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History Compass 6/2 (2008): 552587, 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2007.00501.

Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its


Contemporary Appeal
Hava Tirosh-Samuelson*
Arizona State University

Abstract

Popular culture today is suffused with kabbalah, an elitist, intellectual strand of


medieval Judaism that claimed to disclose the esoteric meaning of the rabbinic
tradition. While rooted in esoteric speculations in late antiquity, kabbalah emerged
in the tenth century as an internal debate among Jewish theologians about the
ontological status of divine attributes. At the end of the twelfth century speculations
about the nature of God emerged among the Pietists of Germany and the masters
of kabbalah in Provence. During the thirteenth century kabbalah flourished in
Spain where its self-understanding as redemptive activity was expressed in two
paradigms the theosophy-theurgic and the ecstatic-prophetic. Kabbalah continued to evolve in the early modern period, shaping both Jewish and European
cultures. The modern period saw the rise of the academic study of kabbalah, but
it was employed in two conflicting manners: in the nineteenth century scholars
associated with the Enlightenment used historical analysis of kabbalah to debunk
Jewish traditionalism, but in the first half of the twentieth century, the academic study
of kabbalah was used to generate a secular, collective Zionist identity. Although
scholarship on kabbalah has flourished in the twentieth century, kabbalah has
become a variant of New-Age religions, accessible to all, regardless of ethnic
identity or spiritual readiness.

Introduction: What is Kabbalah?


Kabbalah is a distinctive intellectual strand within Judaism that functioned
as a self-conscious program for the interpretation of rabbinic Judaism.
Rooted in esoteric speculations of the rabbinic period, kabbalah emerged
in the Middle Ages as the theory and praxis of Jewish life that fathomed
the depth of divine mysteries, charted the paths for interaction with God,
including a mystical union with God, and harnessed divine energy for the
redemption of the world. Although kabbalah viewed its doctrines as timeless
truths, kabbalah was a cultural product. As such, it was neither monolithic
nor static; rather, kabbalah spoke in many voices and its doctrines and
practices evolved overtime in response to changes within Jewish culture
and through interaction with non-Jewish culture.
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Today kabbalah is a feature of popular culture. Hollywood celebrities


(most notably Madonna) dabble in it and promote it; block-buster movies
(e.g., The Matrix) are inspired by it; Jewish and non-Jewish students take
courses on kabbalah in secular universities of North America, Europe, and
Israel, or study it on their own through various venues of web-based
learning; books that explain the principles of kabbalah to the uninitiated
are best sellers sold in the millions; hundreds of Web sites offer all sorts
of kabbalah-related merchandise (e.g., audiotapes, T-Shirts, bottled water,
amulets, and red strings); and artists use kabbalistic motifs to express themselves be it in the representational arts or in music. In short, in the global,
transnational market of late capitalism, kabbalah has become a commodity
accessible to all, regardless of ethnic identity, prior knowledge of Judaism,
or spiritual readiness. How did this happen? Why now? What does it
signify for Jews and for non-Jews? To answer these questions, this article
will provide a short historical exposition of kabbalah, discuss the academic
study of kabbalah, and explore the cultural forces that have contributed
to the popularization of kabbalah today.
The Origins and Emergence of Kabbalah
The Hebrew word kabbalah means reception and in the context of
rabbinic Judaism the term refers to the reception of divine instruction,
namely, to revealed knowledge. According to rabbinic Judaism (i.e., the
reinterpretation of the Judaic belief system after the destruction of the
Second Temple in 70 CE), God revealed to the People of Israel a dual
Torah: a Written Torah and an Oral Torah. In the Middle Ages,
kabbalists saw themselves as recipients of Oral Torah par excellence, since
kabbalah for them constituted the inner, esoteric meaning of the
revealed Written Torah. As such, kabbalah pertained to mysteries about
God, the universe, and the Torah that exceed the ken of ordinary
human apprehension and cognition. These secrets had to be disclosed
only to the initiated few who were spiritually prepared to receive the
privileged information and deserve to benefit from it.1 Ordinary Jews,
let alone non-Jews, were not to have access to this restricted information
lest they be led to insanity, reach mistaken conclusion about God (i.e.,
idolatry), or even risk death. To ensure that esoteric content be transmitted
only to those who deserve it, kabbalah was originally transmitted orally
from authorized teachers to worthy disciples within the confines of
rabbinic academies and specific kinship groups.
The intellectual roots of kabbalah can be traced to rabbinic esoterica of
late antiquity, one strand of which was the Hekhalot and Merkabah literature.2
The extant texts were ascribed to known rabbinic figures (e.g., Rabbi
Akiba, Rabbi Ishmael, and Rabbi Nehunya ben ha-Qannah), but there is
no way to prove that these historical individuals actually underwent the experiences ascribed to them or that members of the rabbinic class cultivated
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554 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal

these practices; it is very likely that the texts reflect activities of Jews
outside rabbinic circles and that the reports about the experience were
co-opted into the rabbinic program in a long editorial process. Composed
between the first and sixth centuries, these texts depicted ascents to heaven,
namely, out-of-body experiences, in which the protagonists traveled
through heavenly palaces (hekhalot) until they reached the seventh palace
where they envisioned the beauty of God seated on a throne. The ecstatic
experiences were believed to be very dangerous and could be endured
only because the mystic was protected by magical formulas, known as
seals (hotamot) that contained the power of the Divine Name. The mystics
successful journeys to the divine palace culminated in a vision of Gods
luminous, non-corporeal body. Hence the corpus contains a literary unit
known as Measurement of the [Divine] Stature (Shiur Qomah) which
consists of information about Gods body.
When rabbinic esoterica was edited (about the eighth century), most
Jews were living under the rule of Islam and had to contend with the rise
of Islamic rationalism. Rabbinic theology had to be explained in interreligious debates, and rabbinic legal norms had to be defended against the
criticism of sectarians, known as Karaites (i.e., Scripturalists). Challenging
the rabbinic ideology of dual Torahs, the Karaites considered only written
Scriptures to be valid sources of Jewish norms and rejected the authority
of rabbinic leaders of the academies of Baghdad (known as Geonim).
Given the Karaite rationalist outlook, they found the blatant anthropomorphism of some rabbinic midrashim and the speculations about Gods
luminous body to be intellectually untenable.3 The rational defense of
rabbinic Judaism gave rise to medieval Jewish philosophy whose history
was closely intertwined with the history of kabbalah.4
The revival of science in Islam during the ninth century led Jewish
intellectuals to express interest in yet another ancient, esoteric text Sefer
Yetzirah (The Book of Creation). The precise time and place of composition of Sefer Yetzirah are still disputed among scholars.5 In all likelihood
the earliest versions of the text belonged to the Hellenistic period, but it
was edited in the Islamic East in the ninth century when Islamic intellectuals
known as Ikhwan al-Safa articulated a philosophy of nature based on the
number symbolism and linguistic ontology. Sefer Yetzirah is pseudo-epigraphic,
ascribing its teaching to the Patriarch Abraham. The ancient text is extant
two distinct variants,6 and as Peter Hyman showed, it is the later variant
that depicts Abraham as a prototypical creative artist, analogous to the
Creator of the universe, who created the world by means of 32 paths of
wisdom: ten Sefirot and twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. While
the depiction of the Sefirot in Sefer Yetzirah is rather opaque, they can be
understood to express the paradoxality of the creative process.7 On the
one hand, the Sefirot manifest unlimited, creative energy of God, but on
the other hand, the creative energy is shaped through the limit of the
number ten. Reminiscent of the Neo-Pythagorean conception of numbers,8
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the Sefirot of Sefer Yetzirah can be understood either as ideal numbers or


as powers that govern the creation of the physical cosmos. Sefer Yetzirah
would become a foundational text of medieval kabbalah and reflections
on the ontological status and function of the Sefirot constituted the kabbalistic
discourse.
The first phase of medieval kabbalah comprised reflections by Jewish
theologians about the process of creation and the attributes of the Creator
by commenting on Sefer Yetzirah.9 The first philosophical commentary on
Sefer Yetzirah was written by Saadia Gaon (d. 942), the leader of a rabbinic
academy in Baghdad, who championed the cause of rabbinic Judaism
against the Karaite critique and provided rational arguments to support
the tenets of rabbinic Judaism, especially the belief that God created the
world ex-nihilo.10 Written in Judeo-Arabic, Saadias commentary attempted
to show that Sefer Yetzirah is compatible with rationalist philosophy because
God, the Sefirot, and the Hebrew letters were not creative forces in themselves
but abstract principles that describe mathematical relations between existing
entities in the physical world.11 After Saadia Gaon, Jewish theologians in
North Africa, Italy, and Spain continued to reflect about the Sefirot in
their attempt to understand the process of creation, and those who regarded
the Sefirot as powers within God (i.e., intra-deical) laid the foundation for
kabbalistic theosophy.12
From the tenth to the twelfth centuries Jewish philosophical theology
was cultivated in Muslim Spain. Some of these philosophical speculations,
which had a strong Neoplatonic coloring, became known in Jewish communities of the Rhine Valley. There a small circle of Jewish Pietists (known
as Hasidei Ashkenaz) articulated esoteric theology that combined the
teachings of the ancient Hekhalot and Merkabah corpus with commentaries
on Sefer Yetzirah, especially a non-philosophical Hebrew translation of Saadia
Gaons commentary. The group viewed itself as the latest link in a chain
of esoteric, oral tradition about the correct meaning of Scripture, and
appropriate methods of prayer. According to the German Pietists, the oral
tradition revealed at Sinai pertained to the hidden meaning of the Torah
which was revealed on different levels for the masses, for rabbinic scholars,
and for the spiritual elite. Developing their own systematic theory of Hebrew
language as the grammar of reality, the German Pietists approached Sefer
Yetzirah as a set of instruction for the creation of a humanoid (Golem), a
practice found already in the rabbinic corpus.13 By engaging in magic on
the basis of Sefer Yetzirah, they actually reversed the rationalist intent of
Saadia Gaons commentary and recovered magical theories and practices
of antiquity.
The theological speculations of the German Pietists focused on the
Glory of God (Kavod ), an incorporeal entity that emanated from God to
which human prayers are directed. They distinguished between the Upper
Glory an amorphous light called the Presence or Great Splendor and
the Lower Glory, which was an aspect that assumed different forms within
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556 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal

the prophetic or mystical imagination.14 The major symbol of the divine


realm was the Nut (egoz) which was understood to possess androgynous
qualities. The feminine quality of the Glory was identified with the Shekhinah (the standard Talmudic term for the divine Presence) and was imaged
as crown, prayer, the divine voice, the kings daughter, the bride who sits
to the left of the groom, God. To interact with God, the German Pietists
developed a highly ascetic program that added many restrictions to the
normative tradition in order to prevent them from sinning.15 Through their
spiritual practices, which were probably influenced by contemporary
Christian spirituality, the German Pietists attempted to decipher the hidden
Will of God in order to serve God selflessly, sacrificially, and totally.
The ideas of the German Pietists contributed to the emergence of
kabbalah in the late twelfth century in Provence. There several individuals
associated with Rabbi Abraham ben David (d. 1198) began to call themselves masters of the kabbalah (baaley ha-kabbalah) and to challenge a
particular variant that has come to dominate Jewish rationalist philosophy
Aristotelianism toward the end of the twelfth century. Moses Maimonides (d. 1204) advocated Aristotelianism as the inner, esoteric meaning
of rabbinic Judaism, even though on certain crucial issues, such as creation
of the universe, Maimonides deviated markedly from Aristotle in order to
accommodate the Jewish belief in creation ex-nihilo. The polemical
response to Maimonidess intellectualist reinterpretation of rabbinic Judaism
gave rise to the second phase in the emergence of medieval kabbalah. In the
early thirteenth century kabbalah emerged as a self-conscious program for the
interpretation of Judaism to counter Maimonidess theology.16
It was no coincidence that Provenal kabbalah emerged in the circle of
R. Abraham ben David, since he was the first scholar to challenge the
authoritative status of Maimonidess Mishneh Torah (Code of Jewish Law).
The Provenal scholar rejected Maimonidess rationalist interpretation of
Judaism, including his rationalization of the commandments and his denial
that humans can have positive knowledge of God. Unlike Maimonides
who held that humans can only know what God does (i.e., attributes of
action) rather than who God is (i.e., essential attributes), the masters of
the kabbalah in Provence claimed to possess deep knowledge about Gods
essence and about the processes by which God reveals His Will through
the emanation of the ten Sefirot. A few of these kabbalists also claimed to
receive direct revelation from Elijah, the symbol of the Jewish tradition,
which disclosed to them the inner meaning of the liturgy by orienting
each section of the prayer to a particular aspect of the Sefirotic world.17
During the first third of the thirteenth century kabbalistic symbolic discourse
emerged on the basis of earlier commentaries on Sefer Yetzirah, contemporary Jewish Neoplatonic philosophic, creative interpretation of Scripture
and rabbinic homilies. Contrary to the remote and uninvolved God of
Maimonidean philosophy, kabbalistic symbolism emphasized the immanence
of God and the ability of human to impact God.18 This symbolic discourse
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was now carried out in writing, ending the oral transmission of kabbalah
and making it accessible to Jews outside specific kinship groups.
It is very likely that the early kabbalists in Provence were also responsible for the editing and circulation of yet another foundational text in the
history of kabbalah Sefer ha-Bahir (Book of Brightness).19 We do not know
who composed the Bahir, when or where, but many scholars followed
Scholem assuming, albeit without firm proof, that the text was composed
in the academies of Babylonia perhaps in the eighth or ninth centuries
and only received its final editing in the twelfth century in Provence
where it began to circulate. Like Sefer Yetzirah, this text too is pseudoepigraphic, attributing its views to the second century rabbi who was the
hero of the Hekhalot and Merkabah corpus, Rabbi Nehunya ben Ha-Qanah.
Written in Hebrew with occasional Aramaic phrases, the Bahir uses the
literary form of parable to teach esoteric truths about an earthly king, his
royal family, his loyal and disloyal subjects, and his majestic palace. The
language is often symbolic; some of the symbols are taken for granted
without further exposition, while others lead to an extended narrative.
Sefer Ha-Bahir expresses kabbalistic theosophy, albeit in rather opaque
and enigmatic manner. God is understood as a unity within plurality of
ten forces, the Sefirot, and the system pulsates with divine energy that is
the source of vitality of all levels of existence organized hierarchically.20
The Sefirot manifest, or reveal, the concealed identity of the divine personality,
as much as they function as the blueprint, or model, for all the processes
in the physical world. Because the Bahir is not a philosophical text, it does
not explain precisely how the Sefirot relate to the concealed aspect of God,
the Ein Sof (literally, No-End or Without Limit). Later kabbalists would
do so with the help of philosophical vocabulary. Some would argue that
the Sefirot are only instruments of divine activity, while others (representing
the dominant view) would hold that the Sefirot are the essence of God.21
A dynamic system, the Sefirotic world affects all creative processes in the
material world and in turn is affected by non-divine reality. In particular,
human deeds, especially the deeds of Jews, affect the well-being of the
Sefirotic realm, precisely because humans, and especially Jews mirror God,
being created in the image of God. When Jews perform the commandments
properly, they empower the deity, and when they commit sins, they
diminish the power of God. Kabbalistic theosophy was thus inherently
linked to theurgy.
The Bahirs speculations about the ten divine potencies, the Sefirot,
express a mythical conception of God, because the Sefirot are viewed as
character traits of the divine personality. Unlike the philosophers who
viewed God as an intellect that thinks itself, the people who studied the
Bahir delved into the inner life of Gods personality, perhaps reflecting the
so-called emergence of the individual that medievalists associate with
the Renaissance of the twelfth century. Endowing human beings with power
and agency, the Bahir maintains that human deeds affect the well-being of
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558 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal

the tenth and last Sefirah, Malkhut, which is the feminine aspect of God.
The symbolism of the Bahir (and thereafter all of theosophic-theurgic
kabbalah) is gendered: God is an androgynous deity.22 While the upper
nine Sefirot constitute the male aspect of the deity, the Shekhinah is
depicted as queen, bride, sister, wife, daughter, and matron that
stands at the side of the masculine, divine power, usually the King. She is
sometimes portrayed in terms reminiscent of the Gnostic terminology as
the daughter of light who came from a far away country, who resides
in the world. She has receptive quality, functioning as a vessel, or a container
for the energy that she receives form the powers above her. Because the
Shekhinah contains the energy of all the divine potencies above her, she
is symbolized as an ocean, a passive symbol, but in relationship to the
extra-divine world she functions as an active force. Hence she is depicted
as a mother who takes care of her children, functioning as the presence
of God that never leaves Israel. The Shekhinah is most vulnerable to the
temptation of evil, which in the Bahir is understood as a separate reality
that can pollute the Deity.
What led the authors of the Bahir to develop symbolic theosophy is a
matter of scholarly dispute. According to Gershom Scholem, the symbolism
reflects the work of medieval Jewish Gnostics perhaps as parallel to Christianitys notion of the Church as Corpus Christi, the body of Christ.23
Scholem conjectures that the rise of Catharism in the twelfth century
stimulated this development. Arthur Green and Peter Schfer also see the
Christian context as paramount and link feminine symbolism of the Shekihnah and the spread of the cult of Mary in the twelfth century.24 Moshe
Idel, by contrast, considers the development of feminine symbolism an
elaboration of mythic paradigms within rabbinic sources,25 while for Elliot
R. Wolfson these ideas can be traced to Judeo-Christian motifs absorbed
by Jewish thinkers in Spain whose works were known to the authors and
editors of the Bahir.26 Regardless of its sources, by the end of the twelfth
century, the contours of kabbalistic theosophy, sexual symbolism, and
theurgy (i.e., human impact on God) were in place in Sefer ha-Bahir,
which became a foundational text for kabbalah in Christian Spain.
In the first decades of the thirteenth century, kabbalistic speculations,
now available in writing, began to disseminate in the Jewish communities
in Catalonia, to the chagrin of some kabbalists who wanted to protect
kabbalistic esotericism. In the town of Girona a small coterie of Jewish
intellectuals who were at home with Neoplatonic philosophy developed
the teachings of Provenal masters further through commentaries on Talmudic homilies, the Song of Song, Sefer Yetzirah, the Hebrew alphabet, and
Genesis, indicating that kabbalistic discourse was decidedly traditional.27
The fact that Nahmanides (d. 1272), the leader of Catalonian Jewry, was
associated with the group endowed kabbalah with authority as an alternative
to Maimonidean rationalism.28 Nahmanides, who also composed a kabbalistic
commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, defined kabbalah very narrowly as a received
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knowledge about the esoteric meaning of specific Scriptures. He rejected


the use of creative imagination in Scriptural interpretation and limited the
dissemination of kabbalah to the initiated few.29
During the thirteenth century, Jews in Spain and Provence debated the
legacy of Maimonides focusing on the correct interpretation of Scripture,
especially the creation narrative of Genesis. The followers of Maimonides
understood the biblical text in accord with Aristotles physics and cosmology,
whereas the kabbalists claimed that the creation narrative pertains to processes
within God. At stake were not only the exegesis of the Scripture but the
nature and observance of the commandments. Maimonidess historicized
interpretation of the commandments rendered them as a means to an end,
whereas the kabbalists offered a sacramental view of Jewish rituals: each
commandment is linked to an aspect of God so that performing a given
commandment with the proper intention empowers God. Despite these
differences, rationalist philosophers and kabbalists had much in common:
both groups were elitists and believed that their privileged knowledge
should be known by the few; both claimed to possess knowledge of
ultimate truth which they regarded as salvific; both assumed the biblical
text is esoteric and offered their way to decode the text; both were open
to non-Jewish strands of thought although the rationalist philosophers
were Aristotelian, whereas the kabbalists perpetuated Neoplatonic, Ismaili,
and Sufi paradigms.
In the second half of the thirteenth century, the rationalist philosophers
relaxed their elitism that characterized the teachings of Maimonides and
began to popularize philosophy through the translations of Averroess
commentaries on Aristotle into Hebrew, commentaries on Maimonidess
Guide of the Perplexed,30 philosophical encyclopedias and philosophical
novels.31 The philosophically informed interpretation of Judaism could thus
become official Jewish theology for Spanish Jewry. That prospect compelled
kabbalists to take a public stand and to present their alternative to
rationalist philosophy. Between 1270 and 1290 kabblists experienced unusual
creativity,32 leaving behind the cautious posture of Nahmanides. In the
third phase of the consolidation of kabbalah the tradition developed two
distinctive types: the kabbalah of the Sefirot and the kabbalah of the
divine names. Scholars refer to the first type as theosophic-theurgic
kabbalah and to the second type as ecstatic-prophetic kabbalah. Sefer
ha-Zohar (Book of Splendor) is the major example of the first type, and
the kabbalah of Abraham Abulafia (d. 1293) is the major example of the
second type.
Two Types of Kabbalistic Redemptive Activities
The uniqueness of Sefer ha-Zohar, the most important product of medieval
kabbalah, lies in the literary structure. The Zohar presents itself as a commentary on the Torah articulated by the second-century Rabbi Shimon
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560 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal

