Is Kabbalah Mysticism? Continuing the Debate

Is Kabbala Mysticism? Another View by Shaul Magid I In a provocative essay “Jewish Mysticism in the University: Academic Study or Theological Practice?” (Zeek December, 2007) Boaz Huss raises a series of questions that should challenge academics and non-academics alike … Read More

By / March 1, 2008

Is Kabbala Mysticism? Another View by Shaul Magid


In a provocative essay “Jewish Mysticism in the University: Academic Study or Theological Practice?” (Zeek December, 2007) Boaz Huss raises a series of questions that should challenge academics and non-academics alike who study and teach Kabbala, pietism, or Hasidism – what is problematically known as “Jewish mysticism.” In this essay (as in an earlier version published in Hebrew),1 Huss makes two basic claims: (1) “mysticism” is a term that is foreign to Judaism and thus should not be used to identity or describe kabbalistic literature; and (2) mysticism is a theological category in any case and should not be part of academic discourse more generally. Huss also argues that scholars, even those who have rejected the “pure consciousness” notion of mystical experience and adopted a more constructivist approach, have by and large retained an uncritical notion that mysticism is a universal phenomenon.2 That is, even those who agree that mystical experience, like all experience, is culturally and linguistically mediated, maintain a positive stance regarding the possibility and indeed actuality of such experience. While Huss himself holds that such experience is certainly possible, he maintains that this possibility cannot be of intrinsic interest to the scholar for at least two reasons: first, because it is not verifiable by any scientific method; and second, because the presupposition or affirmation of the experience carries theological weight that is not a constructive part of any serious academic endeavor. Below I will question two dimensions of this thesis: first, that mysticism is, by definition, is a theological category and second, that nomenclature foreign to a particular tradition should be not used to examine and explain such a tradition.

I begin with the second point since it is the foundation, albeit somewhat unstated in Huss’s own argument. While Huss forcefully argues against the use of the term “mysticism” because it is not indigenous to Judaism, he also states, “I do not think academic scholars are obliged to use exclusively concepts and categories that have been used by the subjects of their studies; nonetheless there is no justification for an uncritical use of a Christian theological term [i.e., mysticism] in academic research.”3 According to this statement then, the issue is not the foreignness of the term but rather its “uncritical” adaptation to a foreign discourse and its “Christian” origins. I can surely agree with the part of this claim that all terminology should be critically deployed. Yet the importation of foreign concepts to a textual tradition is not only permissible in principle but it is precisely what academics do all the time (to the chagrin of many religious traditionalists who here would agree with Huss). Engaging in a Western discipline that includes, as Huss correctly notes, a colonialist and post-colonialist perspective, those of us in the academy consciously struggle with the nomenclature we choose to deploy and the often indecipherable, or at least unexplained, words of the texts we read. Yet if we refused to import these foreign categories we could not do the work we do. That is, it is precisely the foreign concepts that open these texts, drawing them out of their parochial “hermeneutical circle” that enable the scholar to understand the texts in new ways.4

Second, Huss does not give us precise criteria to distinguish between a critical or uncritical approach. Why can “mysticism” not be used but “religion” can (if it can)? And what of the terms “God” and “ritual”? For that matter, isn’t “Judaism” itself a foreign term for many classical texts of the tradition? Although the term “Judaism” may have first been uttered in Greek almost two millennia ago, the way it is used by laypeople and scholars today is surely quite different than it was used by Greek speaking Israelites or Hellenes in the past. It is telling that one rarely hears the word “Judaism” spoken among haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews. They readily speak about devotion (avodah), commandments (mitzvos) or faith (emunah) but Judaism is not an indigenous term for one deeply embedded in the tradition. One has to already be somewhat “outside” to describe what he or she practices or believes in as Judaism. Huss notes correctly in his Hebrew article that J.Z. Smith argues that religion is a construct of the scholar (following suit, Jacob Neusner argues that “Judaism” is basically the same thing).5

Two other relevant terms that are often used in describing Kabbala but are foreign to its own self-fashioning are myth and symbol.6 Huss does not seem to be bothered by these terms. Therefore, I assume there must be something distinctive about “mysticism” for Huss that makes this term invalid. If so, then, the two issues are really one. That is, the problem is not non-indigenous terminology in general but rather this particular term because Huss claims it is, by definition, theological. In the remainder of this essay I would like to address this very point to argue that “mysticism” needn’t be exclusively a theological term. When it is, I am in total agreement with Huss that it has no place in academic discourse. When it isn’t, I think it can serve a positive function, both descriptively and substantively, in the ongoing attempt to understand a particular human phenomenon (whether universal, pure, or constructed) that is sometimes expressed in Judaism, as it is in many other religious and secular traditions and cultures.


