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.”

2. The relationship between Rabbinic Judaism and Kabbalah.

Scholem believed that a basic tension existed between Rabbinic (halakhic) Judaism and Kabbalah. Scholem depicted Rabbinic Judaism as “strangely dry and sober.” “The ritual of Rabbinic Judaism,” Scholem has written, “makes nothing happen and transforms nothing.” Rabbinic Judaism’s concerns, according to Scholem, are strictly legalistic, and thus one step removed from the living source of spiritual inspiration. Kabbalah, on the other hand, is like an underground stream moving through the heart of Judaism, carrying with it the vital power of mythic and mystical ideas. At critical junctures, especially during crisis periods, this stream bursts forward, infusing Judaism with new life at points in Jewish history when Rabbinic Judaism could not provide the Jewish people with sufficient spiritual sustenance.

Idel does not believe that a basic tension exists between Rabbinic Judaism, or Halakha, and Kabbalah. Instead he perceives a myriad of connections between Rabbinic ideas found in the Talmud and Midrash, and Kabbalistic concepts and symbols. These connections reinforce his belief that Kabbalah grew organically from within Rabbinic Judaism, and even that Kabbalah contains within it the elements of authentic oral tradition which extends back to the prophets and the priests of the Holy Temple. “What greater testimony can we have,” Idel has said, “than that of the greatest experts on Jewish texts of their time—men like Avraham Ibn Daud (Raavad), the Ramban [Nahmanides], Rabbi Yosef Karo and the Vilna Gaon? If Kabbalah went against the grain of Rabbinic tradition, they would have clearly seen it. Yet all of them were convinced that Kabbalah was a true interpretation of Judaism, and a tradition that was totally consonant with Talmud and Midrash. As scientific researchers, we are not required to believe their testimony. On the other hand, we may not ignore it either.”

3. The relationship between a) the exile of the Jews from Spain, and the ARI’s Kabbalah, and b) the ARI’s Kabbalah and the Shabbatean movement.

Scholem believes that the trauma of the exile from Spain and the messianic longings which this event aroused are reflected in the ARI’s Kabbalistic cosmology, with its emphasis on catastrophe (the breaking of the vessels) and tikkun which will bring the Messiah. The popularization of the ARI’s Kabbalah then prepared the way, according to Scholem, for Shabbetai Zevi by awakening and giving form to messianic longings among the Jewish masses. Idel argues against both these claims. He points out that the ARI never mentions the exile from Spain in any of the records we have of his teachings. Idel also contends that the catastrophic and messianic concepts which the ARI emphasizes are to be found in earlier Kabbalistic works that predate the Spanish exile by decades or centuries. Idel says that the ARI’s works could not have influenced the masses, preparing the ground for Shabbetai Zevi because, while the ARI was widely recognized as a saint and a great master, his doctrines were known only to a select elite.

4. The last, and in many ways most important distinction between Scholem and Idel which I will discuss, is the question of the nature of Kabbalah.

Is Kabbalah mainly a system of thought, or is it a path to mystical experience and even union with God? Scholem, for the most part, understood Kabbalah as a set of mystical and mythical ideas. Although he was certainly aware that there was an important experiential dimension to Kabbalah, mystical experience was only rarely the subject of his scholarly work. His main focus, and that of his disciples, is on the close analysis of texts. From reading Scholem, it is possible to gain the impression that the texts themselves, and the ideas they articulated, were the end product of the Kabbalistic endeavor.

Idel takes the opposite approach. He understands even the most theoretical texts as having mystical experience as their origin and goal. “It’s important for academic scholars of the Kabbalah to understand what it means to live Kabbalah,” he says. “These texts were written by and for people who attempted to be aware, with every movement they made, in every thought they had, of the effect they were causing on high, according to the map that had been drawn for them by Kabbalah. Try practicing that kind of awareness for a couple of hours, much less a couple of years, and you will see how quickly your state of consciousness changes and you begin to perceive things in a totally different way. The ideas found in Kabbalistic works are only the beginning, only the starting point of what Kabbalah is about.”

Reprinted with permission from the Summer 1990 (50:3) issue of Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union.

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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.