bar Yohai in his conversations with his companions while they were strolling
through the Holy Land.33 Whereas traditional Jews to this day uphold the
claims of the Zohar to be a second-century Midrash, modern scholarship
made clear that Zohar could not have been written in the second century.
Rather, it was a product of mystical fraternity in Castile,34 the most
creative member of which was Moses de Leon (d. 1305), an author who
wrote several kabbalistic texts in Hebrew.35 The Zohar, by contrast, is
written in Aramaic, and it is also full of neologisms and words that do not
have lexical meaning in any known language, but which function as
technical terminology in the charged mental world of the Zohar.
The homilies of Zohar focus on the unique personality of its protagonist,
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai.36 Endowed with supernatural powers, he is a
righteous person, a perfect mystic, a master teacher, and a shaman who is
able to impact the supernal world of the Sefirot as well as transform the
physical world through miracles. He brings about rain, overcomes demonic
powers, and even the angel of death is afraid of him. As a mediator between
the corporeal and supernal realms, a channel of divine energy, Rabbi
Shimon Bar Yohai is represented in the Sefirah Yesod (Foundation), the
conduit of the sexual energy of the Sefirotic world, as well as by Malkhut,
the feminine aspect of God, with whom Shimon bar Yohais soul unites
at his death. While the ancient rabbi is not himself a messiah, he is clearly
depicted as a messianic figure engaged in redemptive activity that sustains
the Jewish people.
The primary activity of the Zoharic group is Torah study, a redemptive
activity that is depicted in highly sexual overtones. The mystics of the
Zohar love God and love Torah and the erotic nature of their constant
study of Torah is expressed through the love poetry of the Song of Song,
the text most associated with the ancient text of Shiur Qomah. The major
focus of the Zoharic group is the feminine aspect of God, the Shekhinah,
whose precarious existence is threatened by the powers of evil, ruled by
the arch-demon, Samael. The Jewish scholars of Torah symbolically rescue
the Shekhinah from the clutches of Evil (referred to in the Zohar as the
Sitra Ahrah, literally the Other Side) not through acts of chivalry, as
medieval knights do, but by protecting her through words of Torah which
ultimately subdue the powers of evil. The mystical goal of the Zoharic
group is to identify with the Shekhinah, surrender themselves to her, and
ultimately unite with her.
The mystics of the Zohar are depicted as itinerant scholars whose erotic
energy is devoted to Torah. To some extent, this portrayal was meant to
offer an alternative to the spread of philosophy in the Jewish intelligentsia
of Christian Spain. But it is also possible, although this view is not yet
universally accepted among the scholars of kabbalah, that the portrayal of
the Zoharic heroes as lovers of Torah was intended as an anti-Christian
polemics. After the Barcelona debate in 1263, where Nahmandies admitted
that Jews do not consider all rabbinic homilies as authoritative, Jews in
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Spain lost some of their political power to the Dominicans.37 They were
forced to listen to conversionary sermons by Dominicans, and Jewish
books were examined for potential blasphemies of Christianity. Jews could
actually do little to counter the anti-Jewish campaign of the Dominicans,
except perhaps to present a Jewish alternative to the itinerant Christian
preachers and their ideals. The Zohar was such a Jewish answer, an elaborate,
didactic drama that takes place not on stages in public squares, as did
medieval mystery dramas, but in the imagination of the readers.38 In the
Zoharic didactic drama, the esoteric meaning of the homilies, taught by
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai through rich and textured symbolism, have salvific
value: those who grasp the inner, esoteric meaning of the Zohar that refer
to the Sefirot attain immortality in the afterlife. Since the spiritual truths
of the Zohar truly enlighten those who know them, it is no coincidence
that Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai is referred to as the light of the entire
world (butzina de-khol araa) and as holy luminary (butzina qadisha) whose
death and union with the Shekhinah brings about the repair of imperfect
reality.39 In other words, the anti-Christian message of the Zohar was
shaped by the very Christian cultural context.40
The Zohars artistry, rich symbolism and eroticism made it an irresistible
literary text, worthy of imitation, translation and commentary. In the
fourteenth century, kabbalists imitated the style of the Zohar, composed
dictionaries to its Aramaic language, generated lists of kabbalistic symbols
to decode the Zohar, and began to write commentaries on the Zohar. In
the late middle ages, Jews took the Zohar to be an authentic ancient
Midrash and that assumption, which contributed to the positive reception
of the Zohar in the pre-modern period, would eventually be contested by
scholars of kabbalah in the modern period.41 Yet as much as the dissemination of kabbalah in the early modern period was tied to the reception
of the Zohar,42 critique of kabbalah in the modern period involved a
challenge to the Zohars claim for antiquity.
No less than the Zohar, the writings of Abulafia, who illustrates the
second paradigm of kabbalah, were suffused with messianism, but the
messianic import was inseparable from the philosophy of Maimonides.43
For Abulafia, kabbalah meant first and foremost an uninterrupted transmission of the innermost truths of Judaism from ancient times. Along
with Maimonides, Abulafia held that Jews have forgotten these ancient
truths and therefore their redemption tarries. To bring about redemption,
it was necessary to disclose the hidden truths of the Torah so as to enlighten
the Jewish people, urgency shared by rationalist philosophers and theosophical kabbalists as well. Abulafia understood mystical enlightenment
precisely as did Maimonides: it is a state of cognitive perfection in which
the human intellectual unites with the Active Intellect and receives from
it divine overflow. This exalted cognitive state was attained by the prophet
Moses, and apparently Abulafia believed that he too had reached cognitive
perfection, experiencing union with God.44
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562 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal

Within the received tradition, Abulafia distinguished between two sets


of teachings: the kabbalah of the Sefirot and the kabbalah of divine names.45
In several works Abulafia spoke quite harshly and critically against those
who believe that the Sefirot are hypostatic potencies that do not compromise
the unity of God. Abulafia adhered to the philosophic conception of divine
simplicity and regarded the theosophic position as tantamount to heresy
and analogous to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Abulafia was
familiar with theosophic kabbalah and accepted some of its symbolism and
mode of disclosure, but he did not regard the Sefirot as the essence of God.
Rather, Abulafia identified them with the Separate Intellects: they are
ideal, intelligible forms that function as the conduit of the divine overflow.46
The last of the ten Sefirot, Malkhut, contains all the Sefirot about it and is
identified with the Active Intellect, the Intellect in charge of all processes
in the sublunar world and the source of all knowledge.
The identification of the Sefirot with the Separate Intellects, all of
which contained within the Active Intellect, was the key of Abulafia
anthropocentric interpretation of the doctrine, on the one hand, and his
intellectual mysticism, on the other hand. Abulafia took the philosophic
doctrine of the Separate Intellects and gave it an anthropological or psychological interpretation: the Sefirot are internal states of human experience; they are part of the human psyche, since the human is a microcosm
of the macrocosm. Knowledge of the Sefirot is a form of self-knowledge,
a process that requires the acquisition of moral and intellectual virtues and
that culminates in the conjunction between the human intellect and the
Active Intellect. This cognitive union is prophecy, a reception of divine
efflux from God through the Active Intellect, precisely as Maimonides
explained. The kabbalah of the Sefirot, anthropologically or psychologically
interpreted is thus the highest example of the philosophic maxim Know
Thyself .
The main obstacle to self-knowledge is the corporeal body itself, especially
the power of imagination. However, the Jewish tradition itself, according
to Abulafia, also reveals the way to break through human embodiment
and to free oneself form the errors of human imagination. This is the highest
form of kabbalah, the path of the [divine] names (derekh ha-shemot), which
is religiously superior to the knowledge of the Sefirot.47 Building on the
linguistic theory of Sefer Yetzirah and the mystical practices of the German
Pietists, Abulafia articulated exegetical, meditative and contemplative
techniques that supposedly resulted in a mystical union with God. However, like the theosophic kabbalists, Abulafia rooted the mystical path in
the Hebrew language itself, which he regarded as the mother of all
languages because it is in accord with nature. God chose Hebrew to be
the language for the creation of the universe because of the unique perfect
properties of Hebrew.
To know how Hebrew serves as the medium of creation, the practitioner of kabbalah had to break down the sacred language into its atomic
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Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal

563

components the Hebrew letters and recombine their numerical value


according to a particular code, a code that Abulafia derived from the
principles of Maimonidess philosophy. This contemplative human activity,
one can surmise, was one reason why the kabbalah of Abulafia was
rejected by the leader of Castilian Jewry, Solomon ibn Adret (d. 1310), a
kabbalist committed to Nahmanidess conservative posture that kabbalah
merely transmits a specific body of received esoteric teachings. For Abulafia,
by contrast, there was no contradiction between reception of tradition
and the creative, intellectual activity. In fact, the contemplative activity
of letter combination (harkavah) was the deepest meaning of maaseh
merkavah,48 as far as Abulafia was concerned. His techniques of letter combination and visualization of letters were intended to break down the
limits of human embodiment and bring about the liberation of the
rational soul from the shackles of the body. Abulafia defined this cognitive
state as prophecy.
Abulafias kabbalah was not merely a theoretical endeavor but a fullfledged, experiential program to achieve paranormal psychic states that
culminate in a mystical union with the Active Intellect. As a result, the
human intellect attains immortality, precisely as Maimonides taught. In
addition to the performance of the commandments and rigorous learning
of philosophy and its sciences, Abulafias program included seclusion,
breathing, physical postures, recitation of divine names, visualization of
letters, and letter combination. Most of these techniques were developed
on the basis of existing Jewish practices, but some have analogues in
other mystical systems, mainly Sufism and were influenced by the
contact Abulafia had with Sufis during his travels in Palestine and the
Balkans and through the writings of ibn Arabi he encountered in
Spain.49
Since Abulafia believed that he actually attained ultimate cognitive
perfection and possessed the inner meaning of the Torah, it is no surprise
that he viewed himself both as a prophet and as a messiah. In Sicily during
the early 1290s he was actively engaged in messianic propaganda, although
he interpreted redemption in radical spiritual terms.50 Abulafia shifted
redemption from the historical to the psychological realm, minimized the
catastrophic elements of popular Jewish eschatology, and did not advocate
the departure of the Jews from the diaspora. Despite his highly individualistic
messianism, his prophetic activity was rebuffed by papal authorities, who
in the thirteenth century were most concerned with heretical implications
of mystical prophecies. While ibn Adrets opposition to Abulafia limited
the dissemination of his works in Spain, Abulafias work were preserved
in Sicily and southern Italy and would be the main source for knowledge
of kabbalah during the fifteenth century. Moreover, Abulafias notion that
the Sefirot are identical with the separate Intellects became the basis of
attempts to coordinate philosophy and kabbalah in Spain and Provence
during the fourteenth century.
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564 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal

Kabbalah as a Cultural Force


The theosophic-theurgic kabbalah of the Zohar and the ecstatic-prophetic
kabbalah of Abulafia would continue to evolve in the early modern period
and shape the history of Jews and the relations between Jews and non-Jews.
From Iberia, kabbalah spread to Italy, North Africa, and the Ottoman
Empire when the Jews were expelled in 1492 and 1497. Prior to 1492 in
Italy, the Zohar was barely known.51 Instead, the writings of Abulafia and
another philosophically oriented kabbalist, Menachem Recanati (fl.
1300),52 provided major sources of knowledge about kabbalah. As a result,
kabbalah was perceived as an ancient theoretical science with a universal
appeal, rather than as a set of practices for the proper observance of Jewish
law. Aristotelian philosophy remained the dominant interpretation of
Judaism but by the end of the fifteenth century there was a decided interest
in kabbalah among philosophically trained Jewish scholars.
In the end of the fifteenth century in Italy, Christian humanists such as
Pico della Miarndola (d. 1494), Yohannes Reuchlin (d. 1522), Guillaume
Postel (d. 1588), and Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo (d. 1532) expressed great
interest in kabbalah. They regarded kabbalah as part of prisca theologica,
which they believed culminated in the truths of Christianity,53 and believed
that Jews who know kabbalah would convert to Christianity. This was not
the first time that kabbalah was seen as the basis for conversion to Christianity; the idea had been asserted by Raymond Lull (d. 1316) who was
familiar with contemporary kabbalah in Spain and believed it could serve
as the foundation for the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Christianity.54
In the fifteenth century, Christian humanists gained access to kabbalistic
texts first through the translations of kabbalistic texts into Latin by Jewish
apostates and later through their own mastery of Hebrew. As a distinctive
interpretation of Christianity, Christian kabbalah was inseparable from the
Renaissance fascination with the occult (i.e., hidden) properties and speculations about the creative powers of language. For example Reuchlin
considered Hebrew to be a pure, natural language, the foundational structure
of the created universe. The knowledge of Hebrew (as Sefer Yetzirah
already argued) along with unique vocalization, punctuation and accents
was, therefore, conducive to knowledge of the nature as much as it was
conducive to the salvation of the individual soul.
Christian humanists initiated the publication of the Zohar in 155859
in Christian printing presses of Cremona and Mantua. If the Zohar indeed
contained spiritual truths whose revelation could bring about the redemption
of the Jewish people, publishing the Zohar was a religious obligation of
the highest order. Jews who supported the printing of the Zohar collaborated with the Christian publishers and helped in the translations of the
Zohar into Latin. The printing of the Zohar was significant in JewishChristian relations, especially because five years earlier the Talmud was
consigned to the flames accused of blasphemy against Christianity, and
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565

