From Celebrities to Zionists, Kabbalah an Endless Source of Solace

New York Times/March 20, 1999
By Edward Rothstein

For centuries the study of the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, could be undertaken only by married men over 40 who had mastered other aspects of Jewish law and learning. If anybody else delved into this esoteric lore with its arcane symbols and doctrines, the promised result was insanity.

Now we know otherwise. Roseanne Barr, who has studied Jewish mysticism, has suggested that Kabbalah cures insanity: "Before Kabbalah I had no friends and everyone thought I was crazy." Other celebrities, from Elizabeth Taylor to Sandra Bernhard, have agreed. "You absolutely are the master of your destiny," Madonna proclaimed on MTV about the lessons of Kabbalah. "You have to take responsibility for your life."

Kabbalah, which in Hebrew means "that which is received," is a complex body of texts and ideas, some of which are over 1,500 years old, along with oral teachings. Cabalistic writings, most of which have not been translated into English, with their allusions to chariots, angels, alphabets, biblical figures and golems, were long considered the most advanced and most difficult of Jewish texts.

Most of what is widely called Kabbalah today, however, is packaged in New Age best sellers that promise an almost magical ability to heal the sick and enlighten the bewildered. Devotees don't actually have to know very much. The celebrity cabalists, for example, are encouraged to carry around a volume of the great mystical text from the 13th century, the Zohar, and run their fingers over the Hebrew letters to find illumination, even if they don't understand a word.

Meanwhile, the tradition of serious study of Jewish mysticism continues to thrive in religious communities. But it may be that the most powerful movement in Jewish mysticism in the last 50 years has not been the study of Kabbalah but the study of the study of Kabbalah -- not mystical practice but mystical scholarship. It has become an established academic discipline. This scholarly enterprise was established almost single-handedly by the German-born historian Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) in his classic 1941 study, "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism." He discovered and interpreted "lost" mystical texts, overcame the rationalist scorn that once clouded Kabbalah and argued that mysticism was at the center of Jewish history.

Now, with a second and third generation of scholars in the field, Scholem's powerful vision is itself being challenged, most forcefully by a former student of Scholem, Moshe Idel, professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In a major new book, "Messianic Mystics" (Yale University Press), Idel expands a project he began more than a decade ago, questioning his mentor's views on almost every major issue. The arguments are complex, but they have important implications for understanding Jewish history and popular religious belief.

The notion of messianism is central to these disagreements. For Scholem, the Kabbalah after the 13th century developed a new system for making sense of the trials and exiles that scar Jewish history.

Just as the human body was created in God's image, these mystics believed, so every human act had its counterpart in the divine realm; earthly history was but a reflection of the history of the Godhead; both realms were riven by alienation and exile.

A cabalist, by properly performing ritual, could begin to heal not just the mundane universe but the spiritual one as well. This mythology, a version of which is incorporated into contemporary pop Kabbalah, made Jewish history and personal experience part of a grand theological drama of exile and restoration.

But what happens, Scholem asks, if a savior, a Messiah, promises to complete this process of repair and reparation, bringing the drama to an end? Scholem argued that such a figure would be revolutionary, not evolutionary. A Messiah would shatter the tradition (as indeed, the figure of Jesus did when his disciples founded Christianity). Scholem called messianism a "theory of catastrophe."

In a magisterial essay, "Redemption Through Sin," Scholem described such a catastrophe in the 17th century, when a mentally unbalanced man, Sabbatai Zevi, declared himself the Messiah. Sabbatai engaged in bizarre and provocative acts, even instituting a new blessing praising "that which is forbidden."

A devoted cabalist became his "prophet," interpreting his deliberate violations of Jewish law this way: Sabbatai was seeking sparks of divinity deeply hidden even in what was most forbidden; he had to free those sparks from their polluting "husks" and restore them to their divine origins. His acts of sin were acts of redemption.

Scholem argues that Sabbateanism became a popular movement, sanctifying sin (the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer devoted his first novel to this phenomenon, "Satan in Goray"). The Turkish sultan, nervous about the upheaval among the Jews, forced Sabbatai to convert to Islam.

Even that shock did not immediately invalidate his claims for devout believers; it too was a "descent" that would lead to salvation. But eventually, Scholem suggests, it caused a widespread crisis that undermined the foundation of Jewish faith. Only the spirit of national and spiritual yearning remained, a yearning that led to the Enlightenment and eventually to Zionism.

Scholem's narrative has been extraordinarily influential, subtly knitting together obscure mystical texts, social history and a theory of religious interpretation. Nearly every scholar of Jewish mysticism has worked in its shadow.

But Idel, in a 1988 collection of papers, "Kabbalah: New Perspectives" (Yale University Press) began a more earnest rebellion. Its ambition was first noted in a highly critical review of Idel's work in Commentary by Robert Alter, the biblical and literary scholar; he argued that Idel's project made exaggerated claims for itself while aggressively distorting Scholem's views. But Alter's was a dissenting voice.

Now, with this book on messianism, the polemical ambition becomes more explicit. Idel, who was born in Romania and moved to Israel when he was 16, argues that nearly everything about Scholem's interpretation of mysticism, from his emphasis on the exile of the Jews to his focus on textual interpretation rather than ecstatic experience, was a reflection of his intellectual origins in German Romanticism.

Scholem, who moved to Palestine from Germany in the 1920s when Zionism was winning support among European Jewish intellectuals, interpreted Jewish mysticism to suit Zionist ideology. He molded the history of Jewish mysticism into a story about national and spiritual evolution.

Idel differs with Scholem on some scholarly conclusions, but the most obvious differences are conceptual. There is, in Idel's view, no clear-cut evolutionary development in mysticism or history. There is not even a strong connection between mysticism and history.

Scholem sees messianism as dangerous and catastrophic; Idel sees it as a part of ordinary mystical expectations. Scholem says the sense of exile was central to much cabalistic thought; Idel, rejecting traditional views of Jewish history, disagrees.

Scholem stresses the importance of ideas; Idel emphasizes the nature of experience and the mystic's drive toward union with God. Idel values variety and diversity over unity and coherence. (He even wonders if he is being too post-modern.)

Given the range of Idel's knowledge and the intricacy of the arguments, his proposals will have to be evaluated by other scholars. But the power of Scholem's vision is likely to endure, even if Idel succeeds in upending some of its conclusions, simply because Scholem helped explain how mystical ideas had power in the world outside the mystic's study, enough power to stir popular passions and belief (as they have in contemporary pop Kabbalah). Scholem insisted that, in one cabalist's words, "where you stand, there stand all the worlds": that the various realms of human belief and action are inseparable, that there is no separating the mystic from his surroundings. This is what made mysticism dangerous, as well.

In observing Israeli politics in the 1960s and '70s, for example, Scholem objected to mixing messianism with politics, arguing that utopian hopes can be catastrophic when brought into the mundane world. At the same time, he suggested, this yearning could never be eliminated. This tension was often at the heart of Scholem's interpretations.

Kabbalah tapped into human drives for historical redemption and personal salvation, which is why cabalists were concerned that their devotees lead a mature, settled life; the unleashed passions might otherwise be seriously disruptive.

Only in the contemporary universe of entertainment celebrities, with its ceaselessly shifting personas and insatiable yearnings for attention, could Kabbalah be considered otherwise: a force for cozy self-satisfaction.

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