Kabbalah and Modernity – more than red strings and pop queens

Kabbalah and ModernityI have made a habit out of making the pre-print versions of some of my book reviews available here at Heterodoxology. I was recently reminded of one that I had completely forgotten about: a review of the excellent volume Kabbalah and Modernity: Interpretations, Transformations, Adaptations (Brill, 2010). It is edited by three good colleagues of mine (Marco Pasi, Boaz Huss, and Kocku von Stuckrad), and features contributions by many other friends and acquaintances, but hopefully my review is not too biased. Moreover, symptomatic of the extreme delay in academic publishing, I should say that this review was written in 2010, and only appeared in print last year. The review was published in Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft (summer 2012).

Review: Boaz Huss, Marco Pasi, and Kocku von Stuckrad (eds.), Kabbalah and Modernity: Interpretations, Transformations, Adaptations. Leiden: Brill, 2010. Pp. 436 (bibl., indexes).

Kabbalah research has gone new ways in recent years. A process of reinterpretation has taken place as scholars have move beyond the paradigmatic works of Gershom Scholem, and even expanded the field of kabbalah studies from the domain of Judaism studies. Kabbalah has proved to be one of those fields that display a remarkable historical ability to mediate between and feed into different cultural fields, making the recent interdisciplinary developments particularly welcome. A focus on Christian and Western esoteric receptions of kabbalah has, for example, not only questioned old assumptions about kabbalah, but also proved fruitful for understanding aspects of European and Western religious history in general.

Kabbalah and Modernity is a product of these recent developments. The outcome of a conference at the University of Amsterdam in 2007, it brings together not only contemporary Judaism scholars inscribed in the project of renewing the study of kabbalah, but also specialists of Western esotericism. Of the three editors, Marco Pasi and Kocku von Stuckrad are both well-known names in the field of esotericism research, and Boaz Huss, professor of Jewish thought at the Ben-Gurion University, has worked intently on broadening the academic study of kabbalah.

The anthology is divided by thematic and chronological factors into four sections. Part one is entitled ‘Kabbala (sic!) Scholarship: A Reappraisal’, and engages with and challenges the theoretical foundations of previous scholarship. Andreas Kilcher assesses some aspects of the work of Scholem by linking his approach to kabbalah with the explicitly kabbalistic readings of Knorr von Rosenroth and Johann Georg Hamann. Through these intriguing comparisons Kilcher argues that Scholem displayed a ‘Janus-like intellectual profile’ (21) which, on the one hand “secularized” kabbalah through philology and historiography, but on the other made philology itself into a kabbalistic tool. In addition to passing on the “tradition” through historiography, Scholem’s praxis of philology may be seen as tikkun, or restoration, argues Kilcher: the restoration of classical kabbalah would serve as an instrument towards releasing a Jewish cultural renaissance.

Giulio Busi comments on the conspicuous absence of research on kabbalistic imagery, a topic which Busi has contributed significantly to in previous works. In the present article, he unmasks an underpinning of idealism in classical kabbalah scholarship, coming out of German romanticism, which sought the “essence” of kabbalah, and shredded all “external manifestations”, including imagery. Returning to more theoretical discussions, Eric Jacobson argues for certain affinities between kabbalah and modernity. Coming from the pessimistic perspective of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Jacobson connects these affinities with a resurfacing of the problem of evil. Seeing modernity as a ‘culture of dispersal, with exile and dislocation the salient features’ (50), the modern study of kabbalah comes to bear a normative significance since it is engaged with the connected ‘dislocation of the canon and the introduction of the margins into the center’ (71-2). Although kabbalah scholarship clearly takes part in a historiographical overturning, moving “cultural margins” to center stage, the exact implications of the normative constrains and affinities with modernity which Jacobson sees in kabbalah remain rather abstract and unclear to this reviewer.

