This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Page 1 of 6
Jewish Mysticism in the University: Academic Study or Theological Practice?
This essay is based upon a lecture given on May 30, 2006, as part of the program: "The Academy and Spirituality: Can They Go Together?" at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. A more detailed discussion of some of the issues raised here can be found in my: `The Mystification of Kabbalah and the Myth of Jewish Mysticism` Pe`amin 110, 2007, pp. 9-30 (Hebrew). Recently, a debate has taken place about how to teach Jewish "mysticism" in Israeli academic contexts. This debate was sparked by a talk given by Dr. Avraham Elqayam in the Fourteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, in a panel titled "How should we teach mysticism in the academy?", as well as by news of plans to set up tracks for the study of mysticism, religion, and philosophy in Beit Berl Academic College and in the Open University.  Dr. Elqayam, and other scholars in his camp, argue that there is a need to include practical and experiential elements in the context of teaching Jewish mysticism and spirituality in the academy. Other scholars argue that in an academic context, Jewish mysticism ought to be taught in a purely theoretical manner. Although these two positions oppose each other, each is based on the same common assumption, namely that Kabbalah (along with the Hekhalot literature, Hasidism, and other Jewish cultural formations) is a Jewish expression of a universal mystical phenomenon. The debate deals with the question of how to teach the phenomena that are perceived as "mystical", and whether special methods of instruction and research, different from those used in other areas of the Humanities and social sciences, are needed in order to teach them. In what follows, I shall not take either side in this debate. Rather, I shall question the very assumption that lies at the basis of it, namely that various cultural formations, including the Kabbalah, are a Jewish expression of universal mystical phenomenon. In my opinion, we should question the modern myth of "Jewish mysticism" - and reject the Mystification of Kabbalah. "Mysticism" is not a universal category that should be used as a basis for academic study; rather, it is a Christian theological term, that was used in the modern period due to political or theological motivations - in order to classify and categorize phenomena from non-Christian cultures. The use of this term is bound up in a theological position which I believe, has no place in academic scholarship. The argument regarding how to teach "mysticism" is fundamentally not an academic debate, but a theological disputation. I am no theologian, but a scholar of culture, and therefore I take no side in this debate. I shall make two related arguments. The first is that the term “mysticism” is a theological concept, and the second is that theological concepts have no place in academic studies in the field of the humanities and social sciences, including the study of Kabbalah and Hasidism. I would like to emphasize that I do not oppose theological praxis. Far from it— I am very interested in it, and it is itself the subject of my academic study. Rather, I argue that theology can not be the basis of academic research of historical, social, and cultural phenomena. In conclusion, I shall briefly touch upon the question of whether there is any place to open, in the context of academic institutions in Israel, departments or schools of theology and /or spirituality, in which there will be room to engage in
Jewish Mysticism in the University: Academic Study or Theological Practice? | Boaz ... Page 2 of 6
theological praxis which I believe should have no place in the context of the scientific study of the Humanities and social sciences.
