This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
), 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
I The scholarly study of a fundamentally elusive phenomenon like mysticism contains a certain paradox. At first sight, one can hardly imagine a stronger contrast than the one existing between the mystic’s world view, in which everything seems to revolve around the perception of a supernal realm, and the 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 conviction; the intensity of his experience is proof of its veracity. Whatever he says or writes is aimed to express and communicate this subjective experience, even though he is keenly aware that the very essence of his message is ineffable and incommunicable. He is part of his religious tradition. The modern scholar, on the contrary, endeavours to describe Jewish mysticism as a historical process; merely recording facts without giving a value judgment. His task is to keep aloof from the religious tradition he studies. His aim is not to prove that the mystics’ assertions are true or untrue, but rather to represent their concepts in an objective way. The paradox consists in the fact that in his research the scholar is constantly faced with what eludes proof; he studies phenomena that defy study. The scholar investigating mystical ideas searches for a historical development, a change over time. The appearance of a new terminology or the emergence of original concepts are of prime importance to him. <190> The
true mystic will never pay attention to such matters; for him the religious tradition is a timeless continuum, in which at most various aspects of one and the same essential truth are revealed. II Even now, scholarly research of Jewish mysticism in many respects is an elaboration of the work of Gershom Scholem (1897–1982), who was the first to study the history of this phenomenon on the basis of an objective and methodical approach. In view of the fact that he devoted practically his entire 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 his personal views of Jewish mysticism. Fortunately, we now have at our disposal some letters and texts from which we may deduce Scholem’s personal attitude toward the object of his research.1 From these documents it emerges that Scholem himself regarded the philological description of Jewish mysticism in its historical development as the mere ‘outside’; the true mystical experiences of Jewish mystics were concerned with the ‘inside’, the ‘core of the matter’. The modern historian of religion does not share this experience with the mystic, but for the purpose of his research has to content himself with examining a text, an indirect rendering of such an experience. To illustrate this fundamental difference, Scholem used the metaphor of the sphere and the circle. The three-dimensional sphere represents the vital core from which Jewish mystics draw their inspiration. The shadow that the sphere casts on a wall has the form of a two-dimensional circle. It is this circle, 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 describe things one after another, whereas for the mystic who finds himself in the centre of the sphere, all things happen simultaneously. History brings ––––––––––––––––––––––––
The documents concerned are a letter from Scholem to Bialik from 1925 (published in 1967), to Salman Schocken from 1937 (published in 1979), as well as his essay ‘Zehn unhistorische Sätze über Kabbala’ from 1958. See Peter Schäfer, ‘“Die Philologie der Kabbala ist nur eine Projektion auf eine Fläche”: Gershom Scholem über die wahren Absichten seines Kabbalastudiums’, Jewish Studies Quarterly 5 (1998) 1–25; Nils Roemer, ‘Breaching the “Walls of Captivity”: Gershom Scholem’s studies of Jewish Mysticism’, Germanic Review 72 (1997) 23–41. 2 Schäfer, ‘Philologie der Kabbala’, 5.
