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 considered to be an affront to the ethical monotheism of Judaism. Responding to such an attitude, Scholem argued repeatedly that the mystical sources, and not the philosophical, tapped the deepest recesses of religious consciousness by reviving what he considered to be the long-suppressed mythical dimension of Judaism.

To cite one representative example of this: "the old God whom Kabbalistic gnosis opposed to the God of the philosophers proves, when experienced in all his living richness, to be an even older and archaic one." The bifurcation of mysticism and philosophy led Scholem to such distinctions as symbol versus allegory that break down under the weight of textual detail. Ironically, in his attempt to legitimate the mystical vitality of Judaism, Scholem reiterates the overly simplistic distinction between rationalistic philosophy and pietistic mysticism in the Jewish Middle Ages.

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Dr. Elliot R. Wolfson

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

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