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Gershom Scholem, 30 Years On

Thirty years after his death at age 84, Gershom Scholem casts a long shadow.  The field he created, the modern study of Jewish mysticism, has grown beyond him, yet his work remains the indispensable foundation. His writings continue to appear—most recently, his correspondence with his disciple Joseph Weiss.  Scholem mixed exacting textual research with rich historical and philosophical sweep, deep Zionism with liberal politics, secular Jewishness with the most esoteric beliefs and texts.  His high-voltage mix of dogged philology and psychological drama, drawn on a bigger historical and metaphysical canvas than almost any dramaturge could have imagined, still exerts a deep fascination.  

Relevant Links
The Gershom Scholem Library  National Library of Israel. The library that Scholem built—based on his personal collection, devoted to Kabbalah, Hasidism, and Jewish mysticism, and the only one of its kind in the world.
Shamanic Trance in Modern Kabbalah  Jonathan Garb, University of Chicago Press. Kabbalists, says Garb, developed physical and mental methods to induce trance states, visions of heavenly mountains, and transformations into animals or bodies of light.
Paths of Light  Jonatan Meir, Ben Zvi Institute. Though Scholem wrote in the early 20th century that Kabbalah was dying, it gave off a great deal of light (Hebrew).
Studies in East European Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism  Joseph Weiss, Littman. The studies of Scholem’s brilliant, enigmatic student Joseph Weiss, written before his untimely death in 1969, are still quoted in every serious study of Hasidism.
Between New York and Jerusalem  Steven E. Aschheim, Jerusalem Review of Books. On the friendship between Scholem and Hannah Arendt, and the decade-long antagonistic correspondence that brought it to an end.
Jews and Their Historians  Yehudah Mirsky, Jewish Ideas Daily. One measure of Zionism’s success would be the willingness of Israeli historians, especially the greatest of them—Jacob Katz and Gershom Scholem—to write unapologetically and critically about Jewish communal life, religious tradition, and even the shortcomings of Jewish academic scholarship itself.

Several weeks ago, Hebrew University, in whose development he played a formative role, marked his 30th yahrzeit with several days of discussions of the man and his legacy.  The topics were as wide-ranging as he was, including magic in antiquity, early medieval mysticism, the Lurianic Kabbalah, Sabbatianism, Hasidism, and Zionist intellectual history, and the list could have been longer. Some of the most fascinating presentations concerned not Scholem's kabbalistic research as such but other facets of the man.

One of those facets, discussed by the great paleographer and historian of the Jewish book Malachi Beit-Arieh, was Scholem's book collecting, the stuff of legend. Arriving in Jerusalem in 1923 with 2,000 volumes, at his death, he left 20,000 to Hebrew University and Israel's National Library.  One of the National Library's first librarians, he traveled to Europe after World War II to retrieve the Jewish books that survived the Nazis and was among the first to grasp the need to create a microfilm library of the manuscripts holding the hidden treasures of Jewish history.

Then there was Scholem's Zionism.  The writer and kibbutz historian Asaf Inbari observed  that Scholem's enterprise negated the "negation of the Diaspora," classic Zionism's view that the New Jew could take what he needed from the Bible, leapfrog over 2,000 subsequent years of Jewish history, and land securely in the present.  Zionism would have to reckon with Judaism, Scholem thought, including its darker, even demonic dimensions, while the religious would have to deal with the myth, sensuality, and freedom deep within the tradition.  Precisely because Scholem was so schooled in the history of messianism, he feared its effects on politics—and knew that a blithe dismissal of the non-rational forces in human history was a dangerous delusion.

There was also Scholem's interest in literature.  Attendees at the yahrzeit enjoyed a screening of a little-seen interview of Scholem, by literary critic Dan Miron, focusing on Scholem's long friendship with writer S.Y. Agnon.  The novelist, Scholem said, paid dearly—by outwardly maintaining Orthodox practice—to enjoy freedom in his art, where he mordantly chronicled the tradition's demise and subverted its pieties for the sake of some deeper, almost inarticulable, perhaps hopeless religious truth.   

