Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Scandal of Kabbalah

Not infrequently, people ask me if I can suggest to them a good Kabbalah class in the neighborhood. As I have yet to find one, I usually attempt to gently suggest something more mainstream. But the question itself bespeaks a kind of inner longing.

The notion of the mystical always carries with it a certain allure - as if there are shortcuts or quick fixes to the great philosophical and religious quandaries of the human condition. Needless to say, there are not. But since its inception, the spell cast by Kabbalah has never quite lost its potency. Unfortunately, because of its popularization and even sensationalization in our generation, Kabbalah has been assigned to the margins of our communal conversation. This is unfortunate because Kabbalistic literature is replete with ideas and teachings that are both accessible and relevant to our contemporary moment. What readers of these sources too often lack is the context in which they should be understood.

The Scandal of Kabbalah is an excellent book. Rigorous and scholarly, it emanates from the highest echelons of the academy. Yaacob Dweck is among the fastest rising stars in a small constellation of outstanding Jewish historians to come onto the scene of Jewish Studies in our day. In this exceptionally well-researched and beautifully written treatise, Dweck gives us a window into the reception of Kabbalah in 17th century Italy. By telling the story of Leon Modena, one of the first and most important critics of Kabbalah, Dweck provides a context for understanding the great debate between those proclaiming a fealty to Maimonidean rationalism and those who argue for what they believe to be an ancient mystical tradition.

If the sweep of the book in its entirety seems too ambitious, read the introduction. It will (re)-orient your understanding of Kabbalah - it's meaning, reception, context and place within both the historical and religious canon.

If after reading his book you are interested in learning more about Kabbalah, I can recommend a good class at Princeton.

Dweck is also the translator of Haim Sabato's The Dawning of the Day, which I hope will be the subject of a future posting.

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