Challenging the Master

Moshe Idel's critique of Gershom Scholem.

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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.

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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.