It is quite telling that Gershom Scholem devoted part of the introduction to his 1941 Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism trying, unsuccessfully, to define the term “mysticism,” acknowledging the deep ambiguity of the term that serves as the book’s very subject. Since he failed to define the term, I assume, therefore, that Scholem did not think a definition was crucial to his work. In fact, perhaps it was the very ambiguity of the term that made it efficacious in describing a series of traditions founded on a particular undefined human phenomenon called “mysticism.” That is, the ambiguity of the term made it the property of no one, not even the Christians who first uttered it. Hence, he begins his study by unmooring the term from its Christian anchor in order to use it to describe a tradition that never uttered the word. And so begins the academic study of Jewish mysticism.

Most scholars agree with Scholem that “mysticism” is a difficult if not impossible term to define scientifically. As a human experience or phenomenon, we may liken it to love (as many mystics in many traditions do): while love is something many of us experience it cannot be scientifically isolated nor, for that matter, accurately defined. Yet scholars write about love all the time and those who have been “in love” are not, by definition, disqualified from writing about it in a scholarly way.7 Can we say the same about mysticism? Can it, despite its ambiguity, serve as a topic of scholarly inquiry or as a term to describe human experience?

I suggest that there are various non-theological ways of understanding mysticism that may make such a term useful in describing kabbalistic literature. If I am reading Huss correctly, and can show that mysticism needn’t be, by definition, theological, I hope to cautiously, and “critically,” salvage the use of the term mysticism as both a heuristic and substantive lens through which we can understand kabbalistic literature in an academic context.8

By non-theological uses of the term “mysticism” I mean that the term can point to various dimensions of the religious life and/or human experience that may be founded on certain theological principles (principles we can accept, reject, or critically examine) but that are not bound to them or, at least, that the human experience in question is not overly weighed down by the theological presuppositions that may be implied in, or by, them . In the following three examples I suggest mysticism can describe three very different dimensions of this human experience: (1) the experience of reading religious myth whereby the reader enters into the myth of his own creation and becomes part of the imaginative narrative; (2) the experience of an “event” (empirical or not) yielding a radical subjectification of the subject and his experience such that the event becomes the touchstone and exemplification of a universal philosophical truth that cannot be rationally proven; and (3) an experience (here more specifically the mystical experience of Moses) that by its very nature undermines the subject’s ability to function as a complete authority. In these three cases of human experience, i.e. reading, event, and religious authority, I propose that mysticism might be a term that can amply describe these phenomena.

My examples will be drawn from three very different twentieth-century thinkers to illustrate how mysticism can be a term that does not carry a theological agenda. The first, Michael Fishbane, is a scholar of the Jewish biblical, rabbinic, and kabbalistic tradition. The second, Alain Badiou, is a contemporary French philosopher known for his attempt to re-insert the concept of truth as a philosophical category through his notion of the “event.” The third is Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro of Piaszceno, a Hasidic master in the Warsaw Ghetto who was murdered by the Nazis in the months after its liquidation; his sermons delivered in the ghetto were found in its ruins after the war and posthumously published as ‘Aish Kodesh (“The Holy Fire”). Only Fishbane explicitly uses the term “mysticism” and he does so in relation to myth and not Kabbala. Yet I suggest these three texts in different ways suggest “mysticism” as a possible category into which we can examine the human experience in question. None of these examples make a theological claim, although they do work under certain theological assumptions as would be expected: Fishbane makes a hermeneutical or interpretive claim about the text and its reader. Badiou argues that a universal and infinite truth emerges through fidelity to the event of the resurrection; while he does not claim the event is itself real in any historical sense, the event becomes the lens or standard of universality through which we test the truth each element of the world. Shapiro makes a claim about religious authority and its subversion in the collapse of the subject /object dichotomy.9 Each takes a position whereby truth is not the direct outgrowth of rationality but rather a place where the rational does not go, either, as in the case of Shapiro, because of reason’s limitations or, as in the case of Badiou, there is a place that knowledge simply does not know. In all cases, for different reasons, we might deploy the term “mystical.”10


