Commentary Magazine

Jewish Mysticism in Dispute

The daunting achievement of Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) poses a certain quandary for the evolution of subsequent scholarship. His studies of Jewish mysticism, from the early rabbinic period through the medieval Kabbalah to the Hasidism of the 18th and 19th centuries, are so comprehensive and searching, so intellectually compelling, that it might appear as though further investigations in the field would be no more than a series of elaborate footnotes to his trailblazing work. Indeed, it would not have been surprising if Scholem, a writer of grand ambition, secretly aspired to preempt future scholarship in this fashion.

Although there were some notable 19th-century precursors who undertook studies of the subject, as Scholem himself emphatically observes in the first chapter of the newly translated Origins of the Kabbalah,1 it was he who established Jewish mysticism as a full-fledged academic discipline, with all the paraphernalia of graduate seminars, dissertations, conferences, exchanges in learned journals, during half-a-century of activity at the Hebrew University, where he taught from the founding of the institution in 1925. Scholem was personally responsible for the training of the entire first generation of scholars of Kabbalah in Jerusalem, which remains the dominant world center of the field, and his two most eminent followers, Isaiah Tishby and Joseph Dan, might be described as confirming and complementing the work of the master by inquiries into sundry texts, figures, movements, and concepts he himself dealt with more briefly.

Dan’s recent Gershom Scholem and the Mystical Dimension of Jewish History2 betrays something of this burden of discipleship. Although Dan has in fact done valuable work of his own, here, where the title of the volume and the Modern Jewish Masters series in which it appears would lead one to expect an analysis and assessment of Scholem’s enterprise, we are given little more than a summary of the consecutive historical stages of the Kabbalah as Scholem described them, a kind of simplified and abbreviated version of his definitive Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.

Against this background, the appearance of Moshe Idel’s Kabbalah: New Perspectives3 marks a point of bold new departure and as such has been attracting considerable attention in the academic community both in America and in Israel. Idel, who is forty-two, completed a dissertation at the Hebrew University in 1976 on Abraham Abulafia, the 13th-century Spanish ecstatic mystic. In the bibliography of his new work, he lists 27 of his articles published since 1979, and there may well be others. At the present moment, he is clearly a man on the move: in addition to this large synthesizing volume, three books by him have appeared in English in the past two years—two different studies of Abulafia, presumably building on the work he did for his doctorate, and a more general book on the ecstatic Kabbalah. It can hardly have escaped Idel’s awareness as he was writing Kabbalah that he was nearly the same age as Scholem when he wrote his big synthesizing book, Major Trends, first published in 1941. No one else in the field has shown the vigor and independence that Idel has, and so the interest aroused by his work is not surprising.

A false impression, I think, has been created about the kind of book Idel’s Kabbalah h or what its intentions are. Idel represents, it has been observed several times in print, a major complement to Scholem: This was the gist of the admiring treatment of Kabbalah in the New York Times Book Review by Arthur Green, the author of a fine psychobiography of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav and certainly someone who knows the field well. Green in turn seems to have taken his cue from the blurbs by the late Alexander Altmann, who characterized the book as “offering a wealth of complementary insights to Gershom Scholem and his school,” and by Louis Dupré, who called it “the most innovative work in the subject since Gershom Scholem’s classic, and . . . equally legible.”

What Idel actually attempts to do, however, is nothing less than to supplant Scholem. He goes about this under a certain cover of discretion that seems to have taken in a good many readers, but the cover is transparent enough, and he often drops it altogether. Thus, neither the book as a whole nor any of the chapters except the first has an epigraph, but one finds tucked in as an epigraph to that first chapter the following sentence from a letter by Andrew Lang that is really intended to announce the purpose of the entire book: “Our little systems have their days, or their hour; as knowledge advances they pass into the history of the pioneers.” Easily nine out of every ten references to Scholem (and, by extension, to Tishby and Dan) are negative. Although Idel only occasionally permits himself harshly judgmental terms—more often in the fine print of his extensive notes than in his text—the clear force of his argument is that Scholem’s account of Kabbalah is one-sided, tendentious, frequently based on arbitrary interpretations and unfounded leaps of historical inference, and, for all its “pioneering” effort, more often than not gravely misleading.