us under the delusion of a historical sequence, while mysticism concerns an eternal truth. Notwithstanding his impeccable scholarly rigour, Scholem apparently assumed that behind the objective facts, historical names and dull dates there lay hidden a world of elusive, subjective experiences and timeless perceptions. Just like the medieval kabbalists, Scholem was personally convinced of the existence of such a spiritual world, which underlies our own reality and must be made to connect with our human experiences. Scholem even called this metaphysical truth of the kabbalists a ‘higher order’, a ‘hidden realm of connections’, which ‘leads straight into God’s bosom’. This mystical reality can only be transmitted by means of ‘the tradition and language, the carriers and keepers of the secrets’. According to Scholem, the Jewish tradition and the Hebrew language clearly have their origins in this hidden realm.3 From the material left behind by Scholem it emerges that he was well aware of the tension between the scholarly study of Jewish mysticism and a personal identification with the subject. In Scholem’s view, these two approaches are even in conflict with each other; critical historical research diminishes the awareness that another, imperceptible reality is linked to our 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 completely identifies with his subject matter loses a certain scholarly standard which is indispensable for objective research. This then raises the question of whether this other world beyond our perceptible reality is still accessible to modern man, or whether anything from this world can still be transmitted today. In fact Scholem’s personal answer to this question is rather ambivalent. As a youth he harboured a strong desire to experience this mystical reality, a desire which he retained all 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 became increasingly cautious as to the possibility of discerning an essential truth 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 scholarly investigation. The scholar must necessarily content himself with whatever the mystical literature has yielded, in the awareness that the essential core, the mystical experience is incommunicable. It is indisputable that scholarly 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. ––––––––––––––––––––––––
The letters and texts that Scholem left behind, clearly show his personal ambivalence; he faced the choice between mapping out the historical development of Jewish mysticism as an important step towards a rediscovery of the multi-dimensional reality, or choosing the way of personal mystical experience. Judging by the increasing caution towards the feasibility of the latter, one might easily conclude that in the end the professor gained the upper hand over the mystic. Opinions diverge as to the moment of this choice. According to Joseph Dan, Scholem already made this choice after the first twenty years of his academic career. The German scholar Peter Schäfer holds that this choice did not take place until well into the fifties. Joseph Weiss (1918–1968), however, one of Scholem’s favourite pupils, claimed that his teacher had always been a mystic and had indeed borne witness to that fact in his scholarly work in a camouflaged way, between the lines, by choosing a particular adjective or using specific phraseology.4 III The question whether modern man is still able to empathize with the medieval Jewish mystic’s experience and knowledge, brings us to the problem of what the object of the scholarly study of Jewish mysticism actually is. To put it concisely: how exactly do we define mysticism? We investigate a phenomenon that seems to have something intangible and indefinable about it, which may lead to diverging opinions as to whether a specific texts can be considered ‘mystical’ in nature or not. Below we shall briefly discuss different approaches by Gershom Scholem, Moshe Idel and Joseph Dan. <193> Scholem devoted a passage to the problem of the definition of (Jewish) mysticism in his classic study Major Trends, which was published in 1941.5 After having stated that it is not useful to search for an all-embracing, abstract definition of the phenomenon of mysticism, which may subsequently be applied to various currents in order to determine whether they meet the criteria, Scholem points out that mysticism as a historical phenomenon entails more that a profound experience: ‘mysticism is a definite stage in the historical development of religion and makes its appearance under certain well-defined conditions’.6 Scholem postulates that mysticism emerges from a development in three phases. In the first, mythical phase there is no abyss between man and God; man possesses a direct consciousness of the imma––––––––––––––––––––––––
Ibid., 21–23. In his letter to Schocken from 1937 Scholem called himself a kabbalist in the ‘Schafpelz des Philologen’ (Ibid., 13). 5 G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York 1941, 7–10. For a more comprehensive discussion of these issues, see J.H. Laenen, Jewish Mysticism. An Introduction, Louisville 2001, 14–17. 6 Ibid., 7.
