Mysticism and Kabbalah: A Controversy

Pinchas Giller on Boaz Huss and Clemence Boulouque

Since the days of ancient Egypt, religion was a business pursued by families and supporting social roles. Academia is a business as well, wherein ideas are marketed to society based on their novelty and the development of new understandings through research. The discovery of a new idea or field leads, necessarily, to its being marketed. When one runs out of new things to study, as is not uncommon in the humanities, new and contrived methodologies are often brought to bear on the same old material. The post-modern intellectual movements of the late twentieth century, which aimed to squeeze some new life out of the old academic subjects, were subsequently interpreted as “practical halakhah.” The ideas of post-modernists were put into practice in the ideologies of the new century. In any case, there is money there to be extracted, as well as support, recognition, and power. 

Hence the emergence of “mysticism” as a concept in nineteenth-century scholarship. The initial impulse for its emergence was baldly appropriationist, wherein all religious mysticisms, like various square pegs, were forced into the round holes of certain Christological templates. The field began as an academic category based in psychology, in the work of William James and Evelyn Underhill. James’ initial understandings of mysticism in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” formed the basis for subsequent relativist typologies. After James, there was a race to provide new categories and descriptions of the mystical experience, in the work of W.T. Stace, Wayne Proudfoot, Fritz Staal and others. There was also a controversy, in the work of Aldous Huxley and R.C. Zaehner, regarding the meaning and role of the drug experience in the phenomenology of mystical experience.

In many religions, the pre-experiential factor defines the subsequent experience. Gershom Scholem originated this contextualist approach to mysticism, wherein there is no one transpersonal mystical experience that exists cross-culturally, there is only the most intense experience of a given religious tradition. Steven Katz has continued this tradition. Moshe Idel, although he challenged Scholem in many ways, according to Huss, “did not undermine the field’s founding category—mysticism—nor did it override the theological logic involved in the use of the concept ‘mysticism’ as an analytical category.”

Mysticism, in general, tends to require a framework of religious traditionalism in which the mystical impulse can ignite from within a given religious infrastructure. It is that friction of personal experience within a stratified religious tradition that ignites the fire of mysticism. For example, the Paulist Press has long maintained a series, “Classics of Western Spirituality,” now consisting of hundreds of volumes, from Eckhardt to Al-Ghazali and points between, of which a small minority originate in Protestantism and none from liberal Judaism. Religious systems which reduce themselves to a single idea lack the framework within which the mystical impulse ignites.

Boaz Huss has been looking askance at this phenomenon for a long time. In his career, Huss has moved from the study of a pivotal commentator on the kabbalistic classic, the Zohar, to the general reception of the Zohar in the years following its publication and circulation. From there, Huss vaulted the walls of the kabbalistic tradition to the study of the Zohar’s reception in the world of Western esotericism, and from there, he has become an important scholar in the field of esotericism itself. 

For some time, Huss has been questioning the very definition of Kabbalah as it has been processed by the mysticism business and he has come to some conclusions in his book The Mystification of Kabbalah. This book documents, in an exhaustive and epic manner, the complex relationship of Kabbalah studies to the business of mysticism. In all cases, according to Huss, mysticism “is a modern discursive structure that was created within the context of European colonialism and the formation of modern nationalism.” 

In the case of Kabbalah, the decision to identify that body of literature, lore and metaphysics with “mysticism” was a leap that occurred within the spiritualistic element of the Haskalah, or “Jewish Enlightenment” of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Huss traces the origins of the identification to Martin Buber, who adopted the category of “mysticism,” taken from neo-Romantic circles, and applied it to Kabbalah and Hasidism. His younger colleague, Gershom Scholem is ofttimes credited with the development of the whole field of Kabbalah studies. He did not invent it out of whole cloth, but he did set up the business and market it to the scholarly world. Scholem adopted the romantic arc from the Sabbatean heresy of the seventeenth century to the eighteenth-century Hasidic movement that had been advanced by Buber. Buber and Scholem asserted a Zionist vision, based in romanticism, German idealism and the metaphysical and spiritualist movements in the United Sates. Strikingly, the very Hebrew word for “experience,” ḥavaya, was coined by the labor Zionist A.D. Gordon, based on the German erlebnis

Boaz Huss, Mystifying Kabbalah: Academic Scholarship, National Theology, and New Age Spirituality. Oxford University Press, 2020. ISBN 9780190086961. 198 pp. Hardcover: $99.