Idel’s book is thus a long sustained barrage against the imposing edifice of Scholem’s life-work, and the weapons he brings to bear are formidable. Although Idel’s writing has nothing of Scholem’s evocative power or probing vision of history, he evinces a mastery probably equal to Scholem’s of the vast spectrum of Hebrew and Aramaic mystical texts, both published and in manuscript, from late antiquity to the brink of modernity, and an equal familiarity with pertinent comparative and theoretical studies in the field of religion. He repeatedly raises tough methodological questions, sometimes with considerable shrewdness. He does succeed in proposing some important qualifications to Scholem’s account of Kabbalah and persuades us that there are certain points of historical interpretation that at least require further reflection and further documentation. Kabbalah is a book well worth pondering because it compels one to rethink general conceptions of Jewish mysticism and of rabbinic Judaism. But the writer’s scorched-earth strategy carries him too far, leading him, as I shall try to show, to base much of his argument on strained readings of the Jewish sources, on counter-inferences from scant historical data, on quibbles over terminology, on false either-or alternatives, on misrepresentations of Scholem, and on rehashings of Scholem tricked out as new positions.



Idel’s bill of complaints against his predecessor is a long one, but in keeping with the kabbalistic fondness for decads, I would list the following ten as his principal objections: (1) Scholem’s emphasis on the Kabbalah as a system of theosophy and his neglect of ecstatic or experiential Kabbalah; (2) his concomitant overemphasis on the philological study of texts and his neglect of the phenomeno-logical approach to mysticism; (3) his denial that the Kabbalah aspires to true unio mystica of the adept with God; (4) his claim that late-antique Jewish mysticism (and, through subterranean tradition, its medieval heirs) was influenced by non-Jewish gnosticism rather than the other way around; (5) his assertion that rabbinic Judaism represented a repression of myth against which the Kabbalah had to constitute itself as a mythopoeic rebellion; (6) his stress on the centrality of symbolism in the Kabbalah; (7) his contention that kabbalistic symbolism was chiefly an effort to represent the inexpressible; (8) his idea that the version of Kabbalah developed in the school around the 16th-century mystic Isaac Luria emphasized exile as a reaction to the traumatic expulsion from Spain of 1492; (9) his notion that Lurianism prepared the ideological soil for the flourishing of Sabbatian messianism in the 17th century; (10) his proposal of a causal link between Sabbatianism and Hasidism, the latter serving to domesticate the antinomian energies of the former within a framework of normative Judaism.

I will not attempt to evaluate the last two of these ten arguments because that would require a knowledge of specialized documents which I do not possess. Idel’s general contention here is that Scholem falls prey to a fallacy of historical concatenation—because one movement directly succeeds a previous one with which it exhibits possible ideological affinities, it must somehow have been generated by its predecessor. Idel claims, for example, that Lurianism in the century from its conception in Safed to the emergence in 17th-century Smyrna of Sabbetai Sevi was an esoteric doctrine severely limited in its dissemination and so could not have been the motor force for a mass movement. He may be right, though in order to assess his claim one would have to have an extensive knowledge of the printed and manuscript materials emanating from the Lurianic school and where they were distributed in Europe and the Middle East in the years prior to 1660. Idel’s eight other arguments, on the other hand, are accessible to scrutiny in regard to the terms in which they are couched and how they use the texts of Scholem and of the Jewish tradition that they cite. Let us consider them one by one.



1. The concentration on theosophy at the expense of ecstatic Kabbalah. The terms in the precise sense used here, as well as the notion that these are two “opposing schools” of Kabbalah, originate in Chapter Five of Major Trends, though one would hardly guess that from reading Idel.

Theosophy is the systematic study of the intricate structure of the divinity and its manifestations in the emanated world we inhabit. Idel helpfully notes that theosophy is theocentric whereas ecstatic mysticism is anthropocentric; the former, through its practical implementation, theurgy, seeks to effect changes in the configurations of the divinity, whereas the latter aspires to transform the personality of the adept through his mystical transport. Idel, coming from the study of the ecstatic Abulafia, contends that “Scholem . . . overstressed the importance of the speculative over the mystical.”