nence of the divine. In the second phase, during which religion comes into being, man becomes aware of an abyss gaping between himself and the divine realm. The third phase, finally, witnesses the emergence of man’s creative attempt to overcome the rift and find the way back to God. That is what mysticism is about.7 An entirely different approach to Jewish mysticism was proposed by Moshe Idel in an original study.8 Idel emphasizes that a considerable part of the true doctrine of Kabbala has remained unknown to us, since it was never meant to be written down and only to be transmitted orally. Therefore, the picture that modern scholars have of Kabbalah is necessarily quite incomplete, although too many of them are not sufficiently aware of this fact.9 Idel points out that the object of the modern scholar’s investigation is not the spiritual <194> experience of a specific mystic itself, but merely the indirect and hence imperfect representation of it as it was committed to writing. As a consequence of the emphasis on philological-historical methods characteristic of Scholem’s school – Idel speaks of the ‘textological’ approach – the phenomenological and comparative aspect have not received sufficient attention. Owing to the concern for kabbalistic texts and authors, however understandable and necessary in the early stages of scholarly research, too little heed was given to ideas and systems or the general theoretical aspects of mysticism. As a consequence, Idel notes a ‘striking lack of novel theories of the nature of Jewish mysticism that differ from those of Scholem’.10 The poor attention paid to the comparative and phenomenological approach in the study of Jewish mysticism has led to the deplorable situation that scholars in the field of mysticism within other religions have not been able to incorporate the results of studies on Jewish mysticism into their ––––––––––––––––––––––––
Ibid., 3–8. Scholem's views on the emergence of mysticism were sharply attacked by E. Schweid in his Judaism and Mysticism according to Gershom Scholem. A Critical Analysis and Programmatic Discussion, Atlanta, GA 1985, to which Joseph Dan published an elaborate retort: ‘Gershom Scholem: Between History and Historiosophy’ (1983), in J. Dan, Jewish Mysticism IV, General Characteristics and Comparative Studies, Northvale, NJ/Jerusalem 1999, 131–190. Dan, for that matter, points out the peculiar fact that Scholem in his later work hardly ever referred to this historical analysis of mysticism from Major Trends; apparently it was not a central subject in the totality of his works (‘In Quest of a Historical Definition of Mysticism. The Contingental Approach’ (1993), in: J. Dan, Jewish Mysticism III, The Modern Period, Northvale, NJ/Jerusalem 1999, 1–46, esp. 8, n. 8). 8 Moshe Idel, Kabbalah. New Perspectives, New Haven/London 1988. 9 Ibid., 20–22. 10 Ibid., 23.
own work in a meaningful way.11 In addition, Idel deems it useful if modern scholars would establish direct contacts with contemporary mystics; both could benefit from a seminal interaction.12 Finally Joseph Dan’s approach to Jewish mysticism deserves to be discussed here.13 Dan does not expect much gain from a theological or psychological definition of mysticism. Whatever anyone may have had for a mystical experience is of no consequence for the historian, since such an experience cannot be measured or checked. The world beyond the texts that are preserved does not exist for the historian.14 There is little point in asking whether a certain text or passage is ‘mystical’ or not. The answer to that question is subjective, and hence discussing it is useless. Another problem is that the term ‘mysticism’ denotes a concept that exists within a Christian framework; neither Hebrew nor Arabic has <195> a word for it. Jewish and Muslim mystics have in fact never considered themselves to be ‘mystics’. In Dan’s view it is much more promising to approach mysticism as a historical phenomenon, a movement characterized by definable historical features, ‘a group of people separated from their co-religionists and establishing a particular group or groups, extending for several generations; the creation of a unique literature, different in its genres and modes of expression from contemporary culture; development of a terminology that is recognizable as characteristic of this group; and the appearance of references to a kind of activity that is not to be found in previous texts’.15 How does one determine whether such a historical movement is indeed ‘mystical’? To answer this question Dan prefers to depart from a negative definition of the phenomenon of mysticism: ‘mysticism is the negation of the veracity of communicative language, and the belief in a non-communicative truth lying in a symbolic fashion deep within revealed divine language’.16 In other words: a mystic thinks that genuine truth cannot be expressed in ordinary human language, but can only be approached in a mystical way, through the symbolic use of language. This denial of the veracity of human language that Dan refers to is also evident in the fact that a mystic or mystical groups take issue with their non-mystical fellow believers. Mys––––––––––––––––––––––––
Scathing criticism was uttered by R.J. Zwi Werblowsky, who gibingly disposes of phenomenology as ‘das bevorzugte Zauberwort der “neuen Kabbalahforschung”’ and speaks of the ‘Tintenkleckserei der sogenannten Phänomenologen’. See his ‘Messianismus und Mystik’, in P. Schäfer, J. Dan, eds., Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism–50 Years After, Tübingen 1993, 15–22, esp. 15–16. 12 Idel, New Perspectives, 25–27. 13 Dan, ‘Historical Definition’, 1–46. 14 Ibid., 29. 15 J. Dan, ‘Introduction’ in: J. Dan, Jewish Mysticism I, Late Antiquity, Northvale, NJ/Jerusalem 1998, ix–xxvii, esp. xvi. 16 Dan, ‘Historical Definition’, 31. See also Dan, ‘Introduction’, xiv.