1 Boaz Huss, “The Mystification of Kabbala and the Myth of Jewish Mysticism,” [Hebrew] Pe’amim (Winter, 2007); 9-30. 2 On the “pure consciousness” position, see Robert K.C. Forman, “Mysticism, Constructivism, and Forgetting,” Norman Prigge and Gary Kessler, “Is Mysticism Everywhere the Same?,” in The Problem of Pure Consciousness R.K.C. Forman ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 3-52 and 269-287 . For the constructivist approach as it relates to Jewish mysticism see Steven T. Katz, “Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism,” in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, Steven T. Katz ed. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 22-74. 3 Huss, “Jewish Mysticism in the University,” p. 3. 4 While this does not always require deploying foreign concepts and categories, it often does. On this point, relating specifically to the precarious notion of comparison, J.Z. Smith argues that at times a scholar must carefully use terms and categories from the outside to understand particular phenomena. See Smith,Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982), p. 11ff and idem. Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), esp. pp. 36-84. 5 Huss, “Mystification,” pp. 10, 11. See J.Z. Smith, Imagining Religion, p. 11 and idem. “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Relating Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 179-196. Jacob Neusner, 6 See, for example, Gershom Scholem, “Kabbalah and Myth,” in On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (New York, Schocken Books,1965), pp. 87-117, Isaiah Tishby, “Symbol and Religion in Kabbala,” [Hebrew] in Netivei Emunah ve-Minut (Jerusalem: Magnus Press, 1982), pp. 11-22; Yehuda Liebes, “De Natura Dei: On the Development of Jewish Myth,” in idem. Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism (Albany: SUNY, 1993), pp. 1-65; and idem. “Myth verse Symbol in the Zohar and in Lurianic Kabbala,” in Essential Papers on Kabbalah, L. Fine ed. (New York, NYU Press, 1995), pp. 212-242. 7 For example, look at the various studies on romantic poetry by Harold Bloom and others who sometimes use such terminology. Or, the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Transcendentalist school whose agenda was anything but theological in any conventional sense. For example, see Alan D. Hodder, Emerson’s Rhetoric of Revelation: Nature, the Reader, and the Apocalypse Within (Penn State University Press: London and University Park, 1989). 8 Classic studies like William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience and Freud’s study on the oceanic feeling offer us some case studies and analysis of experiences that are sometimes called “mystical” yet many have no specific “theological agenda.” See William Parsons, The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling: Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). Cf. Dan Merkur, Gnosis: An Esoteric Tradition of Mystical Visions and Unions (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993). For a recent study of the sociological dimension so mysticism see Phillip Wexler, Mystical Society: An Emerging Social Vision (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000). 9 For other studies dealing with mysticism and/as exegesis, see M. Fishbane, “The Book of Zohar and Exegetical Spirituality,” in his The Exegetical Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 105-122; Elliot Wolfson, “Maiden Without Eyes: Peshat and Sod in Zoharic Hermeneutics,” in The Midrashic Imagination, M. Fishbane ed. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993); and idem Through a Speculum that Shines (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 326-392. 10 See, Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds (New York: Continuum, 2008). ====

First, the question of if, how, and when the transition from myth to mysticism takes place occupies the final thoughts in Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking. Although Fishbane never defines mysticism in this context, he writes as follows:

Where in this system does myth end and mysticism begin? Or: Where in this world-view can we say that we have moved from a mythical reality into a mystical one? There is no simple solution and I would suggest the following consideration. The move from myth to mysticism may be effected at the point where the component features of myth are not elements of an external narrative or divine drama, but rather spiritual components of a divine reality which the individual has internalized through the interiorization of the mythic dramas, the person assimilates the modalities of the divine reality and strives to actualize its truths in every thought and action…Myth may therefore comprise and condition a mystical mentality – not by being transcended so much as by being fully subjectivized and lived.11

Concluding his study of myth and mythmaking in biblical, rabbinic and kabbalistic Judaism, Fishbane suggests here that mythmaking, as a product of the exegetical imagination, can also transcend itself into the realm of the mystical. The reader and maker of the myth can, at times, step inside the mythic creation through “interiorization” thereby becoming a part, and not merely an observer or reader, of the mythic drama. While it is true that Fishbane uses the term “divine reality” to describe the myth interiorized, he is not making a theological claim, that is, a claim about God, but rather a functional claim about how the myth can transform its reader (and author). Thus Fishbane’s “modalities of the divine reality” constituted by the myth itself are, in fact, creations of the mythmaker that then become her template for living. As Fishbane suggests in another context, this process is achieved through the act of “reading.”12 This notion is proffered in a slightly different format by Melila Hellner-Eshed in her Hebrew study of the Zohar And the River Goes Out from Eden.13 Hellner-Eshed offers an aesthetic rendering of the Zohar as “art,”14 an object that can serve its reader as a vehicle for what we may, in our context, call a mystical experience. Hellner-Eshed calls our attention to various zoharic texts where a sage and his circle relate a mythic story and then, through what she calls a “leap” become part of the mythic story being told. The homiletical frame of the Zohar’s narrative is sometimes transformed into the experience of the circle.15 This transformation in the Zohar’s narrative Hellner-Eshed calls “mystical.”16 Is this a theological claim? In one sense it assumes a theological premise but it not making any claim about the nature of God. In fact, its focus is on the experience itself rather then the object of experience. In these examples, mysticism serves as a category linked to but distinct from myth, a term that describes the movement of myth from a dramatization of the real to the real itself through reading.