But it is for his scholarship that Scholem is remembered—as his early inspiration and later sparring partner, Martin Buber, put it, his practice of "scientific research as introduction to consciousness."  Scholem's intensive bibliographic mapping, meticulous editing and publication of texts from manuscript, and historical reconstruction of obscure but influential doctrines and movements, along with his broader synthetic works and interpretive essays, created a richly persuasive Jewish religious history, a powerful alternative to the received pictures from Orthodoxy, conventional Zionism, and German 19th-century Jewish studies. So dazzling was his scholarship that it took several decades to understand the partial nature of the picture he painted. 

In 1988, Moshe Idel's Kabbalah: New Perspectives inaugurated the first wave of post-Scholem scholarship.  Revising Scholem's picture of steady dialectical progression, Idel showed how clusters of concepts, held together in the loose harness of the tradition, came into higher or lower relief over time in response to changing circumstances and circulating ideas. He also foregrounded the experiential dimension downplayed by Scholem; and his yahrzeit lecture presented a more complicated picture of Scholem's own development by considering that angle, through his treatment of Idel's chief historical interlocutor—the 13th-century contemplative Abraham Abulafia, a contemporary of the Zohar circle.  Abulafia's prophetic mysticism, grounded in meditative techniques, stands in oblique relationship to the kabbalistic tradition as depicted by Scholem, concerned less with experiences than with ideas.  Early on, Idel said, Scholem engaged deeply with Abulafia's experiential mysticism—before moving toward echt historical scholarship, more decisively after the final death of enchantment in the Second World War.  Scholem erased the traces of his engagement with Abulafia in his English memoirs, allowing them to emerge only in the Hebrew edition he prepared shortly before his death.  Idel showed that Scholem's study of the Kabbalah, diverse and existential at the outset, grew more historically founded in an attempt to find coherence where history had left randomness and destruction.

The newest kabbalistic scholarship is further revising Scholem's, and even some of Idel's, views.  Jonathan Garb's Shamanic Trance in Modern Kabbalah explores inner territory that Scholem placed out of bounds.  In a sophisticated mix of textual scholarship and theoretical and comparative analysis, Garb illuminates swaths of seemingly inaccessible religious experiences through the much-used word "shamanism"—for Garb, "a term capturing diverse forms of transformative empowerment," where meditation leaves off and trance begins.  Tracing traditions of trance from canonical kabbalists like Hayyim Vital and Moshe Chaim Luzzatto to the Hasidic masters, he challenges Scholem's relegation of the experiential to secondary status. Scholem was fundamentally uninterested in halakhah, seeing Kabbalah as a hidden revolt against it; hence his fascination with Sabbatianism, in which he saw a precursor to Zionism.  Garb shows that while this relationship may have characterized medieval Kabbalah, for many Hasidim the trance's transformation of consciousness was part and parcel of their ritual and halakhic life, an attempt to suffuse the law with mystical experience.  Indeed, this investment of the mundane with transcendent significance—what philosopher Charles Taylor has called the "affirmation of ordinary life"—is a key marker of modernity.

Another new volume is by the brilliant young historian Jonatan Meir, who deftly uses the lives of books, pamphlets, journals, wall posters, and circulars to rewrite Jewish cultural history.  Having treated the Galician Haskalah's anti-Hasidic satires, Hillel Zeitlin's Polish neo-Hasidism, and Rav Kook, Meir has now unearthed the seething renaissance of Jerusalem kabbalists in the first half of the 20th century—when, Scholem wrote (with an almost audible sigh of relief), traditional Kabbalah had breathed its last.  Yet, Meir shows, those decades saw a surge of new yeshivot, publishing, and projects including expeditions to Tibet to seek the Ten Lost Tribes, as kabbalists were stirred, however idiosyncratically, by the Jewish national revival.  Scholem was not alone here; Meir notes that those who sought to draw on Kabbalah and Hasidism to shape a distinctly modern Jewish thought and identity—Buber, Zetilin, even Heschel—were precisely those who were most invested in traditional Kabbalah's passing from the scene, so that its freed energies could become part of the modern spiritual project.

