The Origins of Jewish Mysticism Peter Schafer – post #1

There is a new book by Peter Schafer of Princeton University The Origins of Jewish Mysticism (Princeton UP, 2011) in the book he traces Jewish mysticism from the Bible to the Heikhalot in about seven stages of development.

The Origins of Jewish Mysticism offers the first in-depth look at the history of Jewish mysticism from the book of Ezekiel to the Merkavah mysticism of late antiquity. The Merkavah movement is widely recognized as the first full-fledged expression of Jewish mysticism, one that had important ramifications for classical rabbinic Judaism and the emergence of the Kabbalah in twelfth-century Europe. Yet until now, the origins and development of still earlier forms of Jewish mysticism have been largely overlooked.

This post was originally going to be a summery of his approach and his periodization. Instead, I have been hijacked by Schaffer’s agenda of demolishing the Jerusalem School of Kabbalah Studies. I am posting this material not to indicate that I agree with his critique but to note that this will be an topic in upcoming months in the review literature. Not all of these critiques are original to Schafer, but he seems to have gone out of his way to collect them.There will be follow-up post(s) on the more substantive elements.

1] On Idel’s Method

In fact, despite his rather moderate and modest definition, Idel’s phenomenological approach runs the risk of dehistoricizing the phenomena it is looking at and establishing an ahistorical, ideal, and essentialist construct.The most recent example of this approach is Idel’s Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism (London: Continuum, 2007). It offers many new and creative insights, but methodologically it presents a breathtakingly ahistorical hodgepodge of this and that, quotations from many different periods and literatures, pressed into scholarly sounding categories such as “apotheotic” and “theophanic” but in fact lumped together by sentences like “Let me discuss now …,” “Let me/ us turn to …” (the preferred phrase), “Interestingly enough,” “I would like to now address,” “In this context it should be mentioned,” and so forth. Constantly arguing against the usual suspects who, in his view, impose a wrong and simplistic logic on the texts, in this book Idel has developed his method of leaps in logic and intuition to the extreme. For a critique of Idel’s approach, see Lawrence Kaplan, “Adam, Enoch, and Metatron Revisited: A Critical Analysis of Moshe Idel’s Method of Reconstruction,” Kabbalah 6 (2001), pp. 73–119, and see furthermore Y. Tzvi Langermann’s critique of Yehudah Liebes, below, n. 94.

2] On Liebes

For a devastating critique of the school of “Jewish thought” in Jerusalem – its neglect of history as a discipline and its exclusive reliance on “parallels” (maqbilot) – see Y. Tzvi Langermann, “On the Beginnings of Hebrew Scientific Literature and on Studying History Through ‘Maqbilot’ (Parallels),” Aleph 2 (2002), pp. 169–189. Reviewing Yehudah Liebes’s Torat ha- Yetzirah shel Sefer Yetzirah (Jerusalem: Schocken, 2000), Langermann concludes that Liebes “merely juxtaposes the sources; rather than constructing arguments, he relies on innuendo. Although he sometimes explains why he believes that a certain parallel is or is not significant, Liebes applies no consistent method of analysis to the parallels adduced” (ibid., pp. 177 f.). “Nevertheless it seems to me that Liebes’ exclusive attention to maqbilot – along with his obliviousness to the limits of this method – stems from the relative neglect of the particular demands of historical writing” (ibid., p. 188).

3] Against those who emphasize vision of God

Contrary to the prevailing trend in research on Jewish mysticism (or even in Qumran scholarship) I contend that the vision of God plays a strikingly marginal role in the Qumran texts and much less of one than in the ascent apocalypses, where the vision at least is the goal of the ascent (although its details often remain rather vague). I demonstrate that in all of the analyzed texts, the visual aspect of the enterprise is almost completely neglected.

4] Shiur Komah as magical and originally angelic

My analysis of the respective texts in the Hekhalot literature goes against the grain of the thesis inaugurated by Scholem and accepted by many scholars, namely, that the mystic’s vision of the gigantic body of God serves as the climax of his ascent.
I hold that what is at stake here is not the dimensions of God’s body but the knowledge of the appropriate names attached to the limbs of God’s body and, consequently, the magical use of these names. Furthermore, I argue against the suggestion made by Scholem and others that the Shi‘ur Qomah traditions are essential for the Merkavah mystical speculations, that they are a particularly old layer of the Hekhalot literature, and that they emerged out of the exegesis of the biblical Song of Songs. Finally, I compare the Shi‘ur Qomah traditions in the Hekhalot literature with some related evidence that has been adduced from Jewish, Gnostic, and Christian sources, and I propose that it was originally angels in the Jewish tradition to whom gigantic dimensions were attributed. Only when the idea of vast angelic dimensions was usurped by the Christians did the (later) Jewish traditions – as they are preserved in the Shi‘ur Qomah – transfer these gigantic dimensions to God and claim that they were suitable for God alone, and not for angels or other figures that might dispute God’s position as the one and only God.

