Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah

Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah: New Insights and Scholarship

Edited by Frederick E. Greenspahn
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah
    Book Description:

    Over the past generation, scholars have devoted increasing attention to the diverse forms that Jewish mysticism has taken both in the past and today: what was once called nonsense by Jewish scholars has generated important research and attention both within the academy and beyond, as demonstrated by the popular fascination with figures such as Madonna and Demi Moore and the growing interest in spirituality. In Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah, leading experts introduce the history of this scholarship as well as the most recent insights and debates that currently animate the field in a way that is accessible to a broad audience. From mystical outpourings in ancient Palestine to the Kabbalah Centre, and from attitudes towards gender to mystical contributions to Jewish messianic movements, this volume explores the various expressions of Jewish mysticism from antiquity to the present day in an engaging style appropriate for students and non-specialists alike.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-3288-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  4. Introduction: Reading Mysteries: The Origins of Scholarship on Jewish Mysticism
    (pp. 1-30)

    Why would someone who does not identify as a Jewish mystic want to study Jewish mystical texts? All modern academics who have chosen to examine texts and ideas from the Jewish mystical tradition have had to address this question in one way or another. As we shall see, a wide range of answers to this question can be inferred from the history of scholarship, but a general feature that academic studies of Jewish mysticism share is the assumption that a detailed examination of Jewish mystical texts and discourse, as it has taken shape in different locations over the course of...

    • 1 Ancient Jewish Mysticism
      (pp. 33-48)

      A number of years ago I asked students in an introductory class on Jewish mysticism to define mysticism in their own words. One student ventured a particularly memorable definition. Mysticism, he suggested, was “stuff too weird to believe.” This statement was impressive not because it is a good definition of mysticism; rather, it exposes an underlying criterion that has often been used, consciously or unconsciously, to designate a given phenomenon as mystical. Modern, sophisticated scholars are sometimes prone to argue that a given literature should be characterized as mystical based precisely on this student’s criteria.¹

      At the same time, the...

    • 2 The Zohar: Masterpiece of Jewish Mysticism
      (pp. 49-67)

      Certain works of the human imagination reorient the culture of reading, rising as classics in the terrain of letters and interpretation. Reaching across the ages, the classic reverberates with an enduring beauty; its artistry makes a claim on each new generation, and it awakens fresh engagement with the mystery and authority of the past. Crafted in late-13th-century Spain, theZoharis one of a handful of texts in the history of Judaism that achieved such an essential impact. The unquestioned masterpiece of Jewish mysticism, theZoharis nothing less than one of the most significant compositions produced by the Jews...

    • 3 Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia and the Prophetic Kabbalah
      (pp. 68-90)

      Abraham Abulafia, the self-proclaimed prophet with messianic pretenses, was born in Saragossa, Spain, probably in late 1239 or early 1240 and died sometime after 1291, the last year for which we have any evidence of his life.¹ The time that Abulafia was active is the precise moment in Jewish history that witnessed an impressive proliferation of mystical speculation and practice in several geographical settings both within the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora, especially on the European continent. In contrast to most other masters of esoteric lore from this period, about whom we know more of their literary productions...

    • 4 New Approaches to the Study of Kabbalistic Life in 16th-Century Safed
      (pp. 91-112)

      In the 15th century Jews began to migrate to Turkey and the lands of the Ottoman Empire in significant numbers from various parts of Europe. What accounts for this migration? Listen to the words of a certain Isaac Zarfati of Edirne in a letter he wrote in 1454 urging his fellow Jews in Ashkenaz to settle in the empire. His impassioned plea graphically portrays the dismal realities of Jewish life in Europe during this period and reflects the Ottomans’ generally benevolent attitude toward Jews.

      I have heard of the afflictions, more bitter than death, that have befallen our brethren in...

    • 5 Mystical Messianism: From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment
      (pp. 115-138)

      Almost all significant Jewish messianic movements from Abraham Abulafia until recent times deeply involved mysticism or Kabbalah. As a result, messianic movements and thought have become part of the story of Jewish mysticism since the 13th century.

      The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the loss of Jewish sovereignty in Judea caused the messianic idea to gradually lose its military and political immediacy. The Messiah became an increasingly spiritual and miraculous figure. The emergence of Kabbalah in the 13th century offered an ideological framework in which to place messianic hopes along with powerful symbols and terms about...

    • 6 Hasidism: Mystical and Nonmystical Approaches to Interpreting Scripture
      (pp. 139-158)

      The history and literature of Hasidism are two of the most extensively researched areas of Jewish mysticism. Historians, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists of religion, ethnographers, and theologians have examined Hasidism as a Marxist critique of rabbinic culture; a rereading of classical Kabbalah; a form of Jewish revivalism; a conservative response to, and extension and normalization of, Sabbateanism; a mystical psychology; and a source for modern existential philosophy.¹

      From the beginning, scholarship on Hasidism has been divided into two basic camps. Gershom Scholem examined Hasidism as a branch of Jewish mysticism even as Martin Buber, one of the most prominent earlier examiners...

    • 7 Christian Kabbalah
      (pp. 159-172)

      Until relatively recently the academic study of the Christian Kabbalah has been pretty much the stepchild, dare I saymamzer, of Kabbalah studies. For the “real” Kabbalah was considered to be the Jewish Kabbalah, and whatever Christians made of it was bound to be derivative, even illegitimate. But I am pleased to say that this dismissive evaluation has changed, especially during the last decade, and it can safely be said that the Christian Kabbalah is now a legitimate field in its own right—so legitimate, in fact, that in 1999 Moshe Idel, David Ruderman, and Guy Stroumsa organized a year-long...

    • 8 Kabbalah at the Turn of the 21st Century
      (pp. 175-190)

      Neither the scholars who penned the first academic studies on Kabbalah nor the next two generations of disciples expected that it would ever be necessary to write a chapter such as this. The standard textbooks treat 19th-century Hasidism as the latest expression of Jewish mysticism.¹ Many could not imagine that in their own time the cryptic medieval Aramaic and Hebrew texts laden with archaic symbolism could be a serious resource for spiritual engagement. Yet, since the last third of the 20th century, kabbalistic concepts and symbols have been found within conventional Jewish congregations and emerging religious movements of all kinds,...

    • 9 Gender in Jewish Mysticism
      (pp. 191-230)

      Kabbalah is a distinctive intellectual strand within Judaism that functioned as a self-conscious program for the interpretation of rabbinic tradition.¹ Rooted in esoteric speculations of the rabbinic period, Kabbalah emerged in the Middle Ages as the theory of Judaism as well as a way 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. Kabbalah envisioned God as a unity within a plurality of ten dynamic powers—thesefirot—arranged in hierarchical order and organized in the...

  8. Epilogue: Kabbalah and Contemporary Judaism
    (pp. 231-238)

    The English reader of this volume is likely to view its contents within a historical bubble. It has been estimated that 150 years ago, three-quarters of the Jews in the world lived in Eastern Europe. If this population had ever cared to think about the underlying metaphysical presumptions of their lives and culture, they would have drawn on Kabbalah. That is not to say that theyhadto contemplate those ideas, for Judaism has always maintained a becoming reticence about the larger questions that are mainstays to other religions. If they wondered about what would happen after they died, or...

  9. About the Contributors
    (pp. 239-242)
  10. Index
    (pp. 243-250)