On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism

Review (1966) of:

On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, by Gershom G. Scholem

After Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941), the selections from the Zohar, and Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (1960), this translation of Professor Scholem's essays on the rituals and symbolism of the Kabbalah is most timely. The titles of the five chapters suffice to convey to the reader the vastness of the areas covered: "Religious Authority and Mysticism"; "The Meaning of the Torah in Jewish Mysticism"; "Kabbalah and Myth"; "Tradition and New Creation in the Ritual of the Kabbalists"; "The Idea of the Golem." So far as I can recall, four of these chapters were delivered as lectures at the Eranos symposia in Ascona. The German edition of the book appeared in 1960 and two years later was followed by another collection of Eranos essays: "Of the Mystical Figure of the Divinity: Studies in the Basic Concepts of the Kabbalah". Also in 1962, "Origin and Beginnings of the Kabbalah" was published in Berlin. It is to be hoped that these volumes will shortly be translated into English, together with Professor Scholem's magnum opus on Sabbatai Zevi and the Sabbatian Movement, published in Hebrew in 1957.

Although I am not a Hebrew scholar I am always tempted, when reading Gershom Scholem, to write a "history of ideas" type of article in connection with his works. I know that Professor Scholem does not claim for himself any merits and responsibilities other than those of a historian of Jewish mysticism. But it so happens that Jewish mysticism, and especially that of the Kabbalah, played - directly and even more so, indirectly - a complex and enigmatic role in the history of Christian Europe. The publication in 1941 of the famous Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism signified not only the beginning of a new era in the understanding of Kabbalah (and of many other things as well); it also closed a long epoch of repeated attempts - sometimes pathetic, sometimes naive - to decipher the Kabbalistic world of symbols, myths, and rituals in order to make them disclose to a Christian audience a "message" of utmost importance. Scholars now agree that Kabbalah constitutes an immense problem, interesting both to the history of Jewish spirituality and to what may be called the comparative study of mysticism. But there is another and no less significant aspect of the problem: the attraction exercised by the Kabbalah upon Christian theologians, philosophers, and - especially since the end of the 18th century - upon a growing circle of writers, occultists and simply curious readers. To examine, understand, and explain this Christian envoûtement with the Kabbalah is a fascinating study which might one day become the subject of a very useful monograph.

As a result of the painstaking analyses of Joseph Blau, E. Abagnino, Frances A. Yates, Francois Secret, and others, we begin to understand the reasons underlying the interest in Kabbalah expressed by Italian humanists and Renaissance philosophers. They represented an effort to go beyond the "provincialism" of western Christianity, an effort which revealed a profound dissatisfaction with medieval theology and the medieval conception of man and the universe, and a longing for a universalistic, transhistorical, "mystical" religion. This is evident in the works of Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno, Campanella, and other humanists and philosophers discussed by Frances Yates in her masterful book Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Pico, at least, knew Hebrew and had studied some Kabbalistic texts in the original with a competent master. But after the 18th century, Kabbalah became "fashionable" in all kinds of circles, from freemasons and occultists to the salons littéraires, anthroposophists, and expressionist writers and artists. Very few of these enthusiasts knew Hebrew, but even those who did, and were able to study some of the documents in the original, did not grasp their real meaning. Before Major Trends, the only "scholarly" book by a contemporary Christian writer was the two-volume work La Kabbale Juive (1923) by Paul Vuilliaud - and one has only to read Professor Scholem's review in Monatsschrift fur Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums (71, 1931, pp. 347-362, 444-448) to realize the short-comings of this otherwise honest and learned author. As a matter of fact, no scholarly book could be written before Scholem's pioneering research, if only because most of the documentary materials were inaccessible. Even now, forty-two years after Scholem's edition and translation of The Book Bahir (Leipzig, 1923) and an amazing number of editions, historical and critical monographs - mostly by Scholem himself - the hermeneutical work is only beginning.