Alain Badious’ Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism is not at all about mysticism but about constituting “truth” out of what he calls the “event” (here the event of resurrection as experienced by Paul) as the source out of which all truth emerges.17 My interest in Badiou here is to use his discussion of “charisma” as a way to think about how the term mysticism can relate to moments or, in this case, events, that express “truth” without the unwanted baggage of theology. The context of Badiou’s comment is Paul’s rejection of works and law as salvific in Romans 4.4, “To one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a grace but as his due.” On this Badiou writes,

But for Paul, nothing is due. The salvation of the subject cannot take the form of a wage or reward. The subjectivity of faith is unwaged. It pertains to the granting of a gift, kharisma. Every subject is initiated on the basis of a charisma; every subject is charismatic. Since the subjectivating point is the declaration of the event, rather than the work that demands a wage or reward, the declaring subject exists according to the charisma power in him.18

At first blush, Badiou seems quite close to the rabbinic adage of “not serving one’s master for the sake of reward” but for its own sake.19 But there is more here. The rabbinic assertion is made precisely in a covenental theology where reward is promised. But for Badiou, the charisma, or gift, is an act of grace whereby one’s “subjectivity is unwaged” that is, where the distinction between the giver, the gift, and its recipient ceases to exist – in fact it never existed. The radical subjectivity in question is the unfolding of charisma of the believing subject, not a belief in God or in resurrection as a historical phenomenon, but in the universalizing power that can be born from fidelity to what the event of resurrection represents. Only a truly believing subject – one’s whose fidelity is unassailable – can actualize the event by remaining faithful to it; only she can reach the place where “wage” or reward has no economy whatsoever. The truth thus lies in the collapse of difference as the “practice” of the universal. Badiou continues, “the subject constituted by charisma through the gratuitous practice of the universal address necessarily maintains there are no differences. Only what is charismatic, thus absolutely without cause, possesses this power of being in excess of the law, of collapsing differences.”20 Badiou’s interests here are neither historical nor theological. His focus is one of fidelity to the (non-historical) event of resurrection – the centerpiece of Paul’s theology – and bringing about or produce its universal and universalizing power. My more limited interest is to consider whether we have here an example of a non-theological experiential claim (i.e., not about God but about the human and his relation to other humans) that may enter into the realm of the mystical.

Coming from very different places Fishbane and Badiou may be making similar observations about what Fishbane calls the transition from myth to mysticism (using the terms interiorization and subjectivication) and Badiou calls the subjectivization of the event as an act of salvation, defined as the charisma, or gift, of every believing subject. As long as the myth remains external to the subject in Fishbane and the event is not a charisma, or gift, in Badiou, the subjectivication cannot fully unfold and, for Fishbane myth remains myth distinct from the subject (and thus not mystical) and, in Badiou, the event is not salvific (and thus not “true”) and Paul’s question “what is due” (i.e., works or the law) remains relevant.

Finally, I want to cite a excerpt from a homily by Kalomymous Kalman Shapira’s Aish Kodesh which I hope illustrates this point of subjectification as the condition of the mystical. Here my claim is that the mystical (implied but ever mentioned) makes a claim about human authority in relation to divine decree.

In the early spring of 1939 Shapira gave a sermon to his besieged congregants in the Warsaw Ghetto based on Rashi’s comment to Exodus 39:43 concerning the work of constructing the Tabernacle.21 And when Moses saw they performed all the tasks – as God had commanded, so they had done, Moses blessed them. Shapira invokes a Talmudic passage (b.T. Berakhot 5a).