5] Mysticism is not a reaction to the halakhah- contra Scholem

only when the Halakhah becomes too rigid (this is the underlying premise) is it time for mysticism to break through and inaugurate a new era. As has been observed by several scholars, this definition of rabbinic Judaism is in itself problematic. To portray rabbinic Judaism as entrapped within the rigidity of the Halakhah and therefore in need of the liberating forces of mysticism smacks ominously of certain Christian prejudices. Also, if mysticism is a reaction to rabbinic Halakhah, one would expect the emergence of mysticism to occur at the peak of halakhic development (let’s say with the appearance of the Bavli) and not at its beginnings (with the appearance of the Mishnah).

10 responses to “The Origins of Jewish Mysticism Peter Schafer – post #1

  1. Yehuda HaTziyoni

    Thanks for this post! I’m curious, does Schafer also object to the Idel/Liebes theory of reading Talmudic texts as deeply theurgical? And does he add anything to the debate on the centrality of the Mythic element (Liebes, Fishbane Sr. too)? i.e. the central (anti-scholem) claim that “Talmudic Judaism” lends itself in many ways to be continued by Classical Kabbalah elaborated upon?

    • HaTziyoni,
      He prefers the word magic – the use of the word theurgy was an Idelism only loosely based on the original Neo-platonic meaning. He wants everything defined based on a given historical era. For him the question is not the in house israeli issue of continuity, but the historical meaning of that era. Greco-Roman is not Medieval Ashkenaz in the cultural context even if a concept has continuity.

      EJ- Liebes thinks like a dictionary. His father is the translator of Plato into Modern Hebrew and he mastered Arabic in the army. His PhD was the start of a Zohar dictionary that he never finished. He does not accept conceptual arguments in class or similarities in ideas. He needs a linguistic parallel.

  2. It is misleading to say the Liebes discoveries depends on parallels. Many of his most interesting revelations came simply from reading books long since discarded. I am curious what Schafer would consider a “smoking gun”?

    I once asked Idel at a public lecture whether there was a handbook of philology, a sort of hilchos philology. He smiled and went on to the next question.

  3. EJ: I think Schafer and Langerman are refering specifically to Liebes’ use of parallels re Sefer Yetzirah .

    In Ben Idel refers to and attempts to rebut my critique of him. I, not surprisngly, do not accept the validity of Idel’s rebuttals. I hope to return to this one day. For the meanwhile, Idel confuses history with math and logic. In math, if A=B and B=C, then A=B=C. In history Mr. X might have believed that A=B, Mr. Y that B=C, and Mr.Z that A=C. That does not mean that there was anyone who believed that A=B=C.

  4. Thanks for your outline. I’m reading another Peter Schafer book right now. He challenges some of the Judaica scholarship canon there as well. In the introduction to his 2002 book “Mirror of His Beauty” he writes:

    “I am also aware that it is a delicate venture for any “serious” historian to propose the possibility of the inward Jewish adaptation of Christian patterns. Not only does such research easily incur the reproach of being speculative and not providing sufficient evidence. Moreover, and more precariously, the historian is exposed to the danger of consciously or unconsciously bringing his/her own personal background into the sacred halls of scholarship and, depending on that background, betraying his/her own identity or oppressing the identity of the other. Woe to the historian of Judaism who happens to be Christian (Roman Catholic, no less) and to “discover” that the Christian veneration of Mary might have had an impact on the feminine manifestation of God in the Kabbalah! And yet, in the long run, I am confident in our ability to liberate ourselves, not only from medieval stereotypes, but also from modern ones.” (15)

  5. No critique of Elior? Too easy a target?

    • I left it out. He cited Martha Himmelfarb’s basic article who torn her to shreds. It is not interesting. Martha Himmelfarb (2006). “Merkavah Mysticism since Scholem: Rachel Elior’s The Three Temples”. In Peter Schäfer, Elisabeth Müller-Luckner. Wege mystischer Gotteserfahrung: Judentum, Christentum und Islam. Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag

  6. You could write an entire book just devoted to the methodological problems of trying to reconstruct early Jewish mysticism. All you need to do is go through the methodological problems in late biblical apocalyptic texts, dead sea scrolls, all of talmudic literature, hekhlot, proto kabalah, etc. etc. Then you compound it by having people delving into literature that is out of their realm of specific expertise. Then you go back and trace the genealogy of all the disputes to Scholem and Urbach 😉

  7. Does he address Wolfson who could also be accused of ahistoricism?

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