Jew­ish Mys­ti­cism and Kab­bal­ah: New Insights and Scholarship

Fred­er­ick E. Greenspahn, ed.
  • Review
By – January 20, 2012

Jew­ish mys­ti­cism and Kab­bal­ah flour­ished through­out all of Jew­ish his­to­ry in all lands where Jews lived. Many rab­bis have explored the eso­teric secrets hid­den in the Torah. Pious adepts have com­muned with angels and demons. Yet the lit­er­a­ture of Jew­ish mys­ti­cism and Kab­bal­ah has remained inac­ces­si­ble for all but a few for cen­turies. Even when the Wis­senschaft des Juden­tums schol­ars began the sci­en­tif­ic study of Judaism in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, and launched their mighty efforts to ana­lyze all aspects of Jew­ish cul­ture and lit­er­a­ture, Jew­ish mys­ti­cism and Kab­bal­ah were not con­sid­ered wor­thy of con­sid­er­a­tion. This was so either because access was dif­fi­cult or this field was regard­ed as a throw­back to a more prim­i­tive Judaism.

It wasn’t until the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry that Ger­shom Scholem became the pio­neer who gained respectabil­i­ty for Jew­ish mys­ti­cism and Kab­bal­ah as a legit­i­mate aca­d­e­m­ic pur­suit. His accom­plish­ments are chron­i­cled and well known, as are those of Isa­iah Tish­by and Moshe Idel who fol­lowed him. 

We are now in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. Jew­ish Stud­ies depart­ments exist in uni­ver­si­ties all over the world. The study of Jew­ish mys­ti­cism and Kab­bal­ah as an aca­d­e­m­ic pur­suit (not to be con­fused with those who are prac­tic­ing kab­bal­ists) is a well entrenched dis­ci­pline. Jew­ish Mys­ti­cism and Kab­bal­ah: New Insights and Schol­ar­ship presents sum­maries of the work of the con­tem­po­rary gen­er­a­tion of schol­ars in this field. The ten essays pro­vide a snap­shot of cur­rent the­o­ries and recent schol­ar­ship on a wide range of top­ics in this area of study.

The intro­duc­to­ry essay is an excel­lent sum­ma­ry of the his­to­ry of Jew­ish mys­ti­cism and Kab­bal­ah and the notes here, as in all of the essays, will pro­vide read­ers with much addi­tion­al read­ing mate­r­i­al and resources. New schol­ar­ship and research on the Zohar and some key per­son­al­i­ties and gen­res have chal­lenged some of Scholem’s canon­i­cal the­o­ries. The chap­ters on Chris­t­ian Kab­bal­ah and gen­der in Jew­ish mys­ti­cism are out­stand­ing. Hassidism’s con­tri­bu­tion to the field needs a fuller treat­ment, and it should have been not­ed that pop­u­lar or pop Kab­bal­ah fads are only a small part of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish mys­ti­cism.

This is an excel­lent book for gen­er­al read­ers who wish to learn about this fas­ci­nat­ing area of Jew­ish life and lit­er­a­ture, as the jar­gon of schol­ar-speak is kept to a minimum.

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions