Forward by Robert Alter
Scholem’s work includes philological analysis as well as “large imaginative interpretations of the texts” (xv). This book accords a new place to Jewish mysticism in the Jewish tradition for the first time: the revisionist project shifts mysticism from the margins to a central place (xviii). Alter argues there are ideological reasons for Scholem’s treatment of mysticism, especially of Sabbatianism, which Alter claims Scholem viewed as “a kind of abortive and misdirected trial run for the impulse of national self-redemption that would find a more viable channel over two centuries later in the political movement of Zionism” (xx). Alter also emphasizes the theme of continuity and change that runs throughout Scholem’s work (xxi).
First Lecture: General Characteristics of Jewish Mysticism
Scholem’s project is to reclaim Jewish mysticism as a historical project: “[W]hat I am going to present is a critical appreciation involving a certain philosophical outlook, as applied to the life texture of Jewish history, which in its fundamentals I believe to be active and alive to this day” (3). Scholem begins with the problem of defining Jewish mysticism: there is a range of definitions including “immediate awareness of relation with God” to “knowledge of God through experience,” but also including historical phenomena that are inextricable from the tradition, and the only way that mysticism can be understood through rational knowledge is through paradox (4-6). Scholem speaks of mysticism in evolutionary terms, as a stage in religious development which pushes the limits of the traditional (7-9). Scholem undertakes a comparison between philosophical and mystical Judaism on the known and the unknown: whereas the mystics focus on the distinction between the known and the unknown God, the philosophers push this distinction to the side (11-12). For mystics, there are spheres of God (including a sphere of evil) revealed in stages and described by mystics through metaphors: this topography does not imply dualism as Gnostics did, but aspects of one God (13). Mystics struggle with language to describe the paradoxical nature of their subject, but also with the will to express their subject—there was a degree of voluntary censorship of mystical ideas, which leaves limited written accounts of Kabbalism (15-17). The attitude toward language, however, is not negative; in fact, the Hebrew language is key to the spiritual nature of the world for Kabbalists (a movement that developed and changed over thousands of years) (17-19). Scholem then discusses the role of history and tradition to Kabbalism: Kabbalah literally means “tradition,” which Scholem points out is paradoxical because knowledge built on personal religious experience is understood as “traditional wisdom” (20); yet it is also thought of as secret knowledge but deeply connected to the Jewish tradition and texts (21). How does Kabbalism relate to Rabbinic Judaism? Kabbalah did not arise in reaction to philosophical enlightenment but certainly was in opposition to it (24). The philosophical tradition relied on allegory to express ideas in a different way, the Kabbalistic tradition used allegory and symbol to express the unexpressable (26-7); the Halacha, Aggadah, and prayers were also regarded different for the two groups (25-34); the existence of evil is a major difference, which for the philosophers is meaningless and for the Kabbalists is all too real (35-6). Scholem also points out that in distinction to other forms of non-Jewish mysticism, Kabbalism was exclusively a male doctrine (37), though Kabbalism did understand God as having a female element (38).
Second Lecture: Merkabah Mysticism and Jewish Gnosticism
Before Medieval Kabbalah there was Merkabah mysticism from the 1st century BC to the 10th century AD (40), particularly in Palestine (41). Merkabah mysticism was exclusive to an elect few, and often focused on Creation and Chapter 1 of Ezekiel, where an image of God’s throne-chariot is portrayed (42). Scholem describes this mystical tradition as “throne-mysticism”: “Its essence is not absorbed contemplation of God’s true nature, but perception of His appearance on the throne, as described by Ezekiel, and cognition of the mysteries of the celestial throne-world” (44). The best examples of texts come from the 5th and 6th centuries and are “Hekhaloth Books,” or “descriptions of the hekhaloth, the heavenly halls or palaces through which the visionary passes and in the seventh and last of which there rises the throne of divine glory” (45). These writings are sui generis descriptions of experiences that do not rely on Biblical sanction, leading Scholem to classify them with the apogrypha as opposed to traditional Midrash (46). Scholem emphasizes that the Merkabah mystics are organized groups which produced textual lineages (47), and to get into the groups there were conditions for admission (48). Once in groups, mystics prepared for the mystical journey through ascetic practices (49). In the journey, there are magical elements to protect against dangers on the journey (50-54). Scholem points out that the ideas of the journey through seven heavens is an adaptation of an old Greek cosmological idea (54); he also emphasizes that Hekhaloth differs from Gnosticism at the same time because God is pictured as a divine King but here is an absense of God’s immanence or love for God (55) and what a mystics gains by reaching the throne is an experience but not love (56). Scholem provides examples of hymns that are examples of this type of mystical literature, which are part of the technique for reaching ecstasy (example is kedushah, “holiness”, which made it into mainstream liturgy). (57-60). Scholem examines the Shiur Komach tract, which discusses God in anthropomorphic terms, which was repulsive to the mainstream tradition for its descriptions of God’s body and its dimensions (63-7). Scholem explains the focus on cosmology and eschatology in contrast to later Kabbalah, which is less focused on description, though describes Hekhaloth literature as an important influence on later Kabbalah, which was focused on man as well as the divine, while Merkabah texts were focused solely on the divine (75-9).