When God told Moshe, ‘go tell Bezalel, make me a Tabernacle, an Ark, and vessels,’ Moses went and reversed the order. He told him to ‘Make an Ark, vessels, and a Tabernacle.’ Bezalel responded, ‘Moshe my teacher, it is the way of the world that a person first build a house and only afterward bring vessels into it but you told me to build the Ark and the vessels and only afterward the Tabernacle. If I do it that way, where will I bring the vessels? Perhaps [Bezalel says] God told you, Make the Tabernacle, Ark, and then the vessels?’ Moses replied, your name means ‘in the shadow of God’ (be-zel ‘El) and thus you must know [the correct procedure].’

In trying to comprehend Bezalel’s daring correction to Moses’ prophecy Shapira deploys a talmudic passage from b.T Yebamot 49, “Menashe asked Isaiah the prophet, ‘Moses your teacher said, no one can see [the face of God] and live. And you say, And I saw God. The gemara responds that Moses saw through a clear glass (aspaklaria he-meria) and Isaiah through a dark glass. Shapira continues that from Moses’ too-clear prophetic prospective, one cannot see God, but since Isaiah’s perspective was already tainted (or, tinted), he could, in fact, see God. Shapira then continues, this distinction applies not only to prophecy but also to devotion, even devotion that includes all manner of kabbalistic preparation. In such a case the kabbalistic preparations are only efficacious if the physical mitzvah is enacted. Yet, in the divine world where Moses dwelled, there are no distinctions; all worlds become nothing until there is no possibility of any particularity as there is in the lower world, the world of concealment. Hence, the physical enactment of constructing the Tabernacle was accomplished by Bezalel because Moses could not (physically) perform (or even fully understand) the act. Distance from the divine allowed Bezalel see more clearly than Moses.

In other words, this text suggests that Moses was incapable of correctly getting the order of the construction because he occupied a space where those distinctions did not matter – in fact where they did not exist. That is, he experienced the world from a mystical dimension that he could not transcend. Put in another way, there was no distinction between Moses and the commandment he was commanded to relate. This is one way to read “a glass that shines” (aspaklaria he-meira) a state where the glass ceases to function as intermediary. And without such an intermediary, prophecy is too clear; it cannot address the implementation of the details of any commanded act. The mystical source of commandment that is not mediated by something outside itself can never be a part of the world and thus can never function authoritatively. While the authority of the message (the commandment) remains and Moses as its source is maintained, the authority of the mystic here is undermined, not because he is distant from God but rather because he is too close to God. In this light Shapira cleverly turns the talmudic description of Bezalel as “the shadow of God” – a complimentary term in the Talmud – on its head. Bezalel means “the shadow of God” that is, one who sees God as one sees a shadow, in a concealed manner – he is far enough away from God to be able to know the details of divine will. Because Bezalel is not a mystic, he can (and must!) correct Moses in the practical implementation of the commandment. Moses, as a mystic, is too close for there to be any details, or difference, at all. While surely founded on definite theological principles, Shapira’s observation that “Moses can only command” but not enact tells us more about religious authority than it does about theology.

While it is true that in Shapira Moses’ experience is, I assume, an experience of God, I do not think that is the point or intent of the homily. Rather, the point is that Moses’ experience of God, while often viewed in laudatory terms, is simultaneously the foundation of, and also limitations to, religious authority. The mystic and his mystical experience is authoritative only the extent to which he can transcend his mystical experience. If he cannot (or if he does not have one who can correct him) he cannot be trusted to fully or adequately convey his message to those who choose to listen.

So, as in Fishbane and Badiou, mysticism here means the description of a human experience of radical “subjectification” or “interiorization” (contextually determined) whereby the individual comes to experience the world, and herself, in a new way. This definition is not theological; it does not necessarily require an encounter with God. With Fishbane it is an encounter with a humanly created myth, with Badiou an (imagined) event, and with Shapira (using Moses’ encounter with God as a template) the realization that a human experience that may reach beyond the details of worldly existence cannot fully function as authoritative.


While I sympathize with Boaz Huss’ attempt to unmoor the academic study of Kabbala from the doctrines and suppositions of kabbalistic praxis and belief, and I agree that when the term “mysticism” is deployed uncritically or to push a particular theological agenda, it should be avoided, I suggest that the term still can serve a positive function as a means of describing certain dimensions of human, and religious, experience.22 In the three examples provided above – each with widely different conclusions – I suggest the deployment of a category such as “mysticism” may be useful to define and examine a human phenomenon that is part of a religious activity that stands outside the normative structures we usually use to define human perception or behavior. Whether it is the spiritualizing dimension of reading, the truth of the universal embedded in fidelity to an event, or questioning the problematic transition from unmediated prophecy to religious authority, the term and category we call “mysticism,” if deployed critically, can play a role for the scholar. Thus, even without an air-tight definition (following Scholem) and without using it to make or bolster theological claims that would make it unworthy of academic discourse (following Huss), mysticism can still serve the scholar of religion and Judaism.