The second part of the book deals with ‘Romantic and Esoteric Readings of Kabbalah’, and mounts a strong case for the relevance of esotericism studies for understanding the dispersals and reinterpretations of kabbalah in the Western world. The articles of this section focus on the period from the Enlightenment to the early 1900s. Wouter Hanegraaff and Jean-Pierre Brach both focus on the importance of French occultism, not only for reinterpretations of the kabbalah in new religious contexts, but also in forming a scholarly “paradigm” for studying it. Hanegraaff’s article in particular compares the approaches of occultist Eliphas Lévi and scholar Adolphe Franck, demonstrating a curious overlap of assumptions regarding the universality and extra-Jewishness of kabbalah. Also in contradistinction to Scholem, Hanegraaff suggests the concept of “creative misunderstanding” to describe the two connected phenomena of cultural innovation and inaccurate scholarship. Brach’s chapter explores the later case of Paul Vulliaud, arguing that this French painter and self-taught Catholic scholar stands ‘at the crossroads of contemporary erudition and “traditionalist” thinking’ (p. 129). In fact, also coming from an understanding of kabbalah as universal, Vulliaud created something of a “proto-traditionalism”, influencing and prefiguring the better known thought of René Guénon and Fritjof Schuon.

Another theme that occupies this section is the question of geographical boundaries and local receptions.  Konstantin Burmistrov shows how Russian Freemasonry and secret societies played an unprecedented role in spreading sometimes quite scholarly accurate knowledge about kabbalah in Russia. Significantly, Russian Masonic elites of the 18th century researched original Hebrew sources and made direct translations into Russian, without the mediation of the Christian kabbalists of Western and Central Europe. This points towards a unique Russian reception of Jewish kabbalah which has been little researched. Marco Pasi explores the role kabbalah played in the “parting of East and West” within late-Victorian occultism. Claims about the genealogy of kabbalah were important to the identity struggles that ensued when the Theosphical Society made a stronger turn to the East. In Blavatsky’s work there even emerges a concept of an original ‘Oriental Cabala’, which is best preserved in ancient Sanskrit and Pali texts, with the Hebrew and later Christian kabbalistic corpus being mere confusions and degenerations; a picture entirely resonant with Blavatsky’s mild anti-Semitism and anti-Christian sentiments. Staying with Theosophy and focusing on India, Boaz Huss looks at the translation and publishing activities of the Jew and theosophist Abraham David Ezekiel, active in Poona in the late 1880s. Ezekiel’s translations of the Zoharic Idrot into Jewish Arabic caused a temporary scandal in Jewish communities who found the translation highly imprudent. Examining Ezekiel’s Theosophical milieu in India, Huss shows how his translations were motivated by the occultist reception of kabbalah – occultism being, according to Ezekiel, the only place to find people who really knew anything and were willing to talk about the matter (187-91).

Part three moves into the 20th century by considering ‘Modern Kabbalistic Schools’. This is yet another field where kabbalah scholarship has moved towards new interpretations in later years. According to the Scholemian paradigm, there simply was no “authentic” kabbalah in the modern world. Modern practitioners of kabbalah were reduced to an assemblage of charlatans and anachronisms not worth studying. The third section demonstrates the flaws of this interpretation by showing that kabbalistic trends since the early 20th century have not only been numerous, but also expressed real innovation and dynamic change. Jonathan Meir’s chapter on ‘The Imagined Decline of Kabbalah’ deals explicitly with this Scholemian bias. Meir submits that the historical realities have indeed been very different from the implicitly nostalgic picture of spiritual decline or loss of authenticity. Instead, something of a “kabbalistic renaissance” took place in Jerusalem in the 1920s, exemplified by the establishment of several yeshivot as well as dozens of individual kabbalists working on their own. Meir focuses on one such kabbalistic center, the Sha’ar ha-Shamayim, following its activites from 1906 to the Shoa. Against the picture of a stagnant tradition, Meir illustrates that much innovation was done by this group: Sha’ar ha-Shamayim updated and aligned their doctrines to relevant political and cultural circumstances, particularly vis-à-vis Zionism and national revival. Furthermore, their belief in a continuation of revelation led the group to spread their kabbalistic teachings outside of the yeshiva.

The shift of attitude towards spreading kabbalah to the masses is a deeper characteristic of 20th century kabbalah, as shown by several of the other chapters in this section. Elliot Wolfson points to this expansionist tendency in the activities of the Hasidic Rebbe Menahem Mendel Schneerson of New York. In his messianic apocalyptic visions Schneerson saw America as a ‘spiritual superpower’, with American Jews playing an important role in the messianic events ahead. What is more, Wolfson provides a detailed analysis of how Schneerson’s apocalyptic vision also led to an inclusion of the gentiles, and indeed to new emphasis on spreading the traditional teachings of Hasidism even outside the traditional boundaries of Jewish communities.

