Kabbalah and Modernity-libre

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philosophical text on mysticism

Text of Kabbalah and Modernity-libre


    Wouter J. Hanegraaf

    1. Introduction: Misunderstandings and the Politics of Identity

    In the opening chapter of his Major Trends of 1946, Gershom Scho-lem called attention to the creative potential of misunderstandings and misinterpretations in the history of kabbalah.1 And in a brilliant chapter of his Sprachtheorie der Kabbala als sthetisches Paradigma of 1998, Andreas Kilcher further analyzed this category of produc-tive misunderstanding, showing that it recurs in Scholems writings until the end of his life.2 From the perspective of historiography, it is only by means of misinterpretations and misunderstandings that new creative developments take place. h is phenomenon is full of paradox and irony, as Scholem certainly realized, for the implication is that the very tradition of kabbalah can continue and stay alive only insofar as the materials handed down by tradition are misunderstood by new generations. Perfect understanding, one has to conclude, would logi-cally imply the death of tradition.

    Although the category of productive misunderstanding was basic to how he looked at history, Scholem himself was not entirely consis-tent in applying it,3 due to a latent conl ict in his thinking between a strictly historical/philological approach on the one hand, and a meta-physical concept of true kabbalah on the other. In the terms of a famous letter of 1937, the historian of kabbalah i nds himself wander-ing around in the nebulous fogs of history, but he does so because he believes in the real and solid mountain of truth that stands in the

    1 Scholem, Major Trends, 2425.2 Kilcher, Sprachtheorie, 2329, with further reference to Scholem, Die Stellung

    der Kabbala, 13; and manuscript notes in the Gershom Scholem archive in Jerusalem, Arc 18.

    3 In fact, even Kilcher is not: see Hanegraaf , review of Kilcher, 116. For the same point about Scholem, see also Pasi, British Occultism and Kabbalah.

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    middle but is hidden from his sight.4 h e conl ict between mountain and nebula becomes visible, for example, in Scholems great Eranos lecture on Alchemy and Kabbalah of 1977, where productive misun-derstanding is described not so much as a historical fact that requires analysis, but as a regrettable perversion due to which the true nature of kabbalah is obscured and misperceived. In the wake of the Christian interpretation of kabbalah, we read,

    [t]he name of this mysterious discipline, presented and venerated as humanitys oldest and highest mystery wisdom by its i rst Christian mediators such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Reuchlin, became a popular catchword in all Renaissance circles with theosophical and occultist interests, and their followers in the baroque era. It became something like a l ag under which . . . more or less anything could be of ered to the public: from truly Jewish through vaguely Judaizing medi-tations of deeply Christian mystics up to the latest products of geomancy and cartomancy on the popular market. h e name kabbalah, while evok-ing feelings of respectful awe, covered everything. Even the strangest ele-ments of occidental folklore, and the somehow occultistically-oriented natural sciences of the time, such as astrology, alchemy and natural magic, became kabbalah. And this heavy ballast, which ot en com-pletely obscured its actual content, remains connected to popular opin-ions about the kabbalah up to the present day, among laypersons and theosophical adepts, in the language of many European writers and even scholars. In particular, as late as the 19th century, French h eosophists of the martinist school (Eliphas Lvi, Papus and many others), and in this century charlatans like Aleister Crowley and his English admirers have created the maximum that is humanly possible in generally confus-ing all the occult disciplines with the holy kabbalah. A large part of the writings which carry the word kabbalah on their title page have nothing or almost nothing to do with it.5

    Obviously this i nal sentence, and indeed the passage as a whole, implies that there is such a thing as the true or correctly-understood kabbalah, and that it can be distinguished from a false or pseudo-kabbalah which misunderstands and therefore distorts the truth. In other words: we are dealing here not with a case of productive but of destructive misunderstanding. Of course this begs the question: by what criteria could the former be distinguished from the latter?

