be considered the effect precedes the event that would be considered the cause. The ability to read bidirectionally presumes an open circle, which of necessity entails the impossibility of determining the end from the beginning or the beginning from the end. The reversibility of the timeline, therefore, does not imply uroboric closure at either terminus—the conclusion fixed in the commencement or the commencement fixed in the conclusion—but rather an ever-changing flux that destabilizes a palindromic succession proceeding uniformly from start to finish and inversely from finish to start. The heterogeneity of the homogeneity of the hermeneutic condition sanctions the uncovering of singularity within that which repeats, the novelty within reiteration, the reoccurrence of the unvarying in which the unvarying is nothing but the recurrence of variation. The interval of the temporal moment—the spatial hiatus wherein sameness and difference are juxtaposed in the sameness of the difference of their sameness—incarnates the present recognition of the future remembered in anticipation of the reproduction of the past. The advance to the future, accordingly, is naught but a reversion to the past that is, paradoxically, a return to where one has never been. The past thus persists in the present as a vestige that is reconfigured anew each moment. Memory, on this score, is not the regressive repetition and reliving of past events; it is directed forward and therefore may be considered the progressive reconstitution of what has taken place in time.

The scholarly recounting of history should be construed as a futural remembering, or a remembering expectation, that is, an act of recollecting that has the capacity to redeem the past, not by describing how the past really was but by imputing to it meaning that it never had except as the potential to become what it is not. The radical possibility of time as future implies that the past itself is only the past insofar as it is the reiteration of what is yet to come. It follows, moreover, that the duplication of the novel—the return of the same that is different—undergirds the movement of the circle of being and renders ineffectual the distinction between actuality and possibility insofar as the moment at hand can be considered actual only in virtue of being possible and possible only in virtue of being actual. I surmise that this geometric notion of temporality that is circular in its linearity and linear in its circularity shaped the narrative landscape of The Books of Jacob and the somewhat unusual decision of the author to paginate the text in decreasing numerical order.

Viewing time from the vantage point of linear circularity raises questions about the sharp demarcation between the factual and the fictitious presumed to bolster the historiological reconstruction of spatio-temporal events. The historical documents used by Tokarczuk to concoct her narrative are themselves in great measure works of imaginary confabulation. The alleged accounts of Frank and the movement that evolved from him are saturated with legend, folklore, and symbolic embellishments whose validity does not depend on a crude conception of empirical facticity. Curiously, according to one of the sayings in The Words of the Lord, Frank contrasts himself with Moses, who was burdened with the task of putting forth the laws of God through his mouth:

But I did not come to teach anyone anything, but only to go and tread and do everything openly. Have I not long ago said to you that I saw in a dream that all was erased, just as when one writes on paper then spills ink on it, so everything must be blotted out. I told you also, Until every kingdom becomes turned upside-down. That is, that everything will be smeared together and nothing will remain but the foundation, the root. Therefore, when my help comes to me, I will cleanse you of all impurities, so that no teaching remains to you and there will be no judgment over you. You will be free and rid of everything.

Frank did not come to teach any laws but rather to expose the root by eradicating the foundation, by turning every domain of sovereignty upside-down to the extent that differences are obliterated and hence there is no more basis for judgment rendering some actions as impure and unworthy. Significantly, the justification for Frank’s mission was disclosed in a dream. What does it mean to cast one’s teachings in this way? The appeal to the oneiric indicates an epistemic challenge to the customary distinction between truth and untruth—the logical underpinning of our sensory and cognitive experiences in the world as well as the axiological foothold for the values that inform our socio-political communities—since within the parameters of the dreamscape, the image is true to the extent that it is untrue and untrue to the extent that it is true. By anchoring his anti-Mosaic duty to undermine the nomian binary of holy and unholy, Frank conveys that the nature of the message that he was destined to communicate bears the structure of the parable that both reveals and conceals the literal truth, indeed, it reveals by concealing and conceals by revealing. To acknowledge the inherently parabolic nature of his words means, therefore, that Frank was cognizant of the dissembling character of his comportment. As we see in another saying attributed to Frank, the use of parables was connected to his antinomian acts:

I told you base things about Bucharest, about dealings with women, and similar things, and I presented various parables, but you scorned me. You should have understood that in all my words, if a man will go along with the nonsense, then he may come and find wisdom. From now on, I remind you, although you may see from me that I do strange things, childish deeds, stupidities, lies, you must bear it all, obey and see, but not turn your heart away because of it, because this is virtue and steadfastness.

