Jewish Mystical Ideas and Concerns

Can we distinguish a mystical idea from a philosophical one--and mystical practice from magic?

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It is on account of these techniques--especially those that involve recitation and/or combination of the letters of divine names--that an important strand of Jewish mysticism bears a strong resemblance to magical practices. Indeed, in some cases it is extremely hard to draw the line between mysticism and magic within Jewish sources. Those texts that are of an almost purely magical sort are referred to in the traditional literature itself as practical kabbalah (qabbalah ma'asit), to be distinguished from the more theosophical or speculative kabbalah (qabbalah 'iyyunit).

It must be noted, however, that important theosophical elements are often found in these more practical texts, the study of which has been grossly neglected by scholars. Even a cursory glance at magical charms, amulets, incantations, exorcisms, and formulae reveals to what extent this genre of literature is indebted to various forms of doctrinal information regarding, for example, the nature and names of angels and demons, attributes of God, the nature of the soul, the fate of the heavenly bodies, and so on, which are essential elements in Jewish mystical texts as well.

One may legitimately distinguish mysticism from magic on the basis of the stated goals of a given source, but one must at the same time recognize the conceptual underpinning shared by both enterprises.

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Dr. Elliot R. Wolfson

Dr. Elliot R. Wolfsonn is Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.