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Mysticism, History, and a "New" Kabbalah: Gershom Scholem and the Contemporary Scene

Shaul Magid

Jewish Quarterly Review, Volume 101, Number 4, Fall 2011, pp. 511-525 (Article) Published by University of Pennsylvania Press DOI: 10.1353/jqr.2011.0032

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T H E J E W I S H Q U A R T E R LY R E V I E W , Vol. 101, No. 4 (Fall 2011) 511–525

Mysticism, History, and a ‘‘New’’ Kabbalah: Gershom Scholem and the Contemporary Scene

Is a new Kabbalah possible? (I have asked this question an endless number of times). Gershom Scholem In memory of Shabtai Teicher, my teacher, my friend.

M A R TI N B U B ER O NC E NO T E D that what distinguished Gershom Scholem from almost all other great scholars of this time is that while many broke new ground in a given academic field, Scholem created a field. While the truth of this statement is almost irrefutable, it is also true that by creating a field he inadvertently, or perhaps consciously, excluded what he deemed outside its purview. Scholem had many intellectual interests. If one were forced to offer a thumbnail description of an unusually curious and fertile mind, one might say that his interests can be divided into two main areas: the history of Jewish mysticism and the contemporary construction of Jewish civilization.1 These interests were often intertwined. Scholem believed that a radical revision of Jewish history—one that set mysticism at the center and not on the margins of Jewish intellectual and cultural life—would change the ways in which Jews view themselves in relation to the past and suggest new ways of self-fashioning in the present. One of the curious lacunae in Scholem’s oeuvre is any serious study of Kabbalah contemporaneous with his own life. This was not unin1. Much has been written about the relationship between Scholem’s historical project and his cultural agenda. For one salient example, see David Biale, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History (Cambridge, Mass., 1979), 94–111.
The Jewish Quarterly Review (Fall 2011) Copyright ᭧ 2011 Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. All rights reserved.


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tentional but a carefully calculated decision that he explored at some length in various interviews, even devoting an entire essay to the subject.2 In a recent essay, ‘‘The Modernization of Kabbalah: A Case Study,’’ which serves as a kind programmatic epilogue to his new book-length study The Chosen Will Become Herds, Jonathan Garb argues that the study of modern Kabbalah has received little attention in part due to Scholem’s deeply held commitment to the ‘‘primacy of origins’’ and his desire to understand the origins of Sabbateanism partially in order to grasp the heretical and anarchic nature of his own society.3 Garb writes, ‘‘As a result, entire mystical worlds, such as the circle of [Moshe Hayyim] Luzzatto and Lithuanian Kabbalah—not to mention many schools of nineteenth-century Hasidism and twentieth-century Kabbalah, are absent in Scholem’s Sabbato-centric scheme, which was largely upheld by his students.’’4 While there are certainly exceptions to this, I agree with Garb’s view that the ‘‘modernist’’ agenda of a search for origins together with Scholem’s own assessment of his contemporary world shaped scholarly kabbalistic study until three decades ago.5 Pinchas Giller, in his recent book Shalom Shar’abi and the Kabbalists of Beit El, sees things a bit differently, suggesting that Scholem’s lack of interest in modern Kabbalah (correctly noting that ‘‘Shar’abi and his heirs have been hiding in plain sight’’) is the result of an ingrained disparity between ‘‘the ‘enlightened’ world and the world of practitioners.’’6 This could mean one of two things. One possibility Giller suggests is that ‘‘Buber and Scholem dropped out of enlightenment Germany with a quixotic interest in recovering and exhuming Hasidism and Kabbalah, respectively, and presenting them to the academy, as well as the Jewish community.’’7 Alternatively, Scholem so deeply considered himself a product of that ‘‘enlightened world’’—his own critique of that world notwithstanding—that he had contempt for what he viewed as primitive con2. Gershom Scholem, ‘‘Reflections on the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time (1963),’’ in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time and Other Essays, ed. A. Shapira (Philadelphia, 1997), 6–19. 3. Jonathan Garb, The Chosen Will Become Herds, trans. Y. Berkovits-Murciano (New Haven, Conn., 2009). 4. Jonathan Garb, ‘‘The Modernization of Kabbalah: A Case Study,’’ Modern Judaism 30 (2010): 2. 5. See Isaiah Tishby, Messianic Mysticism: Moses Hayim Luzatto and the Padua School (Portland, Ore., 2008); and Joseph Avivi, Kabalat ha-GRA (Jerusalem, 1993). 6. Pinchas Giller, Shalom Shar’abi and the Kabbalists of Beit El (New York, 2008). 7. Ibid., 119.



