Challenging the Master

Moshe Idel's critique of Gershom Scholem.

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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.