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J.H. Laenen, “The Twilight Between Scholarship and Mysticism” in: S.

J.H. Laenen, “The Twilight Between Scholarship and Mysticism” in: S.

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J.H. Laenen, “The twilight between scholarship and mysticism” in: S. Berger e.a.(eds.),
Zutot: Perspectives on Jewish Culture
(Dordrecht 2002) 189-199
----THE TWILIGHT BETWEEN SCHOLARSHIP AND MYSTICISM
J.H. Laenen
Überzeugung
 Als wie der Tag die Menschen hell umscheinet,Und mit dem Lichte, das den Höh’n entspringet,Die dämmernden Erscheinungen vereinet,Ist Wissen, welches tief der Geistigkeit gelinget.Friedrich Hölderlin
IThe scholarly study of a fundamentally elusive phenomenon like mysticismcontains a certain paradox. At first sight, one can hardly imagine a strongercontrast than the one existing between the mystic’s world view, in whicheverything seems to revolve around the perception of a supernal realm, andthe detached, rational judgment of the scholar, who has no option but to bracket off anything divine as long as he wishes to keep within the limits set by his profession.The mystic approaches reality from a highly personal religious convic-tion; the intensity of his experience is proof of its veracity. Whatever he saysor writes is aimed to express and communicate this subjective experience,even though he is keenly aware that the very essence of his message is inef-fable and incommunicable. He is part of his religious tradition. The modernscholar, on the contrary, endeavours to describe Jewish mysticism as a his-torical process; merely recording facts without giving a value judgment. Histask is to keep aloof from the religious tradition he studies. His aim is not toprove that the mystics’ assertions are true or untrue, but rather to representtheir concepts in an objective way. The paradox consists in the fact that inhis research the scholar is constantly faced with what eludes proof; he stu-dies phenomena that defy study.The scholar investigating mystical ideas searches for a historical devel-opment, a change over time. The appearance of a new terminology or theemergence of original concepts are of prime importance to him.
<190>
The
 
2true mystic will never pay attention to such matters; for him the religioustradition is a timeless continuum, in which at most various aspects of oneand the same essential truth are revealed.IIEven now, scholarly research of Jewish mysticism in many respects is anelaboration of the work of Gershom Scholem (1897–1982), who was thefirst to study the history of this phenomenon on the basis of an objectiveand methodical approach. In view of the fact that he devoted practically hisentire life to the study of Jewish mysticism, it is of interest to assess how Scholem viewed the paradox mentioned above.During most of his life Scholem was exceedingly reluctant to reveal hispersonal views of Jewish mysticism. Fortunately, we now have at our dis-posal some letters and texts from which we may deduce Scholem’s personalattitude toward the object of his research.
1
From these documents itemerges that Scholem himself regarded the philological description of Jew-ish mysticism in its historical development as the mere ‘outside’; the truemystical experiences of Jewish mystics were concerned with the ‘inside’, the‘core of the matter’. The modern historian of religion does not share thisexperience with the mystic, but for the purpose of his research has to con-tent himself with examining a text, an indirect rendering of such an expe-rience.To illustrate this fundamental difference, Scholem used the metaphor of the sphere and the circle. The three-dimensional sphere represents the vitalcore from which Jewish mystics draw their inspiration. The shadow that thesphere casts on a wall has the form of a two-dimensional circle. It is this cir-cle, the indirect reflection of the sphere, which is studied by historians of religion; the scholar is no longer able to enter into the centre of the sphere.Scholem used to express this inevitable limitation concisely in the words:‘die Philologie der Kabbala ist nur eine Projektion auf eine
<191>
Fläche’.
2
  Whoever investigates historical developments cannot but perceive and de-scribe things
one after another
, whereas for the mystic who finds himself inthe centre of the sphere, all things happen
simultaneously 
. History brings––––––––––––––––––––––––
1
The documents concerned are a letter from Scholem to Bialik from 1925 (pub-lished in 1967), to Salman Schocken from 1937 (published in 1979), as well as hisessay ‘Zehn unhistorische Sätze über Kabbala’ from 1958. See Peter Schäfer, ‘“DiePhilologie der Kabbala ist nur eine Projektion auf eine Fläche”: Gershom Scholemüber die wahren Absichten seines Kabbalastudiums’,
Jewish Studies Quarterly 
5(1998) 1–25; Nils Roemer, ‘Breaching the “Walls of Captivity”: Gershom Scholem’sstudies of Jewish Mysticism’,
Germanic Review 
72 (1997) 23–41.
2
Schäfer, ‘Philologie der Kabbala’, 5.
 
3us under the delusion of a historical sequence, while mysticism concerns aneternal truth.Notwithstanding his impeccable scholarly rigour, Scholem apparently assumed that behind the objective facts, historical names and dull datesthere lay hidden a world of elusive, subjective experiences and timeless per-ceptions. Just like the medieval kabbalists, Scholem was personally con- vinced of the existence of such a spiritual world, which underlies our ownreality and must be made to connect with our human experiences. Scholemeven called this metaphysical truth of the kabbalists a ‘higher order’, a ‘hid-den realm of connections’, which ‘leads straight into God’s bosom’. Thismystical reality can only be transmitted by means of ‘the tradition and lan-guage, the carriers and keepers of the secrets’. According to Scholem, theJewish tradition and the Hebrew language clearly have their origins in thishidden realm.
3
 From the material left behind by Scholem it emerges that he was wellaware of the tension between the scholarly study of Jewish mysticism and apersonal identification with the subject. In Scholem’s view, these two ap-proaches are even in conflict with each other; critical historical researchdiminishes the awareness that another, imperceptible reality is linked toour own world. Too great a detachment from the object of one’s study may lead to the spiritual ‘Tod in der Professur’, whereas a scholar who complete-ly identifies with his subject matter loses a certain scholarly standard whichis indispensable for objective research.This then raises the question of whether this other world beyond ourperceptible reality is still accessible to modern man, or whether anythingfrom this world can still be transmitted today. In fact Scholem’s personalanswer to this question is rather ambivalent. As a youth he harboured astrong desire to experience this mystical reality, a desire which he retainedall of his life. Later on he would repeatedly speak of the wish to ‘break through the veils of history’. In the course of his life, however, Scholem be-came increasingly cautious as to the possibility of discerning an essentialtruth behind the results of historical research. In any case he felt
<192>
 that the only way to achieve this goal, if possible at all, was through scholar-ly investigation. The scholar must necessarily content himself with whatev-er the mystical literature has yielded, in the awareness that the essentialcore, the mystical experience is incommunicable. It is indisputable thatscholarly research provides us with a mere caricature of ‘true mysticism’, but it is all we have. It is the only way, according to Scholem in his later years, to somehow approach the world of the Jewish mystics.––––––––––––––––––––––––
3
 
Ibid.
,
passim
.

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