"Mysticism" is a Theological Category
The word "mysticism" is essentially a Christian theological term. Its etymology, of course, is Greek, but the meaning of the term, as it is used today, is rooted mainly in medieval and early modern Christian theology. In the modern period, the term's meaning became broader, and it now is used to refer to various phenomena in non-Christian cultures, as well, including Indian, Chinese, Muslim, and Jewish cultures.  The expansion of the semantic field of the term "mysticism", and its use to refer to cultures that knew nothing of this term, have been made in the context of Western imperialism and colonialism, and in the framework of using European discursive terms in the formation of non European national identities. I would like to emphasize that it is not only that the etymology of the word “mysticism” is rooted in Christian theology, but that even today, the use of the term is inextricably connected with theological presuppositions. Numerous different definitions have been offered for the word mysticism. Almost all of them are based on the assumption that the common cause of “mystical” phenomena is the experience of an interaction, or a union, with a metaphysical reality— an experience that entails a unique state of consciousness, and is considered to be the epitome, or the peak of the religious experience.  Different scholars of mysticism use different terms to denote the metaphysical reality which mystics of various cultures encounter, such as God, the Divine, the Absolute, the Transcendent, or Pure Consciousness. The shared assumption behind all these definitions is that people of different cultures all experience an encounter with a transcendental entity, and that this encounter influences their social activity and the cultural products that they create in the aftermath of their mystical experiences. This assumption is shared by many scholars in the field of the study of religions, by esoteric movements from the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, and by new age movements from the second half of the twentieth century.  Again, I do not wish to argue that this theological position is invalid— but rather to suggest that academic research of social and historical phenomena should not based on such a theological presupposition. Among scholars of mysticism, there is a famous debate: is there such a thing as a “pure mystical experience” which gets interpreted in various ways in different cultures, or is the mystical experience itself culturally dependent?  I shall not enter this debate here, but I would like to note that even the “contextualists” who argue that there is no such thing as a pure mystical experience that is independent of culture,  accept the theological presupposition that behind the culturally dependent mystical phenomena lies an experience of an encounter with a transcendental reality. I would like to mention also that there are scholars that try to give naturalistic explanations for “mystical” phenomena. Although these scholars reject the theological stance, which presupposes that various cultural phenomena are a result of an encounter with a metaphysical reality, nevertheless, they still use the category “mystical” to describe these phenomena, a category which is based on such a theological conception.
The Category “Mysticism” is not Appropriate in Academic Research
The use of the modern theological term “mysticism” to describe and categorize Jewish cultural formations began in the nineteenth century, and became widespread towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Due to the work of Gershom Scholem, it became the founding term of an academic field dedicated to the study of “Jewish Mysticism,” which gained considerable prestige in the Israeli, American and European Academy. The very use of a Christian
Jewish Mysticism in the University: Academic Study or Theological Practice? | Boaz ... Page 3 of 6
theological term to denote phenomena in other cultures should raise questions in our mind (and indeed, a number of scholars have raised this question; though they have not come to the conclusion that we should avoid the term ). Throughout Jewish history, people have described occurrences such as visits to the Palaces [hekhalot] of Heaven; seeing the Appearance of God; hearing the Divine Presence [Shekhina] speaking out of their throats; or raising their thoughts up to the point of Nothingness [ayin]. However, they never described these occurrences as “mystical experiences” (at least, not until the twentieth century). Not only is the term “mystical” foreign to Jewish sources, but also the word “experience” [Havaia] did not exist in Hebrew, until the twentieth century.  I do not think that academic scholars are obliged to use exclusively concepts and categories that have been used by the subjects of their studies; nonetheless, there is no justification for an uncritical use of a Christian theological term as a universal category in academic research. Furthermore, I believe that there is no common denominator between the various above-mentioned Jewish phenomena, unique to them alone, apart from the assumption of scholars that they all belong to the category “Jewish mysticism,” and that they are all expressions of an encounter with a transcendental reality. Indeed, while one can find common features between some of the phenomena subsumed under this name, visiting the Heavenly Palaces, seeing the appearance of God, hearing the voice of the Divine Presence, and raising one’s thoughts up to the point of Nothingness have no more commonalities with each other than they do with many other phenomena, which are not perceived as “mystical.”
 Both the lecture and the proposal have been widely covered in the media. For online coverage, see http://www.nrg.co.il/online/15/ART/990/887.html and http://news.haaretz.co.il/hasite/pages/ShArt.jhtml? contrassID=1&subContrassID=5&sbSubContrassID=0&itemNo=687701 and http://www.nrg.co.il/online/15/ART1/054/500.html.  See L. Bouyer, `Mysticism, An Essay on the History of the Word`, R. Woods (ed.), Understanding Mysticism, London 1981, pp. 42-55; M. De Certeau, The Mystic Fable, London 1992, vol.1, pp. 76-112; Leigh Eric Schmidt, `The Making of Modern Mysticism`, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 71, 2003, pp, 273-302.  For the different definitions and perceptions of the "mysticism," see B. McGinn, The Foundation of Mysticism, New York 1991. pp. 265-343.  See R. King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and The Mystic East, London & New York, 1999, 162-163. On the relationship between modern religious studies and Christian mysticism and esotericism, see S. M. Wasserstrom, Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos, Princeton 1999, p. 29 On the relationship between religious studies and the "new age" see W. Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, Albany 1998, pp. 327-330. On the "New Age" and Jewish Mysticism, see Boaz Huss, `The New Age of Kabbalah Research: Book Review of Ron Margolin, The Human Temple; Melila Hellner-Eshed, A River Issues Forth from Eden; Jonathan Garb, Manifestations of Power in Jewish Mysticism`, Theory and Criticism 27, 2005, pp. 246-253 (Hebrew); Jonathan Garb, `The Power and the Glory: A Critique of New Age Kabbalah,` www.zeek.net/604garb/.  On this controversy, see B. McGinn, The Foundation of Mysticism, pp. 317-326; R. King, Orientalism and Religion, pp. 162-186.
