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David Shasha

David Shasha

Posted: July 7, 2010 08:58 AM

Dangerous Mystic Motifs in Judaism

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The organized movement to attack the writings of Moses Maimonides, perhaps the most significant post-Talmudic sage over the course of Jewish history, originated in Ashkenazi rabbinic circles and was executed by a ban promulgated by their disciples in Christian Spain. It is intimately connected to the triumph of mystical occultism in Judaism. The battle waged between Maimonidean Humanism, with its reliance on science and rational philosophy, and Ashkenazi Kabbalistic occultism is the most important factor in our attempt to understand the wider arc of Jewish civilization.

At the center of this controversy is the vexing question of Jewish authenticity.

In the closing passage to his 1998 book, Problems and Parables of Law: Maimonides and Nahmanides on the Reasons for the Commandments, Josef Stern provides us with a fascinating insight into the way this "Clash of Civilizations" has played out:

"Maimonides' explanation of the huqqim [Biblical laws that were thought to have no rational explanation] attempted to bring about the fall of myth in Judaism. Instead it led, through its formative influence on Nahmanides just one generation later, to the resuscitation of these same myths."

The taking of sides in a socio-historical sense has been characteristic of contemporary scholarship on Maimonides. Maimonides' purported innovations are often blamed for the failure of his project.

In his 2006 study "Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism," Menachem Kellner adopts an approach that has become standard in most Jewish circles, writing:

"The Jewish world in which Maimonides lived was uncongenial to the austere, abstract, demanding vision of Torah which he preached. Evidence from a wide variety of sources shows that Jews in Maimonides' day - common folk and scholars alike - accepted astrology, the magical use of divine names, appeals to angels, etc."

In a noble attempt to elevate the thinking of Maimonides, Kellner's arguments bizarrely lend credence to the positions of the anti-Maimonideans.

In the book's conclusion he states:

The world favored by Maimonides' opponents, on the other hand, is an "enchanted" world. Many of Maimonides' opponents, in his day and ours, do indeed accept the efficacy of charms and amulets, and fear the harm of demons and the evil eye. But it is not in that sense that I maintain that they live in an enchanted world. Theirs is not a world which can be explained in terms of the unvarying workings of divinely ordered laws of nature; it is not a world which can be rationally understood. It is a world in which the notion of miracle loses all meaning, since everything that happens is a miracle. In such a world instructions from God, and contact with the divine in general, must be mediated by a religious elite who alone can see the true reality masked by nature. This is the opposite of an empowering religion, since it takes their fate out of the hands of Jews, and, in effect, puts it into the hands of the rabbis.

We can see the tension at the heart of Kellner's argument, a tension that forces his hand in accepting the absolute authenticity of the mystical-occult tradition of the Kabbalah and rejecting the Jewish validity of Maimonidean rationalism.

The Hebrew word "Kabbalah" literally means "to accept" and is used to indicate the term "tradition." In what was once known as "normative" Judaism -- a term that current scholars of Judaism have bitterly contested, and rejected -- Kabbalah was understood to mean the transmission of the Talmudic tradition by the Palestinian and Babylonian academies. This process finds its apotheosis in the work of Maimonides, whose synthetic compilations of Jewish law integrated with the principles of science and rationality represent the robust fusion that we have called "Religious Humanism."

Kellner's book contains a forward by Hebrew University professor Moshe Idel, perhaps the single most influential academic in the world of Judaica, a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize and a ubiquitous presence in the world of Jewish studies. Idel has relentlessly promoted the pro-magic, neo-pagan, anti-rational strain of Jewish tradition also called Kabbalah.

As we see in a representative passage in his seminal 1988 work "Kabbalah: New Perspectives":

Kabbalah can be viewed as part of a restructuring of those aspects of rabbinic thought that were denied authenticity by Maimonides' system. Far from being a total innovation, historical Kabbalah represented an ongoing effort to systematize existing elements of Jewish theurgy, myth, and mysticism into a full-fledged response to the rationalistic challenge.