This is a judgment that is hard to assess because it is unclear how one would go about quantifying the relative weight of the two trends in the history of Jewish mysticism. Scholem certainly devoted thousands of pages—including most of Origins of the Kabbalah—to the elaborate maps of the divine world traced by the Kabbalah, the ten sefirot with their sundry names and symbolic values and their graphic correspondences to the limbs of a supernal anthropos and the branches of a cosmic tree. Indeed, almost no book on the Kabbalah, including both the recently published volumes by Idel and by Scholem, fails to use one of the theosophic maps as its jacket illustration. Scholem also discusses most of the hallucinogenic techniques of the ecstatic Kabbalah to which Idel accords such importance—breathing exercises, chanting, visualization of colors, meditation on the permutations and combinations of Hebrew letters. The difference between the two is a different tilt in emphasis: Idel repeatedly wants to make the Kabbalah more drastically experiential, more directed through a set of mind-altering techniques toward something approaching the dissolution of the self. At a number of points, one wonders about his use of evidence to support this view.

Thus, Idel proposes weeping in order to induce visionary experience as a hitherto unrecognized kabbalistic technique. Some of the dozen or so sources he cites in fact appear to confirm that weeping was at times used as a deliberate mystical procedure. In some of his texts, however, it looks as though the mystic actually woke up from a nightmare, burst into tears spontaneously, and then experienced his vision. Still more oddly, the following autobiographical excerpt from Hayyim Vital, the disciple of Isaac Luria, is quoted to illustrate the use of weeping as an established mystical technique:

In 1566, on the Sabbath eve, the eighth of Tevet, I said Kiddush and sat down to eat; and my eyes were shedding tears, and I was sighing and grieving since . . . I was bound by witchcraft [a phrase referring in these texts to impotence, according to Idel's own note] . . . and I likewise wept for [my] neglect of the study of Torah during the last two years . . . and because of my worry I did not eat at all, and I lay on my bed on my face, weeping, and I fell asleep out of much weeping, and I dreamed a wondrous dream.

In the dream, a beautiful woman appears whom he addresses as “Mother” and whom he implores to help him see the Lord sitting on His throne.

Now, Idel does not explain how the same technique could be “used” by someone weeping after emerging from a dream and someone going into a dream after weeping. In any case, the text invites us to imagine the human experience behind it, which looks nothing like a deliberate technique. Poor Hayyim Vital has been impotent for two years, is no doubt seriously depressed, and consequently also unable to summon the concentration necessary for the study of the Torah. It is Friday night, when every Jew is especially enjoined to fulfill the commandment of cohabitation with his wife, and when the kabbalist in particular has a theurgical responsibility to contribute to the divine coupling of the Holy One Blessed Be He (the male aspect of the godhead) with the Shekhinah (the female aspect) through his own sexual union. Is it any wonder that Vital should burst into tears, and that he should then escape into the consolation of a dream in which a beautiful woman appears to him as a loving, reassuring mother who he hopes will grant him some access to the white-bearded Father whose potency he cannot emulate? The fantasies of the troubled Vital of course draw on the mystical lore in which he was steeped, but it is highly questionable whether he reached them through any intentional hallucinogenic technique. Here, as in a good many other instances, Idel makes the kabbalist more of a technologist of the holy than in all likelihood he really was.



2. The limitations of the philological approach. According to Idel, Scholem’s “concentration on the philological-historical approach has resulted in the nearly complete rejection of the comparative study of Jewish mysticism.” This original sin of philology, “Scholem’s initial commitment to the centrality of text study,” when transmitted to his academic progeny, “became an inert ideology of textology.”

It is true that Scholem, heir to a powerful 19th-century tradition of German historical scholarship, made philology a central tool of analysis. But one must add that he was working on a corpus that itself placed an extraordinary emphasis on language, used, as David Biale has aptly summarized Scholem’s understanding, as “a precise technical vocabulary and not arbitrary and emotive poetry,” producing texts that “cry out for scientific philology.” Nothing could argue the intrinsic importance of language for Jewish mysticism more forcefully than Scholem’s dazzling essay of 1962, “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories in Judaism.” There may be counter-instances where language is broken out of the frames of syntax and systematic coherence in the interests of ecstasy, but these hardly gainsay the centrality and power of the linguistically coherent articulation of mysticism that Scholem illuminates. Philology as he applies it to this tradition is frequently the implement of a kind of archeo-logical enterprise that is at once bold and painstaking. Origins of the Kabbalah, a work of patient scholarship that does not seek to make allowances for the general reader, offers a number of impressive instances of such archeology.

