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Origins of the Kabbalah by Gershom Scholem; translated by Allan Arkush; translation edited by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky (Princeton: $47.50; 500 pp.)

August 23, 1987|Daniel F. Polish | Polish is Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood. and

Within a generation after the 19th-Century Jewish Emancipation and Enlightenment most Jews had forgotten that Judaism has a mystical tradition. That this mystical tradition should be more familiar to the average Jew today than to our grandparents is entirely the result of one of the most prodigious feats of scholarship of this century. Gershom Scholem, whose name has become synonymous with the study of Jewish mysticism, is single-handedly responsible for a Copernican revolution in the understanding of this strand of the Jewish religious tradition. For this, Scholem is regarded not simply as the paramount Judaic scholar of the day, but as one of the preeminent intellectuals of the century.

Scholem embodies a paradox. His own intellect and his methodology are the product of the Enlightenment. His subject matter is the stuff of the pre-Enlightenment age. Himself the child of Wissenschaft des Judentums-- the objective academic study of Judaism--he devoted his career to studying material that Wissenschaft scholarship spurned and derided. The master of so much of the mystical tradition, he was not himself a mystic.

Scholem's influence is not restricted to the academy. Because of the penetrating light that he has cast into the darkness of the past, Scholem has opened the door of the legitimation of the non-rational component in Judaism as practiced in our day. Through him, the understanding of Jewish religious thought has been freed from the shackles of being a philosophy alone.

Scholem in his own day was a religious figure of a kind not encountered before. He did not claim to have received a revelation, preach a new doctrine or establish a community. He taught in an objective tone in a secular setting. And yet he helped define the religious agenda of Jewish life. Though he would likely have been the first to reject the designation, Scholem was a Rebbe , the scholar as religious sage.

The qualities that characterize Scholem's greatness are amply embodied in the just published "Origins of the Kabbalah," the last work we will receive from him. Paradoxically, it is also, in a way, among the first. The book before us has an interesting history of its own. Its ideas were first expressed in an article published in German in 1928--itself an elaboration of Scholem's doctoral thesis five years earlier.

As Scholem's studies progressed and deepened, the article expanded into a book published--because he had in the interim moved to Jerusalem--in Hebrew in 1948. As his explorations continued, the book took new form in a German translation in 1962, which while maintaining the original theses, was double the size of the Hebrew work because of the amplification of detail.

Now, five years after his death, the book has been translated into English in a remarkable collaboration. Translated from the German by Dr. Allan Arkush, the translation was edited by Scholem's distinguished colleague at the Hebrew University, R. J. Zwi Werblowsky.

Werblowsky, who had translated Scholem's monumental "Sabbatai Sevi" and to some extent rewritten that work in the light of newly discovered texts and sources with Scholem's guidance, has attempted the same methodology here. Here he has sought to incorporate the results of more than 20 years of intensive research since the appearance of the German version.

"Origins of the Kabbalah" completes a triad along with "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism" (1941) and "Sabbatai Sevi: the Mystical Messiah" (Hebrew 1956, English 1973) as the great expression of Scholem's genius. In this work, he grapples with the most difficult questions of all. The Middle Ages witnessed what appeared to be the eruption of a set of ideas and practices seemingly without precedent or analogue in previous Jewish experience. This new form of mysticism--Kabbalah, literally the tradition--quickly established itself as one of the predominant expressions of Jewish religiousness.

Having already examined Kabbalah and its various expressions, Scholem, in this work, undertakes to explore the sources from which it grew, the circumstances and personalities who nourished it during its nascent stage, the influences--both Jewish and non-Jewish--which shaped it and the forms it assumed before its evolution.

The result is a breathtaking piece of scholarship. Scholem guides us through the virtual "re-mythification" of Judaism. Deviating from the rational-historical system that had preceded it, Kabbalah shifted the focus of attention from things in the manifest world to the actions and activities of a higher world, a world invisible to the ordinary eye--unseen by the uninitiated.

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