Idel's scholarly project has been designed to affirm the authenticity of the mystical-occult Kabbalah and undermine the validity of the rational standards of Religious Humanism. Idel argues that the common view of the mystical-theurgical Kabbalah as an alien accretion in rational Talmudism, exemplified by the work of Maimonides as inheritor of Sephardic-Andalusian tradition, is incorrect:

It is, however, possible to assume that, if the motifs transmitted in those unknown [Kabbalistic] circles formed part of an ancient weltanschauung, their affinities to the rabbinic mentality would be more organic and easily absorbed into the mystic cast of Judaism. According to this hypothesis, we do not need to account for why ancient Jews took over Gnostic doctrines, why they transmitted them, and, finally, how this 'Gnostic' Judaism was revived in the Middle Ages by conservative Jewish authorities. Furthermore, an attempt to study Jewish mysticism along the lines I have proposed has a manifest methodological advantage: it postulates a relatively organic evolution of Jewish mysticism that can be demonstrated by using Hebrew material found in the various layers of Jewish literature and that, consequently, can also be rejected by philological or historical analysis of the texts.

It is this final assertion that is most critical in our understanding of contemporary Jewish identity.

At the very heart of the Zionist vision is a dialectic: the negation of the Diaspora and the imposition of an ancient, pre-Diaspora Jewish authenticity. As described by the historian Yitzhak Baer in his 1936 book "Galut" [Diaspora]:

Our place in the world is not to be measured by the measure of this world. Our history follows its own laws, maintaining its innermost tendencies in the face of the outward dangers of dispersal, disintegration, secularization, and moral and religious petrifaction.

Baer, along with his friend Ben-Zion Dinur, was known for his antipathy to the enlightened cosmopolitanism of the Andalusian-Maimonidean tradition and his zealous Zionism. In Baer's thinking, Judaism is something apart from the world; it is at root an occultism that has been preserved and transmitted according to its own logistics over the course of centuries.

The problematical nature of Israel's Jewish culture can be identified as the paradoxical attempt to restore Jews to the world of nations, but to do so by an occult process that remains alien to universal civilization and the standards of science and rationality.

The danger inherent in the magical-mythical approach is at root epistemological. The point was eloquently addressed by the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges in his story "The Total Library":

One of the mind's habits is the invention of horrible fancies. It has invented Hell, predestination, being predestined to Hell, the Platonic ideas, the chimera, the sphinx, the abnormal transfinite numbers (where the parts are no less abundant than the whole), masks, mirrors, operas, the monstrous Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the unresolvable Ghost, all articulated into one single organism... I have tried to save from oblivion a minor horror: the vast contradictory library, whose vertical deserts of books run the incessant risk of metamorphosis, which affirm everything, deny everything, and confuse everything -- like a raving god.

The Borges text is strangely affirmed by the current Jewish state of affairs. Having retaken its ancestral land from the native Arabs, Zionism has set out an occult Jewish tradition formed on a "totalizing" concept of a mythical Judaism. Alienated from the progressive traditions of the Diaspora which allowed Judaism to grow by absorbing outside influences in order to survive, as Maimonides did, Zionist thinking sought to leapfrog backward in time to find the truly "authentic" Jewish tradition and discovered that tradition in the anti-rationalism of the Ashkenazi rabbis.

This has led to the rejection of Sephardic Jewish Humanism as formulated by Maimonides and an affirmation of an ethnocentric Jewish chauvinism based on the magical mysticism of Kabbalistic theurgy. It is a Judaism that rejects the tenets of a critical reading of the Jewish past and has led us to the sort of ideological purity and militant nationalism that has become characteristic of the intractable impasse in the Middle East. Though this occult process has been secularized by Zionism, it is apparent that the ideological values of the mystical continue to animate the Jewish self-perception in a nationalistic sense.