Third Lecture: Hasidism in Medieval Germany
German Jewry did not make significant strides in developing Jewish metaphysics but they were key to developing mystical thought through Hasidism, a movement which developed a large following (80-81). The key figures come from the Kalonymides family who came from Italy to the Rhineland: Samuel the Hasid (12th cent), his son Jehudah the Hasid of Worms (died 1217), and his disciple and relative Eleazer ben Jehudah of Worms (died between 1223 and 1232) (82). The key work is Sefer Hasidim, “Book of the Devout,” which has works from these threw founders; it paints life in medieval Germany with realism (83). German Hasidism was influenced by early Merkabah mysticism (84). The messy whole (not an organized system) of German mysticism formed under the influence of the older mystical system as well as novel circumstances— in the wake of the crusades and persecution, Hasidic writings were focused on eschatology, though not apocalypse but Redemption (87-8). Mystical thought spread to new subjects formerly untouched by Merkabah mysticism, including God’s unity, mystical psychology, reasons for commandments in the Torah, theology of history, and most importantly, a new focus on how to live, which made the doctrine appeal to everyday people instead of an elect few (90-1). Hasidism was a non-intellectual tradition which emphasized asceticism and bearing shame, altruism, following the law, and true love for and fear of God (87-95). The ideal Hasid was one whom had humility and restraint (there is a focus on man, not just describing God as Merkabah mysticism had) (97-8). Scholem also discusses the more magical elements of German Hasidism, including Gematria, Notarikon, and Temurah, prayer instead of approach to God’s throne, direct contact with the psychic world (100-3). There is evidence of Christian influence with a new system of penitence that develops (104-105). Scholem describes the theosophical elements of German Hasidism, including its pantheistic elements. God came to be pictured as pure spirituality, immeasurable infiniteness, omnipresence, and prime mover of the universe; God becomes close to man, closer than the soul to the body, and even is pictured as part of the soul (107-10). The main components of Theosophy in German Hasidism are divine glory (kavod), a cherub on a throne, and God’s holiness and greatness (110-6). This old Hasidism described here has little in common with the later Hasidism of the 19th century (discussed below).
Fourth Lecture: Abraham Abulafia and the Doctrine of Prophetic Kabbalism
Starting in around 1200 in Spain through the early 14th century, new doctrines of Kabbalah were taught by word of mouth, leading. Scholem argues that this mode of transmission leads to innovations; furthermore, the acceptance of new revelation through media like dreams too led to innovation. There was also a conservative impulse, however, since Kabbalists wanted to keep their doctrines bound to the tradition (119-121). Scholem argues that in later forms of Kabbalah (like the Zohar), in contrast with what has been described thus far, ecstatic experience is less prominent, and occurrences like union with God take on spiritualized instead of ecstatic forms (122). Scholem introduces the term devekuth, which refers to being joined with God: this term can refer to ecstatic experience but he suggests its meaning is more about “a perpetual being-with-God, an intimate union and conformity of the human and the divine will” that involves a level of restraint and “incommensurateness” (123). All of this is by way of introduction to what he discusses in this lecture: Abraham Abulafia’s ecstatic literature, produced at the same time as the Zohar but much less popular (124).
Abulafia’s work included manuals that made Kabbalah accessible to almost anyone who wanted it, even those without education in the tradition; in fact, Abulafia himself had almost no training in the tradition (125). Abulafia admired Maimonides and tried to connect his ideas to the latter’s. Abulafia was inspired by prophesy (127) and tried to present himself as a Jewish and Christian prohet (128-9). Abulafia’s ideas centered around a sealed soul, which one needed to unseal to gain access to the “stream of cosmic life” (131). Abulafia focused his contemplation of the Hebrew alphabet, which supposedly held hidden meaning in combinations (133-4); contemplation was to bring ecstasy (138-9). The resulting ecstatic experience involved a form of self-recognition and confrontation (142). Scholem explains that Abulafia was influenced by German Hasidism and Yoga (he traveled to “the Orient”) and suggests that Abulafia’s practices were on the threshold between mysticism and magic (144). Scholem ends the chapter with an example of the style of Abulafia’s writings.