I am in full agreement with Huss that the scholar of so-called “mystical texts” should not confirm or deny any of the claims made by the texts. Rather he or she is the business of closely examining how these claims are made, their taxonomy, texture, and argumentation, and then attempt to describe and illuminate these claims through critical, historical, and phenomenological analysis. As Moshe Idel has argued in what he calls “methodological eclecticism” (and as many scholars practice) the scholar of Kabbala should have the full array of methods, terminology, and nomenclature at their disposal to best achieve these goals.23 Nothing should, by definition, be excluded from the scholars’ toolbox as long as she is critical and careful about how such methods are utilized. The fact that categories may be rooted in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Hellenism should, perhaps, give the scholar of Kabbala pause but should not limit her work of translation, as all “western” scholarship of “non-western” phenomena is in the end an act of translation. While I am in agreement with Huss about the origins, and even the dangers, of the term “mysticism,” I argue that the term can be productive to illuminate certain human experiences that are expressed throughout the history of human creativity, including those of some kabbalists.

To return once more to Fishbane and Badiou, the structures that inform our religious lives, be they myths, historical, or phenomenal events, exist outside the purview of the mystical experience as pure subjectivity. But what do we call such human experience that arises from within these structures yet crosses a line to territory yet undescribed? In this sense, I suggest the kabbalist can become a mystic but in that state he or she is not a kabbalist. This is because the kabbalist is more (by being less) than a mystic. He (or she) must transcend the experience – move beyond the ecstatic by leaving it behind – in order to provide mediation necessary for communication. Moses, in Shapira’s rendering, was a mystic but no kabbalist, and kabbalists, I would suggest, cannot purely be mystics (as the rabbi of a community in crisis perhaps this is part of what Shapira wanted to convey in his homily). Achieving what Fishbane calls “the interiorization of the mystic drama,” what Badiou calls fidelity to the “event” may require a leap from the real to the realm of the mystical (whether it is a place within or outside human subjectivity is not the interest of the scholar) but the description of such a reading, or the implementation of the event’s universal message, requires one to move beyond, by moving outside, the experience itself. I suggest that the term “mysticism” works here as a way to describe one dimension of this process in order to highlight the difference between these two moves – from the “real” and then back to the “real” newly constituted by stepping outside it. In principle, this does not require any fidelity to a particular theological truth or claim about universal “mystical” experience. It is, rather, one way to describe the complex nature of human subjectivity and how that subjectivity constructs the world.


11 Michael Fishbane, Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (Oxford, UK, 2003), pp. 313-314. 12 See Fishbane, “The Book Zohar and Exegetical Spirituality,” p. 110. “The mystical meaning builds on the literal dimension of this reading, even as it simultaneously interprets the images symbolically. Through such a characteristic interfusion of hermeneutical registers (the literal and the symbolic), a ,ytic dimension emerges from Scripture. In this case, the scholar assimilates the properties of the Torah he studies and becomes a tree – a cosmic tree, in fact, that links the earthly and divine realms into one divine whole.” 13 Melila Hellner-Eshed, And the River Goes out From Eden [Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 2006). This dimension of Hellner-Eshed’s thesis is discussed by the forthcoming review essay by Nathaniel Berman, “Aestheticism, Rationalism, and Esotericism: Medieval Scholarship and Contemporary Polemics,” in Jewish Quarterly Review. I want to thank Nathaniel Berman for making his essay available to me before its publication. 14 Hellner-Eshed, And the River, p. 16. 15 This is also similar to the children’s book The Little Prince where the boy draws a picture that he steps into and then becomes his world. 16 See, for example, ibid. p. 289. 17 The “event” as a philosophical truth category is the subject of his major work Being and Event (New York: Continuum International, 2007). In his Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Ray Braissier trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003). Badiou examines Paul’s notion of resurrection as an “event” that embodies truth. However, this “event” has no theological import and the event itself is not necessarily, or not at all, the basis of Christianity. It is, rather, an exemplar of a moment that embodies universalism through difference. The event is something that we cannot perceive until after the fact. Truth is thus constituted in the wake of the event, the event itself is not true but produces the truth. I want to thank Kenneth Reinhard for his help in formulating Badiou’s position. 18 Badiou, Saint Paul, p. 77. 19 Mishna Avot 1:3. 20 Badiou, Saint Paul, p. 78. 21 Shapira, ‘Aish Kodesh, (Jerusalem, 1960), pp. 25-27. 22 In regard to Huss’ comment on the assumption that “various cultural formations, including the Kabbalah, are a Jewish expression of universal mystical phenomenon” (“Jewish Mysticism in the University” p. 1), I remain agnostic. That is I do not know, nor am I particularly interested, in whether Kabbala is an expression of such a phenomenon or whether such a phenomenon is, in fact, universal. But I would claim that human experience, construed loosely and widely, is universal to human beings and that, as human beings, Kabbalists may have experiences that one could deem mystical that are surely not identical to those in other civilizations but can still be examined through a lens that is deployed elsewhere to describe different experiences as long as one remains aware of the pitfalls of simplistic comparison. 23 Moshe Idel, Ascensions on High in Jewish Mysticism: Pillars, Lines, Ladders (Budapest, NY: CUP Press, 2005), pp. 1-18.