tics, according to Dan, are acutely aware that their religious experience is fundamentally different from non-mystical forms of religion.17 Mystics claim that there exists a realm of supernal truth, which cannot be reached by ordinary means of knowledge, through sensory perception or logical reasoning. That is why, unlike their non-mystical co-religionists, they are rather reserved towards sensory perception or deny its veracity altogether. Truth can only be acquired through the via mystica.18 Although Scripture was revealed in human language, the mystic knows that language on the literal, commu-<196>nicative level is unable to express the essential, most important truth. For a mystic, therefore, language is a symbol. In view of his definition of mysticism as a historically definable movement separating itself from its non-mystical religious environment, Dan apparently slightly over-emphasizes the fundamental – ‘qualitative’, as he calls it – difference between mystics and non-mystics, which at some points seems to create a problem. Thus he claims that the mystic does not accept the literal meaning of Scripture, yet admits this does not imply that the mystical aspect of Scripture should be at variance with its literal interpretation. Sometimes it seems that the separation of mystics from their environment that Dan mentions need not have any practical implications.19 Another remarkable consequence of Dan’s approach is his evaluation of the fourfold interpretation of Scripture (peshat, remez, derash, and sod, conveniently summarized in the acronym pardes). He states that this system as a whole has nothing to do with the supposed mystical truth hidden within the scriptural text. As Albert van der Heide shows in two learned and meticulous studies, the fact that specifically mystical exegetes constantly appeal to sod, the highest of the four levels, seems to suggest otherwise.20 ––––––––––––––––––––––––
Definitions of the phenomenon of ‘mysticism’ in terms like ‘adherence to God’ or ‘the awareness of divine presences’ all seem to suggest that ‘mysticism is a form of religion, only a little more so’. As against this quantitative difference Dan prefers to speak of a qualitative difference between mystical and non-mystical religion (‘Historical Definition’, 9). 18 Ibid., 11–12. 19 Ibid., 16–17, 19. In this respect it is useful to note that Idel, on the other hand, speaks precisely of the conservative mind of rabbinic Judaism, in which prominent mystics such as Abraham ben David or Nahmanides felt at home (New Perspectives, 20–21). 20 Albert van der Heide, ‘PaRDeS. Over de theorie van de viervoudige schriftzin in de middeleeuws joodse exegese’, Amsterdamse Cahiers voor Exegese en Bijbelse Theologie 3 (1982) 118–165 (English summary on pp. 170–171); ‘“Een van zijn ribben”. Vorm en functie van de middeleeuwse joodse Bijbelexegese’, Amsterdamse Cahiers voor Exegese en Bijbelse Theologie 4 (1983) 97–131 (English summary on pp. 138–139). Unfortunately, of these articles only the main thrust has appeared in English: ‘“Pardes”. Methodological Reflections on the Theory of the Four Senses’, Journal of Jewish Studies 34 (1983) 147–159.