temporary practitioners of a wisdom that was no longer viable.8 In any case, Garb’s and Giller’s studies of ‘‘modern’’ and contemporary Kabbalah, not the first but surely the most comprehensive to date, do more than deviate from Scholem’s project: they also subvert the underlying premises of Scholem’s entire scholarly and cultural program.9 Scholem’s comments on contemporary mysticism, Jewish and otherwise, are not entirely monolithic. In an oft-cited passage at the conclusion of his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism he gestures toward the possibility of a renewal of lived Jewish mysticism, although he never reveals what form it might take. This comment is intentionally placed immediately after his retelling of a Hasidic story in the name of Israel of Ruzhin (1797– 1850).10 The Ruzhiner Rebbe teaches that now we can only, at best, tell the story of the mystical reality of the founder of Hasidism, Israel Baal Shem Tov and his circle, a reality we can no longer live.11 That is, the mystical reality of Hasidism is now the exclusive property of a mythic past. Now we can only be historians (‘‘we can only, at best, tell the story’’). Some two decades later, in a 1963 essay, ‘‘Reflections on the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time,’’ Scholem offered a more expansive version of his thoughts on contemporary Kabbalah. He begins this essay with a stark and seemingly unequivocal assertion, a kind of generalization of Israel of Ruzhin’s more poetic comment he cited at the end of Major Trends: ‘‘In the final analysis, one may say that there is no authentic original mysticism in our generation [italics added]. Those expressions of feeling or consciousness on the part of people possessing mystical knowledge, involving the giving of form and its transmission to future generations, have long since ceased.’’12 Elsewhere, Scholem suggested that a new mysticism will come from the realm of the ‘‘secular’’ that he believed had replaced the authority of tradition (not necessary religion) as the engine of all contemporary Jewish thinking in the West. His belief in secularism as both the engine that drives Jewish creativity and the force that undermines it is not limited to mysticism or Zionism. It is the foundation of his theory of the Modern Hebrew language. In his 1926 letter to Franz Rosenzweig on the Hebrew
8. Ibid., 19. 9. For a detailed discussion of Garb and Giller is relation to Scholem’s program, see my review essay of their work in JQR (forthcoming 2012). 10. On Israel of Rizhin, see David Assaf, The Regal Way: The Life and Times of R. Israel of Ruzhin (Stanford, Calif., 2002). 11. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, 1941), 349, 350. 12. Scholem, ‘‘On the Possibility,’’ 6.


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language he writes, ‘‘The moment when the power stored in the language unfolds again, when the spoken word, the reality of our language, gets form and reality again, that moment will place this holy tradition as a decisive token before our people. God will not remain silent in the language in which He has affirmed our life a thousand times and more.’’13 This assertion is no sentimental vision—it is filled with dread. ‘‘Fraught with danger is the Hebrew language!’’ [italics in the text], he writes. ‘‘The ghastly gibberish which we hear spoken in the streets is exactly the faceless lingo that ‘secularization’ of the language will bring about; of this there cannot be any doubt!’’14 But the power that lurks beneath the ‘‘gibberish’’ will not stay submerged forever. It will burst forth again, and in it God’s voice will reappear in the land. But this eruption (he begins this letter with ‘‘This country is a volcano! It harbors the language!’’), the renewal of the divine voice, will not, cannot, come from an unsecularized tradition. Here he turns 180 degrees from R. Yoel Teitelbaum’s (the Satmar Rebbe) theory of lashon ha-kodesh.15 We cannot preserve the sanctity of lashon ha-kodesh as a prerequisite for its renewal. The language must fall. And from that ‘‘ghastly place,’’ that tehiru (demonic realm), ‘‘His voice will be heard again.’’ But that voice will not be the same as before—how can it?—the secular can never be purged, it can only absorb, and be absorbed. The concept of the secular has recently become an important topic in the study of religion in large part due to the work of Talal Asad and others.16 To my mind Scholem’s use of the term is now very dated and
13. Scholem, ‘‘A Confession Regarding Our Language (Gershom Scholem to Franz Rosenzweig, December 26, 1926)’’ trans. Alexander Gelley. I use Gelley’s translation quoted in full in William Cutter, ‘‘Ghostly Hebrew, Ghastly Speech: Scholem to Rosenzweig, 1926,’’ Prooftexts 10.3 (1990): 418. 14. Ibid., 417. 15. See Yoel Teitelbaum, ‘‘Essay on Lashon ha-Kodesh,’’ in Va-Yoel Moshe (New York, 1985), 403–53. 16. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, Calif., 2003). Cf. the essays collected in Secularisms, ed. J. R. Jakobsen and A. Pellegrini (Durham, UK, 2008); Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago, 1994); and Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass., 2007). For some of the recent work on this topic, see Is Critique Secular? ed. Assad, Butler, Mahmood, Brown (Berkeley, Calif., 2009). For a recent essay closer to Scholem’s general perspective, albeit in a different cultural context, see Wilfred M. McClay, ‘‘Two Concepts of Secularism,’’ in Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America, ed. H. Heclo and W. M. McClay (Baltimore, Md., 2003), 31–62.



