The “Orthodox” Mystics
Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition.
by Gershom G. Scholem.
Jewish Theological Seminary of America. 126 pp. $4.00.
The 19th century in Germany, which saw the birth of the scientific study of Judaism, was an age that basked in the bright sunshine of Reason. The classics of the Wissenschaft des Judentums all reflect or refract that light, and to the extent to which their subject matter is amenable to such reflection, these classics have an added measure of usefulness. Yet there are regions of the Jewish past which can be approached only with the light at the extreme ends of the spectrum: they cannot be apprehended in their true nature by clear Reason. Such are the areas of Jewish mysticism.
Scant justice was done to Cabbala and other manifestations of mysticism by men like Heinrich Graetz and Abraham Geiger. This sort of thing did not fit into the paradigm of enlightened religion which—so the claim ran—had always, or almost always, been the nature, the essence, of Judaism. The existence of Jewish mysticism was, of course, not denied: the pioneers of the Wissenschaft des Judentums were men of honesty and honor. But the subject was approached with a certain amount of embarrassment. The mystics were the villains of the drama of Judaism—the rationalists its heroes. It is not, therefore, surprising to find mysticism described as some kind of distortion of the real Judaism—a regrettable deterioration, something which, by and large, could be credited to the sufferings of the Jews in the Middle Ages.
The 20th century has brought a different understanding to bear on the Jewish mystical heritage. Partly as a result of the disappointment in the anticipated benefits of the Age of Reason, partly as the outcome of a greater acquaintance with depth psychology, and partly, too, as an effect of the purging of Jewish studies of apologetic motives, Jewish scholarship in the present century has attempted to do justice to the phenomenon of mysticism. Men like Martin Buber and Abraham J. Heschel, in their own very different ways, have sought to rescue the insights of Hasidism for the benefit of modern people. The last great luminaries of German Jewry itself, Franz Rosenzweig and Leo Baeck, paid increasing attention to the mystical strand in Jewish thought. But the man who has done most, on a scholarly and scientific basis, to make the study of Jewish mysticism a respectable discipline is the Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Gershom G. Scholem.
Professor Scholem’s latest work is a scholar’s book—in both senses of that phrase. It stands with his previous publications in meticulous scholarship, and in the unwillingness to set much store by unsubstantiated hypotheses; it is, in a way, a highly technical presentation which addresses itself to the reader who has already some knowledge of the field. Indeed, the Israel Goldstein Lectures delivered by Professor Scholem at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in the spring of 1957 form the basis of the present chapters.
Nevertheless, scholar’s book though it is in one sense, it also has value and meaning for the non-expert. The intelligent layman is hearing a great deal these days about Gnosticism. The vocabulary of Gnosticism, with its “Unknown God,” its concept of the “Alien Man,” and its notion of the “Transcendental Self,” is not so strange to ears attuned to Existentialist discourse. The problems which, according to the Church Father Tertullian, gave rise to Gnostic speculations, “Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of man? And in what way does he come?” are problems that still engage a great deal of discussion. Also, once the tumult and the shouting that marked the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls will have died down, we may see an increased interest in the recent find of important Gnostic documents at Nag Hammadi, in Egypt.
For some time now, the old view of Gnosticism, that it was a specifically Christian heresy, has been given up in favor of the assumption of a pre-Christian Gnosticism. It has even been claimed that the oldest documents of Christian Gnosticism presuppose a Jewish Gnosis in which the figure of the Redeemer has not yet acquired a central place. However, Professor Scholem’s book does not deal with the origins of Gnosticism as such: it it concerned with the particular form which Gnosticism assumed in the sources of Rabbinic Judaism. For, if Gnosticism is used simply as a “convenient term for the religious movement that proclaimed a mystical esotericism for the elect, based on illumination and the acquisition of a higher knowledge,” then it need not be preempted for the dualistic heresies which plagued both Church Fathers and Rabbis. It may, in fact, be used as a name for the mystical endeavors of the Rabbis themselves—particularly for their speculations in connection with the merkabah, the divine “throne-chariot” of Ezekiel’s vision.
In this sense of the term “Gnosticism,” there exists an extensive literature, parts of which have been known for a long time; other parts have been edited and published by Professor Scholem himself. Professor Scholem’s present book is primarily concerned with the age of this literature—to be more exact, with the age of parts of the literature. But the book also deals with the “orthodox” nature of this Jewish Gnostic speculation, which, in Scholem’s words, “does not conflict with the Biblical concept of God, even though it may conflict with some later philosophical concepts of medieval Judaism.” Finally, Scholem discusses some concrete instances illustrating the Jewish origin of certain elements known to us from non-Jewish Gnostic systems.
The work turns mainly, however, on the question of dating the Jewish Gnostic material. The Hekhalot literature, in which much of this material is to be found, has generally been ascribed to the 8th and 9th centuries C.E. Statements in this literature attributed to earlier Rabbis—say those of the first three centuries C.E.—have been regarded as merely “put into their mouths.” Scholem himself, in his Major Trends of Jewish Mysticism (1941), had argued for an earlier date, for a “period before the expansion of Islam.” But even he did not, in his previous work, go beyond the 5th and 6th centuries. Now in his present work, he shows, on the basis of a careful analysis of the sources, and of a comparison with the Tannaitic and Pseudepigraphic literatures, that some of the thoughts attributed to the Sages of the first three centuries C.E. in fact do go back to that very time. Some cryptic statements in the earlier literature find their explanation in the later literature, and vice versa. And when the early Rabbinic sources tell us that certain Rabbis engaged in mystical speculations, the later sources (later, that is, in the sense that they were edited later) still preserve for us the contents of those very speculations.
What emerges from all this is that our picture of the Tannaim (the Rabbis of the first three centuries) is in some need of revision. If they, the virtuosi of legal dialectics, have been looked upon by us as the exemplars of sweet rationality, and if, as disciples of 19th-century Wissenschaft des Judentums, we have seen in the literature of Jewish mysticism a later “degeneration,” we must now own up to the fact that those early Rabbis were far more complex (and, therefore, also “deeper”) personalities than we have been giving them credit for. In effect, this underlines a point made some years ago by Professor Fritz Baer, in his Hebrew book on Israel among the Nations (1955), stressing the mystical and “pneumatic” character of Israel’s early legalists.
Perhaps it will be said that this revision of the pedigree of Jewish mysticism is as dependent upon our Zeitgeist as the denigration of Jewish mysticism by 19th-century Jewish scholars was dependent upon theirs. But those who wish to take such issue with the present re-evaluation would have to come to terms with Professor Scholem’s detailed textual studies—a highly difficult, if not impossible, undertaking.