Jewish Mysticism in the University: Academic Study or Theological Practice? | Boaz ... Page 4 of 6
 The best known presentation of this position is S. Katz, `Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism`, Idem (ed.), Mysticism and Phlosophical Analysis, 1978, p. 26; Idem, `The Conservative Character of Mystical Experience`, Idem, (ed.), Mysticism and Religious Traditions, Oxford 1983, pp. 3-60.  See Joseph Dan, The Heart and the Fountain Jerusalem 2005, p. 18 (Hebrew). Despite Dan's reservations, he adopts Scholem's use of the term "Jewish mysticism." See ibid., p. 21. See also Ithamar Gruenwald, `Reflections on the nature and Origins of Jewish Mysticism`, in Peter Schafer and Joseph Dan (eds.), Gershom Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 50 Years after, Tubingen 1993, pp. 28-29.  The term "experience" is a translation of the German term erlebniss, and is not found in nonEuropean cultures. See Robert H. Sharf, `Experience,` in Mark C. Taylor (ed), Critical Terms for the Religious Studies, Chicago & London, pp. 99-100. ==== Moreover, there is certainly no common element between the so-called “mystical” cultural formations within Jewish culture, and the so-called “mystical” phenomena in other cultures. I do not see any significant commonality between a Kabbalist hearing the voice of the Shechina, a Catholic nun who is spiritually betrothed to Christ, or a Buddhist monk who aspires to attain Nirvana. The reductionist assumption that all these phenomena have a common denominator, which stands in stark contradiction to the self perception of the so called `mystics` themselves, is not based on any fact, other than the pre-existing assumption of the researchers. In other words, the problem with using the category “mysticism” in scientific study is not only that it is opposed to the perception of the subjects of the research, but also that is puts together many different cultural formations, which have no connection other than scholars’ assumption that behind them lies a common, universal phenomenon. This is already sufficient reason to avoid using the category “mysticism” in academic scholarship. However, even beyond the fact that the term is an inappropriate essentialist term, there is also a third problem: that the very use of it supports a particular theological position. As I have argued above, the use of the term mysticism implies that people, in all cultures, sometimes experience an encounter with the Divine, or a transcendent reality. Using this assumption to categorize cultural formations and to establish academic fields that are devoted to their study is based on the assumption that the cause of various historical, cultural and social phenomena is the encounter with the Divine or the Transcendent reality. Any assumption that God, or a transcendent entity, or a metaphysical reality, is the cause of natural, historical, social or cultural events is a theological assumption, which is fundamentally opposed to the way that academic research is conducted in the study of natural science, the humanities, or the social sciences. Just as academic study in the natural sciences rejects the theory of intelligent design, and the academic study of history and social sciences cannot accept the will of God as a valid explanation for historical and social events, we, too cannot accept that encounters with the Deity or a transcendental reality can explain cultural phenomena— neither in Judaism, nor in other cultures. Thus, in my opinion, there is no place in the academy for the category “Jewish mysticism,” and consequently, no place for the debate whether to teach `Jewish Mysticism` in a theoretical or an experiential manner. I would like to emphasize that I do not deny the existence of the texts and practices that scholars include in this problematic category; nor do I oppose their study as significant historical and social formations. I do not deny that people have indeed put their heads between their knees, whispered hymns and praises, repeated names of angels, spent time in solitude, or prostrated themselves upon the graves of saints; I do not doubt that the people who employed these techniques experienced
Jewish Mysticism in the University: Academic Study or Theological Practice? | Boaz ... Page 5 of 6
exceptional events which they described as “Descending to the Chariot” [yerida la-merkava], prophecy [nevu’a], or “cleaving to Nothingness” [devequt be-ayin]. I do not reject the important studies that have examined these descriptions within their historical and social context. Rather, my argument is directed against the assumption that these are all expressions of “Jewish mysticism”, and against the research practices that ensue from this assumption, mainly the use of comparative and phenomenological methods that are common in the study of religions. I doubt that all these cultural formations, as well as other phenomena that modern scholarship perceives as “mystical” in various cultures (Christian, Muslim, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, American, and others) have any common factor (or factors) that is exclusive only to them, which justifies categorizing them as “Mystical” and establishing fields of study and methods of teaching and research, that are unique to them. 
