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With the publication of The Origins of Kabbalah in 1950, one of the most important scholars of our century brought the obscure world of Jewish mysticism to a wider audience for the first time. A crucial work in the oeuvre of Gershom Scholem, this book details the beginnings of the Kabbalah in twelfth- and thirteenth-century southern France and Spain, showing its rich tradition of repeated attempts to achieve and portray direct experiences of God. The Origins of the Kabbalah is a contribution not only to the history of Jewish medieval mysticism, but also to the study of medieval mysticism in general. Now with a new foreword by David Biale, this book remains essential reading for students of the history of religion.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691182988
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 02/26/2019
Series: Princeton Classics , #79
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 1,164,245
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Gershom Scholem (1897–1982) was a German-born Israeli philosopher and historian. He was professor of Jewish mysticism at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah.

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1. The State of Research: The Views of Graetz and Neumark

The question of the origin and early stages of the Kabbalah, that form of Jewish mysticism and theosophy that appears to have emerged suddenly in the thirteenth century, is indisputably one of the most difficult in the history of the Jewish religion after the destruction of the Second Temple. Just as indisputably, it is one of the most important. The significance acquired by the kabbalistic movement within the Jewish world was so great and its influence at times so preponderant that if one wishes to understand the religious possibilities inherent in Judaism, the problem of the specific historical character of this phenomenon appears to be of primary importance. Researchers, therefore, have justly devoted a great deal of attention to this problem and have made diverse attempts to find a solution.

The difficulty does not lie only in the prejudices with which many scholars have approached this problem, although such prejudices — whether of an apologetic or of an explicitly hostile nature — are in no small measure responsible for the prevailing confusion. Two circumstances, in particular, have impeded research in this area. Above all, the original sources, the oldest kabbalistic texts — those best suited to shed light on the circumstances under which the Kabbalah made its appearance — have by no means been sufficiently studied. This is not surprising, for these documents contain hardly any historical accounts that could clarify by means of direct testimony either the milieu into which the Kabbalah was born or its origin. To the extent that such accounts do exist, they are mostly pseudepigraphical stories and inventions. Nor is the task of the historian of religion rendered easier by an abundance of detailed mystical texts whose analysis could compensate for this paucity of historical documents. On the contrary, he faces texts that are preserved only in a fragmentary state, rendering them extremely difficult to understand, and that employ concepts and symbols so strange that often they are simply incomprehensible. These difficulties in deciphering the oldest texts are further increased by the style in which they are written; the syntax alone can often drive the reader to despair.

Moreover, these primary sources are few. We are not dealing here with either voluminous works or personal documents that include exchanges of letters or biographical records of the kind that are of such invaluable assistance to the historian of Christian or Islamic mysticism. Nearly all documents of this nature have been lost in the storms of Jewish history. When I was fortunate enough to discover one such letter written by a central figure of the early days of the Provençal Kabbalah, this came as a great and pleasant surprise.

Since the kabbalistic literature appears to turn only its most forbidding face toward researchers, few of them have taken the pains to rescue the manuscripts from the dust of the libraries, publish them, and attempt to uncover their meaning. Adolph Jellinek was the only nineteenth-century scholar to publish at least some texts that bear on the investigation of the Kabbalah of the thirteenth century, and of these only a few relate to the earliest period or to that which immediately followed. The authors who wrote about the Kabbalah were content to study only what the kabbalists themselves had chanced to publish. It does not require much imagination to conceive how unsatisfactory these editions of difficult texts are to the modern researcher and how liable they are to lead him to false conclusions through incorrect readings and other deficiencies. On this difficult terrain, the absence of any painstaking philological spadework whose conclusions could supply the basis for a comprehensive structure has led to disastrous results.

If I have discussed at some length the difficulties with which the researcher of the Kabbalah must grapple, it has been in order to emphasize that we cannot expect any easy and elegant solution of problems that by their very nature defy elementary and simplistic treatment. Nevertheless, we must stake out a path and unravel with the greatest possible clarity and care the knotty problems along the way. This task is not as impossible as it may appear at first or even second glance. Much more of the kabbalistic literature of the first half of the thirteenth century has survived than had been assumed earlier. Even if these writings do not contain very many of the original sources that antedate the period, they at least make it possible for us to form a precise idea of the state of the Kabbalah in the generation following its entrance upon the scene. The analysis of the different tendencies that then arose and took shape within the Kabbalah can also teach us a few things about what preceded them. Moreover, it was precisely these developments in the first half of the thirteenth century that proved particularly productive for kabbalistic Judaism and that profoundly influenced the following generations.