Fifth Lecture: The Zohar: I: The Book and Its Author
The Zohar was written in Castile in the late 13th century. The style is pseudepigraphic form, like a mystical novel, which also includes Mishna-like sayings (156-7). It is written in Aramaic, homiletic, and unsystematic (158). Scholem argues emphatically that the author is Moses de Leon, who wrote the group of writings that make up the Zohar himself (contra theories that contend the sections are from different authors) (159). The Zohar is written in Aramaic, a language the author knew from studying texts such as the Babylonian Tamud and the Targum Onkelos, the Aramaic translation of the Torah (164). Scholem suggests there are real parts of the Zohar and imitated parts, namely the sections Raya Mehemna and Tikkunim (168-170). Scholem outlines the sources the de Leon used: Babylonian Talmud, Midrash Rabba, Midrash to the Psalms, Pesikototh, Pirke Rabbi Eliezer, Targumim, and Rashi’s commentary to the Bible and Talmud (173). He also used other 13th century Hasidic and Kabbalistic literature (173). The Zohar is written in two registers: primitive modes of thought and feeling and profound contemplative mystical thought (175). There is a lot of conformity in his ideas with contemporary Jewish and Christian ideas, including the Gnostic idea of “left emanation,” organized spheres of Satan’s realm (177). On the other hand, he completely leaves out popular Kabbalistic ideas like the successive periods of cosmic development (178). Scholem also tries to date the Zohar, and concludes that it was written mainly between 1280 and 1286 (188). He also revisits authorship in more detail to conclude that it was Moses de Leon, but that there are still some unanswered questions (193-201).
Sixth Lecture: II. The Theosophic Doctrine of the Zohar
Scholem characterizes the Zohar as “a Jewish form of theosophy” (205). He defines theosophy not in the modern way but as “a mystical doctrine, or school of thought, which purports to perceive and to describe the mysterious workings of the Divinity, perhaps also believing it possible to become absorbed in its contemplation. Theosophy postulates a kind of divine emanation whereby God, abandoning his self-contained repose, awakens to mysterious life; further, it maintains that the mysteries of creation reflect the pulsation of this divine life” (206). Unlike the old Merkabah mysticsism, this Kabbalistic thought was about God’s inside glory not his appearance (207). The innermost being is called the En-Sof (“the Infinite”), and this is supposed to describe God’s hidden life, not any metaphorical representation of it. God is pictured to have two worlds, the En-Sof and his attributes (of which there are 10), and the dual worlds form one whole (208). The Zohar adopts a Christian exegetic strategy but focuses on one aspect of this strategy, the mystical, and in particular, on mystical symbolism (210-17). A lot of attention is given to creation symbolism, which happens within God (217-21). There is a tension in the Zohar between theism and pantheism: the language implies theism but there are obvious pantheistic tendencies (222). A tension also exists in the maintenance of monotheism in the book because of the theosophistic depiction of various manifestations of God (224-5). A mix also exists in the book between the primitive and the Jewish, especially in the realm of sexual symbolism, the erotic, reproductive imagery (225-9). A key innovation in Kabbalism includes introducing a feminine element of God (229). The Zohar also deals with the problem of sin and the fall, which disturbed God’s unity; the religious acts of Israel are the way to some healing of this brokenness (231-3). The highest values become unity with God, the devekuth, as well as a life of poverty (233-5). The Zohar also writes on interpreting evil, which is connected to a manifestation of God (235-9). The soul is also a prominent topic in the Zohar, including the doctrine of preexistance of all souls since the beginning of creation (240-2).
