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Scholem's View of Jewish Messianism

Scholem's View of Jewish Messianism

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Scholem's View of Jewish MessianismAuthor(s): Joseph DanSource:
Modern Judaism,
Vol. 12, No. 2 (May, 1992), pp. 117-128Published by: Oxford University PressStable URL:
Accessed: 12/06/2009 01:12
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JosephDan
SCHOLEM'SVIEW OFJEWISHMESSIANISM
IThestudiesofGershom Scholemrevolutionized theattitudeofJewishhistorians to themessianic elementinJudaism.Whatwaspreviouslyregardedasanembarrassing, marginal abnormalityofJewishculturebecame oneofthe mostpotentelementsshapingJewishhistory.Inimportance,so itseems,Scholem'sachievement in thisfield isequalonlytohischangingtheconceptionsregardingtheroleofmysticisminJewishculture.Inthefollowing pagesanattemptis made topresentthehighlightsof theresults ofScholem's studiesconcerningJewishmessianism. Such asurveyshould start with twonegative points,be-foreturningto thepositiveideasdescribingmessianism: Itis asim-portanttopointout whatJewishmessianism isnot,asshowingwhatitactuallyis. Scholemprovedthat:(l)there is noinherent,constantrelationshipbetweenJewishmessianism andJewishmysticism;and(2)thatthereis nonecessarylinkagebetweencatastrophesinJewishhistoryandmessianicmovements.These twoconclusionsformthefirststageofScholem'srevolutionary approachtothesubject.OneofthemostuniquecharacteristicsofGershomScholem'sscholarlyworkwas his strictadherance to aclearly-definedprogramofresearch. Almost all hisworkbetween1925andhis death in1982,nearlysixty years,isoutlinedinhisletter to H.N.Bialik,inwhichhepresentedhisplansfor thestudyofJewishmysticism'.Hisscholarly,scientificarticles arealldedicated tovariousfigures,books,eventsandsubjectsinthehistoryofJewishmysticism.Theoneclearexcep-tion,so itseems,is hisdetailedstudy:"TheMessianicIdea inJudaism"2,whichsurveysthehistoryofthis ideafrombiblicaltimestothe12thcentury,almost withoutdealingwithJewishmysticism,eventhoughitcoverstheperiodsof thedevelopmentofancientJewishmysticism,theHekhalot andMerkabahliterature,and theearlybe-ginningsofJewishmysticismandkabbalah inEurope.Thereasonforthis"omission" isexplainedinScholem'sotherimportantstudyofJewishmessianism-theessay"TheMessianic Idea inKabbalism"3.
ModernJudaism12(1992):117-128?1992byTheJohnsHopkins UniversityPress
 
The first halfof thisessayis dedicated toexplainingwhytheearlykabbalahdidnot deal withmessianism,andwhy Jewishmysticsformanycenturies were souninterestedinthe messianicidea. The secondhalfofthatessayis dedicated toexplainingthedramaticchangewhichoccuredintherelationshipbetweenmysticismand messianismin the15th-16thcenturies.Accordingto Scholem anintense connectionwas created betweenmessianism andthe variousschools ofJewishmysticsinthe late MiddleAgesandearlymoderntimes,a connection whichhadprofoundre-sultsforJewishhistoryandculture as a whole.But thisrelativelylatedevelopmentdoesnotreflectthegeneral,intrinsic characteristicsofeitherJewishmessianism orofJewish mysticism.Forcenturies-orevenmillenia-thesetwo basicreligiousattitudesexisted sidebyside,withoutonefeedingmeaningfullyon the other.Thetendencytoequatethemand see them asone unit is derivedfrom tworeasons,onevalidand the other erroneous.The validone is that theperiodbetween the15th and the 19thcenturies isreallycharacterisedbyintensemessianicexpectationsinJudaism,which are at leastpartlymotivatedby mystical-mainlykabbalistic-symbolism.Thewrongoneisthetendencytoregardmessianism assuperstition,and asmys-ticism wasregardedassuperstitionby many19thcentlury(andsome20thcentury) Jewishscholars,seeingthem aspartsof thesameem-barrassingphenomenonwasnatural.By regardingthem asseparatehistoricaland culturalforces,andanalyzingtheir historicaldevelop-ment,Scholemprovedthat eachofthemis anindependent spiritualelement withinJewish religion.Inhis detailed studies of ancientJewish mysticism,whichflour-ished betweenthe2ndcenturyC.E. tothe7th,Scholem did not findanymessianic element4.Themysticalschools of the"descenderstothe chariot" weredeeplyinterestedinthe structureof thedivineworld,andin their ownattemptsto lifttheirsoulsuptothe celestialpalacesand face themagnificentKing,describedasthe enormousfigureof the Shiur Komahsittingonthe throneofgloryinthe seventhpalace.Heretheywouldjoininthepraisesoftheministeringangelssingingaround this throne5. There wasnoplaceinthis frameworkfor communal or national historicaleffort to enhancetheredemption5,an effort which is the essence of messianicactivity.Thus,inthelongperiodofintenseJewishmessianicactivityinlateantiquity,themysticsseem tobeabsentfrom the historicalscene6,while mes-sianism did not usemysticalsymbolsorspeculations.Whennew schoolsofJewishmysticism begantodevelopin me-dievalEuropeinthe12thcentury, theydid not include the messianicelementasone of their centralthemes.Itdoesnotmean thatJewishmysticsdid notbelieveintheredemptionand thecomingof the
JosephDan
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