It is a given that scholars need not be adherents of the religion that they study, and yet there are certain givens among Kabbalah scholars that seem almost like religious beliefs particularly in the “Jerusalem School” of Kabbalah studies and, I would say, its recent offshoot, the “Women’s School,” the students of Moshe Idel and, especially, Yehudah Liebes, who have taken Kabbalah research into new areas of theological and gender sensibility. The late scholar of Hasidism, Tsippi Kaufman, maintained the hope that research in Kabbalah “will lead its readers to scholarly and perhaps also existential and religious insights.” Huss feels that most scholars assume the reality of a divine or metaphysical realm which is the object of mystical experiences. As to the very definition of “Kabbalah,” there is a difference of opinions. Moshe Idel has averred that, “given the diversity of personalities … no one unifying history, psychology or phenomenology of this lore is possible,” while Elliot Wolfson has posited, “an irreducible aspect” to Kabbalah, which is similar to Jonathan Garb’s declaration that “I do not accept the reduction of spiritual possibilities to a social level.”

Their defense of the profundity of the material can translate into a rejection of cross-cultural theories. Such was the case with Moshe Idel’s critique of those scholars (Arthur Green, Peter Schaefer) who saw Marianic motifs in the kabbalistic image of the Shekhinah. Idel saw these as instances of distortion and bias in Kabbalah research. Another Jerusalem scholar, Yehudah Liebes, evinces very little esteem for sociological, anthropological or psychological approaches to Kabbalah. Jonathan Garb, as well, disagrees with the definition of Kabbalah as a “closed set of distinctive features” and is suspicious of analytical methodologies. The American scholar Matt Goldish has argued for the validity of academic approaches, although he queries the motivation of the academic scholars and the validity of academics questioning the authenticity of practitioners in the field.

Of course, the kabbalistic authors themselves are relentlessly traditional in their orientation, as the premise is: a scholar who was not religiously observant would be like a surgeon operating with dirty hands. The Jerusalem School, as founded by Scholem, has produced its own orthodoxies, particularly among the founding generations. These ideas have come to the fore in its assessment of contemporary forms of Kabbalah and, rather unhappily, in its relationship to the enormous kabbalistic product of the North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities.

It has been historically characteristic of Kabbalah that its ideas jumped out of the Jewish community and into other traditions. In late antiquity, there was a general spiritual flux in which Gnosticism, Jewish esotericism and pre-Christian ideas swirled around in the cosmopolitan mix of Eastern Mediterranean society. In the Renaissance, kabbalistic ideas were adopted by Italian neo-Platonism and were propagated by a Yisrael Sarug, a young student of the Galilean colossus Isaac Luria. Huss himself has been instrumental in documenting the spread of kabbalistic ideas into modern Theosophy and the “New Age” movements.

Hence it is mildly depressing to note the indignation in which late kabbalistic schools such as the advocates of Ashlagian Kabbalah in the late twentieth century have ignited, particularly among the aging representatives of Scholem’s original students. As Huss observes, it is as if Kabbalah could revive “in you or in me (but not in them).” For the Scholem acolyte Joseph Dan, “his critique of the populism of Modern Kabbalah is also based on the traditional image of Kabbalah as restricted and esoteric knowledge. Huss also observes that “Dan’s ‘sneering’ critique of New Age Kabbalah is reminiscent of Scholem’s polemics against the occult Kabbalah of his time.” 

Huss properly points out the synthetic phenomenon of the vogue for the work of Avraham Abulafia in the late twentieth century and otherwise, in which “this kabbalist, who was disparaged by his contemporaries, became today the Jewish mystic par excellence.” In fact, Abulafia “filled the needs of scholars interested in ‘mysticism,’ i.e. the more psychological, ecstatic, experiential and practical aspects of Kabbalah.” 