But how are we to explain the Kabbalistic vogue among Christians of such different interests and preoccupations? The general attraction to the occult is certainly too simplistic an explanation. One is tempted to discern in this phenomenon an unconscious nostalgia for a religious universe where both Old-Testament and mystical (gnostic) ideas coexist and are mutually enriched by their confrontation. I do not intend to go into this problem now. But if my suspicion is correct, then the Christian attraction toward Kabbalah somehow parallels a similar movement among the Jewish communities. For, as Professor Scholem has eminently proved in certain chapters of this book, the Kabbalah reintroduced "myth" and "cosmic religion" into rabbinical Judaism. This does not mean, necessarily, that the Kabbalists borrowed their symbols, rituals, and theology from foreign sources, for as Professor Scholem writes:

Gnosticism itself, or at least certain of its basic impulses, was a revolt, partly perhaps of Jewish origin, against anti-mythical Judaism, a late eruption of subterranean forces, which were all the more pregnant with myth for being cloaked in philosophy. In the second century of our era, classical rabbinical Judaism banished this form of heresy, seemingly for good; but in the Kabbalah this gnostic view of the world not only reemerged as a theosophical interpretation of Jewish monotheism - and this at the height of the medieval Jewish rationalism - but was able to assert itself at the center of Judaism as its most secret mystery. In the Zohar and in Isaac Luria, gnostic and quasi-gnostic symbols became for pious orthodox Kabbalists the profoundest expression of their Jewish faith.

In some cases the reintroduction of mythical elements may seem almost sacrilegious; for example, when the God of the sephiroth is symbolically identified with man in his purest form, Adam Kadmon. One can see in this mystical identification of God with the primordial man a new and bold theological creation parallel to, though different from, the Christian doctrine of Incarnation. No less revolutionary was the discovery of a feminine element in God (the tenth sephirah, identified with Shekhinah). As Professor Scholem writes, "this mythical conception of the feminine principle of the Shekhinah as a providential guide of Creation achieved enormous popularity among the masses of the Jewish people, so showing that here the Kabbalists had uncovered one of the primordial religious impulses still latent in Judaism." The ambivalence of the Shekhinah is expressed in age-old symbolism; the exile (galuth) is taken to mean that a part of God Himself is exiled from God. The reunion of God with His Shekhinah ultimately means the Redemption - the Kabbalists held that every religious act should be accompanied by the formula: this is done "for the sake of the reunion of God and His Shekhinah."

With Isaac Luria of Safed, a new myth entered the Kabbalah. This myth "is concentrated in three great symbols, the tzimtzum, or self-limitation of God, the shevirah, or breaking of the vessels, and the tikkun, or harmonious correction and mending of the flaw which came into the world through the shevirah." Thus the Lurianic Kabbalah is a great "myth of exile and redemption."

As Gershom Scholem repeatedly points out, these Kabbalistic revalorizations of gnostic and cosmic symbols, ideas, and rituals represent new and powerful religious creations. Thus, one has no right to speak of Judaism as a "closed" or even "fossilized" religion. But these daring creations and their enormous popular success constitute important problems for the historian of religions. We witness how Judaism successfully recovered some of the "cosmic sacrality" which seemed to have been irremediably lost after the rabbinical reforms. This recovery of "cosmic religion" did not mean regression to "paganism" but, on the contrary, a resanctification of cosmic life in the name, and through the power, of God. Classical Christian theology failed to attempt something similar, with the result that a "cosmic Christianity" developed and survived only among the popular and especially rural milieus of Southern and Eastern Europe. Moreover, the medieval ecclesiastical authorities persecuted this "paganism of the ignorant," and when it was tolerated it was regarded as "superstition." (And of course it became superstition, for no religious leader, no mystic, no theologian ever attempted to revalorize and reinterpret these "popular" experiences of a "cosmic Christianity.")

Pico della Mirandola was not only a great scholar, he was also a good and sincere Christian; surely he knew what he was looking for in learning Hebrew and trying to decipher and master Magia et Caballa.

-- Reviewed by Mircea Eliade in Commentary, March 1966.

Gershom Scholem, who died in 1982, remains the biggest gun in Kabbalah scholarship, and On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism is perhaps his most accessible book on the subject. It contains definitive essays on the relation of the Torah to Jewish mysticism, the mythology of the Kabbalah, and the place of Jewish mystics in the Jewish community. This book helped reinvigorate 20th-century Jewish studies with an awareness of the living reality of God, after the 19th century's more astringent scholarly emphasis on law and philosophy. It shows how Jewish mystics have been less concerned with adherence to orthodoxy than their Christian counterparts, and freer in their expression of the divine aspects of eroticism. Furthermore, Scholem offers great insight regarding the ways that kabbalah has not only threatened the authority of institutional religion, but also served as a source of its vitality. --Michael Joseph Gross

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