Unfortunately, the most voluminous kabbalistic work of the thirteenth century, the Zohar, namely, the complex of writings included within it, must be entirely eliminated from this discussion of the origin and early stages of the Kabbalah. The contention has often been made, and is still frequently repeated, that this book contains in part, if only in the form of a later redaction or revision, texts of great antiquity whose identification and analysis would thus be of the greatest relevance for our investigation. Most of the writings on the Kabbalah have taken practically no account of the sources and the points of reference of scientific discussion that will be treated here, but have relied almost exclusively upon the Zohar. In the chapter of my book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism in which I touch upon this point, I presented the results of an extensive and detailed investigation of this work and demonstrated that there is unfortunately no basis for assuming that the Zohar contains any ancient texts. The entire work belongs to the last quarter of the thirteenth century and is of no use to us in the discussion that follows. Efforts are still being made in our day to sift out ancient elements of one kind or another, but they cannot withstand philological analysis and rather belong to the realm of fantasy. The Zohar is based entirely upon rabbinic and kabbalistic literature composed before 1275. If it were possible to prove otherwise in a truly convincing manner, our task would, of course, be greatly facilitated. I once made a serious attempt to do so myself, but this endeavor, to which I devoted a number of years, thoroughly persuaded me that this thesis was untenable. As things stand, we must turn aside from this high road and make do on the thornier path of historical analysis of the texts that are nearer to the origin and first stages of the Kabbalah.

This automatically excludes from consideration certain theories that readily trace the kabbalistic doctrines back to antiquity. These theories in the form in which they have been presented until now — for example, in the widely read book of Adolphe Franck — no longer merit serious scholarly discussion. Nor is it possible to take seriously Tholuck's attempt to show that the Kabbalah is historically dependent upon Muslim Sufism. The philological and historical foundations of these investigations were much too weak to justify their authors' far-reaching results and conclusions. It is thus not surprising that scholarship soon turned its back upon these views. On the other hand, the forms of Jewish mysticism that appeared in the Middle Ages from around 1200 onward under the name "Kabbalah" are so different from any earlier forms, and in particular from the Jewish gnosis of Merkabah mysticism and German Hasidism of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, that a direct transition from one form to the other is scarcely conceivable. This difference has not escaped the notice of scholars, who have tried to account for it, each in his own manner. Precisely because the structure of kabbalistic thought was completely unlike that of older or contemporary currents, it engendered explanations that were forced to take that state of affairs into consideration. Two theories, in particular, have been advanced with regard to the formation of the Kabbalah. Their authors undertook to prove their validity as best they could and exerted a considerable influence over the past few generations. I refer here to Graetz and Neumark, about whose conceptions I wish to make a few remarks, even though, or perhaps precisely because, they are so utterly different in both principle and method from those presented in this book.

Graetz proposed an historical explanation based upon the great events and controversies of Jewish history. According to him, the Kabbalah was essentially nothing but a reaction against the radical rationalism of the Maimonideans — the adherents of the philosophy of Maimonides, who died in Fostat (Old Cairo) in 1204 but had enthusiastic followers throughout the Orient and in Provence as well. There, his principal work, The Guide of the Perplexed, appeared in the year of his death, translated from the original Arabic into Hebrew. The appearance of the Kabbalah upon the historical scene in Provence at the beginning of the thirteenth century coincides with the birth of this philosophy. Obscurantists who hated the light that shone forth from the school of the new rationalists raised against it a system they called "Kabbalah," which literally means "tradition." Its fantastic and extravagant doctrines, elaborated in overheated brains, were essentially superstitious and contrary to the spirit of Judaism. In their battle against enlightenment these obscurantists were not particularly discriminating and therefore did not hesitate to draw upon foreign, imprecisely identified sources for their fundamental ideas. The Kabbalah is not historically continuous with the older mystical movements in Judaism, in particular the mysticism of the Merkabah. The crude anthropomorphisms of the adepts of the Shi'ur Qomah, the doctrine of the mystical figure of the Godhead, merely furnished the kabbalists with a symbolic vocabulary. Graetz does not exclude the possibility that older materials may have been absorbed into this mystical symbolism, but he never enters into a more direct discussion of this problem, whose importance is nevertheless evident. "It can no longer be said with complete certainty whence the first kabbalists ... acquired their basic principles, borrowed from Neoplatonism." But in their struggle against the sublimation of the Talmudic Aggadah and the Jewish ritual law by the adherents of the philosophy of Maimonides, the new "enemies of the light" developed their own theory. It was based upon the supposition that the rituals had a magical effect; its details were drawn from the kabbalistic revelations to which the initiators of this tendency laid claim. It is interesting to note that the possibility of a filiation linking the Kabbalah with ancient Gnosticism, which had appeared so plausible to other authors because it supported their belief in the great antiquity of the Kabbalah, does not play the slightest role in Graetz's theory.

