The Scandal of Kabbalah: Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice

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 The Scandal Of Kabbalah
  • Book Author:
Yaacob Dweck
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“nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is science.” Thus Saul lieberman, the great Talmudist of the twentieth century, introduced Ger- shom Scholem to his colleagues at the Jewish Theological Seminary in new York.

lieberman’s apocryphal and oft-quoted remark testifies to the modern Jewish ambivalence toward Kabbalah, successfully overcome only by Scholem’s scientific scholarship.

 no one did more to perpetuate the nar- rative of Scholem’s rescue of Jewish mysticism from the condescension of his scholarly predecessors than Scholem himself. enlightened scholars of the Jewish past had persisted in casting Kabbalah as primitive, antimodern, and irrational. in a word, nonsense.

The demands of responsible scholar- ship required careful and considered criticism of Kabbalah, a task Scholem identified with the trajectory of his own career. in the preface to the first edition of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, he reflected:

“More than twenty years have passed since i began to devote my life to the study of Jewish mysticism and especially of Kabbalism. it was a beginning in more than one sense, for the task which confronted me necessitated a vast amount of spade work in a field strewn with ruins and by no means ripe as yet for the constructive labours of the builder of a system.”1

 For all its sarcasm, lieberman’s quip only reinforced Scholem’s carefully cultivated posture as the heroic founder of historical scholarship on Kabbalah.

This book explores the substance and subsequent history of leon Modena’s critique of Kabbalah in seventeenth-century Venice as a challenge to Scholem’s foundational narrative. a rabbi and a preacher in the Venetian ghetto, Modena witnessed the transformation of Jewish society, culture, and institutions through the spread of Kabbalah.

In 1639 he took the unprecedented and dangerous step of subjecting this newly dominant spirituality of early modern Judaism to meticulous analysis. Part religious polemic, part cultural criticism, and part epistolary treatise, Modena’s he- brew exposition entitled Ari Nohem (The roaring lion) addressed a soci- ety saturated with Kabbalah, a condition that he sought desperately, and with utter futility, to change. Modena argued against the antiquity of Kab- balah by subjecting the origins of kabbalistic texts to rigorous analysis.

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He indicted the growing cults of personality that had formed around prominent kabbalists, and he objected to the proliferation of kabbalistic practices in the synagogue and in the study house.

This book tells the story of Mode- na’s Ari Nohem, its composition in the ghetto of Venice and its criticism of Venetian Jewish culture, its circulation in manuscript in the ensuing centuries and its appearance in print in the early nineteenth century. in this story, the critical history of Kabbalah emerged and developed alongside the spread of mystical belief and mystical praxis.

Modena’s counterhistory formed an integral part of the history of Kabbalah in the very period it was coming to dominate Jewish life.2

The Spread of Medieval Kabbalah: an early Modern Cultural revolution

in the centuries before Modena subjected it to withering criticism, Kab- balah carried a range of meanings for Jews and Gentiles. a hebrew term one can render as “tradition” or “reception,” Kabbalah referred to a mode of reading, a library of texts, a series of concepts, and a range of practices. as a mode of reading, Kabbalah encompassed a set of interpretive assumptions adopted by an initiate in the course of approaching a sacred text.

 Kabbalists assiduously applied these methods of exegesis to the most sacred of texts, the Bible, and relied on mystical symbolism to uncover its theological content.3 in the thirteenth century the Jewish biblical exegete Moses ben nahman (nahmanides) repeatedly used the phrase “by way of truth” in his biblical commentary to indicate the kabbalistic interpretation of a particular passage.4

Two centuries later and to very different effect, the most celebrated Christian kabbalist of the renaissance, Pico della Mirandola, repeatedly drew on kabbalistic modes of exegesis in arriving at his theological theses.5 although they maintained opposing esoteric truths, Pico and nahmanides both employed kabbalistic hermeneutics to arrive at them. Kabbalistic exegesis was most frequently applied to the Bible and particularly the Pentateuch, but a range of medieval and early modern thinkers used Kabbalah to interpret later authoritative texts such as the Talmud and other classics of rabbinic literature.

 Some went so far as to engage in kabbalistic readings of more recent works, such as Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed.6

 The term Kabbalah was also used to refer to the objects of religious study. Medieval and early modern readers designated a range of texts such as Sefer ha-Bahir (The Book of illumination), Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation), and Pardes Rimonim (The Pomegranate orchard) as kabbalistic works even if these books or their authors did not always use the term Kab- balah to describe them.

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By far the most celebrated work of Kabbalah was the Zohar (The Book of Splendor). rather than a single book, the Zohar comprised a corpus of texts, most of which consisted of a running commentary on the Pentateuch. written in the thirteenth century in a mixture of hebrew and aramaic, it combined exegesis of individual verses with parables, homilies, and stories.

Much of this commentary recounted the wondrous deeds of Simeon bar Yohai and his colleagues and purported to describe Jewish life in roman Palestine of the second century. rabbinic authorities attributed the Zohar, like Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer ha-Bahir, to an ancient author and assumed that its kabbalistic content represented age- old Jewish esoteric traditions.7

Both as a mode of exegesis and a library of texts, Kabbalah reverted to a set of ideas and motifs. for example, some kabbalists used the concept of the sefirot, or the spheres, to refer to a division of the Godhead into mul- tiple entities or emanations.8

others employed the notion of gilgul, or the transmigration of souls, to explain what happened to a person’s soul after death.9 another important concept was devekut, which described the initiate’s special relationship to knowledge of the divine.10 Kabbalists disagreed, often passionately, over the precise meaning of these and other seminal concepts. not all kabbalists employed the notion of the sefirot to refer to the Godhead, and many of those who did argued about their nature, division, and order. important as these disagreements were, Kabbalah had emerged as a distinct theosophical system at the end of the Middle ages, and its antiquity was consistently taken for granted by almost all of its adherents.11

The term Kabbalah also encompassed a series of ritual practices. one of the primary channels through which Kabbalah spread in the early modern period was by means of new religious practices. for instance, kabbalists composed new prayers and introduced them into the liturgy of various Jewish communities; they undertook pilgrimages to the actual or reputed gravesites of the virtuous dead in order to commune with the recently de- parted or with ancestral spirits.

 Kabbalists also adapted and transformed traditional Jewish practices.

By endowing prayer with theurgic significance, they reconfigured the function as well as symbolic meaning of a crucial element of Jewish life.

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The rites of charity, penitence, and sexual abstinence were all imbued with new theological import. Torah study be- came a sacred rite with cosmic ramifications. in a centuries-long outburst of religious creativity, kabbalists manufactured a new Jewish discourse rich with symbols, myths, and rituals. They were the ultimate meaning makers. They sought to infuse nearly every aspect of Jewish life with theological importance and cosmic significance. and their success was astonishing.12

For the religious adept, however, Kabbalah also referred to something beyond these rituals of practice, modes of exegesis, bodies of literature, and new theological concepts. Throughout the medieval and early modern periods the term Kabbalah referred to a putative tradition of esotericism, to secrets that God had revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai.

Kabbalists main- tained that these secrets had been transmitted orally from one generation to the next or rediscovered by means of personal divine revelation in the Middle ages.13 The term Kabbalah encompassed both the actual content of these secrets and the process of their transmission.14 Kabbalistic knowledge required initiation into an esotericist elite, and to use the term Kabbalah

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