rooted in a religion/secular dichotomy that recent scholarship has persuasively challenged. In fact, for all his talk of the ‘‘secular’’ Scholem evidently didn’t really consider himself truly secular. ‘‘I don’t consider myself a secularist,’’ Scholem said in an interview with Muki Tsur in 1975, ‘‘My secularism fails at the core, owing to the fact that I am a religious person because I am sure of my belief in God. My secularism is not secular [italics added].’’ The tension here is, of course, precisely in that last elusive locution. Later in that same interview, he was more definitive on the topic of atheism. ‘‘I don’t understand atheists; I never did. I think atheism is understandable only if you accept the rule of unbridled passions, a life without values.’’17 Thus, Scholem’s secularism, or rejection thereof, is a theological claim (I am not a secularist because I believe in God) and a cultural one (when Torah from heaven disappears, religious authority and thus authenticity, crumbles, leaving secularity the only option). Can we perhaps say that Scholem was a secularist not theologically but culturally? That is, his commitment was to rebuild Jewish existence outside the framework of normative Judaism and outside the doctrinal confines of Jewish belief and the authority of halakhah (i.e., Torah from heaven), but he did so with a belief in God that is not limited to (or focused on) religious praxis? This comes quite close to Ahad ha-Am (Asher Zvi Hisrch Ginsberg, 1856–1927), the Zionist Scholem most deeply admired; although Ahad ha-Am was theologically an agnostic ex-ultra-Orthodox Jew and Scholem was a believer born to a highly assimilated Jewish family from Berlin.18 In some measure Scholem may be best described as a theological pluralist, believing not in the multitudinous fragments of one divine truth but in the multitudinous strands of meaning that do not merge into one transcendent truth.19 Scholem’s rejection of the viability of contemporary Kabbalah is founded on his position that the metaphysical foundations of traditional
17. ‘‘With Gershom Scholem: An Interview,’’ in Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays (New York, 1976), 35, 46. 18. On Scholem and Ahad ha-Am, see Arthur Hertzberg, ‘‘Gershom Scholem as a Zionist and Believer,’’ Modern Judaism 15.1 (1995): 15. The extent to which Scholem’s Germanic background and lack of traditional yeshiva education affected his own absorption of the tradition comes through in his assessment of the Hebrew language as well. See Cutter, ‘‘Ghostly Hebrew, Ghastly Speech,’’ 422–24. 19. Here again, Kafka’s influence looms large, as does the influence of Scholem’s closest friend, Walter Benjamin.


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belief, namely, Torah from heaven, is a necessary prerequisite for any new contribution to authentic Kabbalah.20 On this, Scholem wrote, ‘‘The moment this assumption [Torah from heaven] falls, the entire structure upon which mysticism was built, and by means of which it was to be accepted among the people as legitimate, likewise falls. And once this sense of faith in Torah from heaven ceased, it fell—and I dare say that for most of our people this sense of faith no longer exists.’’21 What does Scholem actually mean by ‘‘Torah from heaven’’? Is it a statement of doctrine? If so, it would be difficult to understand how its rejection would make Kabbalah impossible. Rather, there must be some substantive meaning in the idea of Torah from heaven that Scholem is referring to such that disbelief in it would disable Kabbalah to function as a living experiential system. In ‘‘The Meaning of Torah in Jewish Mysticism’’ Scholem argued that kabbalists believe in three principles in regard to Torah: (1) Torah is the principle of God’s name; (2) the principle of Torah as an organism; and (3) the principle of the infinite meaning of the divine word.22 While Scholem acknowledged that these three principles do not have the same origin, he claimed that they are all at play in the kabbalists’ understanding of Torah, and, if I am correct in claiming these principles as the substance of Scholem’s ‘‘Torah from heaven,’’ these are the ideas that make authentic Kabbalah possible. Since modernity’s essentially rational view of the world, even in its Romantic articulation, has largely subverted that possibility, we moderns are limited to history— what the late Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi aptly called ‘‘the religion of the fallen Jew.’’23
20. More generally on these matters, see Boaz Huss, ‘‘Ask No Questions: Gershom Scholem and the Contemporary Study of Jewish Mysticism,’’ Modern Judaism 25.2 (2005): 141; and his ‘‘Admiration and Disgust: The Ambivalent ReCanonization of the Zohar in the Modern Period,’’ in Study and Knowledge in Jewish Thought, ed. H. Kreisel (Beer Sheva, 2006), 203–37; Jonathan Garb, ‘‘The Understandable Revival of Mysticism Today: Innovation and Conservatism in the Thought of Joseph Ahituv, in Jewish Culture in the Eye of the Storm, ed. A. Sagi and Z. Zohar (Hebrew; Tel Aviv, 2002), 172–199; and Charles Mopsik, Cabale et Cabalistes (Paris, 1997). 21. Ibid., 15. 22. Scholem, ‘‘The Meaning of Torah in Jewish Mysticism,’’ in On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (New York, 1965), 37. The original German article upon which the English version is based appeared in Zur Kabbalah und ihrer Symbolik (Zurich, 1960). 23. See Y. H. Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle, Wash., 1982), 86. Cf. Moshe Idel, ‘‘Yosef H. Yerushali’s Zakhor—Some Observation,’’ JQR 97.4 (2007): 491–96. Cf. Scholem, ‘‘Reflections on Modern Jewish Studies,’’ in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time, 385–403. On this



