Klener J. Scholem Gershom. Origins of the Kabbalah. In: Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire , tome 67, fasc. Princeton, Jewish Publication Society, ; 1 vol.
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Within a generation after the 19th-Century Jewish Emancipation and Enlightenment most Jews had forgotten that Judaism has a mystical tradition. That this mystical tradition should be more familiar to the average Jew today than to our grandparents is entirely the result of one of the most prodigious feats of scholarship of this century. Gershom Scholem, whose name has become synonymous with the study of Jewish mysticism, is single-handedly responsible for a Copernican revolution in the understanding of this strand of the Jewish religious tradition.
For this, Scholem is regarded not simply as the paramount Judaic scholar of the day, but as one of the preeminent intellectuals of the century. Scholem embodies a paradox. His own intellect and his methodology are the product of the Enlightenment. His subject matter is the stuff of the pre-Enlightenment age. Himself the child of Wissenschaft des Judentums-- the objective academic study of Judaism--he devoted his career to studying material that Wissenschaft scholarship spurned and derided.
The master of so much of the mystical tradition, he was not himself a mystic. Because of the penetrating light that he has cast into the darkness of the past, Scholem has opened the door of the legitimation of the non-rational component in Judaism as practiced in our day. Through him, the understanding of Jewish religious thought has been freed from the shackles of being a philosophy alone. Scholem in his own day was a religious figure of a kind not encountered before.
He did not claim to have received a revelation, preach a new doctrine or establish a community. He taught in an objective tone in a secular setting.
And yet he helped define the religious agenda of Jewish life. Though he would likely have been the first to reject the designation, Scholem was a Rebbe , the scholar as religious sage. Paradoxically, it is also, in a way, among the first.
The book before us has an interesting history of its own. As his explorations continued, the book took new form in a German translation in , which while maintaining the original theses, was double the size of the Hebrew work because of the amplification of detail.
Now, five years after his death, the book has been translated into English in a remarkable collaboration. Translated from the German by Dr. Zwi Werblowsky. Here he has sought to incorporate the results of more than 20 years of intensive research since the appearance of the German version. In this work, he grapples with the most difficult questions of all. The Middle Ages witnessed what appeared to be the eruption of a set of ideas and practices seemingly without precedent or analogue in previous Jewish experience.
This new form of mysticism--Kabbalah, literally the tradition--quickly established itself as one of the predominant expressions of Jewish religiousness. Having already examined Kabbalah and its various expressions, Scholem, in this work, undertakes to explore the sources from which it grew, the circumstances and personalities who nourished it during its nascent stage, the influences--both Jewish and non-Jewish--which shaped it and the forms it assumed before its evolution.
The result is a breathtaking piece of scholarship. Deviating from the rational-historical system that had preceded it, Kabbalah shifted the focus of attention from things in the manifest world to the actions and activities of a higher world, a world invisible to the ordinary eye--unseen by the uninitiated.
He examines such seemingly arcane phenomena as the rituals for summoning revelation from above, the practice of mystical meditation during prayer, the emerging belief in the doctrine and the process of the transmigration of souls, the development of the system of Sefirot in which the whole world of experience is understood to be the expression of the emanations of the Godhead.
In tracing the evolution of the crucial ideas that compromise this intellectual world system is too restrictive a term , Scholem creates a virtual archeology of Kabbalah, revealing strata of development as new ideas emerge, and go through a period of amorphousness before assuming what would be their final form in fully evolved Kabbalah. He has uncovered manuscripts, personalities and concepts, of which all trace had been presumed lost.
He reveals the identity of the author who first used the term Kabbalah to designate the esoteric tradition. In introducing us to the circles in which Kabbalah made its first appearance--the family of Rabbi Abraham ben David of Provence--and to such geniuses of insight as Jacob the Nazarite and Isaac the blind, Scholem opens a window into the intellectual and spiritual ferment in 12th-Century Provence and Spain.
As he searches for the antecedents of these ideas, Scholem makes fascinating connections with earlier expressions of Jewish spiritual aspiration. The book as a whole may be difficult for a general audience, presupposing as it does a certain level of familiarity with Jewish intellectual history.
Some of it is extremely technical and demands close reading. But Scholem is consistently clear and sensitive to the need to put forth his arguments distinctly and explicitly. And, of course, like all good scholarship, best enjoyed as a blood sport, part of the pleasure is to watch a master eviscerate those who have put forward contrary claims.
As a rule, Scholem does not have recourse to insights that could be derived from psychology. Being circumspect, Scholem prefers not to invoke disciplines in which he cannot claim expertise. These weaknesses are to be found in the present volume as well.
But Scholem does, here, make several provocative and exciting connections. He suggests a relationship between the Kabbalah that was emerging in 12th-Century Provence and the Catharist movement so prominent in the area. He finds significance in the Neoplatonic element of the Kabbalah and the fact that it was influential among Muslim thinkers in Spain at the time of its flowering.
And he suggests Oriental gnostic roots for some aspects of Jewish mystical thought. He does not do enough with these allusions to be fully satisfactory. Still he does provide us with some hints that other scholars can elaborate. The work as a whole is so fertile in material for further reflection and study that it constitutes not simply a magisterial summation of the current state of knowledge, but a stimulus to further reflection, study and discovery for the individual reader and for students of the intellectual history of Judaism, and of humankind.
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Origins of the Kabbalah
Within a generation after the 19th-Century Jewish Emancipation and Enlightenment most Jews had forgotten that Judaism has a mystical tradition. That this mystical tradition should be more familiar to the average Jew today than to our grandparents is entirely the result of one of the most prodigious feats of scholarship of this century. Gershom Scholem, whose name has become synonymous with the study of Jewish mysticism, is single-handedly responsible for a Copernican revolution in the understanding of this strand of the Jewish religious tradition. For this, Scholem is regarded not simply as the paramount Judaic scholar of the day, but as one of the preeminent intellectuals of the century. Scholem embodies a paradox. His own intellect and his methodology are the product of the Enlightenment. His subject matter is the stuff of the pre-Enlightenment age.
It is idle to question which of a great scholar's great works is his greatest. Each exhibits different qualities. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism 1st ed. Sabbatai Sevi: the Mystical Messiah original Hebrew ed. Rarely before had such erudition, quantity and breadth of the sources, minute textual analysis, and profound historical insight been brought to bear on a relatively short—but nevertheless bizarre, spectacular, and, withal, significant—episode in Jewish history and the history of messianic movements in general for that matter. Yet in many ways Ursprung und Anfange der Kabbalah is the most impressive of all, for here Scholem dealt with a major yet enigmatic phenomenon in the history of Jewish spirituality.