Perhaps the most famous example of this tendency is found in the activities of Yehuda Ashlag, and even more so in the late-century transformation of his ideas in the controversial Kabbalah Center of Philip and Karen Berg. Jody Myers’ article about the latter group focuses on the specific topos of marriage and sex. This, in fact, introduces another general theme: the relation between modern kabbalah and issues of sexuality and gender. Myers shows that despite the New Age appeal of the Kabbalah Center, the group’s teachings on the ethics of sexuality and marriage are quite traditional, conservative, and possess a strong moralistic character. Moreover, it makes a clear separation between male and female responsibilities, both in the mundane life and in matters of spirituality. For example, while men are always bound to pay for their actions by laws of reincarnation, women can pay off their spiritual debt by a short stay in Gehinnom. After this they may return to Earth and fulfill their spiritual function, which is to support and lead their less fortunate male partners on their path to salvation.

Kocku von Stuckrad follows up in his article on ‘Madonna and the Shekhinah’, making use of conceptual tools from gender studies to look at ways in which the concept of “Shekhinah” ‘mirrors various societal forms of organizing what is perceived as gender differences’ (286). This is done by looking at the career of pop queen Madonna, who, in addition to a well-known and long standing involvement with the Kabbalah Center, is, according to von Stuckrad, ‘representative of a new kind of organization of gender differences’, and at the same time ‘plays  with shaky stereotypes that have a long genealogy in Western culture’ (286). The article is meant less as a historical narrative or even genealogy of the Shekhinah and associated gender issues, than an illustration of the ‘changeability of religious symbols in different societal contexts’ (297). Despite this, it remains somewhat unclear how, exactly, ‘the Shekhinah illustrates the poststructural critique of the categories “sex” and “gender”’ (286) as such.

A quite different connection between sexuality and kabbalah emerges from Sara Møldrup Thejls’ analysis of the curious oeuvre of Danish writer and occultist Erwin Neutzsky-Wulff. Neutzsky-Wulff’s thoughts on religion in general, and esotericism, magic, and kabbalah in particular, rest on the two pillars of neurology and sexuality. Quite in contrast to the moralistic conservatism of the Kabbalah Center and the crypto-feminist gender transgressions analyzed by von Stuckrad, Neutzsky-Wulff claims that ‘religion is sexuality and, furthermore, it is masochistic’ (306). Neutzsky-Wulff creates a system for transcendence which depends on masochistic, misogynist sexual practice. In these practices, the submissive female part is seen as a tzaddiq, and works tikkun by her assistance to the male. Kabbalah also enters through Neutzsky-Wulff’s linking of all aspects of reality to neurology. Thus, for example, kabbalistic meditative practices involving the ten sefirot are rendered effective by assumed correspondences to specific parts of the brain, which may be activated and manipulated.

The last thematic part of the anthology concerns kabbalah and politics. The approaches to this connection are quite different in the three articles, and, one might object, of varying degrees of relevance to the topic. Steven M. Wasserstrom writes about Ernst Jünger and what he calls ‘the cabala of enmity’. Somewhat removed from the core of the questions tackled in the anthology at large, it does not deal with interpretations of kabbalah as such, but rather with a certain semiotic that arises from Jünger’s oeuvre (329). In what is nevertheless an intriguing and meticulous work, Wasserstrom shows a consistency in Jünger’s (fictional and factual) writing about politics and enmity, focusing particularly on “Leviathan” as a floating signifyier in Jünger’s work while also engaging with explicitly anti-Semitic mythology, which spans the whole of the author’s very long career.

More clearly dealing with modern kabbalah, but less clearly with politics, Shaul Magid discusses the group Jewish Renewal and the philosophical influences on it. Magid’s main argument is that, among the three Jewish mystical currents present in America today – namely American Habad (created by Schneersohn, the protagonist of Wolfson’s article), the kabbalah Center of the Bergs (discussed by Myers and von Stuckrad), and Jewish Renewal – the only ‘truly American phenomenon’ is Jewish Renewal (360). To establish this “true Americanness”, Magid shows how the group has intellectual forbears in American Transcendentalism, and the pragmatism of William James. In what comes across as a somewhat misplaced obsession with cultural essentialism, Magid’s conclusion is that ‘Jewish Renewal is as much an American Judaism as the Judaisms of rabbis Isaac Meyer Wise, Mordecai Kaplan, or Solomon Schechter, and as much an American religion as the spirituality of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, or Benjamin Franklin’ (383).

