Mysticism in Modern Times

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Today, Jewish mysticism is in many ways integrated into normative Judaism. The Zohar, the classic mystical Torah commentary, would be included in any post-biblical Jewish canon, 16th century mystic Isaac Luria’s concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is a hallmark of Jewish theology, and Hasidism—once a controversial movement—is now considered one of Judaism’s most traditional factions. Recent developments in academic Jewish studies and contemporary spirituality have brought Jewish mysticism to a position of further prominence. 

Academic analysis of Judaism and Jewish history began in earnest in the 19th century. However, the scholars who pioneered this field largely ignored mysticism because it embarrassed them. They embraced academic study because they lived in a culture that privileged the intellect and reason. They believed that mysticism represented the opposite: magic and superstition.

jewish mysticismOne man changed all of this. Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) ignored these biases and single-handedly established Jewish mysticism as an academic discourse. Scholem unearthed a range of manuscripts on mysticism and established the authorship of the Zohar. His landmark collection of essays, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, is the starting point for all scholarship on Jewish mysticism.

In recent years, contemporary scholars have begun to question some of Scholem’s theories and findings. Chief among them is Moshe Idel, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1988, Idel published Kabbalah: New Perspectives, in which he presents a narrative of kabbalistic history that differs from Scholem’s. Idel believes that Scholem ignores the centrality of ecstatic mysticism—including, for example, Abraham Abulafia’s attempts at prophecy—in tracing the history of Jewish mysticism. In addition, Idel challenges Scholem’s view that the Spanish expulsion was the inspiration for Isaac Luria’s kabbalah and that this, in turn, laid the groundwork for the tragic messianic movement of Shabbetai Zevi, which in the middle of the 17th century whipped much of world Jewry into an apocalyptic frenzy.

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