Mystical Messianism

Scholars debate the relationship between catastrophe, Jewish mysticism, and messianic fervor.

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The well-known scholar of mysticism Gershom Scholem linked mysticism with messianism when he posited a direct connection between the proliferation of Isaac Luria's kabbalah with the 17th-century messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi. According to Lurianic theology, its adherents should devote their lives to tikkun, mending cosmic disharmony; redemption will come when tikkun is achieved. According to Scholem, the spread of this theology sowed the seeds of redemptive/messianic fervor. Moshe Idel, arguably the other most eminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, has questioned the claim of a relationship between Lurianic kabbalah and Sabbatai Zevi, but he too has suggested a connection between mysticism and messianism. Below is a review of his scholarly work Messianic Mystics. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Quarterly Review (July-October 2000).

 This book asks a fundamental question about the relationship between Jewish history and Jewish thought: How do the various strands of Jewish messianism and Jewish mysticism influence and interact with one another? Do certain schools of Jewish mystical thought lead to active messianic movements, as Gershom Scholem posited in the case of Lurianic kabbalah and the movement of Sabbatai Zevi?

Moshe Idel has explored the multiple interconnections between mystical systems and other intellectual and historical movements throughout his scholarly career. In this book, he attempts to synthesize his ongoing interrogation of the effects of schools of Jewish thought on Jewish historical movements. The book under review, then, is not a conventional history of "messiah" figures or even of messianic ideas. It is also not a book for the uninitiated, for it is neither a tightly constructed argument concerning the interaction of these two vital spheres of Jewish life and thought, nor a narrative‑historical account.

Narrowing the Gap Between Christian and Jewish Messianism

Idel has written a discursive meditation on the variation within Jewish mystical systems and their possible links to contemporaneous messianic expressions.

This book continues a long‑standing polemic which Idel has conducted against Gershom Scholem's exposition of the influence of mysticism on messianism in several respects.

In order to widen the division between Jewish and Christian messianism, Idel argues, Scholem overstressed the nationalist apocalyptic element within Jewish messianism, as well as the inwardness [i.e. individual nature] of Christian messianism. This sharp distinction, drawn by Scholem, forced him to scant the overlapping themes and the common origins of Jewish and Christian messianism.

Idel's discussion of the centrality of the person of the messiah in Christianity, as compared to its function in Jewish thought, clarifies this important distinction.

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Dr. Elisheva Carlebach

Dr. Elisheva Carlebach is professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Divided Souls: Converts from Judaism in Germany, 1500-1750 and The Pursuit of Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatian Controversies, winner of the National
Jewish Book Award.