Riffing on Terence's famous maxim, Scholem wrote, "Nothing Jewish is alien to me."  For him, Jewishness was part and parcel of humanness.  A lifelong Zionist and man of the Left, a keen critic of the excesses of nationalism and perils of messianism, the ability to combine a stubborn love for this people with a critical intelligence about its stranger chapters and darker temptations is one of his lasting gifts.

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Zvi Leshem on May 8, 2012 at 9:11 am (Reply)
Shalom. Thanks to Dr. Mirsky for his thought-provoking article. But it was not Hebrew University that commemorated Scholem's 30th Yartzeit. The program to which Mirsky refers was sponsored by and held at the National Library of Israel.
Dr. Zvi Leshem
The Gershom Scholem Collection
The National Library of Israel
Ben Tzur on May 8, 2012 at 6:45 pm (Reply)
"Nothing Jewish is alien to me," said Scholem -- except for halakhic, Rabbinic Judaism, the unifying and inclusive heart and core of Jewish civilization which has preserved the Jewish people down through the ages. The dismissive and demeaning references to traditional/Orthodox Judaism in this very essay by a Scholem enthusiast make the point by themselves. Scholem was, as he frequently affirmed, a religious nihilist, a believer in holy anarchy. Mysticism, for him, replaced the mitzvot, and the Shabbatian movement expressed the core impulses of the "underground" Judaism that according to Scholem ran almost entirely unexpressed and unacknowledged through history for over two millenia, allegedly subverting Rabbinic and halakhic Judaism.

One of the chief impulses behind Jewish Studies scholarship from its first appearance in the early nineteenth century, as Scholem himself pointed out in a scathing essay "The Science of Judaism -- Then and Now," reprinted in The Messianic Idea in Judaism, and Other essays on Jewish Spirituality (1971), was the secular-assiimilationist and reformist desire to displace traditional Judaism and to disqualify rabbinic authority from its dominant and central place in Jewish society and self-understanding. As he pointed out in that essay (which marked out the program that motivated his own studies), many of the founding figures in the Wissenschaft des Judentums ("the Science of Judaism/Jewishness") were seeking to break up traditionalist Jewish solidarity and merge with German culture and society, and their scholarship was an apologia for their own secularist and assimilationist agendas. Scholem condemned this, but not on behalf of Rabbinic Judaism, rather, on behalf on Zionism, Jewish peoplehood as such. He too was a secularist and an individualist, but he had given up on the attempt to accommodate himself to an antisemitic gentile world and to Germany in particular.

However, one must agree with Scholem's basic analysis: Jewish Studies was born out of a kind of flight from traditional Jewish society and Judaism itself, and expressed itself through what one might call a "negative apologetics," which distorted and denigrated Rabbinic Judaism on behalf of secularizing personal goals. (This helps us understand the contempt expressed by many of its scholars for a positive presentation of Judaism and Jewish history, denigrated as "apologetics" that puts Jewish interests first and which is therefore allegedly the opposite of genuine scholarship). Such a negative apologetics served, for many, to qualify the scholar for the secular academy and wider non-Jewish society rather than for the traditional Jewish society that the scholar often forthrightly despised.

