Reinterpreting Mysticism and Messianism

Yehuda Liebes has revolutionized our understanding of the Zohar and underscored the relationship between kabbalah and Christianity.

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Like Moshe Idel, Yehuda Liebes is both a student and critic of Gershom Scholem, the pioneering scholar of Jewish mysticism. Among Liebes' most important critiques of Scholem, is his assertion that the Zohar--the greatest work of medieval kabbalah--is a composite work, the creation of a group of Spanish kabbalists that included Moses de Leon (whom Scholem had identified as the sole author of the Zohar). The following is a review of two of Liebes' books, Studies in the Zohar and Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism, which represent some of his most important scholarship. Reprinted with permission from Le'ela (March 1994).

Yehuda Liebes is a representative of the Hebrew University's new wave of kabbalistic research, best known through the writings of his colleague Moshe Idel.

These collections of his academic papers in English translation deal with the mythic dimension of Judaism, the composition of the Zohar and its messianism, Christian influence on the kabbalists, Sabbatean messianism, and the Sabbatean roots of [Hasidic leader] Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav's techniques for rectifying sexual sins (tikkun hakelali).

Unlike his master, Gershom Scholem, Liebes claims that the mythical elements in kabbalah are already to be found in rabbinic aggadah [midrashic and talmudic narrative legend]:

"Essentially kabbalah is not a new creation but a reformulation, in different form, of the same myth that has been the very heart of the Torah since time immemorial. The mythical element did not erupt in the kabbalah, rather, that is where it was given systematic formulation and set within rigid frameworks, which may have in fact restrained and weakened its personal, spontaneous vitality."

This view is based on a very wide definition of myth: "A myth is a sacred story about the gods expressing that which the abstract word?cannot express." In other words, anything not overtly philosophical can be classed as myth. In fact there are fundamental differences between aggadah, in which many contradictory "mythic" images co‑exist, and the more authoritative role of true myth in a religion such as Christianity, which makes Liebes' identification problematic.

Among the most stimulating aspects of Liebes' work is his interpretation of the literary setting of the Zohar, the second‑century CE circle of Shimon ben Yochai, as representing a real messianic kabbalistic group flourishing in thirteenth‑century Spain around Rabbi Todros Halevi Abulafia of Castile. This kabbalistic group looked forward to a new messianic Torah, perhaps following the destruction of the last Crusader stronghold in Palestine in 1291 ("the death of the kings of Edom"), which would be understood not discursively but intuitively. Its kabbalistic activity was directed towards tikkun, the rectification of the human and Divine worlds.

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Alan Unterman

Dr. Alan Unterman is Minister of the Yeshurun Synagogue and part-time Lecturer in Comparative Religion at the University of Manchester (UK). His major publications include Jews: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices and Judaism and Art.