three years prior Jews in the Papal States were confined to ghettos. In the
Italian ghettos, kabbalah would be studied by voluntary associations, or
confraternities, who found solace in the spiritual message of the Zohar and
its symbolic understanding of reality.55 However, whereas in sixteenth-century
Italy the Zohar was perceived as part of ancient philosophic lore, in North
Africa the Zohar was regarded as a holy book that had to be treated as a
sacred object because it contains occult powers that bring concrete benefits
to those who study it.56 In the Draa Valley of Southern Morocco, kabbalah
was cultivated under the influence of local Sufi practices, such as ritualized
recitation of divine names and communication with the souls of deceased
saints.
The various strands of kabbalah, German Pietism, and Sufi-inspired
Jewish mysticism converged in Safed, as small town of in the Upper
Galilee, where kabbalah flourished in the community of Jewish refugees
from Iberia. Although several outstanding kabbalists such as Moses Cordovero
(d. 1570) made this kabbalistic fraternity exceedingly creative, it was the
leadership of Rabbi Isaac Luria (d. 1572) that would shape the history of
kabbalah for generations to come. Imbued with a strong sense of guilt and
obsessed with the reality of exile, the Iberian exiles led a very intense
religious life in expectation of the imminent coming of the messiah.57 The
kabbalists of Safed devised an elaborate spiritual program that included
ascetic practices and penances for sins in order to cultivate spiritual virtues
such as modesty and humility. The intense introspection and self-examination
was designed to purify the soul and facilitate communion with God, but
the goal was attained only if one practice specific mystical techniques such
as social isolation and seclusion, reduction of verbal communication to the
minimum, meditation and recitation of divine names, withdrawal from
contact with material objects so as to minimize bodily sensations.58 Other
practices included prostration on the grave sites of ancient rabbis to commune
with their departed saintly souls (yihudim) and outdoor peregrinations to
encounter the Shekhinah ( gerushim). The kabbalists of Safed, like the
literary figures of the Zohar, identified themselves with the suffering of
the Shekhina and acted to rescue the feminine aspect of God from its
suffering. All of these mystical techniques and practices yielded visual and
auditory revelatory experiences which were given normative power not
only because they were associated with the figure of Elijah, but because
some of the mystics, especially Joseph Karo, whose code of Jewish Law
would become normative.
Underlying the mystical practices of the Safed community was an
elaborate myth about events that took place within the Deity which
account for the disharmonious condition of universe, the human, and the
People of Israel.59 According to the Lurianic myth, the self-manifestation
of God and the self-manifestation of the cosmos are two sides of the same
coin. In the primordial condition, only the presence of God, the Ein Sof,
imaged as limitless divine light, existed. The divine reality, however, was
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566 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal

not utter simplicity, because it already consisted of mixture of good and


evil, or powers of Judgment and powers of Mercy, which are associated
with feminine and masculine forces respectively. Whether to cathartically
cleanse the divinity from forces of evil, or simply to make room for nondivine reality, the first event in the creative process was the withdrawal
(tzimtzum) of the divine light and the emergence of primeval space (tehiru)
within which the next phase of the process will take a shape. A ray of
light entered into the vacated space and formed the shapeless matter into
ten Sefirot constellated in the form of a human, the macro-anthropos
(Adam Qadmon). The details of the process vary but all interpreters agree
that the constellated divine structure was unable to sustain the divine light,
either because there was a mechanical flaw in the vessels that were to
contain the light or because of the need to refine the structure in order
to further remove any form of impurity. The result was the same: the
divine vessels were shattered and became shards or shells (kelippot)
which are the basis of corporeal world which we experience through the
senses. The Breaking of the Vessels (Shevirat ha-kelim) separated most of
the lights of the divine Compassion from the lights of divine Judgment,
but now shattered and fully materialized forces of Judgment were animated
with the strength of holy sparks that were trapped in the qellipot. In corporeal
reality, the particles of divine light, the holy sparks, which were estranged
from their sublime and transcendent origins, vitalize the world and compel
the human rescue them or release them from their entrapment.
The Breaking of the Vessels is a cosmic event that affects all level of
reality. After the initial event, the Deity entered a process of reconfiguration
in which the ten Sefirot that constitute the primordial human, the divine
macro-anthropos, known as Adam Qadmon, have been rearranged in five
partzufim (literally, faces or countenances). Each of the five Faces contains
the full structure of ten Sefirot and the entire structure is repeated throughout
the four levels of reality: Emanation, (Atzilut), Creation (Beriah), Formation (Yetzirah), and Actualization (Asiya). Since the Deity is androgynous,
it is not surprising that the rearrangement of the broken Deity is conveyed
in biological categories of conception, pregnancy, suckling, and
maturation through which the Deity gives birth to itself. Presumably,
these reorganized Faces possessed stability and strength that the earlier
manifestations of light lacked. However, the attempt of the Deity to
rehabilitate itself failed once again with the sin of disobedience in the
Garden of Eden, a sinfulness that is perpetually repeated through human
sinful activities that empower the realm of Evil. The task of humans, or
more accurately of Jews, is to complete the mending, healing, or
restoration of God (i.e., Tiqqun) through the performance of divine
commands with the appropriate intentions (kavanot).
The elaborate theogonic and cosmogonic myth served as the theoretical
rationale for the mystical life of the kabbalistic fraternity in Safed. The
task of the kabbalistic virtuoso, whose own soul has been healed by living
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567

the mystical way, is to repair the broken universe and the broken deity. In
the mending or healing of the world and of God lies the messianic import
of Lurianic kabbalah. Luria understood himself in messianic terms but did
not declare himself publicly as a messiah. In the seventeenth century Lurianic
kabbalah would inspire a messianic movement, although the messianic
claimant himself, Sabbatai Zevi (d. 1676) was inspired not by Lurianic
kabbalah but by the Zohar and other kabbalistic texts.
During the seventeenth century Lurianic kabbalah shaped Jewish culture
in Italy, Central Europe and Amsterdam, and was especially appealing to
former conversos. For example, Abraham Cohen Herrera (d. 1635) regarded
the elaborate myths of Lurianic kabbalah to be totally compatible with
renaissance Platonism, even though kabbalah was not reducible to Platonism.60 Menasseh ben Israel (d. 1657) was another ex-converso scholar in
Amsterdam who promoted kabbalah in his contacts with leading Christian
scholars such as Petrus Serrarius (d. 1669), Franciscus Mercury van Helmont
(d. 1698), and Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (d. 1687). Like Jewish
thinkers in fifteenth-century Italy,61 Ben Israel showed the affinity of kabbalah
with Platonism. Functioning like the Platonic Ideas, the letters of the
Hebrew alphabet were the lights of the Sefirot.62
The fusion of Christianity and kabbalah reached its zenith in the
court of Christian August of Sulzbach (16221708) giving rise to a mixture
of tolerant ecumenism, faith in science, and belief in progress that are
generally associated with the Enlightenment.63 As Allison Coudert has
shown, the thinkers of the Sulzbach court were familiar with the doctrines
of Lurianic kabbalah and even identified Christ with technical terminology of the Lurianic process.64 The Christian kabbalists did not simply
coordinate Christian beliefs with Lurianic terminology; they also adopted
Jewish views to argue against conventional Christian beliefs. The most
important legacy of this activity was Knor von Rosenroths Kabbalah
Denudata (1677 84), an anthology of kabbalistic texts translated into
Latin that served generations of Christian kabbalists in the following
centuries.
During the seventeenth century the Christian interest in kabbalah was
suffused with millennial expectations (including the final conversion of
the Jews) as well as a keen desire to unlock the occult secrets of the
universe, characteristic of the so-called radical Enlightenment. An
important contributor to this trend was the Swedish mystic and scientist,
Emanuel Swedenborg (d. 1772), who was active in England since 1710
and whose thought had a decisive influence on later millenarians and
mystics in the nineteenth century. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, interest in the Zohar generated translations into various vernacular
languages, endeavors undertaken by apostate Jews or by Christians for
expressed missionizing purposes.65 Philosophically, kabbalah exerted some
influence on Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (d. 1854), whose
knowledge of kabbalah was derived from Latin translations such as the
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568 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal

Kabbalah Denudata and whose interpretation of kabbalah was mediated


through the mystical theosophy of Jacob Bhme (d. 1624).66
The seventeenth century was characterized by acute messianism among
Jews and non-Jews. For Jews, the messianic convulsion was associated
with Sabbatai Zevi (d. 1675) a messianic contender whose messianic selfunderstanding was linked to antinomian acts.67 Zevis idiosyncratic behavior
and his later conversion to Islam were interpreted by Nathan of Gaza
(d. 1684) within the framework of Lurianic kabbalah, even though Zevis
personal faith was shaped more by the Zohar than by Lurianic doctrines.68
Zevis conversion to Islam did not end the movement and in fact stimulated
the systematization of Sabbatean ideology by Nathan of Gaza and other
theologians, such as Abraham Miguel Cardozo (d. 1706). The conversion
also inspired other Jews in Turkey to follow suit and formally convert to
Islam while living privately as Jews. Known as Doenmeh (literally,
reversed in Turkish) this sect was led by Baruchia Russo, who considered
himself an incarnation of Zevis soul.69 On the basis of Sabbatean ideology
he devised a full-fledged sectarian life that was rife with sexual deviant
practices as much as with acute messianism. In Padua and Hamburg there
were active Sabbatean groups, clustered in fact around well-known rabbinic
authorities: Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (d. 1746) and Jonathan Eibeschutz (d. 1764), respectively, who incurred the wrath of established rabbinic
authorities.70 The opposition did not succeed in totally eradicating
Sabbateanism. In fact, the most radical off-shoot which caused great trouble
to Jewish communities was the sect of Jacob Frank (d. 1791) in Poland
that eventually converted to Catholicism. They instigated a blood libel
against the Jewish community in Brody (1759) and challenged the rabbinic
leadership to a formal debate about the Talmud. The Frankist heresy
exacerbated the decline of rabbinic leadership in the late eighteenth century,
but did not cause it, and followers of Frankism would find their way to
secular revolutionary movements.
As much as kabbalistic ideas gave rise to heretical movements such as
Sabbateanism and Frankism, they also stimulated a Jewish spiritual revival
that would reshape the life of Eastern European Jews in the second half
of the eighteenth century Hasidism.71 The movement is associated with
Israel Baal Shem Tov (d. 1760), known as the Besht, a folk healer, magician,
and exorcist, regarded as the founder of Hasidism.72 He had only a limited
formal knowledge of kabbalistic doctrines, but what he lacked in formal
learning he surely compensated by personal charisma, organizational
power, piety, and ecstatic prayer. According to the Besht, communion with
God (devequt) is the goal of Jewish religious life for all Jews and not just
for the religious elite, and prayer is an exuberant experience filled with
joy in which negative thought are transformed into positive awareness of God.
The Hasidic master functioned as the spiritual and organizational center
of a given Hasidic community and was revered for his unique spiritual
powers which enabled him to function as an intercessor between the
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569