This attitude is not unique to Scholem but a distinct dimension of modernism more generally inaugurated by Nietzsche’s ostensible nihilism and its early twentieth-century exponents.24 If we want to situate Scholem intellectually we should look at the modernists infatuated with the demonic elements of civilization and the relationship to primitivism and the human struggle for meaning in a world that appears, again and again, to be meaningless. This appears in many ways; in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Walter Benjamin’s tortured messianism, in Kafka’s stories of belated truth, Freud’s interpretation of dreams and his obsession with primitive African artifacts, in C. G. Jung’s use of myth as the house of the unconscious and the others who shared the stage with Scholem at the Eranos conferences in Ascona, Switzerland.25 For Scholem, the closest a Jew can come to authenticity in the modern the world is Zionism, understood as the act of reconstructing a nation through its textual tradition
point Boaz Huss’s comment that ‘‘the Scholem school of Kabbalah research expressed little interest in the dissemination of the Zohar and its incorporation into contemporary culture’’ makes perfect sense. Huss, ‘‘Admiration and Disgust,’’ 223. In this sense, Scholem is acting very much in concert with most kabbalists until the latter portion of the eighteenth century. Zeev Greis argues that until that time there was little interest among kabbalists to disseminate their teachers beyond their small circle. See Gries, The Book in the Jewish World, 1700– 1900 (Portland, Ore., 2007), 72. 24. This being said, Scholem writes to Robert Alter on May 15, 1973, that as a young man he had only disdain for the few works of Nietzsche he actually read. See Gershom Scholem: A Life in Letters, 1914–1982; ed. and trans. A. D. Skinner (Cambridge, Mass., 2002), 454. On the influence of Nietzsche on Jews, see Jacob Golomb, Nietzsche and Zion (Ithaca, N.Y., 2004). 25. On Eranos and Scholem’s participation, see Steven Wasserstrom, Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos (Princeton, N.J., 1999). On Kabbalah and primitivism in Scholem, see his comment in Major Trends, 175. Speaking about the Zohar, he writes, ‘‘Again and again one is struck by the simultaneous presence of crudely primitive modes of thought and feeling, and of ideas whose profound contemplative mysticism is transparent.’’ See Major Trends, 35. There Scholem claims that one reason Kabbalah overcame philosophy was because philosophy had lost touch with the primitive side of human existence. On this, see Eric Jacobson, ‘‘The Future of the Kabbalah: On the Dislocation of Past Primacy, the Problem of Evil, and the Future of Illusions,’’ in Kabbalah and Modernity, ed. B. Huss and K. Von Stuckrad (Leiden, 2010), 47–76. This simultaneous infatuation with and repulsion from the dark dimensions of modernism and its counterpart in Kabbalah also informs Scholem’s complex attitude toward mystical experience and anti-Semitism. See my ‘‘Gershom Scholem’s Ambivalence toward Mystical Experience and His Critique of Martin Buber in Light of Hans Jonas and Martin Heidegger,’’ Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 4.2 (1995): 245–69.


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and tragic history.26 At most what Kabbalah can do, outside the service of that Zionist end, is perform a way to perpetuate Judaism outside halakhah, that is, create an authentic foundation for the Jews’ secular (Zionist) future. As a result, Scholem and most of his students were adamant about the extent to which (authentic) Kabbalah and halakhah are inextricably intertwined. In part this was to undermine the very possibility of any viable authentic contemporary Kabbalah, leaving only the perfunctory performance of Kabbalah by the contemporary kabbalist or the (in)authentic ‘‘study’’ of Kabbalah by the academic scholar.27 The tragic finality of this position is augmented by Scholem’s quip at the end of Major Trends (p. 350) that some new form of Jewish mysticism could emerge at a future time beyond which Scholem was able to see. Those who write about Scholem as an ideologue and modern Jewish thinker in the twentieth century have touched on some of the issues raised above. One important addition to the work of those who focus specifically on Scholem’s complicated relationship to modern Kabbalah is the implicit distinction between heresy and anarchy in his writings. In ‘‘Reflections on the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time,’’ Scholem was quite emphatic about the reality, even necessity, of religious anarchy. ‘‘I cannot emphasize too strongly the extent to which this issue [belief in Torah from heaven] is the foundation of the entire tradition of Jewish mysticism,’’ he wrote, ‘‘without which it is impossible to formulate patterns bearing general significance.’’28 The modernist in Scholem then states,
26. Scholem, ‘‘On the Possibility,’’ 17. It is worth noting that Scholem’s Zionism is a complex idea that is not founded principally on a statist model. In his early years after immigrating to Mandate Palestine, Scholem was a member of Brit Shalom that was adamantly anti-statist and advocated for a bi-national Arab/ Jewish state. Scholem’s attitudes toward Zionism adhere loosely to Ahad haAm’s cultural Zionist model. One could say that his Zionism is encompassed in the notion of ‘‘the renewal of the nation from within its tumultuous and tragic history.’’ Or ‘‘to view history from within.’’ See Scholem, ‘‘Reflections on Modern Jewish Studies,’’ 67. Written in 1944, this appeared in Hebrew in Devarim be-go (Tel Aviv, 1975), 385–403. See Hertzberg, ‘‘Gershom Scholem as a Zionist and Believer.’’ 27. Boaz Huss makes an even stronger claim. Huss argues that scholars of Kabbalah who follow Scholem’s position on the impossibility of authentic Kabbalah today consider themselves the guardians of that authentic tradition by means of historical study. In this sense, the only possibility of ‘‘authentic’’ Kabbalah is its (in)authentic study by those who no longer believe in it. See Huss, ‘‘ ‘Authorized Guardians’: The Polemics of Academic Scholars of Jewish Mysticism against Kabbalah Practitioners’’ in Political Encounters: Esoteric Discourse and Its Others, ed. O. Hammer and K. von Stuckrad (Leiden, 2007), 81–103. 28. Scholem, ‘‘On the Possibility,’’ 16.