But Scholem’s focus on philology by no means precludes a deep concern with views of reality, psychological processes, philosophic assumptions, the dynamics of mystical experience—everything that falls under the heading of the phenomenology of mysticism and invites a comparative approach. Comparisons generally interested Scholem when there was some possibility of actual historical contact, but it is strange to say that philology led him to “a nearly complete rejection of the comparative study of Jewish mysticism” when his work abounds in comparative references to gnosticism, Hinduism, the Franciscan movement, the Cathars, Sufism, Jacob Boehme, Scotus Erigena, Johannes Reuchlin, not to speak of modern scholars of Christian and Eastern mysticism, gnosticism, and comparative religion. Throughout his work, Scholem adhered to a schema of carefully discriminated historical eras of Jewish mysticism. Idel’s explicitly phenomenological approach involves a good deal of shuttling back and forth from late antiquity to the Middle Ages to premodern times. This has the advantage of making certain patterns of continuity more evident, though it may also at times blur distinctions. But Scholem’s failure to adopt this strategy, or, say, to quote Swedenborg at length as Idel does, by no means implies that his conceptual horizon was limited to the philological study of texts set in historical sequence.



3. The denial of unitive mystical experience in the Kabbalah. On this issue, Idel accuses Scholem of something like willful misrepresentation, foisting on unsuspecting readers “a totally nonunitive picture of Jewish mysticism.”

The texts Idel cites to demonstrate that the ecstatic Kabbalah was impelled toward an absolute fusion of the self with God are densely and obscurely metaphorical, and though his reading of them may be right, no interpretation of such enigmatic pronouncements can be assured. Scholem was indeed skeptical as to whether Jewish mysticism ever allowed for a complete unio mystica, but his statements about the ecstatic Kabbalah are more nuanced than Idel would lead us to believe. Thus, Idel indignantly quotes Scholem on Abulafia to the effect that “complete identification [of man with God] is neither achieved nor intended,” but Scholem immediately goes on to say, “All the same, we have here one of the most thoroughgoing interpretations of the meaning of ecstatic experience to which rabbinical Judaism has given birth.” At another point in Major Trends, he actually defines devekut, or the experience of “cleaving” to God, as “the typical form of unio mystica in Kabbalism.” And earlier in his chapter on Abulafia, he evokes devekut as “a perpetual being-with-God, an intimate union and conformity of the human and the divine will.” Characteristically, Scholem adds the qualification that Jewish mysticism, even at its most rapturous, always retained “a proper sense of distance, or, if you like, of incommensurateness.” The finely poised deliberation of the last phrase needs to be noted: in the kabbalistic view, perhaps in extreme instances the distance between human and divine might appear to be close, but not the incommensurateness between the two, and Idel’s prooftexts of ecstasy offer no persuasive evidence to the contrary.



4. The influence of gnosticism on Jewish mysticism. Throughout his career, Scholem placed considerable stress on the centrality of gnostic concepts in the Kabbalah. His tentative assumption was that the Jewish mystics of late antiquity absorbed certain ideas from gnosticism, which were then transmitted, orally and perhaps in esoteric manuscripts that have not survived, in a millennium-long underground tradition which finally surfaced dramatically in the 12th and 13th centuries as the new doctrine of the Kabbalah. Idel eagerly embraces the notion of this underground tradition (as with other topics, barely indicating it derives from Scholem)—in fact, giving it even more prominence than did his predecessor. The point of divergence is that Idel hypothesizes an elaborated gnostic doctrine indigenous to late-antique Judaism; in his view, both gnosticism and the Christianity of the New Testament were influenced by this Jewish esoteric teaching.