The result of this agenda could only be a scholarship that disguised as much as revealed the central achievements and characteristics of Jewish religion and civilization. Scholem himself provides a chief case in point. According to him, Jewish mysticism provided a counter-rabbinic spirituality at the very core of Judaism down through the ages. How did he know this? By massaging the data and finding "hints" and inferences that rendered the actual documents and lives he discussed into paradoxical self-contradiction. Scholem's entire opus is a study in this Sherlock-Holmes-detective work -- a tour de force that provides the energy and frisson of countless essays and books. The task required all his brilliance, but even then failed. For there is no evidence for this counter-rabbinic nature of Kabbalah in the actual texts, nor in the lives of the Kabbalistic masters. Rather, the exact opposite is found. Most of the Zohar is given over to explications of the deep mystical significance of, and justifications for, the slightest daily rituals of Halakhic Judaism, and as a overall text it is above all motivated by the goal of providing an in-depth mystical apologia FOR halakhic Judaism. The mitzvot of Halakhic Judaism, in every detail, are rendered into a cosmic regeneration of the universe. The same is found in the works of Lurianic Kabbalah. The expositors of Kabbalah down through the ages were ALL rabbis. They were men who dedicated their entire lives to the mitzvot and who often included the leading halakhic figures of their generation, generation after generation. It is simply impossible that these brilliant and deeply dedicated rabbis were naively or knowingly engaged in subverting Rabbinic Judaism and halakhah. Neither did they see mystical experience and speculation as alien to Judaism and halakhic practice. Actually, they manifestly saw these things, properly structured, as powerfully enhancing such practice. If anything, Kabbalah has promoted more halakhic practices, developing new elaborations on the traditional rituals and immersing its practitioners even more in a thoroughly ritualized halakhic universe, rather than the reverse.

The very fact that there was only one antinomian movement that used Kabbalah to justify itself in the entire two-thousand year history of Diasporic Judaism, the Shabbatian Movement, and that it self-destructed almost immediately in utter discredit, actually proves the opposite of what Scholem claimed. It shows that antinomianism was foreign to the spirit and practice of Rabbinic Judaism and of Jewish mysticism generally.

There is therefore no paradox in, for example, the fact that Hasidism was from the beginning a revitalization movement within intensely observant Rabbinic Judaism, and that it continues to sustain ultra-Orthodoxy today. Nor that its chief Rabbinic critics in 18th century eastern Europe were themselves Kabbalists, such as the Gaon Elijah of Vilna, the leading halakhic authority of his day.

Scholem provides a paradigm case, for which unfortunately there are many other examples, for the syndrome described in his own "The Science of Judaism -- Then and Now."
Bonny Fetterman on May 8, 2012 at 6:48 pm (Reply)
Great piece. I edited and published two translated works by Scholem at Schocken--On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead and The Correspondence of Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin--and think Mirsky's reflective piece is right on the mark.
Jerry Blaz on May 8, 2012 at 7:20 pm (Reply)
Gershom Scholem was a giant in the field of Jewish mysticism. I've read nearly everything he has written on the subject, enriching my understanding of a Judaism, which would have otherwise remained foreign to me. I, like Scholem, appreciate a rational approach to Judaism because I consider myself mystically unmusical. But it is fascinating to read about it.
Jerry Blaz on May 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm (Reply)
When an entire approach to the study of Judaism or some aspect of it is decried because it does not accept all the decisions that occur within Judaism, it is amazing that anyone would receive this kind of response as given. Because Scholem's methodologies did not start with a vow of accepting the decisions, someone would depict Scholem's work as "posul." However, there are differences between how one treats theology and how one treats religious studies, and one approach does not denigrate the other approach. If Scholem's examination of mysticism is a part of religious studies, certainly many of the current adherents of Kabbalah are supposedly operating with the theology of Judaism, but I doubt if serious Jewish theologians would accept their study as valid theology. So, I would query theologians whose studies are more acceptable, and I believe that nearly everyone who has read Scholem's works to any extant,, would have an immediate opinion that Scholem, working from a religious studies approach, has more validity than most Kabbalists purporting to be working from a theological perspective. Each approach has its place, and there can be quality work done in each approach, and there can be obfuscation and deceit in both areas. Certainly, Scholem has done more to preserve and make available in an intelligent and honest manner the mystical aspects of Judaism.
Ben Tzur on May 9, 2012 at 6:03 pm (Reply)
To understand Scholem's work, it is necessary to go back to his defining assumptions. His fundamental distortions of Kabbalah, and therefore his negative apologia seeking to undermine and delegitimate the halakhic Rabbinic Judaism he described on behalf of secularism, rested on a wider, demonstrably incorrect, and unscholarly interpretation of mysticism itself, one not borne out by the general history of religions. His basic defining categories (e.g., as laid out in the opening chapters of his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism) were therefore wrong. However, they fit his time and his audience, Christianized secularist Jews and non-Jews, Jungian psychologizers of mysticism, occultists, and the like. The most significant of these erroneous assumptions was that mysticism and ritual/ethics were antithetical. Mysticism is, in this view, a drive toward content-less, disembodied experience or other-worldly ecstatic intensity, but in any case expresses freedom from everyday life. It is therefore essentially indifferent or hostile to merely physical bodily life and ordinary social interaction. As Kant would put it, it is the autonomous expression of personal experience, not the heteronomous submission to religio-social rules and routines. As such, it is the quintessentially spiritual. A long history of Paulinian Christian and, even more specifically, Protestant theological and philosophical thought lay behind these assumptions; underlying them are the usual antitheses of faith and works, Grace and Law, Christian redemption and Jewish carnality, spirit and flesh, inner life and outer social personas, redemptive other-worldliness and carnal materialistic this-worldliness. The problem with this sort of opposition, in terms at least of the academic study of religion, is that it does not describe the phenomena of mysticism as they appear in the history of religions. Everywhere we turn in that history, mysticism is hyper-ritualistic rather than free-form ecstatic incoherence and social rather than merely personal. Mysticism may begin in radical experiences, but it expresses itself in reaffirmations of tradition that renew those traditions and social groups. It creates a lifestyle that supports the most "reactionary" interpretations of tradition rather than the most libertarian.

