Hebraic Draughts

Rough drafts of thoughts, following reading, studying and teaching Hebrew and Jewish texts.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying, and Love Jewish Mysticism

The study of mysticism can never follow a straight path, it seems. A student seeking to find out the secrets, will be deterred by his masters, directed into all sorts of digressions and red herrings, lest his study is merely instrumental. A student not seeking to find out secrets, will stumble upon them by chance, not realizing they are secrets, or dismissing them.

I became very quickly of the latter sort.

My induction was through secular, Zionist, “Jewish culture” masters. Buber’s Or Haganuz, Pinchas Sadeh’s edition of the Breslaver’s stories. It was a literary curiosity, more than anything else.

I went to university and discovered Maimonides through Leibowitz. I learned of Buber’s mystical side, and wrote a paper on him, realizing more and more that even if he was not observant, he was very much religious. Through the orthodox Leibowitz, I therefore came to disparage Buber for his own religiosity.

Although I did not begin my studies at Hebrew University before the turn of the century (21st), I remained of a very Wissenschaft des Judentums approach, dismissing the mystical and seeking the rational strands of Judaism.

My years in Princeton allowed me to embrace mysticism if not for my own sake, then for scholarship. It was, undeniably, much too important to dismiss, much too present to ignore. Furthermore, the rationalism of the philosophers is never complete. A leap of faith is always required, or even assumed, in order to marry the anthropomorphizing verses in the Hebrew Bible, with Plato, Aristotle, or Kant, depending on the philosopher. As such, the self-contradicting theosophy of the Sefirot or of the Lurianic tsimtsum could seem even to bear more integrity than Philo, Maimonides or Hermann Cohen can offer.

Finally, two quotes I read this week felt just right, and made me realize the long path I’ve walked from admiring Buber, to dismissing him for being engaged with mysticism, to viewing him more nuanced, and Jewish mysticism as even more complex, something that does not hinge on my relation to Buber:

“The fact that an idea which at first sight appears so reasonable as ‘Creation out of Nothing’ should turn out upon inspection to lead to a theosophical mystery shows us how illusory the apparent simplicity of religious fundamentals really is” – Scholem, MTJM 7.4

“The understanding, however, that law and spirit are antithetical has a specific genealogy that goes back to the apostle Paul’s attempt to contrast the Law (that is, the Torah) with the Spirit of God as revealed through Jesus Christ. There is nothing natural or obvious to the dichotomy; it is a culturally constructed one.” – Michael Satlow, Creating Judaism, 231.

It is interesting that even Scholem, who repeatedly criticizes the older, disparaging view of Jewish Mysticism, raises more than a hint of questionability before describing Luria’s theology, claiming, he may have gone too far with his anthropomorphisms (earlier in the same chapter of the above quote). Luria, it seems, was stretching even Scholem’s openness to these aspects of Judaism. But what is so compelling in this quote, is the distance between Genesis 1 and Lurianic Kaballah. There is nothing “reasonable,” in all fairness, in the idea of Creation out of Nothing, but it is presented in the HB as straightforward. The questions raised by the mystics, which yield the development of the En-Sof, tsimtsum, etc. do not stem from a difficulty in the plain meaning of the text, but from a sincere exegetical attempt to reconstruct the history reflected in it. When presented as such, it is not as crazy as it seems at first, and indeed reveals the illusory nature of apparent simplicity, as Scholem writes.

This ties in with Satlow’s sensible comment against the divorce of mysticism and law. The quote is taken from a discussion on Karo, who serves as an excellent embodiment of the point. The theologies of Maimonides and Luria are at irreconcilable odds, as if they belonged in entirely different religions. But Karo’s legal enterprise parallels Maimonides’ work, while his theological beliefs side with Luria.

If Jewish history could make these compatible, I certainly should avoid judging which is more authentic, plausible or laudable. I am nothing but a student of this history, stumbling on the path of its long and winding road, with no gates in sight.


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