‘‘All of us today may to a great extent be considered anarchists regarding religious matters, and it should be stated openly’’ (italics added).29 Although he was likely speaking to a modern, even secular, crowd at Jerusalem’s progressive Har El Synagogue, Scholem not only knew of believing kabbalists, he even knew some of them.30 It is thus worth asking: how and/or where do they fit into Scholem’s paradigm? I want to suggest here a connection between religious anarchism, the rejection of Torah from heaven, and secularism in Scholem’s thought. David Biale wrote, ‘‘When Scholem calls himself a religious anarchist, he means that the historical tradition, which is the only source of knowledge we have of revelation, contains no one authoritative voice. All that can be learned from the study of history is the struggle for absolute values among conflicting voices of authority.’’31 Once that ‘‘one authoritative voice’’ (Torah from heaven) is silenced we are left with innumerable strains of tradition not connected to some transcendent source. Thus authentic Kabbalah (that is, a system that contains within it the tools and knowledge for its experiential lived existence) becomes impossible. It is precisely here where religious anarchy is born. In short, for Scholem, secularism coupled with a diffuse but definite belief in God was the foundation of his ‘‘religious anarchism.’’ This may shed light on the locution ‘‘all of us’’ in Scholem’s 1963 quote above. He evidently believed that some of the contemporary kabbalists he knew were deeply informed yet lacked the requisite key to reproduce the experiences of their forbearers. This seems to have been rooted in the fact that they too, albeit against their will, were living in the modern world. It is significant that the last great theaters of kabbalistic productivity for Scholem were the early Hasidic masters in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe and their Palestinian contemporaries, the Bet El kabbalists. Both flourished in the last vestiges of a world not yet fully exposed to modernity. Both lived in a world where their worldview by and large conformed to the larger society in which they lived (Jewish and nonJewish). It is not that contemporary kabbalists in Scholem’s time did not believe in ‘‘Torah from heaven’’ (torah min ha-shamayim)—they certainly did. But the world they lived in largely did not and this prevented them
29. Ibid. 30. The Har El Synagogue in Jerusalem was founded by Professor Shalom Ben Chorin and a small group of like-minded progressive Jews in 1958. It was originally called the Association for the Renewal of Religious Life in Israel and served as the first center for Progressive/Reform Judaism in Israel. 31. Biale, Gershom Scholem, 131. Cf. Eric Jacobson, Metaphysics of the Profane (New York, 2003), 10, and Biale, ‘‘The Future of the Kabbalah,’’ 51, 52.


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from reproducing the cultural frame necessary to perpetuate the requisite authenticity of a viable kabbalistic vision.32 I will raise three points, two cultural and one methodological, that I believe clarify my claim that Scholem’s assessment of the contemporary world is outdated. The first point is that Scholem erroneously believed, like David Ben Gurion and many other Zionist ideologues of his time, that ultra-Orthodox Judaism was going to disappear or, at best, remain a nominal and inconsequential part of the new Israeli society. This is important because the cultural milieu of early twenty-first century Israeli society is one far more infused with a haredi ethos (in both its Ashkenazi and Mizrahi variation) than Scholem could have imagined. The decline of Israeli secularism and the rise of a local civil religion deeply influenced by ultra-Orthodoxy with its emphasis on mysticism and kabbalism, even within secular Israeli circles, arguably changed the rules of scholarly inquiry.33 The second related cultural point has to do with the status of the Mizrahi (more Middle Eastern than Sephardi) community in Israel who suffered terribly by the calculated attempts to extinguish or diminish their religious culture and social norms upon their arrival in Israel shortly before or immediately after the state was established. In a 1996 essay, Gil Anidjar argued that a similar anti-Mizrahi trend existed in the scholarship of Jewish mysticism. Focusing on the historical reconstruction of Kabbalah within a Zionist frame, Anidjar alleged that Israeli scholarship was guilty of a form of ‘‘Jewish Orientalism’’ in its emphasis on European kabbalism (in his case the study of the Zohar in its Christian context), marginalizing the Mizrahi tradition.34 Recently, the resurgence of Miz32. In his study of the Eranos conferences in which Scholem participated, Steve Wasserstrom notes that, as opposed to Henry Corbin and Mircea Eliade, Scholem did not believe one could learn anything from contemporary mystics. See Wasserstrom, Religion after Religion, 32. Cf. Huss, ‘‘Ask No Questions,’’ 142. 33. The use of mystical religion as the basis for the creation of civil religion and culture is not new here. Regarding Sufism, Alexander Papas argues for a new historiography of Sufism that conceives of it as a whole culture, ‘‘no longer . . . confined to esoteric speculations and the secret brotherhoods that teach them . . . It includes the involvement of mysticism in worldly concerns,’’ including ‘‘fine arts, material culture and social facts.’’ See Papas, ‘‘Toward a New History of Sufism: The Turkish Case,’’ in History of Religions 46.1 (2006): 82. It would worthwhile to apply this approach to the influence of haredism in contemporary Israeli society. 34. See Gil Anidjar, ‘‘Jewish Mysticism Alterable and Unalterable: On Orienting Kabbala Studies and the ‘Zohar of Christian Spain,’ ’’ Jewish Social Studies n.s. 3 (1996): 89–157. On his definition of Jewish Orientalism, see 96–98 and 112, 113. Cf. Amnon Raz Krakotzkin, ‘‘Orientalism, Jewish Studies and Israeli