supernal and corporeal worlds. The ideology that justified this social institution highlighted the metaphysical interdependence between the righteous
man (tzaddiq) and his followers: the leader related to his followers as form
relates to matter. Practically it meant that the followers were responsible
for the physical sustenance of the leader and he in turn provided for their
spiritual needs. Believed to be a conduit of spiritual energy, the Hasidic
master acted as a healer, prognosticator of future events, confessor, and
miracle worker. The Hasidic master, as Idel persuasively argued, combined
ecstasy and magic: the mystical experience of the master was translated
into concrete results in the corporeal world.73
The mass appeal of Hasidism was to be found in part in its psychological
interpretation of kabbalah. Minimizing the mechanistic and catastrophic
aspects of Lurianic theology, Hasidism interpreted the major events of
Gods evolution as state of consciousness. Thus the Contraction of God
(tzimtzum) was understood to mean that God is everywhere but is concealed through various veils of ordinary human consciousness. Likewise,
the Breaking of the Vessels (shevirah) was not a catastrophic act of the
divine machinery, but as an internal conflict within ones soul, and act of
Repair (tiqqun) meant personal transformation of the individual who
meets God through the descent into ones own Self. The psychological
emphasis shifts the messianic drama from the public arena to the private
sphere, to the redemption of the individual Self. The major obstacle to
personal redemption and communion with God is the ego (the I), which
separates between God and the human. The Hasidic ideal is to minimize
the ego so that the individual is taken over by God, or by the divine light,
becoming like a vessel through which God is manifested. Because of its
mass appeal, Hasidism generated fierce opposition. The traditional opponents
(mitnagedim) of Hasidism, who regarded themselves as the protectors of the
normative tradition, considered Hasidism an affront to traditional Jewish
learning and leadership,74 whereas the proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment (the maskilim), some of whom were willing to entertain changes
in Jewish religious practices, scorned the Hasidism for its backwardness,
superstitious, and unenlightened views.75 In retrospect, notwithstanding
the critics, Hasidism actually enhanced the traditionalist camp, even though
some of the later thinkers of Hasidism were daring theologians who
skirted the boundary between nomian and anti-nomian interpretations of
Judaism.76
Kabbalah and the Search for Jewish Identity
While the proponents of Hasidism and their opponents in Eastern Europe
battled the correct interpretation of Judaism, Jews in Central and Western
Europe struggled to be granted civil rights as citizens of a modern state.
The Jewish demand for emancipation was rooted in the awareness that
Judaism is culturally backward and that if Jews are to be integrated into
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570 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal

European society, Jewish religious practices must be thoroughly transformed. Those who agitated for the reform and modernization of Judaism
adopted the logic of historical inquiry about the Jewish past and promoted
the Science of Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentums). Looking at Judaism in
a disinterested fashion, the scientific study of Judaism was to discover the
truths about the Jewish past and separate that which is essential to Judaism
(e.g., ethical monotheism) from that which is a product of historical
circumstances (i.e., the rituals of Judaism). Given the pursuit of objective
truth about the past, all claims were to be examined critically with the help
of philology and the commitment to the recovery of the past as it truly
was. The historical analysis of the past was to be applied to first and foremost
to the immediate medieval past, including the philosophical and kabbalistic
strains of medieval Judaism.
The Jewish historians of the nineteenth century were largely unsympathetic to kabbalah. The symbolic worldview of kabbalah, the valorization
of the imagination, the association with magic and astrology were all taken
to be manifestations of a superstitious worldview that was not only antithetical to modern rationalism, but also the cause for the continued backwardness of the Jews. If Jews are to be integrated into Western society and
culture, they must relinquish the commitment to kabbalah, speculative or
practical. The historical retelling of the Jewish past by Heinrich Graetz,
for example, was overtly critical of kabbalah and especially of Sefer ha-Zohar,
which for him was no more than a harmful forgery by a charlatan.77
Historical research proved that the Zohar was not was a second-century
rabbinic text, as it claimed to be, but a late thirteenth-century text.78 The
historical study of the Jewish mystical past, paradoxically enough, also
generated the publication of books previously extant in manuscripts, critical
editions of seminal texts, monographs on outstanding authors, and initial
interpretation of the historical development of the Jewish mystical tradition.
By the 1870s Jews in Western and central Europe were formally emancipated and entered all aspects of modern society, but they were by no
means socially accepted. The rise of modern, racial anti-Semitism was a
backlash to the emancipation, accentuated Jewish Otherness on the basis
of biological difference. Zionists took modern anti-Semitism as evidence
that Jews could never be fully integrated into Europe and therefore
preached departure from Europe and settlement in the Land of Israel. Two
German Zionists, Martin Buber (d. 1965) and Greshom Scholem (d.
1982), would shape the study of kabbalah in the twentieth century. Buber,
who was deeply interested in mysticism, would find in Hasidism the
answer to his own spiritual quest but it would lead him to move from
mysticism to dialogical philosophy.79 His translation of Hasidic stories into
German made Hasidism accessible to readers in the West and his interpretation of Hasidism would impact the practice of psychology because of
its emphasis on dialogue. By contrast, Scholem was committed to historicism
as practiced in German universities and used the recovery of the kabbalistic
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571

past to serve as the lever for the Zionist program of Jewish national
renewal.80 Soon after he migrated to Palestine in 1923, Scholem was
among the founders of the Hebrew University in 1925 where the study
of Jewish mysticism was to be conducted with utmost rigor of empirical
scientific method.81
Scholem professionalized the study of kabbalah, making it accessible to
scholars all over the world, Jews or non-Jews, believers on non-believers,
and Scholem designated this tradition as Jewish mysticism.82 As a Zionist,
Scholem highlighted the uniqueness of Jewish mysticism, arguing that
Jewish mystics never obliterated the boundary between the human and
God, and that Jewish mysticism remained particularistic because of its
inherent link to the Hebrew language. Scholems historicist empiricism
led him to ignore contemporary practitioners of kabbalah in Palestine,
North America, or Europe, most of whom came from Hasidic families,
struggled with modernity, and sought some reconciliation between kabbalah
and modernism. Boaz Huss, therefore, rightly labeled these attempts
modernist kabbalah.83
Scholems empiricist approach to kabbalah was perpetuated by his students
who continued to systematize the vast field of kabbalah, Sabbateanism,
and Hasidism but none of them offered an alternative to Scholems interpretation of the tradition. This state of affairs was changed when Moshe
Idel, who was not a direct student of Scholem, subjected Scholems legacy
to a comprehensive revision.84 Idel challenged Scholems claim that uniomystica is missing in Judaism and cast serious doubts about the history of
kabbalah that Scholem had outlined. Under the impact of Idels extensive
scholarship, the academic study of kabbalah has been thoroughly transformed. Current scholarship pays close attention to the phenomenology
of diverse religious experiences; highlights the interplay between kabbalah
and non-Jewish mystical traditions (e.g., Sufism, Christian mysticism, and
Hinduism); investigates the role of kabbalah in the culture of Jewish
societies in the early modern period, explores the connection between
kabbalah, magic, and shamanism; analyzes literary strategies of kabbalistic
hermeneutics and explores the aesthetic dimensions of kabbalah, and last
but not least, the scholarship reflects on the gendered aspects of kabbalah.85
As a result, kabbalah is now seen less as speculative theology and more as
a lived experienced that shapes the social world of its practitioners and
vice versa. Instead of continuity and coherence, scholars of kabbalah today
emphasize internal diversity and discontinuity and much more attention
is paid to the kabbalah as a cultural phenomenon in the present.86
In North America too the academic study of kabbalah was intertwined
with the search for Jewish identity, but the circumstances vary greatly,
because Jews are a tiny minority and because identity issues are framed
individually rather than collectively. In the counter-cultural revolution of
the late 1960s, young American Jews found the style of American suburban
synagogue unappealing and the exclusive focus on Zionist support for the
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572 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal

nascent State of Israel spiritually unsatisfying. Some spiritual seekers (the


most famous of whom are Richard Alpert, otherwise known as Ram
Dass, Allen Ginzburg, Joseph Goldstein, and Jack Kornbluth), found their
way to Buddhism, while others went back to the sources and reconnected
with traditional Judaism. An important catalyst for this development was
Abraham Joshua Heschel (d. 1972), a scion of a famous Hasidic family,
who worked closely with Buber in Germany before fleeing Europe and
settling in the U.S. Translating Hasidic teachings into a poetic critique of
modernity, Heschel offered Jewish spiritual seekers a way to be passionate
about Judaism without being culturally regressive or intellectually nave.87
Heschels legacy inspired many disaffected and assimilated Jews to return
to the literary sources of Judaism, a move that facilitated the flourishing
of Jewish Studies in universities throughout North America during the
1970s.88
The interest in traditional Judaism, especially Hasidism on American
campuses was no less indebted to the inspiring work of two adherents of
Habad branch of Hasidism, Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi (b. 1924)
and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (d. 1994). The former is an original, and
creative mystic who founded the Jewish Renewal Movement in the 1980s;
and the latter is a musician who help inspire the revival of East-European
Jewish folk music (known as Kleizmer), which encompassed many Hasidic
melodies and captured the deep yearning of Hasidic spirituality. This
Neo-Hasidic Renewal Movement encouraged the incorporation of
kabbalistic symbolic terminology and the psychological interpretation of
kabbalah, although most members of the movement neither mastered
Hebrew nor became proficient in kabbalistic texts.
Some of the activists of the Jewish Renewal Movement received
academic training at Brandeis University, the main academic institution
(in contradistinction to a religious seminary) where Jews could be trained
in the study of kabbalah in the second half of the twentieth century.
Under the tutelage of Alexander Altmann, a German-Jewish migr who
lacked Scholems Zionist convictions, a generation of American Jews
launched the academic study of kabbalah in the U.S. in the late 1960s and
1970s.89 The work of Altmanns students facilitated the study of kabbalah
and Hasidism in English and the incorporation of kabbalah into the
curriculum of Religious Studies departments in American secular universities.
The most original interpretation of kabbalah in North America is offered
by Elliot R. Wolfson, another graduate of the Brandeis program, whose
numerous studies present a phenomenological reading of kabbalah indebted
to Heideggers philosophy. Wolfson is also inspired by feminist theory and
psychoanalytic analysis of gendered language, but his conclusions about
gender in kabbalah undermine any attempt to appropriate kabbalah in
order to buttress contemporary feminist sensibilities. For the kabbalists
God is a masculine androgyne: the female is an extension of the male and
in the ideal future the female will be contained within the male.90
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573