Let us take the most famous of the libertarian-seeming sorts of mysticisms, Zen Buddhism. Supposedly, in this mystical tradition, if you encounter the Buddha, kill him. That is at least what one koan, or mystical saying, says. But when you look at who is saying this, you see a traditional Buddhist master, dressed in only a particular sort of clothes that mark him out as a Buddhist monk in that society and therefore legitimate his social role and standing, seated in a Buddhist monastery in which the entire day, from before sunrise to after sunset, every day, is ruled by the same ritual routine. Everything is ritualized, including the meditation sessions that occupy many hours each day. An excellent account of this is provided by Holmes Welch, The Practice of Chinese Buddhism: 1900-1950 (1967), but it almost emerges implicitly even from the tendentiously libertarian-oriented popularizations by D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, books treated as sacred texts themselves by a generation of flower-children in the 1960s through 1980s. It is almost impossible to conceive of a more ritualized life than that actually lived by Zen Buddhist monks, or a more tradition-affirmative one. That is, almost impossible, but not entirely, since much the same sort of life is lived by Hindu yogins, who set the pattern for Buddhists too in extending ritual even into the innermost recesses of solitary mystical consciousness, Christian monks, Muslim Sufis, and of course, to a lesser degree if anything, Kabbalistic rabbis. Mysticism infuses the whole of life with symbolic reference, because it is constituted by intense transcendental experience at the core of one's being. It is therefore natural for mystics to turn to ritual enactments that have transcendental reference, and to emphasize and enhance them further, interpreting them in terms that strengthen their role in religious life. The restrictions of traditional observances are not restrictions to the mystics, but open roads to the divine, which they chiefly seek and which they reinterpret in terms of their own experiential understandings. Thus, mystics are everywhere among the most traditionalist of their religious communities, not the most non-ritualistic or anti-traditionalist. Personally, they are bulwarks of traditional observance, and are so understood by themselves and by others in their communities. This is so everywhere and in every religion. Scholem and the entire generation of both academics and common folk of which he was a part badly distorted mysticism on behalf of their personal agendas, as apologias for their own preferred sorts of lives, and as part of their secularist polemic against organized religions. There has been some acknowledgment of Scholem's errors in terms of Kabbalah and halakhah since Moshe Idel published some revisionist articles, then books on the topic. But the dominant secularist orientation of the academy ensures that the anti-Rabbinic negative apologia will continue, ensuring the continuity of "The Science of Judaism -- Then and Now."
Jerry Blaz on May 12, 2012 at 8:57 pm (Reply)
Gershon Scholem did not represent himself as the aleph or alpha to tav or omega of the internal interests of Kabbalistic practices, but he did join many of what might be presumed to be practices that originated in Kabbalah or other mystical aspects but are related to examining Jewish mysticism qua mysticism among mystic disciplines. As we know today, Kabbalah can be made a "qardom bo liXpor," or an instrument for gain rather than knowledge. The criticism seems to flow from fear that the Rabbinical Authority will be impaired by Scholem's work. However, he did not write his works as the last word to be stated on a subject, but to be viewed by others who understand his approach, even criticized, and further refined. That is the philosophical, educational approach. Learning is not a static discipline. When a discipline becomes static it becomes dogma.
Ben Tzur on May 16, 2012 at 8:12 pm (Reply)
One further point must be made: the method Scholem used and that was continued by his school of disciples at Hebrew University, namely the "philological" method of textual analysis (the term is used by him in some of his programmatic statements, and was repeated to me as a descriptor of the approach used by his department by R.J. Zvi Werblowsky in an interview back in the 60s, was calculated to ignore living Kabbalah. Ironically, all the while he was delving in his library of manuscripts and medieval texts, Kabbalah continued as a living tradition in Jerusalem itself, amongst pious circles of mystics that neither he nor his students ever visited or learned from. There was an unbridgeable gap between the two circles, the secular academic one at Hebrew University, and the living mystical communities that continued their intense practices only a few miles away.