rahi culture (called in Hebrew mizrahiyut) has had a profound impact on many segments of Israeli society. The political muscle of the Shas party, the emergence of Mizrahi yeshivot, the renewed interest in the Zohar and Safadean Kabbalah and in Mizrahi piyutim (liturgical poetry) have brought Mizrahi influence in Israel to new heights. One of the more interesting dimensions of contemporary Kabbalah in Israel is the breakdown of intellectual barriers separating Ashkenazi Kabbalah (based primarily on Hasidic and Lithuanian mystical traditions) and Mizrahi Kabbalah (based on Maghreb, Levantine, and Yemenite mystical traditions). While it has always been the case that kabbalists of one persuasion read works by the other, never before have we seen such an amalgam, even on the more popular level, of Ashkenazic and Mizrahi traditions. While there were Ashkenazi members of the Bet El community and Mizrahi Hasidim, this was largely the exception and not the rule (it is not without irony that the only Bet El kabbalist that Scholem mentions having known personally was the Ashkenazi Gershon Vilner). Today, however, the cultural boundaries that separated these kabbalistic schools are becoming more transparent if not disappearing altogether. One can walk into a Sephardic yeshiva in Jerusalem and see a student deeply engaged in Nahman of Bratslav’s Likute MoHaRan or Shneur Zalman of Liady’s Sefer ha-tanya (both Hasidic texts) or walk into a Hasidic yeshiva where Kabbalah is studied and see a student studying Shalom Shar’abi’s kavanot on prayer. While the fruits of this synthesis are just beginning to be felt, for example, in the anonymous Yam ha-h . okhmah, written by an Ashkenazi Hasid raised in England who writes commentaries on Shar’abi’s Kabbalah, as well as Bratslav and Habad Hasidism, the marginalization of mizrahiyut in Israeli culture and scholarship is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Scholem’s world was one where Mizrahi religious culture was still on the wane and Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy was still very much separate from Israel’s civil religion, which, by the end of Scholem’s life, was becoming increasingly nationalistic. The last point has to do with method. Scholem’s scholarly world was devoted to three basic approaches to scholarship: the philological, the
Society’’ (Hebrew), Jema’a 3 (1999): 49–52; Paul Mendes-Flohr, ‘‘Orientalism and Mysticism—The Aesthetics of the Turn of the Nineteenth Century and Jewish Identity,’’ Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 3 (1984): 631–33, cited in Huss, ‘‘Ask No Questions,’’ 153, n. 25 and other sources cited in Huss, ‘‘Admiration and Disgust,’’ 227, n. 61. This accusation caused quite a stir in the Israeli academy resulting in a sharp response by Moshe Idel. See Idel, ‘‘Orienting, Orientalizing or Disorienting the Study of Kabbalah: An Almost Absolutely Unique Case of Occidentalism,’’ Kabbalah 2 (1997): 13–48.