David Neumark's theory in his Geschichte der jüdischen Philosophie des Mittelalters is completely different. He, too, proposed an explanation based upon an immanent process. But according to him this process was not associated with the struggle between the adherents of Maimonides and his opponents. Rather, he sees the Kabbalah as a product of the internal dialectic that governs the development of philosophical ideas in Judaism. The great events of history play no essential role, and everything is attributed solely to internal processes within philosophic thought. Contrary to Graetz, Neumark assigns an early date to the Kabbalah, which he regards as an intrinsic development within Judaism, requiring no borrowings from foreign sources. This process was a "remythologizing" of philosophic conceptions. In his opinion, the philosophic movement in Judaism issued, on the one hand, from the cosmogonic speculations (Ma'aseh Bereshith) of the talmudists, which raised the problem of the primal substance and developed the doctrine of ideas, and, on the other hand, from the Merkabah speculations concerning the world of the divine Throne, in which doctrines of emanations and angelology, that is, of intermediary beings in the process of the creation, were evolved. These two disciplines, esoteric in origin, were engaged in a permanent and increasingly hostile controversy. As the genuinely philosophic contents of these early secret doctrines were formulated they also served as the point of departure for a countermovement, the Kabbalah, which, in this manner, represents a "latent parallel" to philosophy.

The philosophers struggle against the mystical elements and overcome them, but in the intermediate stages of this combat many ideas were conceived, many images were projected and many phrases were polished. These crumbs were gathered up by mystically disposed spirits and mixed with other elements, coming from the old hearth of the doctrine of the Merkabah, to form a new creation. Slowly but surely, this new creation intruded itself into the framework of the old mysticism until it filled all of its enormously expanded dimensions and ornamental twists and turns.

Neumark believed that he could detail this process by means of a demonstrable philosophic chain of literature that reveals the transition from philosophic to kabbalistic conceptions. Many writers still employing the terminology of philosophy really belonged to that latent parallel movement, which gave birth in the thirteenth century to the speculative form of the Kabbalah.

Methodologically, both Graetz and Neumark began by asking what kind of relationship existed between the Kabbalah and medieval Jewish philosophy, each in his own way placing the Kabbalah in the context of that relationship. The two of them shared a rigorously rationalistic evaluation of the phenomenon; but as a result they also rejected the significance of the role played by the Kabbalah in this connection (without, however, suggesting any alternative links). This may explain the lack of interest, not to say incomprehension, which marks their attitude toward the specifically religious concerns expressed in the Kabbalah.

Each of these theories contains, as far as I can judge, a kernel of truth, but nothing more. It may be said, in particular, that Neumark's thoughtful conception appears to be far superior to Graetz's overly simplistic theory; it deserves attention even though it must be judged a total failure — as appears to me beyond any doubt, since his argumentation is in large part extremely dubious and does not withstand examination. Above all, it does not at all follow from the evidence he adduces how, by this methodology, we are to imagine the birth of the fundamental ideas of the Kabbalah. Besides, in his almost inconceivable naïveté, Ñeumark relied almost exclusively upon printed texts and adopted, uncritically, the utterly baseless and completely arbitrary hypotheses of earlier authors with regard to the dating of certain kabbalistic texts. Nevertheless, within the philosophic movement there undoubtedly existed currents of the sort he characterized and which, in fact, flowed into the Kabbalah after its emergence, above all in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. No legitimate history of the Kabbalah can afford to overlook these currents. And yet, as is proven by an impartial analysis of the kabbalistic literature, to which Neumark all too often does great violence in his interpretations, it is not in this direction that we will find the true solution to the problem of the birth of the movement. Both Graetz and Neumark fell victim to the nineteenth-century illusion of an enlightened conception of religion. Neumark drew far-reaching conclusions from this prejudice and was led to view the Kabbalah as the product of a philosophical and rational process, not as the product of a religious process in which factors of an entirely different nature were at work. He went so far as to found his explanations, in all seriousness, upon this strange supposition: in the early kabbalistic literature there appeared texts of a programmatic character that were meant to be "filled in," as indeed they were, in the course of subsequent development. It is one of the ironies of research that precisely the "Treatise on Emanation" (Massekheth 'Asiluth), which in his opinion fulfilled such a programmatic function, was by no means composed in the middle of the twelfth century, as Neumark thought, but at the beginning of the fourteenth century, after the development of the Spanish Kabbalah had already reached its peak.


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Table of Contents

Sources, ix,
Editor's Preface, xi,
Author's Preface to the First (German) Edition, xv,
Foreword by David Biale, xvii,
Index, 497,

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“No great textual scholar, no master of philology and historical criticism commands a technique at once more scrupulously attentive to its object and more instinctive with the writer’s voice [than Scholem]. That voice reaches out and grabs the layman.”—George Steiner, New Yorker

“[Scholem’s] work on Jewish mysticism, messianism, and sectarianism, spanning now half a century, constitutes … one of the major achievements of the historical imagination in our time. I would contend that it is of vital interest not only to anyone concerned with the history of religion but to anyone struggling to understand the underlying problematics of the human predicament.”—Robert Alter, Commentary

“This book has been a classic in its field since it was first issued in 1950, and it still stands as uniquely authoritative and intriguingly instructive…. [It is] a monument of revelation and insight bridging anthropology, religion, sociology, and history.”Publishers Weekly

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