The parable is the rhetorical mechanism to turn the commonplace distinction of antinomies on its head so that what appears to be bizarre—the so-called ma‘asim zarim, the “strange acts,” such as partaking of the “Christian bread,” that is, the host of the Eucharist, and the utterance of senseless words in an inexplicable and seemingly foreign language—is in fact indicative of sagacity, and what appears to be disingenuous is in fact indicative of authenticity. What is incomprehensible to the uninitiated is completely plausible to the true believers, who are “not true to the traditional faith at all.” On the contrary, the faith of these believers is to be gauged by the criterion of disobedience inasmuch as all that was once prohibited is now permissible: “Since the long-awaited, much anticipated messianic times have dawned, Jacob is right: the laws of this world—the laws of the Torah—cannot be in effect anymore. Now everything is the other way around.”                                                                                 

Tokarczuk follows the standard scholarship on the Sabbatian and the Frankist phenomena and thus presumes that both should be characterized as antinomian in nature. In my work on Sabbatianism, however, I have argued that it is better to replace the term “antinomianism,” made popular by Scholem’s analysis of this movement, with the term “hypernomianism,” which denotes that the exceeding of the law requires that one uphold the law that is exceeded. The import of the hypernomian may be elicited from the language of the talmudic dictum transmitted in the name of Reish Laqish, “on occasion the nullification of the law is its foundation” (pe‘amim she-biṭṭulah shel Torah zehu yesodah). We may deduce from this statement that the release from law is not attained by discarding the law but by executing the law with an intensity that pushes past its limit even as that limit is preserved in the act of defiance. A painstaking scrutiny of Sabbatian material lends support to this vital shift in nomenclature. By contrast, it strikes me that “antinomian” is the more appropriate locution to apply to Frank as he embodied the idea that the law must be broken in an unequivocal manner; that is, commitment to his messianic machination demanded an encroachment of boundary that eradicates the threshold of the boundary that is encroached. Whereas the Sabbatian material proffers the idea that overcoming the law is an endless process of undergoing, that the annulment of law is its establishment, the Frankist orientation necessitates a crossing that is more final, a definitive overcoming that dissipates the necessity for continual undergoing. The strange deeds, therefore, must be performed concretely and with zeal because breaking the old laws “is the only thing that will hasten the arrival of salvation.” Some of the followers of Sabbatai Ṣevi may have been in conflict with traditional Jewish society, but, as Scholem argued, they never thought of denying their historical identity as Jews. Indeed, Scholem went so far as to conclude that the majority of Sabbatians continued to profess allegiance to rabbinic Judaism even though they secretly believed they had outgrown it. I am not certain that the same can be said about the followers of Jacob Frank. In the case of the Frankists, there seems to have been a more decisive fracture and a more categorical rupture with their identity as Jews. If we are to maintain the language of identity, then it would be a form of identity of nonidentity, that is, a sense of belonging by not belonging.  As Tokarczuk put it, those inclined to heed Frank’s message considered “that once they are baptized, they will cease to be Jews, at least as far as anyone can tell. They will become people—Christians. They will be able to purchase land, open shops in town, send their children to any schools they wish.” Not only are the rules of Torah “invalidated by the arrival of the Messiah,” but the entire form of Judaism based on the Talmud is deemed to be a “religion of deception.”

In contrast to the fraudulent nature of talmudic legalism, the blatant foolishness of the sacrilegious behavior enacted by Frank imparted the veracity of the subterfuge that without his resistance to ritual law no door could be opened. Like Abraham who was commanded to go out from his land (Genesis 12:1), so Frank led his coreligionists to baptism by speaking of crude things in parables whereby the wisdom was hidden in folly. Extending this logic of duplicity, we can speak of Frank’s life more generally as an exemplar of the parabolic dissimilitude through which he instructed others in the paradoxical coincidence of opposites. Even his wearing the Turkish turban—a critical symbol of the messianic politics related to Sabbatai Ṣevi’s coronation—is a sign of a deceptive comportment. As Jay Michaelson put it in his recently published The Heresy of Jacob Frank: From Jewish Messianism to Esoteric Myth (2022), “Arguably, the entire character of ‘Jacob Frank’ is the creation of Jacob Frank the trickster. … Perhaps Jacob’s Frank’s greatest act of spiritual tricksterism was the creation of ‘Jacob Frank’ as a literary character. Indeed, in some ways, the latter was invented to conceal the former.” This is an important insight that should give us pause when evaluating Tokarczuk’s fictional account against what is purported to be the historical record. The Books of Jacob affords the reader the opportunity to reassess the relationship of fact and fantasy and the blurring of the line demarcating the distinction between them. Tokarczuk’s creative retelling of this history sheds light on what may have been one of the most significant lessons of the Frankist movement, the epistemic disorientation that proceeds from the awareness that there is no naked truth to behold, no face behind the mask that is not itself another mask. The external appearance is not a façade hiding an internal reality but rather the signpost that marks the really apparent that is apparently real. Even the kabbalistic understanding of the Torah as the body mystically composed of divine names might lead one to believe that there is “always a hand behind the letters, always a face that emerges from the sentence on the page,” but the name of that great presence “cannot be contained in any—even gilded, even weighted—letter.” To presume, therefore, that the Torah—and, by extension, the world by means of which it is fashioned—is made up of divine names implies that the luminal darkness of divinity revealed by those names remains concealed.