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historical, and the philosophical (or metaphysical). From his diaries and letters we know that Scholem expressed an early interest in writing a ‘‘metaphysics’’ and linguistics of Kabbalah but soon realized that he needed to do the requisite philological and historical work in order to accomplish this.35 He bequeathed this method to his students who largely continued his work and supported his negative attitude toward contemporary Kabbalah.36 In America, scholars such as David Biale began to critically explore Scholem’s metanarrative and method.37 He was joined in this approach by Israeli scholars such as Moshe Idel, Eliezer Schweid, Boaz Huss, Daniel Abrams, and others.38 But what seems to have really changed in the past two decades is the extent to which scholars in the field began expanding their own methodological framework in concert with the changing nature of the academy in the Diaspora. Here it is worth
35. See Scholem, ‘‘A Candid Letter about My True Intentions in Studying Kabbalah (1937),’’ in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in our Time, 3; ‘‘With Gershom Scholem: An Interview,’’ in On Jewish and Judaism in Crisis, 19. 36. See, for example, the position of Joseph Dan cited in Huss, ‘‘No Questions,’’ 148 and nn. 42, 156 and his citation of Sarit Fuchs, ‘‘Where Are the Roots of the Tree of Souls,’’ in ‘‘Authorized Guardians,’’ 95. On Dan’s view, see Joseph Dan, The Heart and the Fountain (New York, 2002), 48, and similar sentiments by Moshe Idel in ‘‘Kabbalah on the Couch’’ (Hebrew), Be-Mahane, April 27, 1989. This is not to say that this new generation of scholars has an unequivocally positive assessment of contemporary Kabbalah. For example, see Jonathan Garb, ‘‘The Power and the Glory: A Critique of ‘New Age’ Kabbalah,’’ in Zeek magazine, April 2006. This essay originally appeared in Hebrew in Erets Ah . eret 26 (2005): 30–34. Cf. Boaz Huss, ‘‘All You Need Is LAV: Madonna and postModern Kabbalah,’’ JQR 95.4 (2005): 611–24, and Huss, ‘‘The New Age of Kabbalah: Contemporary Kabbalah, the New Age, and Post-Modern Spirituality,’’ Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 6 (2007): 107–25. 37. David Biale, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History (Cambridge, Mass., 1979). 38. See Boaz Huss, ‘‘Ask No Questions’’; ‘‘Authorized Guardians’’; and ‘‘Admiration and Disgust’’; Amos Funkenstein, ‘‘Annals of Israel among the Thorns’’ (Hebrew), Zion 60 (1995): 335–47; Moshe Idel, ‘‘ ‘One from a Town, Two from a Clan’—The Diffusion of Lurianic Kabbalah and Sabbateanism: A Re-Examination,’’ Jewish History 7.2 (1991): 79–104; Idel, ‘‘On Kabbalism vs. Rabbinism: On Gershom Scholem’s Phenomenology of Judaism,’’ Modern Judaism 11.3 (1991): 281–96; Daniel Abrams, ‘‘Presenting and Re-Presenting Gershom Scholem: A Review Essay,’’ Modern Judaism 20 (2000): 226–43; Eliezer Schweid, Judaism and Mysticism according to Gershom Scholem, trans. D. A. Weiner (Atlanta, 1985); Elliot Wolfson, Through a Speculum That Shines (Princeton, N.J., 1996), 52–58; Magid, ‘‘Gershom Scholem’s Ambivalence toward Mystical Experience ,’’ 245–69; and Magid, ‘‘Gershom Scholem’’ in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This list accounts for a small fraction of the critical work being done on Scholem.



noting the work of Elliot Wolfson, whose writings have opened new avenues of philosophical and literary theory into the study of Kabbalah and have attracted a new audience of readers in the humanities more generally, and philosophy and literary theory in particular.39 Younger scholars in Israel and the Diaspora are now reading widely in contemporary approaches to the study of religion—integrating cultural studies, literary criticism, ethnography, anthropology, poststructuralism, critical theory, deconstruction, and other forms of postmodernism, applying kabbalistic texts to a kind of critique largely unknown to Scholem and his contemporaries. As the Israeli academy becomes more globalized (this in part is due to the growth of Jewish studies in America and Europe) the study of Jewish mysticism has become less a historiographic, or as Scholem preferred, historiosophic, project and more a part of the general humanities, incorporating its new cultural critical orientation. That is, wherever individual scholars place themselves in the Zionist/post-Zionist spectrum, the study of Kabbalah as the handmaiden of Zionism is over.40 This has enabled a new generation of scholars in the field to approach contemporary Kabbalah and kabbalists from a much broader, even global perspective. In addition, postmodernity’s inclination to take popular culture as a serious object of scholarly inquiry—acknowledging and even celebrating its shallowness and the misrepresentation of the sources it reads— provides this generation with a new set of critical tools to examine contemporary Kabbalah, in all its forms, as never before. The question as to whether a particular thinker or text breaks new ground in the history of the subject matters less than the way it refracts, and even sometimes distorts, the tradition it reads and the cultural capital that is generated by that misreading. Even when this new generation devote themselves to well-regarded mystics, the intellectual frame often includes an approach that enables them to consider the popular manifestations of the phenomenon they study, often in the form of learned critique, with the seriousness one would give any legitimate object of research. This may be due to the fact that history and historiography are no longer their exclusive frames of reference. The production of cultural capital and not exclusively the texture of historical value has increasingly become the focus of scholarly inquiry.
39. See Jeffrey Kripal, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago, 2001), 258–98; and Pinchas Giller, ‘‘Elliot Wolfson and the Study of Kabbalah in the Wake of Scholem,’’ Religious Studies Review 25.1 (1999): 23–28. 40. On the Zionist context of Scholem, see Hertzberg, ‘‘Gershom Scholem as a Zionist and Believer,’’ and Biale, Gershom Scholem, 94–111.