In strict contrast to the previous two, the final article by Gideon Aran goes straight to the concrete, realistic setting of political violence. Aran’s fascinating case study of the Zaka, an ultra-orthodox Haredi organization specialized in cleaning up the scattered blood and body parts of suicide bombers and their victims, documents on a local and concrete level how kabbalistic concepts are being transformed for specific politico-religious action in contemporary Israel. For Zaka, spending hours on the site of terrorist attacks, organizing and putting together bodies that have been blown to pieces and assembling each drop of blood that has been spilled is an act of religious observance. Indeed, Aran argues that a distinct ‘cult of dismembered limbs’ surrounds the whole practice (398). In relation to kabbalah, what the Zaka does is to recreate order by repairing the bodies of the victims, and separating them from those of the unclean perpetrators. This act is seen as tikkun, and the collection of the victims’ blood is a part of agitating God to take revengeful action against the enemy. Aran also makes a pertinent point regarding the state of scholarship on suicide terrorism: While so many studies have been devoted to the religious motivations of the terrorists, the religious response of the victims has gone more or less unnoticed. The relevance of this complementary perspective is readily demonstrated by Aran’s work.

In conclusion, Kabbalah and Modernity is a state-of-the-art example of the recent fusion of scholarship on modern kabbalah and modern esotericism. As a work that has made the difficult transition from a collection of conference papers to a complete scholarly anthology, it is not without problems. Some matters of thematic consistency have already been noted, and some unfortunate errors have escaped the editorial process; however, these minor flaws do not detract from the significance of this work, which should be a valuable reference for scholars of kabbalah, esotericism, and modern and contemporary religiosity.

[This review has been published in Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft vol. 7, no. 1 (2012)]

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Egil – I have a number of book reviews which I have never published on my blog. Do you know what the official position is on publishing reviews which have also been published in journals? It would be good to get the material out there, of course…

    • I worried for awhile about this too. Most publishers allow you to reproduce a pre-publication version (that is, without the typesetting and layout provided by the publisher) on one’s own personal website, provided one gives proper notice of the actual publication. I take this blog to be my personal website, so think that should be fine. I wouldn’t place an actual pdf of the final product here though.

      • Thanks Egil. Would that sort of thing be found in author guidelines on respective websites, or would you suggest just contacting editors directly? All the best!

  2. Probably not found on websites. And probably editors wouldn’t really know. 😉 This kind of information would be found in contracts signed with publishers, together with transferral of copyrights from author to publisher. In fact, I think that for my MRW contribution I never received anything like that and thus never signed anything. Which makes it even less complicated of course.

    • I’ll have a think. Thanks for all the advice!

  3. Copyright is automatically generated once a work is produced, and authors of written works retain their copyright and ownership rights, unless these rights are negated by a specific contract, in which case, you may loose some very key benefits of authorship (e.g. rights to adaptation, reproduction).

    This guide outlines the various reasons why you may want to retain your ownership of your work and some ways to do that: http://scholarlycommunications.wustl.edu/copyright/authors.html

    But keep in mind, even though it may not be contractually bound, or explicitly spelled out, most publishers do not want to see a work they bought in a competitor’s pub and it’s usually considered bad form to pitch the same piece multiple places simultaneously. By extension, having the same article in multiple publications without enough differentiation is also frowned upon, at least in journalism. I’m not sure if this is the same operating principle behind academic publishing, though.

    • I think it comes close enough. And thanks for sharing this, I’m sure it’s closer to what Chris needed to hear.

      • Thanks Sarah!

  4. Your best best is probably to contact the publication in question and ask them what their policy is.

    Most likely (but don’t take my word for it!) they will have no problem letting you run it on your blog as long as you credit where it was originally published. If not, you’ve avoided a potentially disastrous legal (and professional) situation.

  5. Reblogged this on syndax vuzz.


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