The feigned autonomy of a universe depends on the order being hidden by being intentionally placed in disarray. Creatively translating the Lurianic doctrine of ṣimṣum, the primordial act of withdrawal of the infinite light to make room for the creation of the cosmos, Tokarczuk notes that the world was born out of God’s exhaustion: “Every now and then, God wearies of his own luminous silence, and infinity starts to make him a little sick. Then, like an enormous, omnisensitive oyster, his body—so naked and delicate—feels the slightest tremble in the particles of light, scrunches up inside itself, leaving just enough space for the emergence—at once and out of nowhere—of a world.” In a second passage, Tokarczuk returns to this theme and comments that God vanishes from the blank space in which the world could take up residence. The cosmological speculation is reinforced philologically by linking olam, the world, to elem, to disappear. Although this wordplay is found in earlier kabbalistic sources, such as Tiqqunei Zohar, Tokarczuk’s use of it most closely resembles the connection between ha-olam and he‘lem particularly prominent in Ḥabad literature, where it signifies that the finite world is the place of the concealment of the infinite, the site of the disappearance of Ein Sof, which makes possible the manifestation of the world as an ontically separate entity even though there is nothing ontologically real behind the appearance of this world but the essence of infinitivity:

Thus even the name for the world contains within it the story of God’s departure. The world was able to arise solely because God was not in it. First there was something, and then that something was gone. That is the world. The world then, in its entirety, is lack.

Read through heterodox eyes, the kabbalistic-ḥasidic teaching regarding the inherent nature of the world as absence leads to the conclusion that the distinction between the semblance of the image and the image of the semblance dissolves in the simulacrum of the symbolic figuration of the imagination.

And this brings us back to the question of parable. Attentive to this facet of Frank’s calling, Tokarczuk writes:

Jacob gives a lengthy talk to those assembled, full of parables. He proclaims a new religion, one accessible exclusively through Esau, meaning Christianity, just as Sabbatai crossed over to Ishmael, meaning the Turkish faith. The progress of salvation depends upon extracting from those religions the seeds of revelation and sowing them in one great divine revelation, the Torah of Atzilut: the Torah  of the World of Emanations. In this religion of the end of days, all three religions will be braided into one.

The depiction of the new religion proclaimed by Frank, rooted in the revelation that is apposite to the Torah of Emanation, that is, a Torah the is beyond the polarity of permissible and forbidden, is largely indebted to Scholem’s interpretation of the Sabbatian heresy as a specifically Jewish phenomenon, that is, an outgrowth of inner forces that shaped the spiritual contours of Judaism, a radical but internal transvaluation of traditional rabbinic values. Notably, this new religion is predicated on the coalescence of the three Abrahamic faiths, their being braided into one. In a second passage, Tokarczuk describes Frank’s messianic message:

It is a question of uniting the three religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Sabbatai was the First, and he opened the door to Islam, while Baruchiah paved the way to Christianity. What appalls everyone and makes them stomp and shout? It’s the fact they have to ford the Nazarene faith as they would a river, and that Jesus was a shell and a shield for the true Messiah.

Sabbatian eschatology, and its aftermath in Frankism, did represent a concerted effort to loosen the boundaries separating Judaism from both Christianity and Islam. Not only was the marginal status of the Jew challenged by the polemical construction of the other, but the messiah himself is constituted by these very images. By internalizing images of Ishmael and Edom and attributing them to the messianic figure, the polemical dimension of previous kabbalistic texts, especially from the zoharic anthology, find their own hermeneutical redemption. Thus, the apostate messiah as depicted in Sabbatian thought is simultaneously Jew, Muslim, and Christian. The syncretistic convergence of the three faiths in the living body of Sabbatai Ṣevi is emphasized by the Sabbatian visionary Bär Perlhefter: the redeemer is compelled to adopt the faith of Islam, and thus he is humbled by donning the garment of Ishmael as he rides upon the ass, but it is also the case that he puts on the garment of Edom, which clearly stands for the vestment of Christianity. The biblical paradigm is Jacob who switched from a white to a red garment in order to combat the force of Edom. Analogously, the messiah of the Davidic lineage puts on the clothing of Esau after he has already been garbed in the garment of Ishmael. Sabbatai Ṣevi’s messianic task thus involved obfuscating the boundary of both religions vis-à-vis the people of Israel.

