This absorbing work by the famous scholar of Jewish mysticism is profound yet accessible to the lay reader. Kabbalah which means `tradition' played an important part in religious life until the late 18th century. With the coming of modernism and emancipation it lost its universality in Jewish life until interest revived in the 20th century. Its symbols are intimately interwoven with the history of the Jewish people and its core message is one of Messianic hope. The Kabbalah represents a majestic image of exile, redemption & rebirth. In order to get the big picture, Scholem combined historical analysis with a phenomenological approach in order to capture the totality; only thus can Kabbalah be understood.
In all traditions there's tension between religious authority & mysticism. The author discusses the problematic position of the mystic who operates within a paradigm of values, doctrines & dogmas; very rarely in a void. The obscure, anonymous mystic exists also but this study is concerned with mysticism as historical phenomenon, which contains two complementary aspects: the revolutionary and the conservative. In communication, mystics mostly use the symbols and theology of their own tradition, simultaneously transforming & developing the tradition. The mystic discovers new meaning in scripture; mystical exegesis may be compared to a key. The conservative aspect of the practice is rooted in the established framework of a religious tradition. The interesting case of Richard Maurice Bucke
is mentioned as an example of a seeker after the universals of religion.
Chapter 3 investigates the meaning of Torah in Jewish mysticism. This rich tapestry encompasses the role of the Name of God, explication of the Name, the concept of a fabric woven of many names & Torah as a living organism. The distinction between the written & oral Torah with regard to the two trees of paradise and the two sets of tablets given to Moses at Sinai is analyzed here. Scholem then explains the multiple or infinite meanings of the text & the various levels thereof. He explores the history of the 4-fold "Pardes" interpretation: the literal, allegorical, Talmudic/Aggadic & mystical layers. According to the sages, the Absolute Torah varies with the state of mankind, the historical period and the cosmic cycles. In this chapter one learns of the great Kabbalists like Moses de Leon, Bahya ben Asher, Joseph Gikatila and the School of Safed where legendary names like Moses Cordovero
& Isaac Luria taught the mysteries.
Scholem observes that the original impulse of Judaism was a reaction against mythology. Rabbinical Judaism attempted to avoid mythical images & symbols while ordinary people have a need for them; in this way developed the split between pure theological formula versus the concept of a living God. The appearance of the Book Bahir with its innovative cosmology initiated the tension between the Maimonidean philosophical view and the mystical concept of the Divine. Myth thus reappeared in Judaism through the Kabbalah, emphasizing the difference between the idea of the Eternal and the idea of Law. Rabbinical Judaism & Kabbalah held radically different views also on the question of evil.
The ten sefiroth or modes of action through which creation proceeds is a theogonic process of emanation. Key concepts like the infinite & unknowable Ein-Sof and the Shekhinah which is identified with the soul, the community of Israel & the Sabbath are clearly explained, as well as the idea of the exile of Shekhinah. The "Tsimtsum" or material creation was an act of self-limitation by God in order to allow free will. In other words, the Big Bang represents a partial withdrawal
of the Deity from a particular dimension & space-time continuum. In the process, the "Shevirah" or breaking of the vessels occurred, an explanation for the imperfection of the world. "Tikkun" is the healing of the wound caused by Shevirah, a process of repair & restoration. Adam Kadmon represents the perfect, archetypal human.
Kabbalistic ritual is a blend of the traditional & the new, the latter focusing on the interconnectedness of all levels of being in all dimensions. This innovation in ritual intended to establish harmony between the rigidity of judgment & the flowing quality of mercy, reconciliation through sacred marriage, the redemption of the Shekhinah and protection against evil. Rituals involving the Sabbath were particularly elaborate, and the day of rest itself acquired new significance including an anthropomorphic aspect as the bride of the Divine. The last chapter on the Golem is a lengthy and detailed study of the myth and legend surrounding the making of a humanoid automaton and is not as fascinating as the other chapters. My mind kept wandering to the movie Young Frankenstein
, an unforgettable comedy.
On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism is a work of impressive scholarship and an ideal introduction to Jewish mysticism; it also provides valuable insights on comparative mysticism & spirituality, symbolism and history. The reader learns about books like the Zohar
, the Book of Creation, Book Bahir & Book Yetsirah amongst others, as well as the great mystics of Europe and of Safed in Israel. The text is filled with footnotes & bibliographic references for further study. The book concludes with an index. I also recommend The Thirteen Petalled Rose
by Adin Steinsaltz and Cracking the Bible Code: The Scientific Search for the Existence of God
by Dr Jeffrey Satinover, two books with remarkable information on Kabbalah, cosmology & history.