    4 Scholem, A Birthday Letter.5 Scholem, Alchemie und Kabbala, 1920.

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  • the beginnings of occultist kabbalah 109

    From a strictly historical point of view, I would argue, there is no such criteria: Scholems very distinction is normative and implicitly metaphysical, and logically contradicts his own concept of historical/philological research. However, if we look at the early development of the study of kabbalah from the perspective of academic identity politics, it becomes easier to understand why, in spite of this, Scho-lem could not af ord to include occultist interpretations as legitimate objects of research in the study of kabbalah. h e development of the academic study of kabbalah could be described as a series of polemical exclusions and inclusions. h us, the great nineteenth-century scholar of Judaism Heinrich Graetz, in his monumental eleven-volume His-tory of the Jews (18531876) described pharisaean Talmudism as the hard core of true Judaism, and opposed it in the sharpest possible terms against the perversion of Jewish mysticism in all its forms. He used drastic images of illness and infection to describe how the healthy body of Judaism had been threatened throughout its history by the parasitic mushroom growths of the irrational:6

    h e image of the kabbalah as a fungous layer [Schimmelberzug] recurs frequently. Judaism, according to Graetz, is like a noble core surrounded by several crusts. h e core is the sinaite and prophetic doctrine of Judaism, which is surrounded by the triple layer of sopheric, mishnaic and talmudic exegeses and demarcations. But these (healthy) layers are surrounded by an ugly crust, a mushroom-like growth, a fungous layer, the kabbalah, which gradually nested itself in cracks and openings, insid-iously spreading and branching of from there.7

    Although Graetz himself would not have seen it this way, the iden-tity of Judaism as understood by him therefore relied, for dei ning itself, upon a concept of mysticism as its rhetorical other. Gershom Scholems oeuvre, in contrast, can be seen as a successful attempt to

    6 See the excellent analysis in Schfer, Adversus cabbalam. For the language of exclusion, see for instance Graetz, Konstruktion, 5659 (quoted in Schfer, o.c., 190), where in one short quotation we i nd mention of the talmudischen Umzunungen, the Jewish home as a scharf umgrenztes Palstina, which isolates Judaism within the situation of the diaspora by drawing unverrckbare Grenzen with the outside world, and where the Talmudic Beschrnkungen result in a Talmudic Isolierungs-system. Later on in the same text there is mention of the ausscheidende function of Talmudism, which repels the schdlichen Bestandteile and fremde Einl sse (Schfer, o.c., 191).

    7 Schfer, Adversus cabbalam, 204, quoting Graetz, Geschichte der Juden, vol. 10, 114.

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    integrate back into Judaism what had been excluded from it by the Wissenschat des Judentums of scholars such as Graetz.

    But the identity of Jewish mysticism as conceived of by Scholem implied a rhetorical other as well. As already suggested by the quo-tation given above, in his case this was the universalist understand-ing of kabbalah as a perennial wisdom that was supposed to have been widely present in many traditions of the ancient world. It is well known that the origins of that concept are to be found in the Christian interpretation of kabbalah since Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, lead-ing to what has sometimes been called a metaphorical kabbalah (or a second kabbalah),8 the permutations of which can be traced from the i t eenth century to the present. Rel ecting on that phenomenon, Scholem wryly observed that as far as the essence of the kabbalah is concerned, it [could] supposedly be anything except Judaism, and accordingly, to i nd its origins one could look anywhere, as long as it was as far away from Judaism as possible.9

    Just as Graetz had dei ned the identity of Judaism by emphasizing its rationality and sharply opposing it to mystical Schwrmerei, Scho-lem for his part dei ned Jewish mysticism by emphasizing its Jewish-ness and sharply opposing it against the idea of a universal kabbalah with non-Jewish origins. As I hope to demonstrate in this article, in the nineteenth and indeed until far into the twentieth century such a concept of kabbalah was by no means limited to esoteric or occult-ist circles. On the contrary: we will see that, at the time, recognized scholars of kabbalah, such as the French pioneer in this i eld Adolphe Franck, held very basic assumptions in common with occultists like Eliphas Lvi or Papus. Across the boardfrom popular esotericism to the academic establishmentwe encounter during this period the idea of a universal kabbalah with non-Jewish roots, and it is against this widespread consensus that Scholem developed his work.10

    8 Kilcher, Sprachtheorie der Kabbala, 2122, and for the concept of a second kab-balah see his reference to Menninghaus, Walter Benjamins h eorie, 199.