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Essays

RECENT LITERATURE ON CHRISTIAN KABBALAH
Saverio Campanini
If one considers the scant esteem in which Christian Kabbalah was held, having been termed a step-child of theology, one can maintain that its study developed quite beyond the most optimistic forecast of its initiators.1 Not only did its academic ranking grow without interruption but, especially in recent years, its study has been so favourably reconsidered that it almost challenges that of Kabbalah itself, that is to say of Jewish Kabbalah. Christian Kabbalah has become a fundamental issue for understanding the kabbalistic revival which took place in the last century and does not seem to have settled down in the century that has just begun. After the pioneering studies of Gershom Scholem, Joseph Blau, François Secret, Chaim Wirszubski, and Frances Yates, we note in the last years the first signs of a new stage in the study of this interesting phenomenon. Examining two recent contributions to the field, I would like here to point out a possibly undesirable development, whose roots are in some sense intertwined with the very nature of a paradoxical nonJewish Kabbalah. Moreover, I will try to suggest how we could avoid evident dangers and unnecessary misunderstandings Speaking of dangers, the most serious one, in my opinion, is the concept of Christian Kabbalah itself, which was defined with remarkable efforts by the authors of the preparatory studies dating back to the 1950s and 1960s and is being radically questioned in favour of a more elastic notion tending to encompass virtually all occurrences of the word Kabbalah in a non-Jewish context and coming to signify, more or less, anything whatsoever. I would call this a very serious problem, if the sense of proportions would not forbid it, particularly because it affects in a very similar way also the academic study of the Kabbalah tout court, especially after the death of Gershom Scholem (1982), which marks an essential turning point in the recent historiography of Jewish mysticism. A process of revision touching on single statements and even the general view of the discipline as established by Gershom Scholem is inevitable and, according to many, highly welcome; nevertheless the revisionists’ theses have not always brought about a real advancement of
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our knowledge nor an amelioration of our heuristic tools. Similarly, the studies dedicated to Christian Kabbalah, too, far from profiting from hastily conducted revisions, on many occasions show the traces of a conceptional uncertainty, not to say of a regrettable confusion. If one underlines the undeniable, deep influence of the Christian kabbalist Franz Joseph Molitor on the metaphysical premises motivating the explorations of the young Scholem, one ends up implying, or rather stating, that Scholem himself, who was beyond any doubt no Jewish mystic but an external observer of Kabbalah, could be reduced to the genealogical chain (which he himself first proposed) of Western researchers of Jewish mysticism, inaugurated by Johannes Reuchlin or, in a certain sense, by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. The short circuit, very post-modern and therefore quite attractive, manifests itself in the intentionally paradoxical statement that Scholem himself could be defined as a Christian kabbalist.2 We can leave this interesting de-constructionist puzzle for another occasion and ask directly the question, according to the perspective chosen for this review, if there is still a consensus, if not a normative, binding definition of what Christian Kabbalah means, in order to connect the different contributions to the field in some sort of common discourse. We thought we knew what the traditional definition of Christian Kabbalah implies but, reading the most recent academic production, we note a proliferation of personal definitions destined, by their very nature, to be functional slogans appropriate for fulfilling academic requirements, to last no longer than l’espace d’une dissertation. These remarks do not conceal any sort of censorial agenda, but are aimed rather at searching for some clear vision and exploring whether it need be that the majority of recent contributions seem unable to find a way of dialogue with other researchers engaged in the field, dealing, apparently, with absolutely disparate, or even incompatible subjects. As a discipline of the arcane exists, we believe a discipline of the manifest also exists: in its name we will attempt this brief survey and, through two examples of recent research dedicated to Christian Kabbalah, we will try to find out whether a new consensus could emerge from the data at our disposal and from the rich list of desiderata which, as is well known, has not grown shorter in recent years.3
See Steven M. Wasserstrom, Religion After Religion. Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade and Henry Corbin at Eranos, Princeton/NJ 1999. 3 I have reviewed, in the Journal of Jewish Studies, two other recent contributions dedicated to Christian Kabbalah: Karen De León-Jones, Prophets, Magicians, and Rabbis. Giordano Bruno and
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See Ernst Benz, Die christliche Kabbala. Ein Stiefkind der Theologie, Zürich 1958.