IV In the foregoing we have seen that there exists a constant discrepancy between the mystic’s personal experience and the representation of it by the scholar. It proves difficult to give an exact definition of mysticism; the phenomenon may be approached in various ways. Gershom Scholem is duly aware of the fact that beyond the circle with which the scholar has to content himself, there is a sphere, which contains the very essence of mysticism. He realizes that the circle is a caricature of <197> reality. Even though Scholem takes a strictly scholarly position in his books and articles, his awareness of the ‘sphere’ cannot but have influenced the way he studied Jewish mysticism. His approach shows remarkable profoundness, which the attentive reader may discern in some of his essays.21 Moshe Idel, too, is conscious that the texts which are at the modern scholar’s disposition do not represent Jewish mysticism in its true form. To him, however, this means first and foremost that the texts provide only incomplete information; the greater part of what mysticism is about was never committed to writing and hence was lost to us. Moreover, a mystical text is merely the representation of an experience, not the experience itself. In addition to the focus on texts and authors, the study of Jewish mysticism would gain depth by a phenomenological approach. Contemporary mystics and modern scholars could learn much from each other in the process. As befits a meticulous scholar, Joseph Dan wishes to base himself exclusively on what can be demonstrated. The true nature of personal experiences lies outside the realm of history and hence does not exist for the historian. Whether the mystics really did experience anything and, if so, what they perceived, is a senseless question. Rather than in terms of religious experience, Dan prefers to define mysticism negatively, by stating what it is not. Such a definition may subsequently be applied in a historical sense to definable movements, persons or groups of texts, which depart from their own religious environment. Thus, Scholem personally ventured into the realm where, according to Dan, the scholar has no business to be.22 However one wishes to define mysticism – in terms of experience, phenomenologically, or as a historical movement – it seems to possess a certain elusiveness that defies an adequate definition. Moreover, anyone who occu––––––––––––––––––––––––
Cf. e.g. ‘Das Ringen zwischen dem biblischen Gott und dem Gott Plotins in der alten Kabbala’, in G. Scholem, Über einige Grundbegriffe des Judentums, Frankfurt am Main, 1970, 9–52; ‘Offenbarung und Tradition als religiöse Kategorien im Judentum’, ibid. 90–120. 22 In this regard it is interesting to note that Dan characterizes Scholem’s ‘Zehn unhistorische Sätze’ as ‘enigmatic’ (‘Historical Definition’, 17, n. 18).
pies himself with the scholarly study of mysticism faces the paradox that the object of such study is precisely a personal religious experience, whereas scholarly discipline requires God and the divine <198> realm to be bracketed off. Any modern scholar, if he has a religious conviction of any sort, finds himself in the twilight between scholarship and mysticism. As a student, I became acquainted with this paradox during the courses given by Albert van der Heide, who taught us that the knowledge imparted at the university is neutral and that it is a personal matter how one wishes to incorporate that knowledge into one’s own life. It was not until then that I grew fully conscious of the depth of this paradox, which has intrigued me ever since. I am sure that it is possible for this paradox to be resolved, at least in part, by thoroughly thinking it out. Students of Jewish mysticism would do well to acquire the skills needed for an objective description of the phenomenon, but at the same time to constantly determine their own personal, subjective stand towards the mystical ideas encountered. The objective, concrete and factual basis of academic research is not necessarily jeopardized by the fact that students regularly question themselves about their personal position toward the content matter of their studies. Without crossing the borderline of subjectivity these issues could and should be addressed in academic education; not only professors, but also their students, after all, potentially face the danger of ‘death in studenthood’. It is the teacher’s task to contribute in this sense to the personal development and formation of the student; seminal education entails indeed more than the mere transmission of factual knowledge. In other words: in the footsteps of Scholem students of Jewish mysticism should gather the courage and venture into the twilight zone. Whoever analyses Jewish mysticism and its concepts without immediately asserting the alleged inanity of it all, whoever is prepared to consider the possibility that the medieval mystics, despite their undoubtedly different language, may have tried in their own way to convey essential truths, will also be able to determine whether Jewish mysticism – and by implication the modern study of it – has something of value to say to modern man. In that regard, Idel is right with his plea for an exchange of views between scholars and mystics. It would be beneficial if Jewish mysticism were studied and taught at more Dutch universities. The subject provides an excellent opportunity – though not exclusively so – to explore the paradox described above. It is especially in the field of Jewish mysticism that this paradox becomes apparent to its full extent; unlike Jewish philosophy, for instance, <199> mysticism makes an insistent appeal to irrational faculties. Therefore, the academic teaching of Jewish mysticism is potentially one of the most seminal sub-
jects for those who endeavour to explore the twilight zone between scholarship and mysticism. It is ironic that in this process the very ideas of Jewish mysticism might serve as a guide. Is it not true that the core of mysticism concerns the restitution of a broken harmony, the pursuit of a genuine coincidentia oppositorum?
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.