Kab­bal­ah: A Neu­rocog­ni­tive Approach to Mys­ti­cal Experiences

Sha­har Arzy and Moshe Idel
  • Review
August 6, 2015

As the title might sug­gest, the read­er­ship for Kab­bal­ah: A Neu­rocog­ni­tive Approach to Mys­ti­cal Expe­ri­ences by Sha­har Arzy and Moshe Idel may be lim­it­ed to those who have more than a pass­ing inter­est in neu­ro­science, Jew­ish mys­ti­cism, or both, but those read­ers who find them­selves attract­ed to it will like­ly find the book engag­ing, stim­u­lat­ing, and deeply satisfying. 

As much a call for an inte­grat­ed, var­ied, and inter­dis­ci­pli­nary approach to the study of Kab­bal­is­tic lit­er­a­ture as a study in and of itself, this slim vol­ume sets out to com­pare the self-report­ed expe­ri­ences of Jew­ish mys­tics (from the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry ecsta­t­ic Avra­ham Abu­lafia through the founder of Mod­ern Hasidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov), with con­tem­po­rary clin­i­cal and sci­en­tif­ic obser­va­tions of both healthy brains and neu­ro­log­i­cal patients. This com­par­i­son yields some fas­ci­nat­ing results for the dili­gent read­er, whether she is already famil­iar with the gen­er­al func­tion­ing of the human brain or whether she takes recourse to the well-advised and instruc­tive appen­dix out­lin­ing this infor­ma­tion. Though there is no lack of tech­ni­cal detail pre­sent­ed, the approach­able style and fre­quent reit­er­a­tions of argu­ment make the thrust of the book gras­pable to an unini­ti­at­ed read­er with­out too much extra effort, and the div­i­dends far out­weigh the investment. 

Arzy and Idel state direct­ly that they do not set out to demys­ti­fy the expe­ri­ences of their sub­jects (as they right­ly note, demys­ti­fi­ca­tion does not serve hermeneu­tics”) and, admirably, in a work that could eas­i­ly have turned into the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion or explain­ing-away of cer­tain per­son­al, sub­jec­tive episodes, they man­age to con­tribute new under­stand­ings of the mech­a­nisms and process­es that may have under­lain such episodes with­out priv­i­leg­ing a neu­ro-mechan­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion above the mys­ti­cal­ly ori­ent­ed and per­son­al­ly artic­u­lat­ed inter­pre­ta­tion of those sub­jects. In a soci­ety that increas­ing­ly seems to insist on the incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty of ratio­nal­ism and reli­gious mys­ti­cism, the demon­stra­tion of this coop­er­a­tive, syn­thet­ic method­ol­o­gy is par­tic­u­lar­ly laud­able, and ren­ders an already fine work even more commendable.

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