Jewish Mystical Ideas and Concerns

Can we distinguish a mystical idea from a philosophical one--and mystical practice from magic?

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The following article explores two aspects of Jewish mysticism. In the first half, the author discusses the relationship between philosophical ideas and mystical ideas. In the second half, he delineates the two fundamental concerns found in Jewish mystical literature: a claim to esoteric knowledge and the importance of certain intense religious experiences. Reprinted with permission from

“Jewish Mysticism: A Philosophical Overview,” in History of Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, published by Routledge, a member of the Taylor & Francis Group (1996).

Of the many contributions that Gershom Scholem’s prolific
research has made to the field of Judaica, one of the most significant is the
broadening of the parameters of the intellectual history of the Jews from late
antiquity to the modern period.

This expansion of intellectual horizons is perhaps nowhere
more apparent than in the study of medieval Jewish culture, the richest period
of mystical creativity in Jewish history. Together with the more traditionally
studied forms of philosophical expression, reflecting in particular the
Aristotelian and Neoplatonic legacies transmitted to the Jews through the
Arabic translations of Greek and Syriac works, Scholem introduced a canon of
texts that approached many of the same problems in metaphysics, epistemology,
psychology, and cosmology as did the works of classical philosophy.

Mysticism and Philosophy: Discrete Disciplines

Despite the fact that Scholem was keenly aware of the
textual, philological, and historical influence of philosophical authors on
Jewish mystics in the Middle Ages, he dichotomized the intellectual currents of
mysticism and philosophy in too simplistic a fashion.

In part this has to be seen as Scholem’s reaction to his
intellectual predecessors, the nineteenth‑century German scholars of Wissenschaft des Judentums [“the
science of Judaism”], who viewed the medieval philosophical sources as the
apex of cultural creativity, whereas the mystical texts were derisively

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Dr. Elliot R. Wolfsonn is Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

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