Mystifying Kabbalah

Academic Scholarship, National Theology, and New Age Spirituality

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Boaz Huss
Oxford Studies in Western Esotericism
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     198 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mystifying Kabbalah: Academic Scholarship, National Theology, and New Age Spirituality, by Boaz Huss, a leading Israeli scholar of Kabbalah, is an important engagement with issues of theory and method in religious studies. Huss argues provocatively that the academic study of Kabbalah was founded on a false assumption: that Kabbalah is a form of “Jewish mysticism.” Huss argues that this perception has shaped both what forms of Kabbalah are studied by scholars and the methods used to study it.

Mystifying Kabbalah contains an introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue. In chapter 1, Huss explains the development of the term “mysticism.” Developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, the concept of mysticism refers to “an encounter with a divine or transcendent reality” (4). A century ago, mysticism was conceived as a phenomenon that manifests in “a type of experience which is beyond rational knowledge and regular human experience” (36).

Huss claims that mysticism is a “theological” rather than an analytical category. Mysticism is “theological” because it rests upon a metaphysical assumption that is unacceptable in academic discourse: “the existence of God, or a transcendent reality, that people, in certain situations, encounter, experience, or unite with” (18). The assumption that Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism, accepted by scholars to the present, has guided which Kabbalistic texts are studied and how they are interpreted.

Chapters 2 and 3 investigate the history of the academic study of Kabbalah. Huss argues that the understanding of Kabbalah as mysticism was not formed with academic principles but was guided by neo-Romantic and Zionist ideals. Although 19th-century scholars conceived of Kabbalah as a form of religious philosophy, the conceptualization of Kabbalah as mysticism was developed by Martin Buber in his introduction to the Tales of Rabbi Nachman (Rütten & Loening, 1906). Against the view that “legalistic” Judaism is not conducive to mysticism, Buber, guided by neo-Romantic and Orientalist ideals, argued apologetically that Judaism has a venerable mystical tradition. For Buber, mysticism is present in ancient and medieval texts, like the Hebrew Bible and the Zohar, and reached its apex in 18th-century Hasidism. Subsequently, scholars such as Gershom Scholem adopted Buber’s understanding of Kabbalah as mysticism.

Scholem combined Buber’s view of Kabbalah as mysticism with a Zionist perspective on Jewish history. Drawing upon Hegelian ideas of national consciousness (Geist), Scholem argued that, in the diaspora, the vital Jewish consciousness was found in Kabbalah which was responsible for Judaism’s preservation. Since the late 19th century, the national spirit is found in Zionism. For Scholem, Kabbalah had exhausted its function and the proper engagement with Kabbalah was through the historical analysis of Kabbalistic texts.

In the 1980s, scholars began to adopt new approaches to studying Kabbalah, employing methods from phenomenology and gender studies. The work of Moshe Idel who used phenomenology and comparative psychology to study Kabbalah, is emblematic of this shift. Elliot Wolfson pioneeringly used gender as a lens to study kabbalistic texts. Nonetheless, Huss argues that these new methods, particularly phenomenological analysis, reinscribes the erroneous assumption that Kabbalah is a form of mysticism.

To demonstrate the prevalence of the conception of Kabbalah as mysticism, Huss quotes leading scholars who define Kabbalah as a form of mysticism that stems from a transcendent experience. Huss’s argument that mysticism is the wrong analytical category to define Kabbalah would have been stronger had he focused on the analysis of mystical texts rather than on definitions of mysticism. One might acknowledge that scholars define Kabbalah as mysticism, but object that scholarly analyses of Kabbalah rely upon superhuman causes.

In chapter 4, Huss argues that scholars present themselves as “authorized guardians” of Kabbalah. He claims that the identification of Kabbalah with mysticism has led scholars to reject the authenticity of contemporary forms of Kabbalah. If mysticism connotes a connection with divinity, then New Age–inflected forms of Kabbalah, which are considered unconducive to mystical experience, were deemed inauthentic due to their being commercialized and syncretic. One leading scholar, Moshe Hallamish, lamented that contemporary forms of Kabbalah are “inherently dangerous or smell of pure charlatanism” (126). Thus, the understanding of Kabbalah as mysticism (which connotes an authentic connection with divinity) led scholars to condemn contemporary forms of Kabbalah and not deign to study it.

Chapter 5 explores how the conception of Kabbalah as mysticism shaped how the 13th-century Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia became “the Jewish mystic par excellence” (133). Abulafia’s writings were censured or ignored until the 19th century and remained largely unpublished. Abulafia practiced what he called “prophetic Kabbalah,” whose goal was a union of the human and divine intellect, culminating in ecstatic experience. Prophetic Kabbalah fit the conception of Kabbalah as mysticism; thus, his writings gained prominence among scholars once Kabbalah was defined as mysticism. Ultra-orthodox Jews, despite their hostility toward academia, recently started publishing Abulafia’s writings.

Huss deftly shows how the founders of the academic study of Kabbalah, and some later scholars who adopted a phenomenological approach, understand Kabbalah as the product of extraordinary experiences with superhuman causes. It is less clear that Huss’s critiques apply to all methods of studying Kabbalistic texts. For example, Ellen Haskell uses Kabbalistic texts as historical data in Mystical Resistance: Uncovering the Zohar's Conversations with Christianity (Oxford, 2016). In The Art of Mystical Narrative A Poetics of the Zohar (Oxford, 2018), Eitan Fishbane adopts a literary approach to the Zohar. Although these scholars characterize their data as “mystical,” their use of historical and literary methods to study Kabbalistic texts suggests that they do not necessarily assume that Kabbalah is the result of transcendent experience.

Mystifying Kabbalah is an important methodological intervention in the academic study of Kabbalah even as he sometimes overextends his critique. Huss’s analysis shows how the academic study of Kabbalah has been guided by the conception of Kabbalah as a form of mysticism and encourages scholars to rethink the assumptions their analytical category entail. The book is a reminder that the field of religious studies was inaugurated in the 19th century and shaped by specific colonial, political, and internecine ideals that influence how religion is studied today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian Hillman is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.


Date of Review: 
May 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Boaz Huss is the Aron Bernstein Professor of Jewish History in the Goldstein-Goren Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is the vice president of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism. His research interests include the history of Kabbalah, Western esotericism, New Age culture and new religious movements in Israel.


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