Mystical Messianism

Scholars debate the relationship between catastrophe, Jewish mysticism, and messianic fervor.

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Can Magic Bring the Messiah?

Jews under severe pressure sought consolation in "magical" or practical kabbalah because it advocated that magical practices could bring about the messiah almost instantaneously. It replaced the traditional theurgic view, in which the individual must perfect his intellect, or the people restore perfection to the Divine, over a long period of time. Jews saw "magical" kabbalah, with its secret formulae revealed to the redeeming figure, as closely bound to the advent of the messianic era.

Idel has studded Messianic Mystics with enough brilliant insights and challenging constructs to make it worthwhile to the scholar. To take just one example, Idel's summary of the formation patterns of active and open messianic movements, which comprises less than one paragraph, presents as concise and clear a phenomenological picture of these movements as one could hope for.

Idel depicts Jewish messianic activists as operating along a pyramidic continuum in which "the active aspirant to the messiah [remains] at the top, the few messengers, apostles and prophets in the middle, and the much larger audience at the base" (p. 12). Each of the elements of this triad often misread and distorts the actual nature of the others in order to fit them into their respective expectations and agendas.

In this brief sketch, Idel accurately encapsulates a centuries‑long, deeply repercussive phenomenon in Jewish history.

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Dr. Elisheva Carlebach

Dr. Elisheva Carlebach is professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Divided Souls: Converts from Judaism in Germany, 1500-1750 and The Pursuit of Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatian Controversies, winner of the National
Jewish Book Award.