This is certainly an interesting possibility, but the sole evidence Idel offers for it are two gnostic texts produced by writers in contact with Jews which adumbrate theosophic patterns evident in the later Kabbalah. It is not clear why a Jewish source of gnosticism should be so important to Idel, except that it gives him another point to score against Scholem. I suspect that if Idel were able to produce convincing proof of gnosticism as an indigenous Jewish doctrine (as perhaps he may yet do), Scholem would have been delighted by the idea. As the present state of evidence stands, the two “proto-kabbalistic” gnostic texts contiguous with late-antique Judaism could just as easily be taken as sources of doctrine drawn upon by the early Jewish mystics rather than the other way around.



5. The non-mythic character of the world of rabbinic Judaism. The issue joined here involves a fundamental difference over the nature of Judaism from the early rabbis to the 12th century. “Scholem,” Idel contends, “created a simplistic division between a defeated mythical gnosticism and a triumphant nonmythical rabbinism.” The Kabbalah then becomes in Scholem’s account a great resurgence of mythic archetypes that stands in a certain tension to the rabbinic conception of reality. Idel, for his part, as a “phenomenological” historian who readily sees a virtual identity of patterns in texts separated by a thousand years, flatly states that the use of “the Torah as pointing the way to the augmentation of the divine Dynamis . . . was already obvious in the midrashic literature,” and then he can triumphantly conclude, “Put this way, there is no major difference between midrashic and kabbalistic theurgy.” The odd phrase “put this way” can refer only to the fact that he has accepted his own just-stated premise as self-sufficient evidence for his conclusion, but his chapter on “Ancient Jewish Theurgy” offers not a single prooftext from rabbinic literature, only a few glancing references to texts not fully cited.

Idel’s account of rabbinic Judaism entirely fails to distinguish between, on the one hand, its figurative, parabolic, and historically symbolic modes of discourse—all of which are amply registered by Scholem—and, on the other hand, mythology proper. Scholem, for example, duly notes the evocative presence of the Shekhinah in midrash but draws the necessary distinction that the rabbinic Shekhinah never indicates a theosophic division of the godhead into a feminine principle over against a masculine principle. The difference between the nature of ritual in normative Judaism and the Kabbalah is even more telling. Scholem observes in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism the momentous consequences of the shift in rabbinic observance from a concentration on nature to a concentration on history:

This history-saturated ritual was accompanied by no magical action. The rites of remembrance produce no effect, they create no immediate bond between the Jew and his natural environment, and what they “conjure up” without the slightest gesture of conjuration is the memory, the community of generations, and the identification of the pious with the experience of the founding generation which received the Revelation. The ritual of rabbinical Judaism makes nothing happen and transforms nothing.

This is, of course, a picture drawn in broad strokes, and Scholem was perfectly aware of the presence of magical elements in the rabbinic world which, however, did not define its predominant forms of ritual and literature. Idel’s strategy is to try to turn the whole picture upside down by insistently reading rabbinic texts as though they were written in 13th-century Gerona. A simple talmudic idiom of prayer, “Let Your mercy conquer Your anger, and Your mercy overflow onto Your attributes” (a less tendentiously literal translation would be “let Your mercy go beyond Your characteristic nature”), is conceived by him as a performative statement, affecting different areas on the map of the divinity. A version of the mishnaic treatise ‘Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”) “preserved in the Middle Ages” proclaims that “By means of ten ma’amarot [utterances] the world was created, and by the Decalogue it stands,” and this is immediately construed by Idel as a piece of theosophy anticipating the kabbalistic decad. It should be observed, however, that the standard text of ‘Avot uses a famous formula, “On three things the world stands . . .,” without the slightest suggestion of theosophy. If a midrash makes a statement like “Whenever Israel is enslaved, the Shekhinah, as it were, is enslaved with them,” Idel immediately sees indication of a theosophic drama of events occurring in the constituent parts of the godhead, ignoring the strong marker “as it were” (kevayakhol, “if it were possible to say such a thing”—a constraint not felt in the Kabbalah).

In order to put the question of mythology in rabbinic Judaism into sharper focus, let me quote a midrashic text not mentioned by Idel that seems to approximate a well-known kabbalistic motif. The passage occurs in Genesis Rabbah 1:14 (the translation is mine), after a discussion of why the Torah begins with the letter bet:

Rabbi Eleazar the son of Hanina said in the name of Rabbi Aha: for twenty-six generations the letter ‘aleph complained before the throne of the Holy One Blessed Be He. It said before Him, Master of the Universe, I am first of letters yet You did not create Your world with me. The Holy One Blessed Be He said to it: The world and all its fullness were created only through the merit of the Torah, as it is written, “The Lord in His wisdom founded the earth” (Proverbs 3:19). Tomorrow I shall come to give the Torah on Sinai and I shall begin with you alone, as it is written, “I ['anokhi, which begins with 'aleph] am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2).

