- Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction
Joseph Dan's recent monograph is a gem that admirably fulfills the promise of its title and more. In just over 100 footnote-free pages, Dan offers a methodical overview of the major doctrines and theoreticians of the Jewish mystical tradition. Given the vast expanse of material that he covers, spanning more than 800 years of extensive literary activity, this consistently informative introduction highlights Dan's magisterial expertise and his enviable ability to make the arcane accessible.
Joseph Dan is arguably Scholem's most accomplished disciple. For many years he has served as the Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbalah at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Like his protean mentor, Dan has published on all aspects of Jewish mysticism, from ancient to modern times. Especially noteworthy is his four-volume study of each major period, as well as his superb anthology of primary sources, The Heart and the Fountain. In fact, this rich and engaging collection of source material makes a wonderful companion piece to Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction (hereafter Introduction).
Dan divides Introduction into nine well-focused chapters. Chapter One, "Kabbalah: The Term and Its Meaning," offers an insightful discourse on the multivalent nuances of the term Kabbalah, beginning with its various connotations in modern Israeli Hebrew. He then traces its origins in Rabbinic and medieval Jewish literature. In so doing he notes that even applied specifically to Jewish mysticism it has a variety of connotations. In characterizing himself as a "historian of ideas," Dan asserts that his role "is not to uncover what something 'really' is, but to present the development of a concept's meaning in different historical and cultural contexts" (p. 7f.). This kind of methodological self-reflection peppers the book and makes it enlightening reading, even for those who are familiar with much of the material under discussion.
Chapter Two is devoted to ancient Jewish mysticism and the origins of the Kabbalah. Dan initially discusses the Hekhalot corpus and Sefer Yezirah. From there he moves on to the medieval German pietists, known as the hasidei ashkenaz. Evincing great humility, he doesn't even mention that he pioneered the study of these works in his Hebrew University doctoral dissertation, which [End Page 208] served as the basis for his seminal monograph The Esoteric Theology of Ashkenazi Hasidism (Hebrew). Next there is an analysis of the Bahir, which Scholem and Dan consider to have been written in the late 12th century, thereby constituting the earliest work of the Kabbalah. Dan highlights three innovative features of the Bahir: 1. its depiction of the intradivine realm as comprising ten powers, which were later designated by the term sefirot, 2. the lowest of these is feminine, thereby introducing gender dualism into the Godhead, and 3. the Tree becomes a guiding metaphor for the Divine realm. He also mentions that the Bahir was the first Jewish text that treated reincarnation in a positive manner. Finally, in a break with Scholem he rejects the contention that the Bahir represents a Jewish packaging of Gnostic ideas and even expresses skepticism concerning Jewish Gnosticism, per se.
In Chapters Three and Four Dan offers an overview of the literary development of the Kabbalah from the 13th through 15th centuries. Naturally, a major focus is the Zohar, the crown jewel of Jewish mysticism. In his illuminating discussion on the "Kabbalah and Spiritualization" he explains how kabbalistic interpretation of biblical commandments promoted a unique worldview. "It is very difficult to find a parallel to this radical concept of interdependence between human beings and divine powers" (p. 56). Not only are humans influenced by the Divine, but human activity impacts the celestial realm. This notion received its fullest expression in Lurianic Kabbalah. Owing to R. Isaac Luria's theory of cosmogony which espoused the doctrine of shevirat hakelim (the breaking of the vessels), not only is the mundane world in need of redemption, but first and foremost the Divine realm has been fractured and requires tikkun (mending). Dan returns to this theme in chapter 6. He insists that...