In both Israel and the U.S., kabbalah has become a staple of contemporary popular culture, albeit for different reasons. Paradoxically, in Israel
the popular interest in kabbalah goes hand in hand with the decline of
popularity of Jewish Studies among secularist Israelis. The most important
cause of this development is the rise of post-Zionism and with it the
skeptical stance toward the national narrative and the previous commitment
to a state-sponsored ideology. Whereas in the pre-State years, the scientific
study of the past (including kabbalah) was meant to forge collective Zionist
identity, today the academic study of Judaism no longer serves a national
function.91 Israeli scholars of kabbalah continue to generate important and
creative studies, but the primary study of kabbalah takes place outside the
academy in myriad religious institutions and popular venues, all of which
use electronic media and direct marketing to attract those who seek spiritual
transformation and growth which the secular academy does not and cannot
provide.
In Israel the debate about the meaning of the Jewish State became
exceedingly painful after Israels victory in 1967. Those who interpret 1967
in messianic terms draw their inspiration from the teachings of Rabbi
Abraham Isaac Kook (d. 1935), the first Chief Ashkenazi rabbi in pre-State
Israel, who was a mystical poet with strong messianic self-perception.92 He
supported the Zionist pioneers who were committed to secularist ideologies,
especially Socialism, but he invested their activities with a messianic
meaning expressed in kabbalistic terminology. This blend of kabbalah,
messianism, and nationalism was elaborated by the son, Rabbi Zevi Yehudah
Kook (d. 1982) whose writings provided the ideological basis for the
settlements in the occupied territories. Whether religious Zionists are
inspired by Kook or by the messianic teachings of the Hasidic master,
Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav,93 the interest in kabbalah featured as part of a
political agenda to bring about the messiah through human action.
Even more important for the popularization of kabbalah is the legacy
of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag (d. 1954) who was born into Hasidic
family in Poland where he was also attuned to Communism. Settled in
Palestine in 1921, Ashlag devoted his life to the dissemination of egalitarian
and highly psychological interpretation of Lurianic kabbalah in order to
build a utopian Communist society in which one works according to
ones ability but received according to ones needs. Ashlags disciples (e.g.,
Yehuda Brandwein, Rabbi Philip Berg, and his sons, Rabbi Michael Berg
and Rabbi Judah Berg, as well as Rabbi Michael Laitman) have disseminated
their masters teaching all over the world. Under their interpretation, the
medieval tradition reserved for the few has become New-Age religion for
the many.94 Ashlags interpretation of kabbalah is promoted most successfully
by the Kabbalah Centre led by the Berg family. Directed at a mass market
of baby boomers who are obsessed with self-discovery and personal
happiness, the books of the Kabbalah Centre present kabbalah as a selfstanding, perennial wisdom that teaches us to bring prosperity into our
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574 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal

lives in every sense of the word, including the material sense.95 Instead
of esoteric interpretation of Jewish scriptures, kabbalah is presented as a
technology of self-transformation, a neutral label that is geared to appeal
to those who have experimented with practically everything and still
experience emptiness and helplessness. The marketing techniques of the
Kabbalah Centre are apparently effective, since its branches are now present
in twenty-two countries and a very rigorous study program, especially of
the Zohar, is available through Internet.96
Today kabbalah proliferates through print culture, public happenings,
performances of spiritual poetry and music, adult education courses, radio
broadcasts, columns in daily newspapers and Internet blogs. Kabbalistic
language, symbolism, and outlook are ubiquitous, helped in large part by
high-tech industry no less than the diffusion of practical kabbalah, which
includes pilgrimages to the graves of kabbalistic saints and Hasidic masters,
use of amulets and blessings to affect desired results, and marketing of
products with presumed occult powers. Since many popularizers of kabbalah
give it a highly psychological interpretation, many are attracted to kabbalah
in the belief that it can unlock the mysteries of human existence and offer
them happiness and fulfillment.97
By the turn of the twenty-first century, the utopian spirit of kabbalah
and its message of human transformation receive additional boost from the
technological developments in genetics, robotics, informatics, and nanotechnology that promise to transform humanity into a new, posthuman age.98
Those who welcome the new phase of human evolution are known as
transhumanists,99 and they hold that the convergence of new technologies
will make it possible for humans to play God by interfering in human
reproduction through genetic engineering, including human cloning. The
notion that humans who possess the mysteries of creation can create an
artificial humanoid (Golem) has a long history in kabbalistic tradition, as
we have noted above.100 Currently the legend of the Golem has come to
symbolize both human creative powers and their destructive potential,
both of which are now actualized by contemporary science. Cognitive
scientists who work on artificial intelligence are inspired by the Golem
legend,101 and Jewish bioethicists discuss the moral status of human clones
by reference to it.102 In contemporary conversations, the kabbalistic yearning
to fathom the mystery of creation seems to be in accord with the spirit
of contemporary science, and the kabbalistic view of the world as a
linguistic construct seems to cohere with the science of informatics.
Conclusion
Kabbalah is an important and creative strand within rabbinic Judaism that
desires to fathom the mysteries of God, the universe, and the Torah.
Viewing God as a dynamic reality that interacts with the human, kabbalists
believed that the revealed Torah provides the path for unlocking the
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575

mysteries of Gods inner life. The correct interpretation of the Torah and
the proper practice of the Torahs commandments presumably enable the
kabbalists to participate in the inner life of God and even empower God.
Although the roots of kabbalistic ideas could be traced to rabbinic period,
kabbalah functioned as a self-conscious program for the interpretation of
rabbinic Judaism in the middle ages, primarily in response to the rationalist
interpretation of Judaism articulated by Maimonides and his followers.
Kabbalah continued to evolve in the early modern period and functioned
as a major cultural force that shaped Jewish-Christian relations, precisely
because of the messianic import of kabbalah. Originally intended for the
intellectual elite among Jews, kabbalah became a mass phenomenon in the
seventeenth century during the messianic outburst of the Sabbatian movement and would be further popularized through its transformation in
Hasidism. Technological innovations, such as printing in the fifteenth
century and the electronic media in the twentieth century, have facilitated
the dissemination and popularization of kabbalah, and conversely, kabbalistic
ideas inspire contemporary technology.
The study of kabbalah as an academic discipline emerged in the nineteenth
century but continued to evolve in very circuitous ways in the twentieth
century, when the academic study of kabbalah was used as means to forge
collective Zionist identity and culture. At the dawn of the twenty-first
century, however, the interest in kabbalah has spilled outside the walls of
the academy as kabbalah became one of the variants of New-Age religions.
Scholars of kabbalah are generally quite weary of the celebrity status
accorded to kabbalah today and are concerned about the misuse of the
tradition, but there are also a few who examine the current popularity
of kabbalah with sociologically or anthropologically without judging,
endorsing, or condemning it. It is reasonable to believe that interest in
kabbalah will increase in the following decades but whether the results
will be positive or negative depends entirely on ones point of view.
Short Biography
Hava Tirosh-Samuelson writes on Jewish intellectual history with a focus
on the interplay of philosophy and kabbalah in pre-modern Judaism,
Jewish philosophy and feminism, Judaism and ecology, and Judaism and
science. Her articles appeared in Cambridge History of Medieval Jewish Philosophy, AJS Review, Science in Context, Feminist Theology, Oxford Handbook
of Religion and Ecology, and Zygon: Journal of Science and Religion. She is the
author of Between Worlds: The Life and Thought of Rabbi David ben Judah
Messer Leon (SUNY Press, 1991), awarded the Vizhnitzer Prize for the
best work in Jewish history in 1991 by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
She is also the author of Happiness in Premodern Judaism: Virtue, Knowledge
and Well Being (Hebrew Union College Press, 2003) that documents the
reception of Aristotelian virtue ethics in premodern Judaism. She has
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576 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal

edited Judaism and Ecology: Created World and Revealed Word (Harvard
University Press, 2002), and Women and Gender in Jewish Philosophy (Indiana
University Press, 2004). Her current research is about conceptions of
nature in Judaism and she has another edited volume in press, Judaism and
the Phenomenon of Life: The Legacy of Hans Jonas (Brill Academic Publishers).
Tirosh-Samuelson is a Professor and Associate Chair of the Department
of History at Arizona State University. She is the recipient of the Templeton
Research Lectures on Constructive Engagement of Science and Religion
(200609) for a project entitled: Facing the Challenges of Transhumanism:
Religion, Science, and Technology. Prior to joining the faculty of ASU
she taught at Indiana University, Emory University, and Columbia University.
She holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Kabbalah from the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem.
Notes
* Correspondence address: Department of History, P.O. Box 85287-4302, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-4302, USA. E-mail: hava.samuelson@asu.edu.
1

Esotericism is one of the characteristic features of the Jewish mystical tradition, rooted in the
very ideology of dual Torah, since the Oral Torah is believed to be the hidden aspect of the
Written Torah. On the logic of esotericism in the Jewish mystical tradition consult M. Idel,
Secrecy, Binah and Derisha, in H. Kippenberg and G. Stroumsa (eds.), Secrecy and Concealment
(Leiden: Brill, 1995), 313 44; E. R. Wolfson, Beyond the Spoken Word: Oral Tradition and
Written Transmission in Medieval Jewish Mysticism, in Y. Elman and I. Gershoni (eds.),
Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality and Cultural Diffusion (New Haven, CT/London:
Yale University Press, 2000), 193 206.
2
On the content of Hekhalot and Merkabah tradition and its relationship to Jewish apocalypticism, on the one hand, and to rabbinic Judaism, on the other hand see I. Grunwald, Apocalpytic
and Merkabah Mysticism (Leiden/Kln: E. J. Brill, 1980); I. Chernus, Mysticism in Rabbinic Judaism
(Berlin/New York, NY: Walter de Gruyter, 1982); J. Dan, The Religious Experience of the
Merkava, in Arthur Green (ed.), Jewish Spirituality: From the Bible through the Middle Ages, Vol. 1
(New York, NY: Crossroad, 1986), 289312; D. J. Halperin, The Faces of the Chariot (Tbingen:
J. C. B. Mohr, 1988); P. Schfer, The Hidden and the Manifest God: Some Major Themes in Early
Jewish Mysticism, trans. A. Pomerance (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992);
R. Elior, The Three Temples: On the Emergence of Jewish Mysticism, trans. D. Louvish (Oxford/
Portland, OR: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004).
3
For a critical edition of the text and the transmission of the tradition consult M. S. Cohen,
Shiur Qomah: Texts and Recensions (Tbingen: Mohr, 1985). On the conception of Gods
luminous body see A. Goshen-Gottstein, The Body as Image of God in Rabbinic Literautre,
Harvard Theological Review, 87/2 (1994): 171 95.
4
On the interplay between philosophy and kabbalah see E. R. Wolfson, Jewish Mysticism, in
D. H. Frank and O. Leaman (eds.), The History of Jewish Philosophy (New York, NY: Routledge,
1997), 450 98; H. Tirosh-Samuelson, Philosophy and Kabbalah: 1200 1600, in D. H. Frank
and O. Leaman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion of Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2003), 218 57.
5
The dominant view sees the text as a product of Hellenistic environment (Palestine, Egypt,
or Transjordan) sometimes between the second and fourth centuries. See G. Scholem, Kabbalah
(New York, NY: Schocken, 1974), 2130. Yehudah Liebes argued that the book could have
written prior to 70 CE in Northern Mesopotamia, see Y. Liebes, Ars Poetica in Sepher Yetsira
(in Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Schocken, 2000), 229 37. By contrast, Steven Wasserstrom has argued
that the text was composed in the ninth century in the Islamic East as part of the Hellenistic
revival among Shiite-Gnostic groups, see S. Wasserstrom, Sefer Yesira and Early Islam: A
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577

