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Very Short Introductions: Kabbalah

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By Kirsty OUP-UK

A very Happy New Year to you all from OUP-UK. My maiden post for 2008 is the latest in the Very Short Introductions column. This month Joseph Dan, author of Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, has kindly answered some questions for me. Joseph Dan is a renowned expert on Kabbalah, and is the Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbalah in the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His many books include The Heart and the Fountain: Jewish Mystical Experiences, The Early Kabbalah, and The Teachings of Hasidism. He resides in Jerusalem and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School.

OUP: In your book, you mention Christian Kabbalists and Jewish Kabbalists. What, briefly, are the main differences between them?

JOSEPH DAN: Jewish Kabbalah appeared in Southern Europe in the end of the twelfth century. Christian Kabbalah appeared three hundred years later, in the end of the fifteenth century, first in Italy and later in Germany, France and England. Some Christian scholars of the Renaissance accepted the claim of the Jewish kabbalists that they have an ancient secret tradition, and proceeded to interpret it as denoting the truth of Christianity. They included in “Kabbalah” almost all post-biblical Jewish writings, including Talmud, Midrash, Jewish medieval philosophy and Jewish exegetical works. They emphasized different aspects of the traditions than did the Jewish kabbalists, and essentially created an intensely Christian theology.

OUP: Many people associate Kabbalah with magic. Why is this, and is it a valid way of thinking of Kabbalah?

vsi-kabbalah-front.jpgDAN: Jewish kabbalists wrote many hundreds of kabbalistic works which are meaningfully different from each other. Some of these authors were interested in magic and included it in their works, while many others did not. There is no essential connection between Kabbalah and magic; they seem to be similar only because both rely on ancient traditions and both do not conform to the norms of logic and scientific thought. They were bundled together as “occult” and “superstition”. One of the most important differences between them is that Kabbalah points the purely spiritual way to God, denying mundane affairs, while magic teaches how to achieve worldly, material purposes.

OUP: You say that Hasidism, the most potent and influential modern Jewish movement, uses Kabbalistic language. Is this a conscious decision on their part, and what effect does the Kabbalistic language have on Hasidism’s followers?

DAN: When modern Hasidism emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century, Kabbalah was the only extant Jewish theology, and the Hasidim, like their opponents, used that language as the only one way to express Jewish spirituality, so there was no element of “choice” in this matter. It is expressed, for instance, by adopting kabbalistic norms of prayers, belief in the ten divine powers (the sefirot), and worship pf the tenth one, which is described as a feminine power. These elements do not separate Hasidism from other ultra-orthodox Jewish groups. The most meaningful characteristic of Hasidism is the belief in the leader, the Zaddik, as a divine intermediary between the Hasid and God, a belief that non-Hasidim reject.

OUP: Why do you think so many celebrities claim to follow Kabbalah, and do they have a positive or negative affect on its reputation?

DAN: Several schools which use the name “Kabbalah” today represent a post-modern combination of Kabbalah with astrology, New Age characteristics and other contemporary beliefs, creating something that is meaningfully different from traditional Kabbalah. The main difference is the contemporary quest for improving one’s daily life, while traditional Kabbalah pointed the way to God, and was based on strict compliance with the Jewish commandments. It is not the business of the historian to characterize phenomena as positive or negative. All that I can say is that the Celebrities Kabbalah is different from every aspect from traditional Kabbalah.

OUP: Once people have read your Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, which five books would you recommend them to turn to next?

DAN: 1. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York: Schocken 1954.
2. Gershom Scholem, The Origins of Kabbalah, Princeton: Princeton UP 1987.
3. Joseph Dan, The Heart and the Fountain, New York and London: Oxford UP 2005.
4. Isaiah Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar, London: Oxford UP 1989.
5. Daniel Matt, The Zohar, Stanford: Stanford UP 2005-2007 (4 vols.)

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  1. [...] week a short interview with Joseph Dan was posted at the Oxford University Press’ blog. Dan is the author of many [...]

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