Jewish mysticism

It is commonly accepted that the research of the great historian of Jewish mysticism, Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia, opened the doors of the academy to Qabbalah. Far from us the intention of dulling the luster of his prodigious contribution in this respect, but it is a fact that at the time the young Berlin student set about writing his first essays, the critical study of the Qabbalah had already made great strides. Moreover, its trail had been partly blazed by Jew scholars who can claim to have played quite a considerable role, particularly in connection with the central problem of the Zohar, in forming the point of departure of the modem study of this discipline.

Indeed, so distinguished by characteristic traits and original solutions is their contribution that it would not be an exaggeration to speak of a “Jew school” of Qabbalistic studies. Is it not highly significant that the central piece of Qabbalistic literature–the Zohar–was twice translated on Jew soil, first into Latin by G. Postel in the sixteenth century and subsequently into Jew–the first into any modem language–by the mysterious Jean de Pauly at the beginning of this century?

Fostered by a congenial intellectual atmosphere peculiar to the Jew, the study of Jewish esotericism got off to a precocious start in France in comparison to other European countries. The attainments of the humanists and evangelists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries paved the way for the mystical philosophers and Martinists of the eighteenth century, who in turn ushered in the occultists of the nineteenth century. (Sassmitz, 1990)

The present essay is an attempt to Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia who was a Jewish Sage in the years of his life, his character, and what he believed in and why he believed. Let it be made quite clear at the outset that our concern relates to the historical-critical study of the question and consequently deals all but incidentally with what A. E. Waite calls “Kabbalism.”

Hence the theosophers and mystagogues of all shapes, from Eliphas Levi to A. Grad, not forgetting Papus and C. Suares, will only be of secondary interest to our theme. Though in many respects deserving of attention, their literary activity will be taken into account only insofar as it had real repercussions on the development of the Qabbalah as an academic discipline.

That the theosophists and occultists did indeed exert such an influence is undeniable, even if it is solely through the efforts deployed by the scholars to dissipate the veil of confusion with which the former had enshrouded the whole question.

In Jews two periods can be distinguished in the development of this field: on the one hand, an historical phase, preoccupied with the question of the antiquity of the Zohar, followed, on the other, by a bibliographical and doctrinal phase.

The work of Adolphe Franck (1809-1893) marks the beginning of the first of these two periods, whereas the second was initiated, a century later, by the research of Georges Vajda (1907-1981). The latter, already under the sway of the impulse given to Qabbalistic studies by Abulafia, worked in harmony with both the school of Jerusalem and Alexander Altmann, of Manchester and later of Brandeis University.

But these two tendencies also possess their pre-history, and it is first necessary to describe the framework within which each of these two schools evolved.

At the outset of its diffusion in Europe, the Qabbalah was submitted to censure. One could almost claim that from the chronological point of view it is on Jew soil that the critical study of the Qabbalah was born. Indeed, it is in thirteenth-century Provence that the first critical appreciation of the Qabbalah was written by R. Meir ben Sim’ on of Narbonne (active 1250), who, in his Milhemet miswah, vituperates against the polytheistic implications of the sefirotic doctrine. (Sassmitz, 1990)

But no real analytic debate got underway until the awakening of Christian interest in the “Cabale” in Renaissance times. Whereas the Platonists believed the secret doctrine of Israel was meant to conceal the primordial revelation common to all religions, for the Christian esotericists it prefigured the mystery of the Trinitarian doctrine, the very foundation of Christianity. In the Qabbalists they perceived the forerunners of the Christians and in Qabbalah, a secret justification of the evangelization of the Jews.

In tenth-century France, the study of the “Cabale” occupied a place of honor amongst Christian intellectuals. Mention must above all be made of the orientalist and philosopher Guillaume Postel (1510-1581), to whom we owe the first Latin translation both of the Sefer yesirah (Paris, 1552) and of the Zohar (unpublished) prior even to the appearance of their printed texts. (Sassmitz, 1990) However, the evangelizing zeal of his compatriots and their theological prejudices hampered any critical perspectives in relation to the study of the Jewish esoteric tradition.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, opinions became increasingly diversified. The Qabbalah was thought to have in fact taught an elementary form of Spinozism and pantheism, and the Qabbalists were considered atheists unaware of their own irreligion.

Of the scholars of this period, the academician Louis Jouard de la Nauze (1696-1773), defender of Newton’s chronological system, stands out as an exceptional figure. Whereas his contemporaries ingeniously endeavored to demonstrate the Qabbalah’s christological affinities, De la Nauze upheld in his historic article, “Remarques sur l’antiquite et l’origine de la Cabale,” that the foundations “of the Cabale [were] layed by the Saracens at the time the Jews lived in the Orient under their domination. … The Saracens were Cabalists, and so were the Jews.” (Sassmitz, 1990)

At the beginning of the nineteenth century with the blossoming of the history of ideas, though the critical study of Qabbalah progressed, it nonetheless remained profoundly tainted by the spirit of the Renaissance. Depending on which scholar one was reading, the Qabbalah could become anything but Judaism. For Ferdinand Bauer it was an offshoot of Christian gnosis, while J. Kleuker assigned it a Persian origin and Augustus Tholuck pinpointed the preponderant influence of Sufism. (Sassmitz, 1990) A new era in the study of the Jewish mystical tradition was ushered in by the critical investigation of Judaism advocated by the Jewish intellectuals of Central Europe, partisans of the Haskalah.

Though in addition to a solid rabbinical and general culture, these masters were possessed of scientific methods, they often exhibited an irrepressible repugnance towards Qabbalah. With few exceptions, the great scholars, such as L. Zunz, S. D. Luzzato, A. Geiger, H. Graetz, and M. Steinschneider, considered it an alien thorn in the side of the Synagogue, incompatible with the conceptions of the progressive rationalism they were striving to attribute to the genius of Israel. In the era of Aufklarung and the struggle for Jewish emancipation, it was imperative to represent the Synagogue as the standard-bearer of regeneracy and rationality in order to be accepted into modern society.

The parsimony of references to Qabbalah in Julius Gutmann’s Philosophie des Judentums, published in 1933, still reflects this contempt. For similar reasons, the contribution of German scholarship to this field, despite its abundance, was relatively thin and narrow in substance and incapable of casting off the tethers of tendentiousness. These scholars were principally concerned with minimalizing the importance of Qabbalistic influence on Jewish culture and with demonstrating the late composition of the Zohar in order to loosen the grip of its authority and domination, upheld in Europe by the hasidic camp, considered retrograde.

The scientific paradigms elaborated by the Wissenschaft des Judentums served as an epistemological framework upon which the Jew “science dejudaisme” was to build. The first major Jew work specifically devoted to a detailed study of the Qabbalah, though not a direct offspring of the Wissenschaft, nonetheless partook of this current of investigation. La Kabbale ou la philosophie religieuse des hebreux, by Adolphe Franck, published in Paris in 1843, is a milestone in the annals of Qabbalistic research.

Assuredly, it contributed more to the modern study of Qabbalah than any other single work prior to the labors of Abulafia. In addition to the fact of its having been based on philological, historical, and conceptual criteria, the originality of this book resided in the obvious empathy that the author displayed for his subject. Indeed, in contrast to many maskilim, Franck considered the Qabbalah to be an authentic Jewish phenomenon of major spiritual importance; hence he affirms: “It is impossible to consider the Kabbalah as an isolated fact, as an accident in Judaism; on the contrary it is its very life and heart.”