The theologies of kabbalah research

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In this article I claimed that the use of "mysticism" as the defining category of the academic study of Kabbalah and Hasidism involves a theological assumption according to which an encounter with God or the Absolute reality underlies and explains the ideas and practices of the Kabbalists and Hasidim, their literary output and their historical and social influence. In the above I examined the theological perceptions of the academic study of Jewish mysticism. I indicated the ecumenical and perennial nature of these theologies that view the divine or the "Absolute" as an immanent reality and maintain that the way to experience this metaphysical reality through altered states of consciousness is, in principle, open to all people and underlies all religions. These theologies, whose roots lie in esoteric and neoromantic philosophies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are central also to the New Age movements and other contemporary spiritual groups, including Jewish Renewal. Furthermore, I showed that some scholars of Jewish mysticism view academic research as a means of revealing the mystical truth discovered in the Kabbalist and Hasidic texts, and strive to interpret and mediate the spiritual and mystical contents of the Kabbalah to the contemporary audience, and contribute to a religious and spiritual Jewish revival. The theological perception categorizing Kabbalah and Hasidism as "mysticism" separates the phenomena identified as "Jewish mysticism" from history and presents an essentialist theological notion of mysticism as a meta-physical meta-historical force. The assumption, according to which "mystical" cultural practices are the result of experiences of an encounter between humans and transcendent reality, sets phenomena categorized as "mystical" apart from "regular" cultural practices and products, and regards them as belonging to a different sphere, which is inherently detached from political and social reality. Hence, for example, Haviva Pedaya recently claimed: "Religion and mysticism. are a way of life and an unceasing source of inspiration. We must examine the processes of degeneration and disruption of these phenomena upon their entering the socio-political sphere."85 The employment of comparative and phenomenological methodologies borrowed from the religious studies in researching Jewish mysticism, which assumes that mystical and religious experiences are sui generis phenomena which cannot be reduced to social, economic, and political factors, the aspiration to reveal through comparative research the imminent element common to mystical experiences in various cultures, and binding contemporary research of Jewish mysticism for spiritual renewal, together reinforce a specific a-historical tendency in the academic research of Kabbalah and Hasidism.86 As Ron Margolin diagnosed, in connection to Moshe Idel's phenomenological approach: "Idel's phenomenological approach emphasizes inquiry intodifferent manifestations of phenomena such as theurgy, Unio Mystica or magic, within the entire Kabbalistic-Jewish body of works, on all its periods. In his research, the historical-diachronic aspect is used as a secondary aid, and the focus is on the actual spiritual phenomenon."87 Theology, queen of the Middle Age sciences, was pushed aside in modern academia and in modern theological claims, and the claim that God is a causal factor that explains physical, biological, historical, or social phenomena, is not accepted in academic disciplines today.88 However, as we saw in the above, theological assumptions are still accepted in the study of Jewish mysticism, as well as in other fields of religious study that use terms such as "religion," "mysticism," "sanctity," and so on, as analytical terms and assume that phenomena labeled as "mystical" and "religious," including Kabbalah and Hasidism, are the outcome of a direct encounter with a divine or transcendent reality. Nontheological study of the Kabbalah and Hasidism that interprets and explains these as part of the historical, social and political fabric, and not as an expression of a metaphysicalphenomenon that defines a category of its own, requires demystification of the Kabbalah and Hasidism and relinquishment of the category "Jewish mysticism" as the founding category of this field of study.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-26
Number of pages24
JournalModern Judaism
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Religious studies
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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