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the most positively minded thing one can say about Beitchman’s book is that it constitutes an involuntary.4 written by Philip Beitchman. It is quite difficult to criticize Beitchman’s philosophical speculations because they are developed on a programmatically different plane. therefore. But. 6 . Cambridge/MA 1997. supposedly valid for all approaches to Jewish mysticism.e. His starting point – the thesis according to which the kabbalistic theory of language was revived in Western aesthetics. without the appropriate Hebraistic tools. that the latter is to be 8 Andreas B. Bibliographica Kabbalistica and The Kiss of the Spouse. an impossible enterprise. The essay is a quite refined. Albany/NY 1998. We will therefore limit our discussion to the third chapter. beyond any doubt. We will carefully avoid. such as the title proposed for the Italian Piazza universale di tutte le professioni del mondo. between genuine and pseudo-Kabbalah deserves to be defended or not. We read of unheard-of names such as Pietro di Galantini6 or of a certain Joseph Pfefferkorn. historical. but the drift of the “differ(a)nce” could no longer be halted: the next amazing leap the Kabbala. especially in a field in which complete bibliographical surveys and reliable orientations are still woefully lacking. but even a simple list of the mistakes occurring in this bibliography would fill all the space at our disposal. but at the same time it contributes to the misleading picture of a one-stream transmission. must fail. nor does it provide the reader with reliable information.5 In the design of the author this is a commented bibliography on Christian Kabbalah. one merit: it should help to warn us against tackling a slippery subject.8 Kilcher displays. Die Sprachtheorie der Kabbala als ästhetisches Paradigma. The book is divided into four chapters (In the Beginning. unassailable if one does not share the premises of the author. rhetorically as well as factually. A copied work – at least this was clear to the discarded old philology – could only worsen the original: here one can say. subsumed in a single coherent model (Kilcher’s paradigma). A quite different book. one must object: if every reading is a misreading. Without implying anything about the legitimacy of postmodern hermeneutics and its drift or rhizome readings. 5 We will remark. which is intended as an hommage to Gershom Scholem and his Bibliographia Kabbalistica.. based on a very personal identification of the latter with the Zohar and a “rhizomatic” theory drawing heavily upon the thought of the French philosophical duo G. unlike Beitchman. the hermeneutical operation suggested by Kilcher.7 but far more interesting are the imaginative translations suggested by Beitchman. stemming from Gershom Scholem. of course. 7 His correct Christian name was Johannes. Die Konstruktion einer ästhetischen Kabbala seit der Frühen Neuzeit. The Secret of Agrippa. pronouncing Kilcher’s attempted experiment a failure. Kilcher bearing the title Die Sprachtheorie der Kabbala als ästhetisches Paradigma. that Beitchman seems convinced that the title of Scholem’s book is Bibliographica kabbalistica! 6 We believe the author meant Pietro Galatino. but his diffusely argued plea does not fully convince. although not without some analogies as far as the method and the project are concerned. Cabala in England [1497–1700]). in its core. Stuttgart 1998. is represented by the essay of Andreas B. and the astounded reader. intentional misreading. written by Tommaso Garzoni: the piazza of the Italian title becomes unexpectedly a castle. Jewish Mystical Books and Their Christian Interpreters. not all of them concerning our subject: the author aims at an original reconstruction of the history of Kabbalah. The Christian Kabbalah. in order to be successful. it could be synthesized in the following formula: to read Schlegel with Harold Bloom’s spectacles. Guattari. i. 4 Philip Beitchman. rather we will try to find some clues there to decide whether the old distinction. Nonetheless. paying no attention to historical developments or to differences among diverse kabbalistic doctrines – correctly expresses the situation concerning relatively late authors who allude to a vague kabbalistic ideology. such as Christian Kabbalah.Essays The first book we are going to examine bears the inviting title Alchemy of the Word. that Beitchman’s book is at its best a bad compilation of not always excellent sources. this book still has. Cabala in the Renaissance. a very much awaited enterprise. The aim of this book is not. Alchemy of the Word. and Joseph Dan (ed. also author of the essay I Am a Process With No Subject. Cabala in the Renaissance. which means bulwark. brings Beitchman. in my opinion. Probably the author had in mind the Italian word piazzaforte. claiming to be objectively founded on the examined texts. Kilcher. indeed. On the basis of this doubtful foundation it was far from difficult for Beitchman to find associative connections with the interior castle of the allegedly kabbalistically minded Teresa of Avila. A complete catalogue of the omissions is. published for the first time in 1927. If we examine Christian Kabbalah against the background of Scholem’s suggested definition of Jewish Kabbalah. philosophical alertness. New Haven and London 1997. before the walls of Kafka’s Castle. Unfortunately we must conclude that Beitchman’s bibliographical tour de force does not adequately fill the aforementioned lacuna.). Deleuze and F. catastrophic parody thereof. although paradoxes constitute the daily bread of those interested in Christian Kabbalah. en passant.