Mirsky, in his article above, draws our attention to this astonishing disjunction between the alleged subject of Scholem's philological researches and the actual reality he willfully ignored. Mirsky mentions that the historian Jonatan Meir "has now unearthed the seething renaissance of Jerusalem kabbalists in the first half of the 20th century—when, Scholem wrote (with an almost audible sigh of relief), traditional Kabbalah had breathed its last. Yet, Meir shows, those decades saw a surge of new yeshivot, publishing, and projects including expeditions to Tibet to seek the Ten Lost Tribes, as kabbalists were stirred, however idiosyncratically, by the Jewish national revival. Scholem was not alone here; Meir notes that those who sought to draw on Kabbalah and Hasidism to shape a distinctly modern Jewish thought and identity—Buber, Zeitlin, even Heschel—were precisely those who were most invested in traditional Kabbalah's passing from the scene, so that its freed energies could become part of the modern spiritual project."

The usefulness of the "philological method" of textual analysis is that it allows one to bypass actual people and the on-going living reality they sustain and to focus instead on dead texts. These can more easily be bent to one's own agendas. After all, texts are silent: they do not talk back, they only echo. The amazement that Kabbalists actually do have intense mystical experiences both in the past and also today, which greeted Jonathan Garb's phenomenological-psychological recent analyses, makes one wonder where academic students of Jewish mysticism have been for the past century. Still, these instances indicate that perhaps there is some lingering hope for the academic study of Jewish mysticism.
Jerry Blaz on May 17, 2012 at 4:37 am (Reply)
I believe that the criticism invoked against Scholem was that he did not get involved with "practical Kabbalah." That is accurate. A true Kabbalist invokes a lifelong dedication, first to learn and understand that halachah, and to live by it. Then, when the individual was mature, he learned Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. Scholem never claimed to be a Kabbalist, but his work probably constituted the groundwork for so many contemporary people to become involved with Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah.
Ben Tzur on July 2, 2012 at 12:19 am (Reply)
The criticism is not that Scholem was not involved with "practical Kabbalah." (I suppose Jerry Blaz means a practicing Kabbalist, a person who studies the Kabbalah to develop a mystical understanding of the universe and who may even have mystical experiences.) The criticism is much more serious and further reaching than that. It is instead that he has laboriously invented his own Kabbalah, using Kabbalistic texts against their grain and against their own value-system. He was not really interested in Kabbalists as such (as his indifference to Kabbalists still flourishing even near to him in Jerusalem shows), nor the actual focus of Kabbalah as it was understood and pursued by the predecessors of the Jerusalem Kabbalists, but rather he sought to create his own secularist ideological replacement for it and for them, using the Kabbalistic texts despite themselves and detached from their living contexts to further this end. In brief, his writings serve a negative apologetic. This apologetic is systematically hostile to and intentionally subverts the heartfelt Judaism he studies, on behalf of a secularist and academic worldview and community. Therefore his findings are not reliable.