All this sounds a good deal like kabbalistic notions of the cosmogonie and theurgic force of Hebrew letters, with the letter ‘aleph as the consonant that is pure breath or spirit being accorded pride of mystic place by many kabbalists. It surely illustrates something no one has seriously denied, that there are rich and vivid imaginative materials in rabbinic literature on which the Kabbalah was able to draw. But one can construe this text as mythological only by assuming that its original transmitters meant it to be understood in the most throughgoing literal way.

The very tone of the midrash argues against such a reading. There is a hint of playfulness in the deployment of its narrative, reminiscent of the familiar pattern of the folk tale that comes to explain why a certain humble and rejected animal ended up being chosen for some grand historical task. Midrashic parable is a vehicle for familiarizing the divine, and the kindly Lord who reassures poor ‘aleph in homey colloquial Hebrew is nothing like the impersonal manifestations of the divinity in later theosophy. Most important, the purpose of the narrative is not to report a sequence of cosmic events but to work out a circuit of exegetical connections: creation is set against revelation and made secondary to it, as a verse in Proverbs, with “wisdom” construed as a synonym for Torah, shows that what comes first in textual order, the initial bet, is less significant cosmogonically than what comes first in the founding act of revelation, the Decalogue. Story is not a guide to the map of the divine world but to the reading of Scripture in all the meaningfulness of its endless intertextual arabesques.



6. The centrality of symbolism to the kabbalistic world view. This paramount idea of Scholem’s is a direct corollary of his assumption that the predominant form of Kabbalah was theosophic. Idel argues, plausibly enough, that the ecstatic Kabbalah expressed itself in nonsymbolic language, with the key figure of Abulafia promulgating a hermeneutics that “culminated in a text-destroying exegesis that focused upon separate letters understood as divine names.” Scholem would hardly have quarreled with this. Again, the underlying question is what historical weight to give to the radical ecstatics. Idel traces some lines of influence descending from Abulafia but nothing that looks like a mass movement, and the burden of proof still rests with him to demonstrate that either numerically or geographically the ecstatic Kabbalah was a major historical alternative to the symbolic outlook of the theosophic Kabbalah.



7. Symbolism in the Kabbalah as a means of evoking the inexpressible. A naive observer might imagine that this would be an inevitable feature of virtually any mystical symbolism, but Idel regards Scholem’s affirmation of the idea as “highly disputable.” By contrast, he argues that “A kabbalistic symbol invited one to act rather than to think” and consequently what was important was “its dynamism, far more than its disclosure of an inexpressible realm of experience.”

This contention jibes with Idel’s inexorable stress on the theurgic implementation of theosophy in the Kabbalah. What is puzzling is that he should pose these two ideas as competing alternatives that have to be hierarchically arranged. Scholem puts less emphasis on the performative aspect of kabbalistic symbolism, but even if performance was a central concern of the mystic, that by no means logically precludes a profound reliance on the symbol as an instrument for unveiling or intimating the ineffable. I would add that the symbol in Scholem’s view has a powerfully experiential component and is not purely a vehicle of cognition, as Idel leads one to think Scholem claims. Here, for example, is a characteristic observation of Scholem’s from Origins of the Kabbalah: “Symbols are born, in the last resort, of the memory of ecstatic moments of inexpressible content. There is something wrenching and shattering about it.”