Reappraisal, Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 3 (1993): 20121; Wasserstrom, Further
Thoughts on the Origins of Sefer Yesirah, Aleph: Historical Studies in Science and Judaism, 2
(2002): 20121.
6
For a critical edition of the text and an English translation see P. A. Hayman, Sefer Yesirah:
Edition, Translation and Text-Critical Commentary (Tbingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004). For overview
of the evolution of the variants of the text see J. Dan, Three Phases of the History of Sefer
Yezirah, Frankfurter Judaistische Beitrage, 21 (1994): 729.
7
Liebes, Ars Poetica, 23 59.
8
There are obvious similarities between the views of Sefer Yetzirah and the Neo-Pythagorean
speculations of the mathematician Nicomachus of Gerasa in the first century CE.
9
See R. Jospe, Early Philosophical Commentaries on the Sefer Yezirah: Some Comments,
Revue des tudes juifs, 146 (1990): 369 415.
10
For analysis of Saadias philosophical proofs of creation see H. Davidson, Proofs for Eternity,
Creation, and the Existence of God in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy (New York, NY:
Oxford University Press, 1987).
11
On Saadia Gaons commentary on Sefer Yetzirah see H. Ben Shamai, Saadias Goal in his
Commentary on Sefer Yezirah, in R. Link-Salinger (ed.), A Straight Path: Studies in Medieval
Philosophy an Culture (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1988), 1 9.
12
A major contributor to the rise of kabbalistic theosophy was the R. Shabbetai ben Abraham
Donnolo (d. 982), the Italian physician, philosopher and theologian. See E. R. Wolfson, The
Theosophy of Shabbetai Donnolo, with Special Emphasis on the Doctrine of Sefirot in Sefer
Hakhmoni, Jewish History, 6 (1992): 281316.
13
On the Golem in the Jewish tradition consult M. Idel, Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical
Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990).
For the continuity between German pietism and ancient rabbinic magical traditions see E.
Kanarfogel, Peering through the Lattices: Mystical, Magical, and Pietistic Dimensions in the Tosafist
Period (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2000).
14
For discussion of the esoteric theosophy of the German Pietists and its relations to earlier
rabbinic and philosophic traditions see E. R. Wolfson, Through the Speculum that Shines: Vision
and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994),
188 269.
15
The spiritual program of German Hasidism and the politics of pietism is analyzed in I.
Marcus, Piety and Society: The Jewish Pietists of Medieval Germany (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981).
16
For an overview of the complex relations between kabbalah and the philosophy of Maimonides
see M. Idel, Maimonides and Kabbalah, in Isadore Twersky (ed.), Studies in Maimonides
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uniersity Press, 1991), 3179.
17
On the kabbalah in Provence see G. Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, ed. R. J. Z. Werblosky,
trans. A. Arkush (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication
Society, 1987), 199 364.
18
For a systematic analysis of Isaac Sagi Nahors kabbalah see B. M. Sendor, The Emergence
of Provenal Kabbalah: Rabbi Isaac the Blinds Commentary on Sefer Yezirah , Ph.D. diss.
(Harvard University, 1994); H. Pedaya, Name and Sanctuary in the Teaching of R. Isaac the Blind:
A Comparative Study in the Writings of the Earliest Kabbalists (in Hebrew) ( Jerusalem: The Hebrew
University Magnes Press, 2001).
19
On Sefer ha-Bahir see Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 49 198. For a new critical edition
consult D. Abrams (ed.), Sefer ha-Bahir: An Edition Based on Early Manuscripts (Los Angeles, CA:
Cherub Press, 1994); for a non-academic English translation consult A. Kaplan (ed. and trans.),
The Bahir (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995).
20
For an introduction to the doctrine of Sefirot see M. Hallamish, An Introduction to the Kabbalah,
trans. R. Bar-Ilan and O. Wiskind-Elper (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press,
1999), 121 66. The discussion is not limited to the Bahir but encompasses kabbalistic theosophy
in its entirety as articulated mostly but not exclusively in the Zohar.
21
On the difference between these two interpretations of the Sefirot see M. Idel, Between the
Conception of Essence and Instruments of God during the Renaissance (in Hebrew), Italia,
3 (1982): 89 111; for a less technical exposition of this issue consult D. S. Ariel, The Mystic
Quest: An Introduction (Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson, 1988), 65 88.
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578 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal


22
The meaning of gendered symbolism in the Bahir and in theosophic kabbalah in general has
been subject of intense scholarly debate. See below note 82.
23
See G. Scholem, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah, trans.
J. Neugroschel (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1991), 161.
24
See A. Green, Shekhinah: The Virgin Mary and the Song of Songs: Reflection on a
Kabbalistic Symbol in its Historical Context, AJS Review, 26 (2002): 152; P. Schfer, Mirror
of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to the Early Kabbalah (Princeton, NJ/Oxford:
Princeton University Press, 2002), 11834.
25
M. Idel, Kabbalah and Eros (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 45 9.
26
E. R. Wolfson, The Tree That Is All: Jewish Christian Roots of a Kabbalistic Symbol in
Sefer Ha-Bahir, Jewish Thought and Philosophy 3 (1993): 3176.
27
A good summary of kabbalah in Girona is available in H. J. Hames, The Art of Conversion:
Christianity and Kabbalah in the Thirteenth Century (Leiden/Boston, MA: Kln, 2002), 31 82.
28
For a comprehensive presentation of Nahmanidess worldview see H. Pedaya, Nahmanides:
Cyclical Time and Holy Texts (in Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2003). On Nahmanidess
kabbalistic approach to the biblical text see E. R. Wolfson, By the Way of Truth Aspects of
Nahmanides: Some Kabbalistic Hermeneutic, AJS Review, 14 (1989): 103 78.
29
The conservative posture of Nahmanides is spelled out in M. Idel, We Have No Kabbalistic
Tradition on This, in I. Twersky (ed.), Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (Ramban): Explorations in His
Religions and Literary Virtuosity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 5173. For
an attempt to situate Nahmandiess posture in its socio-cultural, contemporary context see Idel,
Kabbalah and Elites in Thirteenth-Century Spain, Mediterranean Historical Review, 9 (1994): 519.
30
Some of these commentaries on the Guide were written by Kabbalists (e.g., Moses de Leon,
Abraham Abulafia, Joseph Gikatila). See M. Idel, Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed and
Kabbalah, Jewish History, 18 (2004): 197226.
31
The dissemination of philosophy in thirteenth-century Spain is discussed in H. TiroshSamuelson, Happiness in Premodern Judaism: Virtue, Knowledge and Well-Being (Cincinnati, OH:
Hebrew Union College, 2003), 251 6.
32
See M. Idel, The Kabbalahs Window of Opportunities 1270 1290, in E. Fleischer, G.
Blidstein, C. Horowitz and B. Septimus (eds.), Meah Shearim: Studies in Medieval Jewish Spiritual
Life in Memory of Isadore Twersky (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2001), 171208.
33
For excellent introduction to the Zohar consult A. Green, A Guide to the Zohar (Stanford,
CA: Stanford University Press, 2004). This volume was written as an introduction to the new
English translation of the Zohar by D. Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2004 2007). Very useful in unpacking the Zoharic text is P. Giller, Reading
the Zohar: The Sacred Text of the Kabbalah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). On the
function of the imagination in Zoharic hermeneuitics see Wolfson, Through the Speculum that
Shines, 326 92.
34
The idea that the Zohar is a product of a mystical fellowship was first proposed by Y. Liebes,
Studies in the Zohar, trans. A. Schwartz, S. Nakache, and P. Peli (Albany, NY: State University
of New York press, 1993), 85 138. It is largely accepted by scholars of kabbalah today, even
though there are no references for the existence of such group in other historical documents
of the period. Liebes has recently moved further to claim that the Zoharic group reflected a
spiritual movement that exercised decisive influence on later Judaism. See Y. Liebes, Zohar
and Tiqquney Zohar: From Renaissance to Revolution (in Hebrew), in Ronit Meroz (ed.),
New Developments in Zohar Studies (Ramat Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 2007), 252. Cf. Liebes,
Zohar as Renaissance, Daat: Journal of Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah, 46 (2001): 5 11.
35
See E. R. Wolfson, The Book of the Pomegranate: Moses de Leons Sefer ha-Rimon (Atlanta, GA:
Scholars Press, 1988).
36
For a rich and nuanced discussion of the Zoharic portrayal of R. Shimon bar Yohai and his
mystical fraternity see M. Hellner-Eshed, A River Issues Forth from Eden: On the Language of
Mystical Experience in the Zohar (in Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2005).
37
See Robert Chazan, Barcelona and Beyond: The Disputation of 1263 and Its Aftermath (Berkeley/
Los Angeles, CA/Oxford: University of California Press, 1992).
38
See Tirosh-Samuelson, Happiness in Premodern Judaism, 300 9.

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39

Zohar 156a. It is intriguing to note that Light of the World is a phrase that refers to Jesus
in Christian liturgy. Indeed, in the Easter Vigil a single great candle, the Paschal Candle, was
the only illumination. It was placed on the ground in front of the altar to represent the fact
that hope was at its lowest point, that the Light of the World was brought low, and that Christ
had assumed perishable flesh in order to save man. J. W. Harris, Medieval Theater in Context:
An Introduction (New York, NY/London: Routledge, 1992), 29. It is not too far fetched to
conjecture that the Zohars depiction of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai as the Light of the World
could have been intended as a Jewish rebuttal of Christian doctrine especially as they dramatized
on stage and in the liturgy during the thirteenth century.
40
The importance of Christian context was recognized by Liebes, Studies in the Zohar, 13962.
On Christian interest in kabbalah during the thirteenth century, especially as exhibited by
Raymon Llull see Hames, Art of Conversion, 118 89. The integration of Llulls idiosyncratic
system and kabbalah was made during the Renaissance and both Llull and Christian Kabbalists
were motivated by the desire to bring about the collective conversion of the Jews.
41
See I. Tishby and F. Lachower (eds. and trans.), The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of
Texts, trans. D. Goldstein (London/Washington, DC: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization
1989), 1:30 55.
42
On the reception of the Zohar see B. Huss, Sefer ha-Zohar as a Canonical, Sacred, and Holy
Text: Changing Perceptions of the Book of Splendor between the Thirteenth and Eighteenth
Centuries, The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 7 (1997): 257307; Huss, Zohar
Translations (in Hebrew), in Meroz (ed.), New Developments in Zohar Studies, 33 107.
43
For overviews of Abulafias kabbalah see G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New
York, NY: Schocken, 1941), 119 55; M. Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press, 1988, 59 73); E. R. Wolfson, Abraham Abulafia Kabbalist and Prophet:
Hermeneutics, Theosophy and Theurgy (Los Angeles, CA: Cherub Press, 2000).
44
For analysis of the mystical aspects in Abulafia see M. Idel, The Mystical Experience in Abraham
Abulafia (in Hebrew) ( Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 1988); Idel, Studies in
Ecstatic Kabbalah (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), 131; Idel, Mysticial
Techniques, in Lawrence Fine (ed.), Essential Papers on Kabblaah (New York, NY: New York
University Press, 1995), 438 94.
45
On the kabbalah of divine names see M. Idel, Defining Kabbalah: The Kabbalah of the
Divine Names, in R. A. Herrera (ed.), Mystics of the Book, Themes, Topics and Typologies (New
York, NY: Peter Lang), 97122.
46
For Abulafias understanding of the Sefirot see Wolfson, Abraham Abulafia, 94 177.
47
It is important to note that while Abulafia developed his views on the basis of Maimonides,
he deviated from the master in regard to the Divine Names.
48
In Jewish mysticism of antiquity, maaseh merkabah (The Account of the Chariot) was the
technical term to denote the privileged information gained in experiences of ascent to heaven.
In the Guide of the Perplexed Maimonides identified this technical term with Aristotelian metaphysics.
49
On the influence of this Muslim mystic-philosopher on kabbalah see R. Keiner, Ibn al-Arabi
and the Qabbalah: A Study of Thirteenth Century Iberian Mysticism, Studies in Mystical Literature,
2/2 (1982): 2652.
50
On Abulafias messianic activity in Sicily see Idel, Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, 45 61; Idel,
Messianic Mystics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 58 100.
51
On the lack of access to the Zohar in Italy prior to 1492 see M. Idel, Major Currents in
Italian Kabbalah between 1560 and 1660, in D. B. Ruderman (ed.), Essential Papers in Jewish
Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1992),
107169; Idel, Particularism and Universalism in Kabbalah, 1480 1650, op. cit., 324 44.
52
On this kabbalist see M. Idel, R. Menachem Renacanti the Kabbalist (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem/
Tel Aviv: Schocken, 1998).
53
For overview of Christian kabbalah in the Renaissance consult J. L. Blau, The Christian
Interpretation of the Cabbalah in the Renaissance (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1965
[1944]); K. S. de Len-Jones, Giordano Bruno and the Kabbalah: Prophets, Magicians, and Rabbis
(New Haven, CT/London: Yale University Press, 1997).
54
The conversionary intent of Lluls program and its interpretation in the Renaissance is
explored by H. J. Hamess work cited in note 27 above.
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580 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal


