Elliot R. Wolfson is the Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, where he teaches courses in mysticism, Kabbalah, and the philosophy of religion. Two of his books, Language, Eros, Being (2005) and Through a Speculum That Shines (1994) have been awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship, and the latter volume also won the American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Historical Studies. His most recent publications include Alef, Mem, Tau (2006) and Venturing Beyond (2006); Footdreams and Treetales (2007), a book of poems; and Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (2009), which was published last month by Columbia University Press. His work explores the rich, complex symbolic systems elaborated in mystical and philosophical texts. How do you define Jewish mysticism and Jewish philosophy? What’s the relationship between them?
Both Jewish mysticism and Jewish philosophy are complex and multifaceted phenomena that cannot be easily defined. In general terms, however, we could demarcate mysticism as an intensified path (encompassing both ritual and knowledge) that facilitates the individual’s communion with or direct experience of what is considered in a particular cultural context to be ultimate reality, whereas philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge and truth about the world and the human through the mediated exercise of reason and logical argument (even irrationality is examined philosophically through the prism of the rational).
Moses of Burgos, a kabbalist active in the second half of the 13th century, famously said that the kabbalists stand on the head of the philosophers. This statement underscores the intricate relationship between the two worldviews, marking the point of their convergence and divergence. In my own scholarly practice, I have elicited mystical elements from philosophical works and philosophical insights from mystical sources.