The Teaching of Theology in an Academic Context
Although I am arguing that the term “mysticism” is theological in nature, and inappropriate as a category to be used in the framework of an academic research of historical and sociological phenomena, I would like to emphasize again that I am not opposed to theology, but only claim that it should not serve as the basis for academic study, whether in the natural sciences, the humanities, or the social sciences. The only question that remains is whether there is anywhere else to fit theological study into the academy, outside the fields of natural sciences, humanities, or social sciences. As we all know, leading and prestigious universities in the United States and Europe have “divinity schools.” These schools teach theology, and train clergy. Should we establish such divinity schools, or programs for the teaching of spiritual studies and the training of Kabbalists within Israeli academic institutions? Should we set up academic frameworks which will deal with spiritual and theological questions (such as the nature of encounters with the Divine in various religions) and with mystical and religious practices— prayer, meditation, and the experiential study of Kabbalistic texts, on the assumption that these texts are an expression of some kind of universal mystical or spiritual experience? The suggestion to set up study programs, departments, or schools for theology and spirituality raises two basic questions. The first is what types of theology or spirituality should be taught in academic frameworks: only Jewish theology, or also Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, New Age, and other theologies? Furthermore, when teaching Jewish theology and spirituality, should the “school for spirituality” teach liberal Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative theologies, or the doctrines and practices of Merkaz Harav, the Chabad movement, or the Kabbalah Centre? What methods of religious praxis should they employ: meditation and experiential reading of texts, or also prayer, writing amulets, and visiting the graves of saints? In brief, the question is: what criteria should be used to decide what theologies and spiritual practices belong in an academic context, and what should be the distinction between the theologico-spiritual activity in the academy and the theologico-spiritual activity in yeshivot or other non-academic institutions? The second question, which is related to the first, is: what should be the criteria for evaluating students, or hiring and promoting instructors, in the framework of a theological school in the academy? What training should be required for an instructor of theology or spirituality? Is an academic degree in liberal arts or social sciences at all relevant for such an instructor, or should we prefer to hire theologians and spiritual masters, such as Yitzhak Ginzburgh, Ohad Ezrachi, or Philip Berg? On what basis should grades and degrees be granted to people who choose to attend a continuing education program in theology or spiritual in an academic context? I have no answers to these rather rhetorical questions. As I have said, my field is the historical and social study of Kabbalah; I am neither a theologian nor a mystic. As an academic scholar of Kabbalah, I find it important to examine the theological assumptions that have shaped my discipline, and to critically analyze the category “Jewish mysticism” and the “mystification” of Kabbalah.
Jewish Mysticism in the University: Academic Study or Theological Practice? | Boaz ... Page 6 of 6
 For a similar argument concerning the term `Religion,` see T. Fitzgerald, `Playing Language Games And Performing Rituals: Religious Studies Ideological State Apparatus`, Method & Theory 15 (2003), p. 249. Professor Boaz Huss teaches in the Department of Jewish Thought at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev © 2006 by Zeek Magazine and the author. This article may not be distributed for commercial purposes without the express written permission of Zeek Magazine ( firstname.lastname@example.org). Reprints and other distributions must contain this copyright notice. This entry can be found online at: http://www.zeek.net/712academy/
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.