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Reviewed by:
  • Kabbalah and Modernity: Interpretations, Transformations, Adaptations
  • Egil Asprem

Kabbalah, Western esotericism, Gershom Scholem, occultism, modernity, sexuality

Boaz Huss, Marco Pasi, and Kocku von Stuckrad, EDS. Kabbalah and Modernity: Interpretations, Transformations, Adaptations. Leiden: Brill, 2010. Pp. 436 (bibl., indexes).

Kabbalah research has gone new ways in recent years. A process of reinterpretation has taken place as scholars have moved beyond the paradigmatic works of Gershom Scholem, and in some cases expanded the field outside the domain of Judaism scholars. Kabbalah has proved to be one of those fields that display a remarkable historical ability to mediate between and feed into different cultural fields, making the recent interdisciplinarity a particularly welcome development. A focus on Christian andWestern esoteric receptions of kabbalah has, for example, not only questioned old assumptions, but also proved fruitful for understanding aspects of European and Western religious history in general.

Kabbalah and Modernity is a product of these recent developments. The outcome of a conference held at the University of Amsterdam in 2007, it brings together not only contemporary studies of Judaism inscribed in the project of renewing the study of kabbalah, but also specialists of Western esotericism. Of the three editors, Marco Pasi and Kocku von Stuckrad are both well-known names in the field of esotericism, and Boaz Huss, professor of Jewish thought at the Ben-Gurion University, has worked intently on broadening the academic study of kabbalah.

The anthology is divided by thematic and chronological factors into four sections. Part 1 is entitled "Kabbala [sic] Scholarship: A Reappraisal," and both engages and challenges the theoretical foundations of previous scholarship. Andreas Kilcher assesses some aspects of the work of Scholem by linking his approach to kabbalah with the explicitly kabbalistic projects of Knorr von Rosenroth and Johann Georg Hamann. Through these intriguing comparisons Kilcher argues that Scholem displayed a "Janus-like intellectual profile" (p. 21) that, on the one hand, "secularized" kabbalah through philology and historiography, but on the other, made philology itself into a kabbalistic tool. Kilcher argues that, in addition to passing on the "tradition" through historiography, Scholem's philological praxis may be seen as tikkun, or restoration: [End Page 99] specifically, the restoration of classical kabbalah itself, which would in turn serve as an instrument toward releasing a Jewish cultural renaissance.

Giulio Busi comments on the conspicuous absence of research on kabbalistic imagery, a topic that Busi has contributed significantly to in previous works. In the present article, he unmasks an underpinning of idealism in classical kabbalah scholarship, coming out of German romanticism, which sought the "essence" of kabbalah and thereby shed all "external manifestations," including imagery. Returning to more theoretical discussions, Eric Jacobson argues for certain affinities between kabbalah and modernity. Coming from the pessimistic perspective of Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, Jacobson connects these affinities with a resurfacing of the problem of evil. Seeing modernity as a "culture of dispersal, with exile and dislocation the salient features" (p. 50), the modern study of kabbalah comes to bear a normative significance since it is engaged with the related "dislocation of the canon and the introduction of the margins into the center" (pp. 71-72). Although kabbalah scholarship clearly takes part in a historiographical overturning, moving "cultural margins" to center stage, the exact implications of the normative constrains and affinities with modernity that Jacobson sees in kabbalah remain rather abstract and unclear to this reviewer.

The second part of the book deals with "Romantic and Esoteric Readings of Kabbalah," and mounts a strong case for the relevance of esotericism studies for understanding the dispersals and reinterpretations of kabbalah in the Western world. The articles of this section focus on the period from the Enlightenment to the early 1900s. Wouter Hanegraaff and Jean-Pierre Brach both focus on the importance of French occultism, not only for reinterpretations of kabbalah in new religious contexts, but also in forming a scholarly "paradigm" for studying it. Hanegraaff 's article in particular compares the approaches of occultist Eliphas Lévi and scholar Adolphe Franck, demonstrating a curious overlap of assumptions regarding the universality and extra-Jewishness of kabbalah. In contradistinction to Scholem, Hanegraaff suggests the concept of "creative misunderstanding" to describe the two...


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