There is much to praise Scholem for, in terms of the obscure manuscripts that he opened to wider audiences, and the brilliance of his discussion of them, tendentious though it often is. It is certainly true that he has opened up the subject (although there were certainly able scholarly, academically impressive studies of the subject before him) not only for wide reading and interest amongst secularist Jews, but in terms of boosting it as a subject of secular academic study. But in reading him it is essential to be aware of his anti-rabbinic negative apologetic agenda, and to take with a grain of salt many of his most basic assumptions and conclusions, whether historical, philological or exegetical.
Hershl on October 4, 2012 at 8:35 pm (Reply)
In December, 1976, I entered the University of Chicago as a graduate student. My specialization was Jewish Mysticism under the aegis of the Committee on the Humanities. I had earlier been a student at Hebrew University in the Dept. of Jewish Philosophy and Kabbala.

After I received high praise for my MA thesis on the work on Yosef Gikatilia as expressed in his work, Sha'arei Orah, I was asked to write a critique of people working in the secular discipline of related studies.

My major point was that none of them were capable of understanding something which they had no personal experience of.

My committee chair, Karl Weintraub, met with me and told me that my advisor, Jonathan Z. Smith, was so upset by what I had written that he had requested Dr. Weintraub to have me dismissed from the PhD program.

For years I have carried a lot of anger against Professor Smith for having me thrown out of the doctoral program for expressing my opinion as requested. Dr. Weintraub said that they believed that I had a "bad attitude" and would never make a decent scholar since my insistence on personal experience made me biased and, therefore, unobjective. I told him that everything is subjective, a basic tenet of what I was studying and experiencing. This did not sit well with him or, apparently, Jonathan Z. Smith, who has never communicated with me since.

However, now, reading this, I realize that they like Scholem were simply blind leading the blind.

I was truly fortunate to be spared their haskomo.
Ben Tzur on October 5, 2012 at 3:50 am (Reply)
Your account is certainly a painful one but, alas, not singular; there are quite a number of others who have traced something like your path, and the loss to the academic world, and to the academic understanding of religion as such, not just Judaism and Kabbalah, has been huge. I am sure that this would apply too to the fruits of any further studies you might have pursued. "Negative apologetics" has done a lot of harm in Jewish Studies.

I well understand the rationale behind the criticisms apparently addressed to your own work. Those criticisms rest, however, on a false foundation, one particularly incongruous when it is in relation to the University of Chicago context. The problem is not personal experience; as you have suggested, this can be a very positive contribution to deeper scholarly understanding of religious materials, since it can open doors to realities otherwise largely inaccessible to those without such experiences. Such experience can greatly enhance the scholarly understanding of mysticism, for example. The real question is what is done with this enlarged understanding, and how the scholar separates personal and possibly idiosyncratic experience from the material being examined. Critical empathy, rightly applied, is the essence of the phenomenological approach to the history of religions. Since Chicago was perhaps the chief world center at the time for the phenomenological study of religion, there were the methodological guidelines there for a more sympathetic and helpful reception and focussing of your own studies. I regret that this did not take place.

But, in any case, be assured that intense mystical experiences continue today as formerly within Orthodox communities in Jerusalem, within a few miles of the Hebrew University, and elsewhere -- the tradition is fully alive, and the academic study of it trails far behind. I am greatly tempted to name a few names of practicing and truly inspiring, beautiful and illuminated mystics living quietly in the various Orthodox communities of Jerusalem itself, but I will not do so. For those who search, they will be found.
Ben Tzur on October 5, 2012 at 6:22 am (Reply)
One further clarification: by "critical empathy" I mean not critical of the subject (the attitude which is what is behind "negative apologetics"), but on the contrary analytically critical of one's own analysis, so as to make it so far as is possible sympathetically faithful to the intention and meaningful context of the subject and avoiding merely projecting one's own views whether positive or negative. That is what phenomenological method demands. Of course, to do this, one's own experience should be as wide and deep as possible; otherwise, one does not have the resources to understand the other, the subject, properly.

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