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Finally, I suggest this expansion of method is due, in part, to a postZionist scholarly perspective, perhaps better articulated as a globalist perspective. Post-Zionism here makes no claims or judgments about one’s commitment to Zionism per se. Rather it is an expression of scholarly allegiance. As is known, Scholem explicitly acknowledged Zionism as a primary reason for studying Kabbalah in the 1920s and he continued to see his study of Kabbalah in the service of his Zionist vision.41 Arthur Hertzberg even goes further: ‘‘Zionism and not his scholarly studies on Kabbalah, or even the redefinition of the whole of Jewish history in the light of those studies, is the center of Scholem’s intellectual and moral endeavor.’’42 For Scholem, Zionism was a secular phenomenon; in fact it was the quintessential expression of Jewish secularity, the only one he believed would survive into the twentieth century. Hence, the ultra-Orthodox world in Scholem’s time, perhaps even religious Zionism, was simply not part of what he considered the dominant Jewish project for the future. For him, ultra-Orthodoxy was the relic of a past world that would continue to exist but had outlived its relevance.43 We know now that Scholem, Ben Gurion, and others in their generation were mistaken about the ultra-Orthodox in Israel. For example, a recent study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel showed that in one decade (from 1999 to 2009) the number of ultra-Orthodox children in Israel grew by 49 percent. At present, about half of all primary school students in Israel
41. See Gershom Scholem, ‘‘With Gershom Scholem: An Interview,’’ 18. ‘‘I wanted to enter the world of Kabbalah out of my belief in Zionism as a living thing—as the restoration of a people that had degenerated quite a bit.’’ See Boaz Huss, ‘‘Authorized Guardians,’’ 87. Scholem regarded Jewish mysticism as the vital force of Judaism which made it possible for the Jewish tradition to persist in exile and, in a dialectical manner, ultimately led to Jewish Enlightenment and Zionism. See also Biale, Gershom Scholem, 163, 164. 42. Hertzberg, ‘‘Gershom Scholem as Zionist and Believer,’’ 4. I find this locution confusing because it implicitly severs ‘‘his scholarly studies on Kabbalah, or even the redefinition of the whole of Jewish history’’ from his Zionism. I would suggest that this precisely is his Zionism. This conforms more to Barukh Kurzweil’s assessment of Scholem. See Kurzweil, ‘‘On the Limits and Authority of History’’ (Hebrew), in Be-ma’avak ‘al arkhe ha-yahadut (Jerusalem, 1970), 170. Given this, it is curious that he also wrote about the study of Judaism at the Hebrew University, ‘‘Within the framework of the rebuilding of Palestine it led to the foundation of centers like the Hebrew University in Jerusalem where Judaic studies, although central, are pursued without any ideological coloring’’ (italics added). Scholem, ‘‘The Science of Judaism—Then and Now,’’ in The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York, 1971), 310. 43. See Garb, The Chosen, 11.



study in either the Israeli Arab or the ultra-Orthodox systems. Today, over 25 percent of Jewish Israeli kindergarteners are ultra-Orthodox.44 As important, the influence of the ultra-Orthodox world in Israeli politics and in secular cultural sectors, largely through popular culture, neoHasidic and Mizrahi music and art, the influence of Far Eastern religion due to post-army travel, American influence, and ba‘ale teshuva (both Diaspora immigrants and native-born Israelis), has made contemporary Kabbalah not only a legitimate object of study but arguably a necessary one as well. Whether this new interest in Kabbalah will produce any breakthrough to compare with Hasidism or the Bet El School is not yet known. But that is only a relevant concern if scholarly interest is viewed as purely historical. If, however, following Foucault, de Certeau, Jameson, and others, history serves other questions such as the production of cultural capital, influence, and self-fashioning, the importance of seriously studying this phenomenon with all available scholarly tools is crucial. I suggest that this is one point of departure for a new generation of scholarship on Kabbalah, and it is here where Scholem’s shadow can no longer shade, limit, or confine, the contemporary scholar. While Scholem asked whether ‘‘a new Kabbalah was possible’’ he seemed to know the answer before asking the question. Given the parameters of his intellectual project, his assessment of contemporary Israeli society, his ardent belief that only Zionism would survive as a viable ideology for Jews in the twenty-first century, his faith in the lasting force of secularism, and his position that any legitimate Kabbalah must conform to certain theological presuppositions (i.e., Torah from heaven), all point to his disbelief in the possibility of any contemporary Kabbalah worthy of the scholar’s keyboard. Scholem died more than thirty years ago. Much has changed. While his scholarly legacy will survive those changes, his assessment of his world, now quite different than he imagined, may require us the rethink some of the underlying assumptions of his work, specifically the relationship between history and the contemporary scene.

44. For some other useful data on the rise on the haredi sector of Israel society and its impact on Israel more generally, see Gershom Gorenberg, ‘‘Learning Curve,’’ Hadassah magazine, December 2009/January 2010, 12–14.