“Paying Extra”: A Response to Shaul Magid by Boaz Huss

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that.” Said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

I am grateful to Shaul Magid for his thoughtful response to my essay “Jewish Mysticism in the University: Academic Study or Theological Practice“, which I hoped would stimulate reflection and discussion of the founding category of the academic field of “Jewish Mysticism”, a category that many scholars in the field, including Magid, admit is ambiguous and hard, if not impossible, to define scientifically — a statement which in itself gives sufficient reason to abandon its use in academic research.

In his response, Magid attempts to “salvage the use of the term mysticism as both a heuristic and substantive lens through which we can understand kabbalistic literature in an academic context.” While Magid offers interesting discussions of various topics in his essay, his attempt at salvage enhances, rather than refutes, my criticism of the use of the theological category “mysticism” in academic scholarship.

Magid questions two arguments which he claims I raised in my essay: “first that mysticism is, by definition, a theological category and second, that nomenclature foreign to a particular tradition should not be used to examine and explain such a tradition.” As did Magid, I will address the second point first.

While in my essay I indeed asserted that mysticism is a theological category, I did not claim that only indigenous terms should be used in the study of a particular culture. Such a point is not only (as Magid admits), unstated in my article, but also runs contrary to my own statement that “I do not think academic scholars are obliged to exclusively use concepts and categories that have been used by the subjects of their studies.” As to why I choose to direct my criticism to the term “Mysticism”, and not to other terms such as religion, myth, symbol, ritual, Judaism and God, Magid’s query is based on a wrong assumption: that I think that only emic terms should be used in academic research. I am happy to clarify that indeed many of the terms he mentioned deserve a critical analysis, and some of them, should not be used as analytic categories in academic research. This is especially true in regard to the term “religion”, which, as several scholars have demonstrated, is based on theological assumptions. As to the use of the term “God” – this is exactly my point! Just as God (or for that matter, Allah, Jehovah, Shiva, Baal, the Divine Self, etc.,) cannot be used as an analytic category and an explanatory term in scientific discourse (in Natural Sciences as well as in the Humanities and Social sciences), so should we avoid the use of the term “mysticism” that refers to an encounter between human beings and a divine reality, as a descriptive and analytic term in academic research.

The reason why I choose to direct my critique on the category “mysticism”, and not the other terms Magid mentioned, is (as I stated explicitly in my article) that “mysticism” has become the defining category of the academic study of Kabbalah and Hasidism (as well as some other Jewish cultural phenomena). As a scholar in a discipline which is usually defined as “Jewish Mysticism”, I think the founding category of the discipline is the first to deserve critical reflection.

The main part of Magid’s essay consists of a refutation of my argument that mysticism is a theological concept. As his discussion is based on a misreading of my argument, I will restate it. As I have shown in my essay in Zeek, as well as in my article “The Mystification of Kabbalah and the Myth of Jewish Mysticism” (Pe’amim 110, 2007; 9-30) the term “mysticism” has been used, since the 19th century, to describe and classify different artifacts and practices that are assumed to be descriptions, expressions, or products of an experience of an encounter between human beings and a divine, or transcendent, reality. In this framework, various Jewish cultural phenomena, foremost Kabbalah and Hasidism, were, and still are, classified, analyzed and studied as “Jewish Mysticism”.