Essays understood as a genuinely Jewish phenomenon. This was. almost clandestine. in my opinion. in a Christian environment. the one of the construction of a metaphysic of Kabbalah. but simply possible. But Scholem. but we would rather ask: is this book also useful in helping us to better understand Christian Kabbalah? His definition of Christian Kabbalah is functional to his purpose of making sense of many modern texts where the mention of Kabbalah is only a very pale echo of a faded memory. also in kabbalistic matters. for. it is safe to go back to the texts. We are not obliged to follow the metaphysical agenda concealed. One could say that Kilcher. anachronistic antipathy toward the de-constructive approach: as a matter of fact. The aim of the distinction between Christian kabbalists who took the trouble to learn Hebrew and Aramaic in order to read the sources of kabbalistic knowledge and the ones who simply evoked Jewish Kabbalah in order to smuggle their own speculations is not to confer legitimacy on one ideology rather than on another. to the intrinsic structure of Kabbalah itself nor because. To this very day we are forced to use editions which fulfil. Referring to the famous simile suggested by Scholem about the philology of Kabbalah being sheep’s clothing under which a wolf is presumably hiding. at best. the accent of current debate seems to fall more on the wolf rather than on the sheep. under the historical “incognito” surrounding Scholem’s literary activity. not as an open door for obliterating all relevant qualitative differences. maybe even infinite ones. say. and we still know too little about the paths of diffusion of Jewish mystical themes in the Western world. according to the common sense. trying to help us to ascertain why some books are good and many are bad. precisely the reason behind Scholem’s taste for definitions and particularly behind his binding definition of what constituted genuine Kabbalah. the edifice which has to be de-constructed. has to be seen as an opportunity to make the kabbalistic discourse understandable. Does this mean that no difference is possibly justified between. but leave unfulfilled the wish for scientific criteria with respect to textual constitution and datation. as Kilcher seems to believe. Entire systems and academic careers have been built on an extremely fragile textual base. first needs to be built. many facets. but as such seems too vague to be heuristically powerful. who once had the weakness to confess that the philology of a mystical discipline has something ironic about it. is a possible and highly desirable enrichment of our knowledge about the sources nurturing the Christian kabbalistic ideology. The usage of the term Kabbalah by Christian authors. has collected the major part of the relevant literature. so freely open to inventiveness. and it seems that this model has no place for Christian Kabbalah. whether Jewish or Christian. now that the ideological Zionist transplantation of the Wissenschaft des Judentums has revealed all its limitations: whenever an ideological construction crumbles. of the philology of mystical texts. Precisely this point should become clear to our generation. Kilcher’s book finds its place among other contributions. mostly availing of the texts published in the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. In the academic study of Kabbalah (Kilcher suggested the term “endogenous” Kabbalah. still in manuscript form. paying respect to their language and to the historical context in which they were composed and read. Christian Kabbalah acceptable as the forerunner of the academic study of Jewish Kabbalah on a historical basis. according to Joseph Weiss. What is lacking. In other words: only a philological approach can help us out of the impasse of modern ideology. with great reliability. was also committed to another path. The return to the sources does not imply a nostalgic. to fit into concepts which were extraneous to its original agenda (giving 7 . The Torah has many aspects. whatever the vox populi might opine. then the former must be impossible. Nonetheless a faulty edition provided by pious circles in Israel or in the United States is far better than a general theory based on manuscripts which are completely inaccessible for the reader who does not live in the neighbourhood of Giv‘at Ram. it was forced. but this does not mean that every statement is equally correct. should be gauged according to the distance from the original kabbalistic sources: this distance. showing once more his awkward feeling for the inappropriate formulation) the biggest problem is that the main bulk of the relevant sources lies semi-forgotten in libraries and archives. but not always finding the appropriate linguistic formulation. systematizing it in an ambitious frame. His aim was not to make the study of Kabbalah more interesting. in his ideological scheme. that is. with all its shortcomings. as Beitchman assumes. Reuchlin’s De arte cabbalistica and Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe or Thornton Wilder’s Cabala? Scholem considered. not everything can be said. In the large undertaking to revise Scholem’s ideology. religious requirements and bear the appropriate haskamah. We should rather take his preparatory works at face value and persevere on this long road. somehow structural. Kabbalah was seriously misunderstood in the course of its diffusion in the Western world but this was not due.

Essays birth to an “exogenous” Kabbalah). The crudest deformations and the most outrageous mistakes in the Kabbalah’s difficult journey among the Christians are due. as we have seen. at the meeting point of cultures and religions. about Jewish Kabbalah) based on new surveys of the sources. simply and predictably. reviewing the still unsurpassed Les Kabbalistes Chrétiens de la Renaissance by François Secret: “He reaches no conclusions. which is still beyond our comprehension. Free University of Berlin. between reliable sources and blind alleys. Milano 1985. xiii. Secret could respond: “Que de livres et de manuscrits avons-nous examinés depuis 1964. Francesco Zorzi and Eliphas Levi. 10 François Secret. p. 8 . _______________________________ Saverio Campanini is Lecturer in Jewish Studies in the Institute of Jewish Studies.9 In his reprint of the latter work. in the name of a “received knowledge” (Kabbalah). Les Kabbalistes Chrétiens de la Renaissance. It is more urgent than ever to strive for a description of the Christian kabbalistic phenomenon (but the same could be said. it is more than ever urgent and legitimate to defend the distinction between serious researchers and charlatans. qui invitent à retarder encore toute synthèse prématurée!”10 We can only comment that these words have not lost their validity in our own day. but whose importance as a cornerstone for the history of Jewish Studies can no longer be underestimated. say. 9 Frances Yates. p. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. Therefore. nouvelle édition mise à jour et augmentée. Only afterwards will it be possible to lay the foundation of an historical synthesis to try to elucidate this still obscure page of Western history. 227. In her Rosicrucian Enlightenment Frances Yates observed. and his book is more in the nature of a bibliography than a book”. to ignorance and the hear-say transmission of knowledge. London 1972. between. on a critical revision of the relevant bibliography and on a renewed impulse to edit the many texts which still lie unread in many European libraries.