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Kabbalah Refracted: Review Essay KABBALAH REFRACTED Review Essay by MarkVerman Depanment of Religion Carleton College 123 Through a SpeculumThat Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism, by ElliotWolfson. Princeton: Princeton UniversityPress, 1994. 452 pp. Elliot Wolfson is arguably the country's premier scholar of Jewish mysticism. Through a Speculum That Shines (hencefonh Speculum) represents his most imponant and provocative work to date. It is a very informative, thought-provoking, and audacious book that warrants serious consideration. The density of this panoramic presentation, combining a plethora of primary sources from biblical to medieval writings and beyond, with pointed critical analysis and wide-ranging methodological discussions, makes for challenging reading. This is compounded by the copious footnotes, which constitute perhaps a third of the text. Although formidable , Speculum is richly rewarding. Wolfson lays out a multi-faceted thesis at the outset and explores these core issues throughout the book. His staning point is the contention that despite biblical Judaism's advocacy of aniconism, which absolutely rejects any imaging of God (as in Exodus 20:4), graphic visionary experiences abound. These frequently assumed anthropomorphic form. This position in itself is easily substantiated. Wolfson, however, frames this discussion in gender terms. He contends that Jewish mysticism was an androcentric enterprise, undenaken by men who were imaging a male Deity. Their focus was the Divine phallus. "[C)ommon to the visionary accounts in the different mystical sources I examined in this work-the writings of the Hekhalot mystics, German Pietists, and theosophic kabbalists-is the notion that the object of the mystical vision is the male deity and, more specifically, the phallus. The specularized figure that 124 SHOFAR Winter 1996 Vol. 14, No.2 provides the foundational condition for the visionary experience is the disclosure of the phallus" (p. 395). A more graphic contention follows: "It is obvious from these settings as well that the ejaculated phallus is the object of vision" (p. 396). Wolfson's phallocentric interpretation of Jewish mysticism entails three additional sub-themes. Fundamental to visionary experience is the role of the eye. He contends that ocularcentrism is itself phallic dependent -"Not only the object seen, however, but the eye itself corresponds (or substitutes for) the penis" (p. 5). Secondly, the feminine aspect of the Godhead is likewise phallocized. "[The Shekinah] is ontologically localized in the male organ . . . the bride enters the nuptial chamber and is transformed therein into the crown ofthe bridegroom. This transformation represents the final restoration of the female to the male, for the bride has become the corona ofthe penis" (p. 275, n. 14). Finally, he suggests that this preoccupation with penises is indicative of homoeroticism: "The question ofhomoeroticism is central to understanding the phenomenological structure underlying the mystical vision of God in the kabbalistic sources" (p. 396). This phallocentric thesis is undeniably the most original and radical aspect of the book. Its audacity will probably attract the most attention and commentary, which is understandable but rather unfortunate. It is the weakest element of an otherwise solid and enriching presentation. In fact, it is only integral to the final two chapters of the book and hence need not overly distract the reader. The book is divided into seven chapters. Wolfson systematically analyzes material in chronological order. Chapter One is devoted to a study of visionary experience in biblical, apocalyptic, and rabbinic literature. Beginning with Friedrich Heiler's classic study Prayer (1932), it has become normative to differentiate prophecy from mysticism. Wolfson, however, effectively advances the reintegration of biblical narrative and prophetic experience into the domain of mysticism. He also underscores the importance ofHosea 12:11: "I have multiplied visions and in the hands of the prophets I was imaged." "The exegetical recasting of this verse, particularly the second clause, indicates the central role accorded the imagination in the mystical consciousness within historical Judaism" (p. 70). In connection with the visionary experiences of ancient Israelites, Wolfson cites a midrashic comment pertaining to Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, who acted improperly: "R. Tanhuma said: This teaches that they loosened [the covering of] their heads, their hearts became haughty, and their eyes feasted upon the Presence" (Va-Yikra Rabbah 20:10). This Kabbalah Refracted: Review Essay 125 passage provides...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 123-130
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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