According to the definitions of the term mysticism that I have surveyed in my articles, the common denominator of the various mystical phenomena is that they are all dependent or related to an experience of an encounter with a divine/transcendent reality. As the existence of such a divine/transcendent reality is a theological position, which in my opinion should not be accepted in academic discourse, and as scholars have not offered any other viable common denominator(s) which are common to all the phenomena that are usually classified as “mystical”, and only to them, I suggest we abandon the use of the category “mysticism” in academic research. By this, I do not mean a “politically correct” avoidance of the word mysticism, but rather, the much more difficult task of dissipating fundamental categories, accepted truisms and standard methods of study. My suggestion is to abandon the assumption that there is an essential affinity between Kabbalistic cultural productions and other so called “mystical” phenomena (both in Jewish and other cultures) and the discursive practices such an assumption entails.

In his response to my article, Magid seems to accept my observations concerning the genealogy of the term “mysticism” and its employment in academic studies. He also explicitly affirms my rejection of using theological assumptions in scientific research. Nonetheless, he rejects my conclusion that mysticism is an inadequate category, and suggests that “that there are various non-theological ways of understanding mysticism that may make such a term useful in describing kabbalistic literature.”

In order to salvage the category of mysticism, Magid suggests that “mysticism” describes three very distinct dimensions of human experience: “the experience of reading religious myth whereby the reader enters into the myth of his own creation and becomes part of the imaginative narrative”, “the experience of an “event” yielding a radical subjectification of the subject and his experience such that the event becomes the touchstone and exemplification of a universal philosophical truth that cannot be rationally proven” and “that mysticism (here more specifically the mystical experience of Moses) is an experience that by its very nature undermines the subject’s ability to function as a complete authority”.

In order to clarify the dimensions of human experience that mysticism refers to and illustrate how mysticism can be a term that does not carry a theological agenda, Magid presents an interesting discussion of three texts written by 20th century thinkers. Although he argues that these examples do not make theological claims, Magid admits that they work under certain theological assumption. Two of the passages, who do not use the term “mysticism” at all, Alain Badiou’s on St. Paul and Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro of Piaszceno`s on Moses are explicit theological texts. The third passage, by Michael Fishbane, uses the term mysticism, and describes it as “spiritual components of a divine reality which the individual has internalized through the interiorization of the mythic dramas.” Magid insists that “while it is true that Fishbane uses the term “divine reality” to describe the myth interiorized, he is not making a theological claim, that is, a claim about God.” I beg to differ. Fishbane’s assertion that cultural phenomena are explained by the assimilation and interiorization of “the modalities of the divine reality” is a theological and not a scientific claim. Furthermore, Magid’s own statement concerning the “mystical dimension” that Moses could not transcend, and “the mystical source” of a commandment seem to refer to a divine or transcendent reality.

The main problem with Magid`s redefinition of “mysticism” is that it involves a radical change of the standard referents of the term. The three dimensions of human experience which he describes as mystical can be applied to phenomena which are not usually described as such. Badiou and Shapiro discuss events that they do not perceive as “mystical” and Magid`s few examples of the human experience he describes as “mystical” include Moses, who is not usually perceived as a mystic, and Saint Exupéry’s Little Prince!

Not only do Magid’s criteria apply to phenomena not usually perceived as “mystical”, but they also do not apply to phenomena generally referred to as “mysticism” and “Jewish mysticism”. Magid himself doubts the applicability of his definition of mysticism to Kabbalah when he states that: “the kabbalist can become a mystic but in that state he or she is not a kabbalist. This is because the kabbalist is more (by being less) than a mystic… kabbalists, I would suggest, cannot purely be mystics”

Magid’s attempt to salvage the category “mysticism” consists not only of a new definition of the significance of the term but also of a new delineation of its referents. His suggestion to re-define the term mysticism, and change its reference, seems quite similar to Humpty Dumpty’s declaration: “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more, nor less”.

Magid who agrees with me that theological assumptions have no place in academic studies, attempts to show in his essay “that mysticism needn’t be, by definition, theological.” His endeavor consists of a complicated redefinition of the term “mysticism,” still implicated with theological assumptions, and changes the term’s usual referents. That, as Alice said to Humpty Dumpty, is: “a great deal to make one word mean.” I think it is preferable to unburden the academic scholarship of Kabbalah of this ambiguous category and its theological implications, rather than paying it such an extra price.

  • An earlier version of Professor Magid’s paper was delivered at a panel entitled “Is Kabbala Mysticism?” at the Association of Jewish Studies conference in Toronto, Canada, December 2007. Professor Huss’ paper was also read at that panel. Other members of the panel included professors Pinhas Giller, Hartley Lachter, and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson.

    I am grateful to Jody Myers, who read an earlier draft of my response, for her helpful comments.

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