The utopian force of this syncretism notwithstanding, this vision was doomed to fail as it is not possible to reify and subvert these three identities in the intersubjective realm. An eclecticism that would proffer a universal faith, which is ostensibly the shared messianic aspiration of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, cannot sustain the particularity of each of these traditions if the determinate revelations of the Abrahamic religions are not affirmed. Theoretically, the triangulation of the three faiths should preserve each of the liturgical communities in their own theological integrity. The spiritual magnanimity of the Jewish messiah would be predicated, accordingly, on the concomitant disrupting and sustaining of these differences. Practically speaking, however, the singularity of the three faiths requires a particularization of the universal as opposed to the universalization of the particular.

Tokarczuk’s depiction of the eschatological template as one in which the three religions are braided as one cannot be implemented without eroding the specificity of each of the threads plaited together. This lends support to one of the critical points that can be elicited from Scholem’s analysis of Sabbatian messianism. The heretical myth of Sabbatian theology is grounded in the depiction of the cosmic drama as a crisis within the inner workings of the Godhead according to Lurianic teaching. However, Scholem argued that Lurianic kabbalah and Sabbatianism should be contrasted on the grounds that in the latter, unlike the former, the symbolic sense of redemption was severed from its concrete instantiation in history. Scholem astutely perceived that the Sabbatian ideal of redemption is principally spiritual/individualistic rather than political/nationalistic. Clearly, in the mind of Sabbatian thinkers, the inner aspect of redemption is based on a substantial change in the external nature of reality as a whole such that the primordial fissure of the divine is mended and all the forces of being are realigned in a true unity. But the rupture between fact and fiction, truth and image, so prevalent in Sabbatian and Frankist theologies, tilted the balance of interpretation. No matter how ecumenical the posture one professes, there is no viable way for one to be Jewish, Christian, and Muslim in tandem without diminishing the import of each of these traditions.

Despite Scholem’s exhaustive investigation of the Sabbatian and the Frankist movements, we must adduce that they give credence to his celebrated remark that the messianic idea in Judaism “compelled a life lived in deferment, in which nothing can be done definitively, nothing can be irrevocably accomplished.” As I have argued elsewhere, these words are suggestive of a pessimistic utopianism that rejects the possibility of a lasting socio-political redemption. Scholem was beleaguered by a sense of disjointedness in the world that was askew with his ethno-nationalist politics and the existential embrace of Zionism, a melancholic dislocation that led him to feel like a stranger in a strange land, even when entrenched in the soil of what he considered to be the indigenous place of the Jewish people. Scholem’s understanding of the messianic as continual deferral has deep roots in Jewish sources and points to the paradox that the hopelessness of hope proceeds from the fact that the future we are awaiting can never transpire in time and the homeland we are coveting can never materialize in space. The end can be imagined only as the terminus that can never be terminated, and hence belief in the future that never comes because it is continuously coming may seem to be an unending source for the possibility of change, renewal, resurrection. Tellingly, Tokarczuk expresses the forlornness of Jewish messianism when she offers the following rationale why the wealthy Jews of Lwów were in no hurry to accept Jacob Frank as their savior:

The Messiah is, after all, the one on whom the world must wait forever. The one who arrives is a false Messiah. The Messiah is the one who never arrives. That’s the whole point.

The exigencies of Jewish history have proved the legitimacy of this observation: every person proclaimed as the redeemer has been judged to be an impostor. In the final analysis, to paraphrase the formulation of Blanchot, the waiting is always a wait for waiting, an awaiting in which nothing is awaited. This is the import of Tokarczuk’s relating that Elisha Shorr wrote on a piece of paper the word hamtanah, “waiting,” three times, a piece of paper that Hayah transformed into an amulet. The word hamtanah gives voice to the apocalyptic secret in Judaism, orienting one to the decisive interlude in time, the future, the limitless limit, the limit that is the limit by exceeding any limit, the end close at hand impersistently persisting in the distance. The future one is expecting is ceaselessly arriving and therefore can never have arrived, it is a coming that is beyond coming, a coming that comes only by not coming.

Elliot R. Wolfson, a Fellow of the American Academy of Jewish Research and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is the Marsha and Jay Glazer Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and Distinguished Professor of Religion at University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of many publications including most recently The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow: Heidegger, Nazism and the Jewish Other (2018); Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis (2019); Suffering Time: Philosophical, Kabbalistic, and Ḥasidic Reflections on Temporality (2021); and The Philosophical Pathos of Susan Taubes: Between Nihilism and Hope (2023).