55
On Kabbalah in Italian Jewish culture see R. Bonfil, Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy, trans. A.
Oldcorn (Berkeley/Los Angeles, CA/London: University of California Press, 1994), 145 67;
David B. Ruderman, Kabbalah, Magic and Science: The Cultural Universe of a Sixteenth Century
Jewish Physician (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).
56
See note 42 above.
57
For a detailed of the Safed community see L. Fine, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos:
Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 4177.
58
The various mystical techniques used by Lurianic kabbalists are described in ibid., 259 99.
59
The Lurianic myth is summarized in ibid., 124 49. For analysis of the differences between
the Zoharic and Lurianic symbolism consult, Y. Liebes, Myth vs. Symbol in the Zohar and in
Lurianic Kabbalah, in Fine (ed.), Essential Papers on Kabbalah, 212 42.
60
On this important interpreter of Lurianic kabbalah and an English translation of his major
work, Puerta del Cielo, see K. Krabbenhoft, Abraham Cohen de Herrera: Gate of Heaven (Leiden/
Boston, MA: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002). For exposition of Herreras thought see Krabenhoft,
Syncretism and Millennium in Herreras Kabbalah, in M. Goldish and R. H. Popkin (ed.),
Jewish Messianism in the Early Modern World (Dordrecht/Boston, MA/London: Kluwer Academic
Publishers, 2001), 6576; N. Yosha, Myth and Metaphor: Abraham Cohen Herreras Philosophic Interpretation of Lurianic Kabbalah (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 1994).
61
The association of the Sefirot with Platonic Ideas was suggested in the late fifteenth century
in the writings of David Messer Leon, Isaac Abravanel, and his son, Judah Abrabanel. See M.
Idel, The Magical and Neoplatonic Interpretation of the Kabbalah in the Renaissance, in B.
D. Cooperman (ed.), Jewish Thought in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 186 242.
62
On Menasseh ben Israels integration of kabbalah and Platonism see M. Idel, Kabbalah,
Platonism, and Prisca Theologia: The Case of R. Menasseh ben Israel, in Y. Kaplan, H.
Mchoulan, and R. H. Popkin (eds.), Menasseh ben Israel and His World (Leiden/New York,
NY/Kbenhaven/Kln: E. J. Brill, 1989), 199 219.
63
A. P. Coudert, The Kabbalah Denudata: Converting Jews or Seducing Christians, in R.
Poplin and G. M. Weiner (eds.), Jewish-Christians and Christians Jews: From the Renaissance to the
Enlightenment (Dordrecht/Boston, MA/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994), 75.
64
Ibid., 80.
65
See Huss, Zohar Translations, 48 77. The Zohar was first translated into Yiddish and
Ladino, the languages spoken by Jews, and was into the European vernaculars of German,
English, and French. The translations into Hebrew during the twentieth century reflected the
revival of Hebrew as a spoken language of the Jews.
66
On Kabbalah in Schellings philosophy see E. R. Wolfson, Alef, Mem, Tau: Kabbalistic Musings
on Time, Truth, and Death (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006), 34 42.
67
The standard study of Sabbatai Zevis biography and the history of the Sabbatian movement
consult G. Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1973). For a very different interpretation consult Idel, Messianic Mystics, 183 211. For
perceptions of Zevi among his Jewish contemporaries see D. J. Halperin, Sabbatai Zevi: Testimonies
to a Fallen Messiah (London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2007); for perception
of Zevi in the Christian community see R. H. Popkin, Christian Interest and Concerns about
Sabbati Zevi, in M. D. Goldish and R. H. Popkin (ed.), Jewish Messianism in the Early Modern
World (Dordrecht/Boston, MA/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001), 91106.
68
Y. Liebes highlighted the difference between messianic self-understanding of Zevi and Nathan
of Gazas interpretation of Zevi. Y. Liebes, Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism, trans.
B. Stein (Albany, NY: State University Press of New York, 1993), 93 106. Moshe Idel, by
contrast, argued that Zevis messianism reflected a certain type of symbolism in classical kabbbalistic
books, which could be reflected in the inner life of a mystic who became a messiah. See Idel,
Messianic Mystics, 188.
69
On the Doenmeh consult Scholem, Kabbalah, 32732. The sect survived into the twentieth
century and some of its members supported the modernizing revolution of the early twentieth
century.
70
On the rabbinic campaign to eradicate Sabbatean heresies see E. Carlebach, The Pursuit of
Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatian Controversies (New York, NY: Columbia University
Press, 1990).

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581

71
Excellent papers on Hasidism are available in G. D. Hundert (ed.), Essential Papers on Hasidism:
Origins to the Present (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1991).
72
For new biographies of Israel Baal Shem Tov see M. Rosman, Founder of Hasidism: A Quest
for the Historical Baal Shem (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996); E. Etkes, The
Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press; Hanover, NH/
London: University Press of New England, 2005).
73
See M. Idel, Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic (Albany, NY: State University of New York
Press, 1995); Idel, Messianic Mystics, 212 47.
74
See A. Nadler, The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rupture (Baltimore,
MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).
75
See R. Mahler, Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment: Their Confrontation in Galicia and Poland
in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia, PA: the Jewish Publication Society of
America, 1985).
76
Rabbi Mordecai Joseph Lainer of Izbica (d. 1854) and his grandson, Gershom Henokh Lainer
of Radzin (d. 1891) illustrate this trend. See S. Magid, Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation,
Antinomianism, and Messianism in Izbica/Radzin Hasidism (Madison, WI: The University of
Wisconsin Press, 2003).
77
See Tishby, Wisdom of the Zohar, 1:44.
78
See ibid., 58 96. Those who believe in the sanctity of kabbalah do not accept the findings
of modern scholarship about kabbalah. The issue is ultimately a matter of faith and cannot be
resolved a-priori.
79
On Bubers intellectual development see P. Mendes-Flohr, From Mysticism to Dialogue: martin
Bubers Transformation for German Social Thought (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1989).
80
Scholem reflected at extensively on the fusion of Zionism and scholarship of kabbalah in the
interview with Muki Tzur, see G. Scholem, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, ed. W. J. Danhauser
(New York, NY: Schocken, 1976), 1 48. For overviews of Scholems life and contribution to
the modern study of kabbalah see P. Mendes-Flohr (ed.), Gershom Scholem: The Man and His
Work (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994); D. Biale, Gershom Scholem,
Kabbalah and Counter History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).
81
On the role of the study of kabbalah in the formation of Zionist identity and the curriculum
of the Hebrew University see D. N. Myers, Reinventing the Jewish Past (New York, NY: Oxford
University Press, 1995).
82
The designation of kabbalah as Jewish mysticism has been subject to subject to recent
reappraisals. See J. Dan, On Sanctity (in Hebrew) ( Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes
Press, 1998), 13154; S. Waserstrom, Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and
Henri Corbin at Eranos (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); B. Huss, The
Mystification of Kabbalah and the Myth of Jewish Mysticism (in Hebrew), Peamim, 110
(2007): 9 30.
83
On Rabbi Ashlag and his idiosyncratic fusion of Communism and kabbalah see B. Huss,
Altruist Communism: The Modernist Kabbalah of Rav Ashlag (in Hebrew), Iyyunim
be-Tequmat Yisrael, 16 (2006): 10930.
84
M. Idels Kabbalah: New Perspectives caused a major uproar in Israel because it challenged
Scholems prominence as a scholar and an interpreter of Zionism. For analysis of the public
debate and framing of Idels critique of Scholem see H. Tirosh-Rothschild, Continuity and
Revision in the Study of Kabbalah, AJS Review, 18 (1991): 161 91.
85
For Idels overview of the field of kabbalah studies see M. Idel, Academic Studies of kabbalah
in Israel, 1923 1998: A Short Survey, Studia Judaica, 8 (1998): 91114.
86
See J. Garb, The Chosen Will Become Herds: Studies in 20th Century Kabbalah (in Hebrew)
( Jerusalem: Shalom Hartman Institute, 2005).
87
For a biography of Heschel and overview of his spiritual legacy see E. K. Kaplan and S. H.
Dresner, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness (New Haven, CT/London: Yale University
Press, 1998); E. K. Kaplan, Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 19401972
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).
88
For an overview of the role the academic study of Judaism has played in the formation of
Jewish collective identity in America consult S. J. D. Cohen and L. Greenstein, The State of
Jewish Studies (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1990); P. Ritterband and H. S.

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582 Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal


Wechsler, Jewish Learning in American Universities: The First Century (Bloomington, IN: Indiana
University, 1994).
89
Scholars of kabbalah trained by Altmann include Bracha Sack, Arthur Green, Kalman Bland,
Daniel Matt, and Lawrence Fine among others. The most lasting legacy will be the translation
of the Zohar into English with commentary by Daniel C. Matt cited above.
90
For an example of Wolfsons numerous studies on gender see E. R. Wolfson, Circle in the
Square Studies in the Gender in Kabbalistic Symbolism (Albany, NY: State University of New York
Press, 1995). Wolfsons approach has been criticized by Idel, Kabbalah and Eros, 97103, 12834,
but largely endorsed by D. Abrams, The Female Body of God in Kabbalistic Literature: Embodied
Forms of Love and Sexuality in the Divine Feminine ( Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes
Press, 2005) as far as reliance on contemporary feminist and psychoanalytic categories.
91
A very thoughtful reflection about the state of Jewish Studies in Israeli culture today is offered
by S. Peled, Shredded Identities (in Hebrew) ( Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press,
2007).
92
For analysis of Rav Kooks thought see L. Kaplan and D. Shatz (eds.), Rabbi Abraham Isaac
Kook and Jewish Spirituality (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1995).
93
For a biography of R. Nahman of Bartslav see A. Green, Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi
Nahman of Bratslav (Birmingham, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1979).
94
For an assessment of this phenomenon see B. Huss, The New Age of Kabbalah: The New
Age and Postmodern Spirituality, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, 6/2 (2007): 10725.
95
M. Berg, The Way: Using the Wisdom of Kabbalah for Spiritual Transformation and Fulfillment
(Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Son, 2001), 126.
96
For analysis of the Kabbalah Centre consult J. Myers, Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The
Kabbalah Centre in America (Westport, CT/London: Praeger, 2007).
97
A typical example of this genre is I. Aricha, Kabbalah and Secret of Happiness: A Guide to SelfFulfillment (in Hebrew) ( Jerusalem: Keter, 2005).
98
For a positive overview of these trends see R. Bailey, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral
Case for the Biotech Revolution (New York, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005). For a critical overview of these developments see F. Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnological Revolution (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).
99
Extensive information about transhumanism is available on http://www.asu.edu/transhumanism.
100
On the legend of the Golem in Jewish culture see B. Sherwin, The Golem Legend: Origins and
Implications (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984) and the work by Idel cited above.
101
See Norbert Wiener, God and Golem, Inc. A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics
Impinges on Religion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964).
102
For Jewish halakhic arguments in favor of cloning that make use of the Golem tradition see
B. Sherwin, Golems among Us: How Jewish Legend Can Help Us Navigate the Bioethic Century
(Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2004).

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