Seventh Lecture: Isaac Luria and His School
The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 had a transformative effect on Kabbalism, changing it from an elite to a popular doctrine which came to include Messianic impulses (244-7). Apocalyptic meanings were read into the Psalms and Kabbalistic doctrines were reinterpreted in light of the suffering of expulsion (249). Safed in Upper Galilee became the new center of Kabbalism about 40 years after the Spanish expulsion (251). The two most famous Safed Kabbalists were Moses ben Jacob Cordovero and Isaac Luria. The former was a systematic thinker who reinterpreted the Zohar and other texts (252-3). Luria did write some but what we know of him is mostly from his disciples, especially Israel Sarug. Luria was a visionary but was invested in keeping his ideas in sync with the textual tradition (254- 8). Luria developed the Kabbalistic tradition, strongly basing his ideas on older Kabbalists (258-9). Luria developed a dramatic cosmogony that was strictly theistic: Tsimtsum entails that the universe exists by God’s shrinking, which is a solution to the problem of God creating the world out of nothing. This also explains the root of evil (260-4). Two other major doctrines of Luria’s were Shevirath Ha-Kelim (“Breaking of the Vessels”) and Tikkun (mending a defect) (265). Luria interpreted man as a micro-cosmos of God, symbolic of God’s deeper life, and understood God as changing and developing as man does through stages of conception, pregnancy, birth, etc (269-71). Part of the restoration, Tikkun, of the world is the coming of the Messiah, which is a focus for Luria; one way to bring this about is through prayer (274-7). Luria’s doctrine is a populist one, one that relies on the action of all Jews to fulfill the commandments (278-9). Another aspect of Tikkun is transmigration of souls to rejoin Adam’s (280-4). The necessity of every Jew’s participation in restoration of the world explains Luria’s version of Kabbalism’s popularity (284-5). “To sum up, the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria may be described as a mystical interpretation of Exile and Redemption, or een as a great myth of Exile. Its substance reflects the deepest religious feelings of the Jews of that age. For them, Exile and Redemption were in the strictest sense great mystical symbols which point to something in the Divine Being. This new doctrine of God and the universe corresponds to the new moral idea of humanity which it propagates: the ideal of the ascetic whose aim is the Messianic reformation, the extinction of the world’s blemish, the restitution of all things in God—the man of spiritual action who through Tikkun breaks the exile, the historical exile of the Community of Israel and that inner exile in which all creation groans” (286).
Eighth Lecture: Sabbatianism and Mystical Heresy
In the context of exile and Kabbalistic theories of redemption, it was only a short step to the popularity of Sabbatai Zevi and Nathan of Gaza (287-8). The story of Sabbatai Zevi as Messiah really relies on Nathan of Gaza. Before 1665 when the crucial events in the story took place, Sabbatai Zevi already sometimes made messianic claims, though no one took this seriously. He was a manic-depressive man, though his followers came up with theological interpretations of his illness (289-91). Sabbatai Zevi was known for committing anti-Halachic acts and took on the persona of holy-sinner (292-3). Nathan of Gaza, who had a vision of Zevi as Messiah, convinced Sabbatai Zevi that he was the Messiah (295). The movement that developed after Zevi’s apostasy was paradoxical with respect to its relationship to Orthodoxy—moderate forms existed side-by-side with orthodoxy easily yet to be called Sabbatian was highly pejorative (299-300). Post-Zevi, the popular movement turned into a secret movement that spread in Europe (302-4). Scholem hypothesizes that Sabbatianism was so threatening to rabbinic Judaism and suggests that its emphasis on new freedom that threatened orthodox doctrines of creation (305). Freedom of the soul despite political situation was appealing to the masses, though posed problems for rationalizing the disconnect between inner and outer life (306-7). The relationship with orthodoxy is further strained after Zevi; for example, Abraham Perez, one of Nathan of Galilee’s students, created an antinomian theory which regarded followers of rabbinical Judaism as sinners (312-314). Another problematic doctrine was that of the holiness of sin (315-20). The other paradoxical doctrines include that the apostasy of Zevi was a sacred mystery and that the Sabbatians had received the mystery of the Godhead by someone other than Zevi (321-2). Scholem ends, “To the Sabbatians all reality became dialectically unreal and contradictory. Their own experience led them to the idea of an existence in permanent contradiction with itself, and it is not surprising that their God no less than their Messiah bears the mark of such self-contradiction and disintegration” (324).
Ninth Lecture: Hasidism: The Latest Phase
A new form of Hasidism was founded by Israel Baal Shem in the mid-18th century. The movement became particularly popular in Eastern Europe through the 19th century (325). Its texts were more accessible which made it popular (326). Lurianic Kabbalism, Sabbatianism, and Hasidism all were part of a move to make Kabbalah accessible to the populous (237). Unlike its predecessors, however, Hasidism tried to get rid of Messianism (329). Hasidism, like Sabbatianism, conceived of an ideal type of man for community leadership, one touched by God (330-4). In describing Hasidism, Scholem says it is hard to pin it down, to say what it’s all about, to say what is new and what is conservative (338). Hasidism drew on Musar books (moralizing tracts) that were written in the previous century (340). A distinctive feature is the mystical psychology, the idea that one should enter his own self to seek transcendence (341). The leader, or Zaddick, was the man who attained the spiritual ability to be with God (343); thus, a cult of personalities instead of doctrines develops (344).