Challenging the Master

Moshe Idel's critique of Gershom Scholem.

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For sixty years, the study of Kabbalah in secular universities around the world has been dominated by the theories and approach of one man: Gershom Scholem. Scholem, a brilliant, charismatic German Jew, emigrated to Jerusalem from Berlin in 1923, and lived there until his death in 1982. Scholem virtually founded the academic discipline of the study of Jewish mysticism. His historical studies span the entire gamut of post‑Biblical Jewish history, from the Rabbinic age until Hasidism and beyond.

For many intellectuals, Jews and gentiles alike, Scholem’s studies and determinations have been their sole source of knowledge about Kabbalah. In most modem works on Jewish history, Scholem’s theories—such as the idea that the Kabbalah of the ARI [Isaac Luria] was a response to the traumatic exile of the Jews from Spain, and that the [false messianic] Shabbatean movement was made possible by the mass dissemination of the ARI’s Kabbalah—are treated as if they were established facts.

Recently, however, Moshe Idel, a professor at the Hebrew University, where Scholem taught, has shaken the academic world by challenging many of Scholem’s basic notions. The controversy surrounding the work of Moshe Idel has spilled out of the classroom and the learned journals of history into popular newspapers and magazines in both Israel and the United States. Idel’s revisions (his major work, published by Yale University Press in 1989, is called Kabbalah: New Perspectives) have led to his portrayal in the press and in portions of the academic world as a new wave academic, a rebel against the authority of established wisdom, a heretic in the temple of the academy. Ironically, Idel’s “heretical” ideas have brought academic research closer to the Jewish tradition’s own conception of Kabbalah than anyone would have previously guessed possible.

older jewish man praying kabbalahFour of the major points on which Idel has challenged Scholem can be described as follows:

1. The origin of Kabbalah.

One of Scholem’s central asser­tions is that Kabbalah itself was the result of the exposure of Rabbinic Judaism to Gnosticism, a dualistic philosophy and path to salvation of Greek and Persian origin. Gnosticism is a system of intricate mythological speculations concerning the nature of God and the supernal realm, speculations that Scholem saw repeated or elaborated on in the writings of the Kabbalists. Thus, Kabbalah itself, according to Scholem, originated through the penetration of an alien heresy into Rabbinic Judaism.

Idel understands Kabbalah as an internal development whose wellsprings are to be found within Judaism itself. He points out that the similarities that exist between certain Gnostic texts and some Kabbalistic symbols and ideas can be just as easily explained by positing a Jewish influence on Gnosticism rather than the reverse. The recent discovery of the Nag Hamadi Library [a collection of ancient codices discovered in Egypt in 1945]—a source which was unavailable when Scholem made his assessments—has shed new light on the history of Gnosticism, and has indeed, according to Idel, demonstrated that Gnostics were influenced by Judaic symbols and concepts. Scholem, on the other hand, according to Idel, “never satisfactorily explained why great Jewish sages in the second century would adopt a doctrine they knew to be heretical.”

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Micha Odenheimer

Micha Odenheimer is a writer, rabbi, and activist living in Jerusalem. He is a contributing editor at the Jerusalem Report.