Wednesday, December 06, 2006

What is Kabbalah? What is Authentically Jewish?

How do you define "kabbalah"? Most scholars, I think, would define it to have started in France, Gerona and Spain in about the 12th century, including in its ideational space the Ten Sefirot and Four Worlds, possibly remapped onto the Five Faces and the Tetragrammaton.

Earlier mysticism, such as Heichalot and Maaseh Bereshit, are just that, non-Kabbalistic mysticism. Where they arose is still open to debate, I think, but they are the "authentic" Jewish mysticism, clearly and explicitly rooted in the Tanach - imagery linked to Heichalot ascents is explicit in the Torah, as well as Ezekiel. Where the neoplatonic Kabbalah came from is something else.

Other spiritual concepts seem to dance around these universe-theories: gilgul, demonology, dybbuk, afterlife, eschatology, etc.

For some reason, often for purposes of dismissal (Oh, that's just kabbalah, I hold no truck with that stuff), it's all lumped into "kabbalah" in the popular imagination.

How the Kabbalah came to be marketed and accepted is its own issue, where Scholem and Idel and others (Liebes, Helner-Eshed, Dan, etc.) have more to say. Probably a lot of it is what we would today call "viral marketing".

Part of the question of "what is authentically Jewish" has to do with the idea that "im ein neviim heim, hem benei neviim" - even if they aren't prophets, they are the children of prophets. So any idea that becomes sufficiently widespread in Judaism becomes "Judaic", and has the imprimatur of the Divine Spirit - if it weren't so approved by God, it would never have gained such wide acceptance.

There were definite schools of thought that predated and anticipated kabbalistic literature, e.g. some of the late midrashim, such as Tana Debe Eliyahu or Pirkei Derabi Eliezer. Others included the Chasidei Ashkenaz, the group surrounding Rebbi Yehuda HeChasid, some of whose ideas were so outre by current standards that R' Moshe Feinstein declared several passages in the R' Yehuda HeChasid's Sefer Chasidim to be forged interpolations.

I've just barely scratched the surface, based on vague memories of R' Brill's Intro to Kabbalah classes and Scholem's Les Origines du Kabbale.* Suffice it to say, what is Judaic need not be decided on its being sourced in a continuous chain of texts back to the Tannaim. Maimonidean philosophism was no more based on authentic continuous Torah tradition than De Leon's kabbalism or Beshtian chasidism. Yet we don't see many people protesting Maimonidean inauthenticity.

(from a debate on the Women's Tefillah Network list, where someone argues that gilgul isn't authentically Judaic because a) it was absorbed from outside [Muslim] sources, and b) it was opposed by the gedolim of the time, i.e., Saadia Gaon.)


* It was translated into French before it was translated into English. Not that I read it in French, although I did start Major Trends in French, at my sister's father-in-law's house, before deciding I'd do better in English. He knows about 8-10 languages; he says he's most comfortable reading in French, although he grew up in Prague and immigrated to Palestine in 1938, sneaking in on a fishing boat under the White Paper restrictions.

1 comment:

David Guttmann said...

>Maimonidean philosophism was no more based on authentic continuous Torah tradition than De Leon's kabbalism or Beshtian chasidism.

The difference is that Kabbalah claims it is Rav mipi Rav and later only Giluy Elyahu when that was not defensible anymore. Rambam does not make that claim in fact repeats various times that he has arrived at this from his own mind interpreting chazal.