Young North African and Middle Eastern Jews tend to view intellectual discrimination by Ashkenazim as “Ashkenormative”; Huss, when he turns the mirror on his own circle, finds “orientalism,” à la Edward Said. Huss notes that this tendency to reject the present day manifestations of Kabbalah has continued into the activities of contemporary scholars. For much of the academy, the forms of Kabbalah taken up by the masses are, with the exception, perhaps, of Chabad Hasidism, regarded as false or at least déclassé. Middle Eastern and North African communities were particular strongholds of kabbalistic schools and thought, yet in 1947, Gershom Scholem presented a lachrymose view of the prospects of the Beit El community of Jerusalem’s Old City. Scholem’s reference to Beit El as the expression of “the Sephardic and arabized tribes,” even as his interlocutor at Beit El was the Ashkenazi kabbalist R. Gershon Vilner, points to what Huss terms the “depressed orientalism” of Scholem’s view. When Gershom Scholem famously rejected the condition of the Jerusalem Kabbalists that he “ask no questions,” Huss observes that “paradoxically enough, by his negative response Scholem effectively accepted the condition proposed by the kabbalist, for he chose not to ask questions about—and not to study—Kabbalah as a living contemporary phenomenon” and that “Scholem’s meetings with contemporary kabbalists left no impression whatsoever on his vast corpus of scholarly work. He rejected the possibility of studying from contemporary sources, even their textual record. Huss argues that this rejection was an ideological one, influenced by Scholem’s embrace of the Zionist mythos, which required the marginalization of all previous ethnic categories and the cultural identity of Diaspora Judaism. Similarly, the American scholar and religious leader Arthur Green adopts “a patronizing and orientalist tone,” regarding new developments in Kabbalah, describing the traditions and the new developments of North Africa, the Middle East as “highly debased renditions of the original teaching and … folk religion.” 

It didn’t have to turn out that way. An alternative modernity was proposed by a forgotten, somewhat marginal and liminal figure, Elia Benamozegh, who receives his due in Clemence Boulouque’s thorough and meticulous Another Modernity: Elia Benamozeghs Jewish Universalism. Benamozegh was an Italian Rabbi of Moroccan extraction, a pillar of the Jewish community of Livorno for much of his life (1823-1900). He received an enlightenment education, which was the foundation for his liberal understanding of society and history. He was a staunch Italian patriot, in the nationalistic mold of the time, and his aspirations and sensibilities are best understood in the context of the Risorgimento, the nineteenth-century movement for the unification of Italy, even as he moved to writing and publishing in French. He advocated an enlightened orthodoxy with a sophisticated North African perspective, although “Benamozegh’s Livornese background and Moroccan roots positioned him as an outsider in the conversations of his time.

Benamozegh was also an ardent and articulate Kabbalist, and kabbalistic ideas, rather than Maimonidean rationalism, remained his default theology as he turned his gaze out to the larger world. His unabashed admiration for Kabbalah was based on the Zohar’s canonicity in North Africa, and his Kabbalah was based on the classical models of the Galilean Renaissance of Kabbalah, the thought of Moshe Cordovero and Isaac Luria. Boulouque sees Benamozegh’s championing of Kabbalah as foreshadowing the historical consciousness of Gershom Scholem. His work also struck a blow for Sephardic thought and heritage in the midst of what he viewed as the stifling historicism of German reform thinkers, such as Graetz, Frankel, Lowy and Geiger, with whom he was otherwise in dialogue about Kabbalah, which, the former thinkers had vigorously denigrated, was essential to his worldview. His first book was a meticulous rebuttal of Leone Modena’s Ari Nohem, itself an attack on the antiquity of the Zohar.

Benamozegh saw Judaism as a universalistic religion, based in Kabbalah, of which the halakhic nature was, variously, an isolationist shell. He saw the possibilities of universalism nascent in the Jewish mystical vocabulary and campaigned on the notion that “greater particularism made for greater universalism.” Hence, Benamozegh’s attitude towards Christianity was conciliatory. He employed the standard romanticization of early Christianity, as did Buber, viewing Pauline Christianity as a distortion of the pure spirit of the early movement. As a kabbalistic traditionalist, he understood Christian ideas as a corrupted form of kabbalah, which he traced to antiquity. In that regard, he viewed the archetypal contents of Indian religion as a better adaptation of kabbalistic ideas than Christianity, notwithstanding its pagan trappings. He also offered radical reinterpretations of Feuerbach and Darwin, bringing them into harmony with religious belief through kabbalistic ideas. 

Benamozegh founded a series of publishing houses which fell in and out of favor with his host Jewish community as he edged away from religious orthodoxy into a kind of mystical universalism, certainly unique for the nineteenth century. He began to publish works advocating a liberal approach to Judaism, yet grounded in kabbalistic ideas, with his publishing catalogue reflecting a certain balance between Sephardic and western concerns. Benamozegh’s five-volume Hebrew Bible commentary, Em la-Miqrah also straddles the fence between traditionalism and the critical understandings of his time, invoking many early modern philosophers such as Newton and Descartes. Consequently, the work was banned in the influential Jewish community of Aleppo. This excommunication traumatized Benamozegh and altered the nature of his activity.

The crux of Benamozegh’s universalism was his championing of the Noahide laws, the seven commandments to humankind given after the Biblical Flood, as a model for a universal ethical monotheism, a fusion religion. It was in “Noahism” and its kabbalistic interpretation, that Benamozegh found his grand theme. Boulouque traces the afterlife of the Noahide premise, even as its reception spread to a number of less savory venues, from Religious Zionism to Kahanism, and even to the present where it exists as a subset of Orthodox overtures to contemporary evangelical groups. In light of those effects, Boulouque also compares Benamozegh’s ideas to the salient contemporary influences of his time: Mendelssohn, Kant, Geiger and Hegel.

There are a few problematic statements in Boulouque’s work: the works of Moshe Cordovero and Elijah de Vidas were not “modeled on concepts found in the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria.” They preceded it. I am not sure that “ecstatic” (i.e. Abulafian) Kabbalah played such a “significant role” in Italian Judaism for, as noted above, interest in Abulafia has been an artificial academic phenomenon. Similarly, Benamozegh’s understanding of Jewish and Christian Ethics is understood by Boulouque as an attempt “to offer nondualist perspectives capable of dealing with the binaries created by Christianity and the Enlightenment.”Although it is the nature of Kabbalah to seek unities and yearn for a world past the binaries of “permitted and forbidden, pure and impure, fit and unfit” (to quote the latter sections of the Zohar), this reads like a contemporary interpretation. Also, Boulouque sees Benamozegh’s Noahide universalism as problematic because it “relies on sources that contain ethnocentric biases,” which would seem to be a problem with much of Judaism.

But the course of the reception of Kabbalah did not take the integrationist position of Benamozegh. In this way, Boulouque’s work joins other historical re-evaluations of the late nineteenth century by such figures as Eliyahu Stern, Olga Litvak, and Yonatan Meir. Along with Zevi Zohar’s work on Middle Eastern rabbinic legalism, Boulouque has presented a lost opportunity, or perhaps a future possibility. Boulouque’s work is of a piece with Huss’ skeptical view of the Academy. The efforts of the Jerusalem school of scholars, as well as Benamozegh’s new synthesis, were elements of the progression of Kabbalah from the religious underworld to the sanction of academic respectability and the enthusiastic embrace of the Jewish world.

Dr. Pinchas Giller is Chair of the Jewish Studies Department and Jean and Harvey Powell Professor in the College of Arts & Sciences. Following his ordination, in 1980, Dr. Giller taught high school in Israel. He came back to the U.S. to earn his Ph.D., then returned to Israel to participate in the Hebrew University Zohar Project. After stints at Concordia University in Montreal and Washington University in St. Louis, he joined the AJU faculty in 1998 and became department chair in 2009. He also directs the Kabbalah and Hasidism Program at the American Jewish University.