Altogether, Idel misrepresents Scholem as seeing in the Kabbalah “an abstract system of thought.” In the last chapter of Kabbalah: New Perspectives, he traces the dissemination and transmutation of the Kabbalah in the Christian Renaissance down through 19th-century German scholarship and tries to implicate Scholem in guilt by association. The Christian Kabbalah, he notes, could scarcely accommodate Jewish notions of affecting the divine world by the mystically directed performance of commandments, and so it neutralized kabbalistic theurgy, displacing it almost entirely by theosophy. This denatured version of the Kabbalah was picked up by the 19th-century scholar Franz Molitor, “so influential with Scholem,” and by Adolphe Franck, on whom Scholem also drew. The obvious innuendo is that Scholem’s account of the Kabbalah is unwittingly captive to the distorting view of its Christian antecedents, whereas Idel’s version is more faithful to the intrinsic Jewish character of the movement. This is, to say the least, a peculiar doubt to raise about a historiographical enterprise that from beginning to end was committed to discovering the aspects of Jewish national vitality and longing for redemption exhibited in the Kabbalah, and to tracing causal links from the Kabbalah to modern Jewish movements of self-emancipation.



8. Exile as a key to the mystic doctrine of Isaac Luria. Scholem’s reading of Lurianism is precisely an instance of his construing Jewish mysticism as a sensitive barometer for the historical experience of the Jewish people, and Idel, just after accusing him of following Christian precedent in reducing Kabbalah to an abstract system, is unwilling to accept such a national inference. He observes that “the far-reaching impact of the expulsion [from Spain in 1492] is a cornerstone of Scholem’s historiosophy,” and he does his best to dislodge the cornerstone and topple the whole edifice. His best here amounts to a bizarre literalism: since Isaac Luria was an Ashkenazi Jew, there is no reason to assume he would have regarded the recent disaster that had befallen his Sephardi brethren in Spain as a trauma. There are, moreover, no explicit references to the expulsion in Luria’s teaching.

But the kabbalistic practice was not to offer direct representations of contemporary events—rather, it was to transform them into arresting acts and images of ostensibly timeless, universally valid symbolic systems. Luria placed central emphasis on a divinity that in the cosmogonic shattering of vessels had become distanced from its own primordial unity and on the role of man in performing acts of tikkun, or mystic restoration, that could through a collective and cumulative process bring about the redemption. Is it so unreasonable to assume that Luria, in the wake of the Spanish catastrophe, living in a Palestine that was absorbing waves of refugees from the banishment of 1492, should have been particularly preoccupied with the larger meanings of exile and should have given them expression in his thought? Scholem’s methodological summary of his own account of Lurianism has a persuasive force that is not easily dismissed. “The Jews built their historical experience,” he observes in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, “into their cosmogony. Kabbalistic myth had ‘meaning,’ because it sprang from a fully conscious relation to reality which, experienced symbolically even in its horror, was able to project mighty symbols of Jewish life as an extreme case of human life pure and simple.”



This last sentence points to the inadvertent irony of Idel’s entire assault on his looming predecessor. There are certainly issues that may legitimately be raised about Scholem’s account of Jewish mysticism, for all its magisterial force. One might want to know more about the social and economic contexts of the Kabbalah, and one might wonder not only about the proposed causal nexus between Sabbatianism and Hasidism but about the still more conjectural link between Sabbatianism and Jewish Enlightenment. Nevertheless, Scholem’s greatness lies precisely in his ability to see in the Jewish mystics something more than a collection of bizarre types who did strange things to their own heads and concocted a weird mumbo-jumbo in an effort to manipulate a world of imagined powers. In his patient yet imaginative construal, these many thousands of adepts of mystic lore over the generations are revealed as intellectually serious, spiritually daring people responding to the pressures of historical and personal experience in systematic thought and regimens of performance, however unfamiliar the idiom they use.

On some level, Moshe Idel must know this perfectly well, and the stronger passages of his book suggest that he has the capacity to produce original work on the Kabbalah of a high order of excellence. But in his zeal to make a place for himself by overturning the founding figure of the modern field of Jewish mysticism, he reduces his subject to a chain of ecstatic fits and starts and theurgic manipulations, detached from the larger realm of historical experience and conceptual creativity to which it belongs.




1 Edited by R.J. Zwi Werblowsky, translated by Allan Arkush, Jewish Publication Society and Princeton University Press, 487 pp., $47.50. The German original appeared in 1962 and was based on a much shorter 1948 Hebrew version. The English text incorporates amplifications Scholem left interleaved in his copy of the German volume and so is the most complete and updated version.

2 New York University Press, 333 pp., $50.00.

3 Yale University Press, 464 pp., $40.00.

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